We continue awaiting the decision of a grand jury on whether or not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, exactly 15 weeks ago today on a suburban street in Ferguson, Missouri. News reporters from across the globe have been camped out in Ferguson for months, their expectation of an announcement teased and disappointed several times in the last week alone. On Monday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard in advance of the grand jury's decision. Yesterday, President Barack Obama, in what can only be judged to be an anticipation of Wilson's non-indictment, preemptively urged protesters not to use Ferguson as an "excuse for violence." In the meantime, demonstrators of various ilk remain on standby, rallying their troops, refining their organizational strategies, painting their oppositional signs, standing vigilantly at the ready for whatever may come.
But what are we waiting for, really, as we wait for Ferguson?
As someone who has spent the better part of her career researching, analyzing and teaching not only about the structure and nature of oppressive power regimes, but also better and worse ways to resist or transform such regimes, I've nevertheless been unable to settle in my own mind, to my own satisfaction, my position with regard to the moral or political value of revolutionary violence. I can say that my core moral intuitions (for whatever those are worth) definitely incline me toward favoring nonviolence as a principled ethical commitment... though, over the years, I have found those intuitive inclinations fading in both intensity and persuasiveness. As a philosopher, a citizen and a moral agent, I continue to be deeply unsettled by my own ambivalence on this matter.
First, a preliminary autobiographical anecdote: I spent a year between undergraduate and gradate school in the nonprofit sector, as the Director of the M.K.Gandhi Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. (That was back in 2000, when the Gandhi Institute was still housed at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, which is now my academic home, evidencing the kind of bizarro turn-of-fate that can only be credited to some particularly clever-- or ironically humorous-- supernatural bureaucrat.) I went to the Gandhi Institute initially because nonviolence was an all-but-unquestioned moral virtue for me at the time. But, after a few years in graduate school and consistently since, the many and varied until-then-unposed questions about the moral or political legitimacy of violence pressed their way to the fore of my mind. In roughly chronological order, I'd say that the combination of (1) my first real engagement with Frantz Fanon's argument in "Concerning Violence" (from his Wretched of the Earth), the arguments by Marx (and Marxists) in various texts advocating more or less violent revolution, and Noam Chomsky's considerations of the same, (2) my extensive research into human rights violations, transitional justice and transitional democracies, postcolonial theory, feminist theory and critical race theory, which collectively constituted the subject of my dissertation, (3) the radically dramatic shift in what counts as properly-speaking "political" and/or "revolutionary" violence in the post-9/11 world and (4) my own experiences, from near and afar, with the increasing number of (threatened, proto-, aborted, defeated and/or more-or-less successful) revolutions taking place in my adult lifetime (e.g., OWS, the Arab Spring and, much closer to home and far less violent, the current and ongoing academic revolution surrounding the Salaita case), all worked together to contribute to my rethinking the merits and demerits of violence as a way of resisting/combatting/correcting oppressive, exclusionary or otherwise unjust power regimes.
There's been a good bit conversation recently about the merits and demerits of "public philosophy" and, as someone who considers herself committed to public philosophy (whatever that is). I'm always happy to stumble across a piece of remarkably insightful philosophical work in the public realm. Case in point: Robin James (Philosophy, UNC-Charlotte) posted a really fascinating and original short-essay on the Cyborgology blog a couple of days ago entitled "An attempt at a precise & substantive definition of 'neoliberalism,' plus some thoughts on algorithms." There, she primarily aims to distinguish the sense in which we use the term "neoliberalism" to indicate an ideology from its use as a historical indicator, and she does so by employing some extremely helpful insights about algorithms, data analysis, the mathematics of music, harmony, and how we understand consonance and dissonance. I'm deeply sympathetic with James' underlying motivation for this piece, namely, her concern that our use of the term "neoliberalism" (or its corresponding descriptor "neoliberal") has become so ubiquitous that it is in danger of being evacuated of "precise and substantive" meaning altogether. I'm sympathetic, first, as a philosopher, for whom precise and substantive definitions are as essential as hammers and nails are to a carpenter. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I'm sympathetic with James' effort because as Jacques Derrida once said "the more confused the concept, the more it lends itself to opportunistic appropriation." Especially in the last decade or so, "neoliberalism" is perhaps the sine qua non term that has been, by both the Left and the Right, opportunistically appropriated.
