October 18, 2008

Weekend poetry fix

This statue of Ramesses II (or something like it anyway) may have inspired this poem. Image courtesy of wikipedia.


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

Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1817

Holy impermanence, Batman! Sic transit gloria mundi and all that.


October 17, 2008

The decline and fall of (this space available)

Senate and People of Rome. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Three people I know and respect who are occasional visitors to this blog recently inspired me to take the plunge and try to plow my way through Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Each of them declined to take the easy path of reading a one volume abridged edition and stuck with it all the way to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. One of them even keeps a copy at his bedside. Another also recommended it as bedtime reading.

So far, it's a (low grade) hoot, although I'm only a mere 183 pages into it (somewhere after Severus but before Constantine). We'll see if I make it through. It can't be much worse than training for a marathon, especially when taken in small doses.

Many people over the years have been fascinated with the topic and seek in the decline of Rome some message for the present. But as someone said, history doesn't repeat itself--historians do. El Cabrero is with Karl Popper in the belief that history has no laws, only some occasional recurring patterns.

What I'm enjoying most about it is his sterling 18th century prose and dry wit. Consider this gem of a line:

chastity was very far from being the most conspicuous virtue of the Empress Julia.

Why can't I ever write a sentence that cool?

He also gets in some great zingers on religion, and he hasn't even gotten to the early church--one of his favorite targets:

The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.

There are also many observations about politics and public life:

Most of the crimes which disturb the internal peace of society are produced by the restraints which the necessary, but unequal, laws of property have imposed on the appetites of mankind, by confining to a few the possession of those objects that are coveted by many. Of all our passions and appetites, the love of power is of the most imperious and unsocial nature, since the pride of one man requires the submission of the multitude.

I'm not sure I'd recommend it to everybody, but it's working for me so far.

I'll leave you with a nice line from a chapter on Persia in which he quotes from the scriptures of the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism:

He who sows the ground with care and diligence, acquires a greater stock of religious merit, than he could gain by the repetition of ten thousand prayers.

FISCAL FITNESS. Here is my favorite recent Nobel laureate talking about the next steps needed to get the economy moving.

THE UNION PREMIUM. A new report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the WV Center on Budget and Policy shows that union membership can boost eh pay of younger workers.

YESTERDAY WAS WORLD FOOD DAY, but it looks like not many people (myself included) noticed due to the global economic crisis.

IF YOU'RE ANYTHING LIKE ME, you just can't get enough of science articles about ancient fish making the transition from water to land.


October 16, 2008

John Brown's body...

Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Today--or rather this evening--marks the anniversary of John Brown's 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry in what is now West Virginia. Brown to me is one of the most fascinating figures in American history, someone who struck his time like some kind of karmic meteor.

The aim was to seize weapons at the armory there and distribute them to the slaves he believed would rally to his standard. From there, they would wage low key guerrilla warfare in the Appalachian mountains and provide a haven for runaways which would presumably deplete Virginia of its supply of slave labor. He had even drawn up a provisional constitution for the republic of former slaves that he hoped to inaugurate.

Like most of the specific things Brown attempted in his life, the raid in purely military terms was a disaster. Ironically, its first casualty was Hayward Shepherd, an African-American railroad baggage handler. It was over by Oct. 18, when he was captured by a military party that included Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart.

Altogether, Brown's force consisted of 22 men, 19 of which participated in the raid. Of these, five were African-American. Of these, 10, including two of Brown's sons, died during the attack. Seven more, including Brown himself, were eventually hanged.

The thing that strikes me most about that whole episode was the fact that although he failed at everything he attempted, in the end he seemed to get what he wanted. The raid further polarized North and South and seemed to drive the situation to the point of no return.

He told the court:

Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved... in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!"

Brown remains a controversial figure to this day. People still argue about whether he was a madman, a fanatic, a killer, a martyr, or a freedom fighter. I'm leaning toward "some combination thereof."

He reminds me of some cryptic lines from Bob Dylan's song "Idiot Wind:"

There's a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin' out of a boxcar door,
You didn't know it, you didn't think it could be done, in the final end he won the wars
After losin' every battle.

HOW'S THAT STIMULUS COMING? The latest snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute finds that underemployment is at a 14 year high.

WATERBOARD SURFING. This item from the Washington Post reports that the Bush White House explicitly endorsed interrogation techniques that people who don't torture the English language would refer to as torture in 2003 and 2004.

GRUNTING FOR WORMS. No, I'm not going to explain what that means. You need to click here to find out.

ADVICE FOR THE NEWLY POOR can be found here.



October 15, 2008

Another one bites the dust

Note: this picture of Wu has nothing to do with the subject at hand. I just thought it was cool.