James' definition of neoliberalism's ideological position ("everything in the universe works like a deregulated, competitive, financialized, capitalist market") ends up relying heavily on her distinction of neoliberalism as a particular type of ideology, i.e., one "in which epistemology and ontology collapse into one another, an epistemontology." In sum, James conjectures that neoliberal epistemontology purports to know what it knows (objects, beings, states of affairs, persons, the world) vis-a-vis "the general field of reference of economic anaylsis."
“Yo” Is an App that doesn’t let you do much: it just lets you send or receive a “Yo” message to/from another subscriber. Purists might insist on this being content, but it really is pretty de minimis, which lets you ask the obvious question: why on earth would a communication technology that doesn’t really let you communicate anything interest anyone? My colleague Robin James has a brilliant answer to that question, which is that Yo basically embodies what Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism.” Here is James:
The Supreme Court today heard oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby case, in which the craft store chain is suing for exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. According to Hobby Lobby, it has religious objections to certain forms of contraception, and so should be exempt from the mandate on First Amendment grounds. According to Dahlia Lithwick – who is usually pretty good at this sort of analysis – the oral argument didn’t go well for the government. Conservatives on the court were signaling their support of Hobby Lobby, and Justice Roberts even has a way to apply the case narrowly (by declaring that only tightly-controlled or family-run companies can make the religious-objection argument). This case has broader implications than it might look like on the surface.
My friend Alan Nelson recently posted a link on facebook to the following article: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/business/economic-view-when-the-scientist-is-also-a-philosopher.html with an appropriately snarky note that the author, N. Gregory Mankiw (the Chair of the econ department at Harvard, natch), seemed to be arguing that the only changes to the status quo permissible are those that are verifiably Perato efficient improvements. An obvious corollary is that, since every reasonably substantive and complex policy change will have winners and losers, we should never change policies at all.
Full disclosure: I met Jeremy Gilbert at a Deleuze conference in Wales in the summer of 2008. He gave an interesting paper on Deleuze, Guattari, and Gramsci and I ended up talking to him at pub. The conversation was one of shared interests that went beyond Deleuze, it was a Deleuze conference after all, to include Simondon, transindividuality, and the broader problem of reimagining collectivity in individualistic (and individuated) times. As anyone in academia knows, the experience of meeting someone with shared interest is often ambivalent. There is the joy of finding someone to talk to, of feeling less alone in the wilds of academia, coupled with the sadness of feeling less original, less insightful. The latter feeling is of course intensified by a publishing culture that is predicated less on collective projects and more on developing a highly individuated name for oneself. In the years since then, as our projects progressed (his made it to print first) we joked about constituting a new school of thought, Transindividual Ontology and Politics (TOP)?
It seemed appropriate to begin a review of Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism with such a story, one that illustrates the way in which commonality of interests and ideas intersects with an institution geared towards individuation and competition. That we live in an “age of individualism” perhaps goes without saying. However, such a judgment raises as many questions as it answers. At what level are we to locate the individual? Is it, to borrow, words from Foucault, an “illusion,” an “ideological effect,” or a real functioning element of society? In short, are people deluded into seeing themselves as individuals, or is individuation a real material effect?
In a second court ruling on the NSA’s metadata collection program, Judge Pauley rejected virtually all of the arguments raised by the ACLU and other plaintiffs against the program. This opinion thus stands opposed to Judge Leon’s ruling of a few weeks before (my analysis of that is here). Here I want to look at Judge Pauley’s opinion, in the context of my original question about data and information as concepts in thinking about privacy in the era of big data.
As a card-carrying Deleuzean, I'm supposed to be scornful of the concept of "ideology."* But it does have its uses, and here's a great example of ideology qua naturalizing the social.
Fatal traffic accidents occurred in New York, Michigan, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. Authorities said a woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease froze to death after she wandered away from her rural western New York home. And in suburban Philadelphia, as the storm approached, a worker at a salt storage facility was killed when a 100-foot-tall pile of road salt fell and crushed him. Falls Township police said the man was trapped while operating a backhoe.
I'd rewrite that this way:
A cruelly insufficient social safety net (the Alzheimer's patient) and dangerous work conditions caused by cuts to public workforce (the backhoe operator -- I wouldn't be surprised if he was working for a private contractor; at the very best he was probably pulling a double shift, hence exhausted) plus the grossly insufficient public transport system and poorly maintained roads, coupled with economic desperation (the car drivers -- dollars to donuts they were trying to get to a crappy service job, but don't worry, the Walmart where they worked will put out a collection basket) continued its reign of terror today, with the winter storm being the proximate cause that only a fool, knave, gull, or ideologue would blame for the social conditions that exposed these people to its effects.
In a previous post, I suggested that the concept of privacy is going to prove inadequate as a protection against big data. This is the case for structural reasons: the concept of privacy is designed to protect information (generally, either information that is thought to be inherently intimate, or in the sense of control over the dissemination of information), whereas big data operates at what one might call a sub-information level: it siphons up enormous amounts of data, which becomes meaningful information only after it is analyzed in the context of vast amounts of other data. As a result, big data knows everything about us, even though we have neither consented nor not-consented to the release of the information that condemns us.
Today I want to leave that aside for the moment, and develop some background by way of a Foucauldian reading of Judge Leon’s recent decision issuing a preliminary injunction against the NSA’s collection of vast amounts of telephone metadata on American citizens. In subsequent posts, I will offer a reading of Judge Pauley’s decision upholding the NSA program and an earlier Supreme Court decision that gets at the issue before returning to the question of privacy. Although the analysis here is based on court cases and government programs, the intention is ultimately to make a more general point.
"An economic theorist who offers a model prepares the ground for a practitioner who should employ her judgment in using this model; but the theorist's contribution falls short of a testable prediction." (Gilboa, et. al. 11)
"Cases can never be refuted, and case-based reasoning is thus an attractive alternative to rule-based reasoning, allowing economists to work with models simple enough to be useful without worrying about refutations." (Gilboa, et. al. 27) [HT: Jong Jae Lee]
The two passages above are quoted from a paper "Economic Models as Analogies" forthcoming in the Economic Journal by a group of leading economists.* It represents part of a wider trend among economists re-interpreting their own activity (recall last week's post); in doing so, they are also making more sensible claims on behalf of economics, while trying to keep most of the economist's tool-kit intact (recall this post). Both passages reveal how thoughtful economists' are trying to come to grip not just with the charge that their models are not realistic (as noted throughout the opening sections of the paper), but with the widespread perception that their models have been refuted in the events of the last decade. While a cynic might interpret the two passages above as a belated admission that something was refuted in 2008, the significance of these passages is to be found in the renewed focus on judgment.
One problem with economics is that it is necessarily focused on policy,
rather than discovery of fundamentals. Nobody really cares much about economic
data except as a guide to policy: economic phenomena do not have the same
intrinsic fascination for us as the internal resonances of the atom or the
functioning of the vesicles and other organelles of a living cell. We judge
economics by what it can produce. As such, economics is rather more like
engineering than physics, more practical than spiritual.--Robert J. Shiller [HT Jeff Bell]
Is the younger generation of economists like Raj skipping some of the
big questions of economics because some smaller questions are easier to
answer? If so, is that optimal from the standpoint of society as a
The character of cutting-edge, academic economics has changed during the last few decades. It is not entirely easy to characterize these changes in part because economics is a very large, fast-moving field (and, of course, I pay more attention to philosophers than economists). Even so there can be merit in this simplification: (i) between 1947 and 1970, there was a formal revolution in economics (associated with names like Samuelson, Arrow, Debreu, etc.); this revolution occurred more or less simultaneously with (ii) the development of econometrics (associated with names like Tinbergen, Koopmans, etc.)--many of the people involved interacted with each other at the Cowles Commission. Of these two developments, the first had a more theoretical ethos and the second a more policy oriented focus. (Of course, lots of fields in economics -- development, labor, forestry, agriculture, etc. -- have always been very focused on policy.) With the break-down of the Keynesian consensus in the mid-1970s, policy,
"big questions of economics" returned to the center of the discipline's attention.* In the quoted passage above, Shiller's "necessarily" takes the centrality of policy for granted...so much so that most of what is published as "theory" by theoreticians in economics these days has some such policy orientation.**
A few weeks ago, Kevin Vallier wrote a thoughtful, agonized blog-post (at BHL) on to what degree 'non-ideological' political theory is possible. Before I could pen a response, David Sobel created a robust discussion at Pea-Soup on the related question if it is "inappropriate to hold moral principles in a way that is immune to empirical
falsification." Now, both Kevin and David flirt with treating 'ideology' and 'empirical' as contraries; admittedly, both introduce a great deal of sensible qualification and hesitate endorsing the conceptual opposition. Even so, David channels the ghost of Popper and treats the empirically 'falsifiable' as the opposite to the 'ideological.'[+]
Shortly thereafter, the influential economist, Raj Chetty, published a widely discussed op-ed piece in which he tacitly assumes that in virtue of being properly empirical his favored approach to economics is scientic and, therefore, cannot be ideological. In my response, I point out that even if one fully accepts that the new trend in data-mining economics, which exploits so-called 'natural experiments,' is based firmly in fact, it could still be ideological. For it presupposes background stability in one's
institutions and norms. Much of the very best of contemporary economics is 'empirical' in this
sense; it relentlessly explores the impact of policy within a given framework. (The idea that
current, mainstream economics is somehow very formal and far removed
from empirical reality is seriously outdated.) This status-quo bias of Chetty's mainstream approach remarkably friendly to existing background institutions and norms (recall also this post on Gul and Pesendorfer).
But was I correct in using 'ideology' in describing economics?
A "sardonic" tweet by a "Duke sociologist"* about this year's Nobels in economics generates an op-ed response in the New York Times by a MacArthur ('genius') fellow and Harvard economist, Raj Chetty. [HT Matt Zwolinski] It's been a few decades since an elite economist felt the need to notice a sociologist. Chetty reveals what is at stake:
the headline-grabbing differences between the findings of these Nobel laureates are less significant than the profound agreement in their scientific approach to economic questions, which is characterized by formulating and testing precise hypotheses. I’m troubled by the sense among skeptics that disagreements about the answers to certain questions suggest that economics is a confused discipline, a fake science whose findings cannot be a useful basis for making policy decisions.
If economics is not "a useful basis for making policy decisions," its seventy year, lucrative (jobs, funding, prestige, etc.) reign as the the privileged discipline in the policy sciences ends. (The only time I have discussed Chetty's views on the blog, I provided historical context for that claim.) Before I turn to Chetty's argument for why economics is "useful" in the relevant fashion, it is worth noting that he accepts the idea that consensus in methods ("formulating and testing precise hypotheses") and answers ("simple, unassailable finding") is an adequate proxy to a discipline not being a "fake science." Such consensus, need not prevent it being "ideology," too.
In the end, that’s the real danger we are now facing. Not just the
shutdown, but the rise of the shutdown strategy. By unraveling the
threads of our joint commitment to shared governance, it raises the
chances those threads will be rewoven into something else: something
deeply, and tragically, undemocratic.--Michael Lynch, Opinionator, New York Times, 10/15/2013
Plato's most important observation in political philosophy is that no constitutional system lasts forever. As Michael Lynch discerns in the important piece that I quote above (it's the concluding paragraph), there are dynamics internal to the democratic process that may lead to its own unraveling. Lynch mentions three distinct ones: (i) if "legislative gridlock" becomes "a fixture of American
political life, it will be more tempting, more reasonable, to think that
someone should “step in” to make the decisions. The chorus
calling for action — for the president, for example, to go around the
Congress — will only increase." (ii) When politics stops being perceived to be about (Madisonian) give-and-take, then the sense of shared identity will unravel. (iii) A permanent albeit powerful minority systematically makes normal state functioning impossible--the so-called regular "shut-down strategy." [In (iii) I blend Lynch and Schliesser.]
In response to (i) the Cato's Institute's Roger Pilon, remarks: "Well, that’s already happening – witness the many lawless changes to the
Obamacare law that have been unilaterally imposed by the president,
without so much as a notice to Congress. But it’s not because of any
shutdown threat. It’s because (iv) respect for constitutional limits is today
so atrophied." [HT Jason Stanley on Facebook] From context, it is clear that Pilon is thinking of the growth of the welfare state ("special interest juggernaut poured through with one redistributive
program after another, leading to the unsustainable war of all against
all we see today.") Given his focus on limitations, it is surprising that Pilon does not express concern about the limitless growth of executive power that leads to permanent foreign wars and the surveillance state. Either way, we can recognize in (iv) Hayek's old road to serfdom thesis. But with this particular twist that, rather than edging our way toward totalitarianism, we have already returned to the state of nature ("war of all against
all.") Obviously, if we are in the state of nature then the need for a Hobbesian sovereign to get us out of it will be embraced by all minimally rational agents.
Itis the profession of philosophers to question platitudes that others accept without thinking twice. A dangerous profession, since philosophers are more easily
discredited than platitudes, but a useful one.--David Lewis, Convention.
Of course, as philosophers, our commitment to challenging and
questioning norms is real, and important. Far be it from me to claim
that we’d be better off if we all had to be more conventional or
couldn’t play around with taboos. Doing so is essential to both the
philosophical method and the high quality of life we enjoy as
Recently, Rebeca Kukla published an insightful post at Leiter on the significance of the norm of social-norm violation among philosophers, including the one that encourages avoiding the appearance of concern with looks and dress. She argues that the benefits (i.e., "high quality of life") of the norm
of social norm violation are unevenly distributed within philosophy. Her cogent argument against the norm turns on "the cost of the most vulnerable members of the profession." While Kukla does not spell it out entirely, it seems she thinks that if we adjust the internal-to-philosophy norms we could distribute the current benefits to philosophizing more widely within philosophy without "undermining our commitment to challenging and
questioning norms." She, thus, views philosophy as a moral or at least professional community.
Seneca, too, is concerned with the norm of social norm violation and warns against "repellent atire, unkempt hair, slovenly beard..." (Letter 5.) Seneca rejects the excesses now associated with the Cynics, but apparently commonly thought to be the 'philosopher's way' (even if "discretely pursued"). Anticipating Mandeville and Veblen, Seneca treats these instances of social norm-violation as expressing the desire to be conspicuous [conspici]. The "self-display" associated with self-punishing [poenam] norms (or what Hume would label 'monkish virtues') comes at the expense of making a contribution to society [proficere].
man has ever been so advanced by Fortune that she not threaten him as greatly
as she had previously indulged him. Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the
sea is moved to its depths.—Seneca,
In context, Seneca’s acceptance of epistemic uncertainty (or here) is as
much about natural events (the sea) as political events—in the previous line we’re
reminded of the fates of Pompey, Crassus, and Lepidus. Political mastery does
not guarantee immunity against a violent end. Seneca is not blind to the probable destination of his political
fall. More important, the violent underpinning of Roman political
institutions means that nobody is truly master [dominus] in their “own homes” [domesticis]: “just as many have been
killed by angry slaves as by angry kings.” Somebody that “scorns his own life” [vitam suam contemptsit] will not be
afraid to die, in order to kill. Seneca offers a veritable picture of a state of nature under the rule of law:
“every one possesses the power which you fear.”*
One might think that Seneca is anticipating Spinoza: the state of
nature is never fully absent in civil society. But Seneca’s position here is
compatible with a more optimistic possibility: if one can remove the sources of
anger and scorn of self, one might have a more secure and, perhaps, even less
uncertain environment. One may not be able to calms the sea, but the ship of
state might be made more even-keeled. It is an open question if Seneca’s
proposed emendation of minds [emendato
animo] is strictly limited to a kind of enjoyable [freuris] self-help (recall),
or (if we cheating-ly glace ahead toward Letter 7)
also by way of improved state institutions and social norms.
We sought ways around the gridlock of current debates over the role
of religion in public life by examining the way an early 18th century
philosopher and theologian had responded to similar circumstances by
refashioning the concept of God to accommodate modern ways of thought.
The Australian Research Council’s panel of experts, acting on the advice
of independent specialist assessors, deemed it worth pursuing. On the
basis of its title alone, however, Briggs deems it “ridiculous”.
"Some men shrink into dark
corners, to such a degree that they see darkly by day."--Pomponius, quoted by Seneca, Letter 3.
Our personality shapes, as Pomponius's maxim suggests, how we view the world. This is why any interpretation of a layered text often reveals as much about the interpreter as it does about the text. In the third letter, in the context of discussing a discussing true friendships [verae amicitiae], Seneca discusses three kinds of human types: (i) the gullible, (ii) the suspicious, and (iii) those that trust after a considered judgment (if this were a Platonic dialogue, we'd be looking for a fourth.)
Seneca does not explain much how good judgment is attained. He does exhibit a feature of it in the start of the letter:
You have sent a letter to me through the hand
of a "friend" of yours, as you call him. And in your very next sentence
you warn me not to discuss with him all the matters that concern you, saying
that even you yourself are not accustomed to do this; in oother words,
you have in the same letter affirmed and denied that he is your friend. Now if you used this word of
ours/a in the public [publico] sense, and called him "friend" in the same way in
which we speak of all candidates for election as "honourable gentlemen,"...
Thus, a discerning judge pays attention to (a) the match between words and actions, and (b) does so by relying on (some) logic. More subtly, such a judge is aware that (c) the meaning of words is very context sensitive; in particular, (d) Seneca relies on a distinction between public the and private speech.* As we have seen, public speech is encountered in the market-place and politics, both the realm of uncertain uncertain and fickle popular opinion. One can have thousands of Facebook friends, but one's popularity need not imply credibility (and not all followers are steadfast).
Why write at all if one respects the authority of canonical texts?
Our reading habits reveal our minds; reciprocally, the way and what we read can also shape, even nourish our minds. The words we read are not merely, as the saying goes, food for thought (and sometimes, thus, the semblance of thought), or trusted friends, but they can even be medicine of the mind. Seneca's second letter thus, takes for granted that words can impact us greatly. (The letter -- a compact 321 words -- turns on a series of equations among words, potions, nourishment, friendship, and location.) As we have already seen, this fact is crucial to the very possibility of escaping the ordinary exchange economy.
In the second letter, Seneca distinguishes sharply between unsteady, wandering minds and firmer ones. Now, it is possible that these are so by nature. But even the better sort of minds need cultivation; Seneca suggests that one can copy better readers (like him) and by imitating these good habits improve our minds. The better sort of readers have a limited set of enduring [certis] books that through repeated rediscovery nourish. By example Seneca shows that the better sort of reader is willing to be critical of such, canonical works--he makes a point of criticizing Epicurus. It's not that he disagrees with what Epicurus wishes to convey -- the opinion of the market-place can be wrong in rejecting all what it takes to be poverty --, but Seneca also criticizes Epicurus, in part, for embracing the axiology and conceptual apparatus of the market-place: Epicurus mistakenly treats poverty as something substantial that can be the subject of predication (such that there can be contented and miserable forms of poverty). Famously, Seneca insists that if one is cheerful, that is self-sufficient (i.e., one's needs do not go beyond one's possessions), one cannot be poor [Illa vero non est paupertas, si laeta est.], a position he already announces in his first letter.
At 280 words -- shorter than most frivolous blog posts -- Seneca's first letter to Lucilius takes full advantage of the economy of Latin prose. Its brevity may, thus, be thought to be an exemplar of what it seems to preach (in the first sentence): not to lose time.* Economy is a major theme of the letter as it explores the nature of possession, scarcity, value, profit, and other familiar economic concepts. In fact, in the brief span of the letter Seneca introduces two conceptions of economy (or axiological frameworks): in one we exchange commodities governed by the values established in the market, that is, uncertain popular opinion; in the second necessary loss reigns.+ Given that Seneca devalues the "foolish" attachments formed in the former (and seems to embrace the latter), we ought to reconsider the idea that losing time is a problem.
In order to teach a political economy that is an alternative to the usual one, Seneca turns to a bit of metaphysics: time is our only intrinsic property--our other properties are alienable. Seneca suggests that time's supreme value is due both to this peculiar fact and the necessity of our mortality. In this first letter, Seneca does not fully explain why the time(s) of our lives is the only such intrinsic property. (One may wonder why not the space of our lives?) If we substitute dying (for time(s) of our lives), the thought presents itself that the reason why the time of our life is our only intrinsic property may be that one's death(s) is the only necessity in a life. (We can, after all, not pay our taxes.)
Clearly, for Seneca to think or have a name is not necessary.
The fact that the discipline of economics hasn’t helped us improve our
predictive abilities suggests it is still far from being a science, and
may never be....Over time, the question of why economics has not (yet) qualified as a
science has become an obsession among theorists, including philosophers
of science like us...What is economics up to if it isn’t interested enough
in predictive success to adjust its theories the way a science does
when its predictions go wrong?--Alex Rosenberg and Tyler Curtain, in the New York Times.
Sometimes I receive the following back-handed, compliment-question, "Why do you do history? You might make a decent real philosopher." A part of the answer is that the second-order stories we tell ourselves -- often handed down by mentors and supervisors, and senior peers -- about where we come from and what we do often are just as interesting and important as the first-order activities; they may also influence us and others in ways that are often hard to spot. This by way of introduction because in what follows I primarily challenge the conceptual oppositions (and associated historical myths) in Rosenberg and Curtain's Opinionater piece (allowing that the genre they are writing in need not require scholarly precision). Perhaps, my challenge allows some clarity about the first-order issues to emerge.
The main stated point of Rosenberg & Curtain (hereafter RC) is that "the task of the Fed’s next leader will be more a matter of craft and wisdom than of science." Surprisingly enough, given that RC are philosophers, they spend very little words on conceptualizing the nature or origin and causes of such "craft and wisdom," even though at the end of their piece they boldly assert that "the Fed chairman must,
like a first violinist tuning the orchestra, have the rare ear to
fine-tune complexity (probably a Keynesian ability to fine-tune at
that)." We are not told why of all the crafts and skills, the fine-tuning violin is the most appropriate exemplar for a Fed chairman. Even if we grant the fruitfulness of the tuning metaphor, a fine-tuning violinist possesses a skill that may not require (much) wisdom; she tunes an orchestra that is oriented toward a common goal with skilled performers. The Fed-chairman deals with a more heterogeneous population with ends that are -- I hope -- not unified.
In fairness to RC, most of their piece is focused on a self-described "obsession:" is economics 'science?' So, let's turn to that first.
Post WWII, Hanah Arendt made a valiant effort to turn moral and political attention to the ways that unexceptional individuals performing actions that, when looked at locally, were unexceptional yet contributed to exceptionally evil systems. Sadly, current attitudes across the professions, literature, the press, and philosophical ethics suggest that her efforts were a failure. And that is, in my view, a bad thing. The overwhelming majority of the violence in the world today is what Galtung has labeled "structural violence" - roughly, the point is that far greater harm is done to people as the result of complex social forces than by individual actors. And in my view it is a scandal of philosophy that this is not a central issue in applied moral and political philosophy. (Of course there are philosophers who address such things. But I doubt that anyone could claim that such work is generally treated as central to philosophy.)
[I] We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though
frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this
account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of
the subject. Masters are always and every where in a sort of tacit, but
constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above
their actual rate. To violate this combination is every where a most
unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his
neighbours and equals. We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination,
because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things
which nobody ever hears of.--Adam Smith (1776) Wealth of Nations.
[II] Servants, labourers and workmen of different kinds, make up the far
greater part of every great political society. But what improves the
circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an
inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and
happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and
miserable. It is but equity,
besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the
people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as
to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.--Adam Smith (1776) Wealth of Nations.
This NYT article on the Detroit bankruptcy* is a perfect illustration of the pernicious effects of "localism" and "presentism" in political economy.** That is, here we see the unquestioning acceptance of a spatial scale focused on political boundaries (i.e., city limits) instead of the functional economic unit (i.e., the metro area), and a temporal scale focused on the short-term ("the crisis") rather than on the long-term (the processes allowing for the production of "the crisis"). Of course, the spatial and temporal scales are related; to understand the causes of the crisis you would have to understand post-war suburbanization and the concomitant ability of the surburbs to shift tax burdens while still benefitting from proximity to the city.
*This is an ongoing story of course: see here for a judge's ruling against the bankruptcy claim and here for targeting of the municipal art collection by the disaster capitalists.
**If you want to be fancy about it, you could say this is an example of the trouble you get into by focusing on the properties of a product while neglecting the production process. (See the "illusion" discussed at Difference and Repetition, 240E.)
Actually, this piece is interesting and quite well done. First, it's interesting rhetorically in that it discusses classic Marxist concepts -- the effect on profit rates of automation in an end-game situation when spatial and social fixes are no longer available -- without using those terms (tendency of the rate of profit to decline; imperialism; formal and real subsumption...) Second, it's interesting in a symptomatic way since it doesn't seem to factor in eco-limits: the robot production / no demand future might never get here if peak X (where X = oil, water, arable land ...) happens sooner. Pull quote:
The efficiency gains from automating production tend to create an abundance of products, which forces down prices. This sounds like a good thing: if goods and services are cheap and abundant, people can have whatever they want, can't they? Well, not if they are unemployed and have no unearned income.... [T]he efficiencies of production created by automating - including, eventually, the low-skill jobs that at the moment are too expensive to automate - may actually result in the destruction of profits. The fact is that robots are brilliant at supply, but they don't create demand. Only humans create demand - and if the majority of humans are so poor that they can only afford basic essentials, the economy will be constrained by lack of demand, not lack of supply. There would be no scarcity of products, at least to start with....but there would be scarcity of the means to obtain them.
"I believe that [W.E.] Johnson, like McTaggart and Aristotle, deserves commentators." A.N. Prior (1949) MIND.
"Mesmerized by Homo economicus, who acts solely on egoism, economists
shy away from altruism almost comically. Caught in a shameful act of
heroism, they aver: "Shucks, it was only enlightened self interest."
Sometimes it is. At other times it may be only rationalization (spurious
for card-carrying atheists): "If I rescue somebody's son, someone will
I will not waste ink on face-saving tautologies. When the governess of
infants caught in a burning building reenters it unobserved in a
hopeless mission of rescue, casuists may argue; "She did it only to get
the good feeling of doing it. Because other-wise she wouldn't have done
it." Such argumentation (in Wolfgang Pauli's scathing phrase) is not
even wrong. It is just boring, irrelevant, and in the technical sense of
old-fashioned logical positivism "meaning-less." You do not understand
the logic and history of consumer demand theory — Pareto, W. E. Johnson,
Slutsky, Allen-Hicks, Hotelling, Samuelson, Houthakker,... — if you
think that is its content."--P. Samuelson (1993), The American Economic Review.
There is a school of thought that locates the origins of analytical philosophy in the Cambridge of the philosopher-economist, Sidgwick and his students. After all, in Sidgwick's writings we find all the analytical virtues, and it is, thus, no surprise that Rawls and Parfit treat him as our vital interlocuter. Those (that is, the circle around Sidwick) recognized in Boole's work -- to quote W.E. Johnson -- "the first great revolution in the study of formal logic...comparable in importance with that of the algebraical symbolists in the sixteenth century." (2.6, p. 136) While it is not the story I tend to tell (say, here and here), I like this approach because it reminds us of the non-trivial overlap between logicians and economists so distinctive of Cambridge between 1870-1940, and thus, puts Keynes (father and son) and Ramsey back into the origin of analytical philosophy.
Now, the logician-economist, W.E. Johnson (1858 – 1931), is a test-case for this school of thought. (Recall the significance of Johnson to of our very own Mohan [and here].) For, while Johnson does not belong to the British Idealists, he does not figure in the stories we tell about our origins at all (selective evidence: Landini's Russell nor Candlish's The Russel/Bradley Dispute do not even mention Johnson). Even Wikipidia claims that his "Logic was dated at the time of its publication, and Johnson can be seen as a member of the British logic "old guard" pushed aside" by Russell and Whitehead. Wikipedia fits our narrative of progress; yet what to make of Prior's judgment?