These are tough times for true believers in the cult of the market god, although not quite as tough as one might expect if the moral arc of the universe really did bend toward justice.

(As far as I can tell, that arc tends towards randomness most days.)

We've seen the spectacle of Wall Street Masters of the Universe begging for the Visible Hand of government to rescue them from the Invisible Hand of their moribund deity.

Another sacred relic that has taken a few hits lately is the idea of humans as homo economicus, which is sort of a profit seeking organic bipedal calculator. He/she has shown up in many places in economic theory although not so much in the real world. Here's one definition from John Stuart Mill:

“a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.”

While Mill used that purely as a model, it caught on and has become a tenet of prominent schools of economic ideology. As a recent article in Business Week put it,

This 19th-century concept, embedded in classic economic theory and still embraced today, rests on two assumptions about human nature. The first is that individuals are only motivated by self-interest; the second is that we're all rational decision-makers.

More and more scientific research suggests that humans are more like sentimental monkeys who can talk than organic calculators that can walk.

After all, the human brain wasn't manufactured from the top down; it grew from the ground up. First came the brainstem that we share with reptiles, then the limbic system that we share with mammals. Our enlarged cerebral cortex is, if you'll pardon the expression, an afterthought.

Real people have all kinds of motives, such as the desire for status, respect, fairness, honor, compassion, sex, love, fun, excellence, a good fight, knowledge, or any number of things. Don't take my word for it--just take a good look at human history. As Pascal said,

The heart has reasons that reason knows not of.

IN THE SPIRIT OF FAIR PLAY, if the idea of homo economicus has taken a hit, so has the idea of the Noble Savage. This item shows that chimp-like bonobos, sometimes viewed as a peace-loving paleo-vegan primates, have been discovered hunting and eating monkeys.

SPEAKING OF EATING. Here's a long one by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma (which, by the way, is a good book if you haven't tried it) on the politics of food.

THE WISDOM OF CROWDS? This item discusses the psychology of financial panics.


October 14, 2008

The twilight of the idols

Worshipping the golden calf. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

If there is a bright side to the current global economic meltdown, it might be the demise of one of the loopiest religious cults of recent times. The cult in question is that of the market god, which has dominated American political life for nearly the last 30 years.

According to this pseudo-secular cult, "the market"--an ideological abstraction or reification--is viewed pretty much the way monotheistic believers view God. It is all good, all knowing and, like the God of the Hebrew Bible, it is jealous--punishing the sins of disbelievers unto the fourth and fifth generation.

Like the God of the Bible, sometimes the ways of "the market" are mysterious and hard for us to understand, but we must remember that its ways are not our ways, nor are its thoughts our thoughts and that it ultimately works for the good of those who truly believe.

Don't get me wrong. I buy I lot of stuff in "markets," which in one form or other have been around for thousands of years. I don't advocate state ownership of the means of production or the abolition of private property--in fact I wouldn't mind having a bigger goat pasture. But to turn the process of exchange into the equivalent of an object of worship and to elevate this imperfect human idea and institution to the level of the highest good makes many other strange religious practices seem rational.

Say what you want about worshipping and sacrificing to Zeus the Thunderer or Dionysus the god of wine--at least thunder and wine really exist. But an ideal market in which rational actors optimize their decisions and, by pursuing their own interests without regulation or limitation, work for the benefit of all exists only in the heads of academic devotees or political hacks. The great conservative Edmund Burke referred to such people as "sophisters, economists, and calculators."

In the real world, the abstraction of "the market" involves imperfect competition; public subsidies for private wealth; externalities or the passing on social costs to workers, consumers and taxpayers; information asymmetry; speculation; and cronyism. The economy is a human institution and bears the human stain.

In the realm of public policy, devotees have put forward and in large measure enacted their program. They have pursued tax cuts for the wealthy on the basis of a counter factual claim that these "pay for themselves"--which is kind of like saying that taking gas out of your car is the best way to go for a long drive. And they have advocated deregulation of industry and the shredding of the social safety net, which brought us where we are today.

Capitalism could have used better defenders, ones who recognized that the best basis for such an economy of necessity requires some sense of the common good and policies that promote shared prosperity.

The verdict is in on the cult of the market god and the writing is on the wall. As in the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible, it says "mene, mene, tekel, uparsin"--weighed in the balance and found wanting.

MELTDOWN 101. Here's a pretty good overview of the current mess and how we got there.

ECONOMIC CARNAGE. CNN reports on a rash of violence in the wake of the economic meltdown.

CONGRATULATIONS to Princeton economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman for his Nobel Prize! The award came mostly for his academic work on issues of trade but he also deserves one for talking sense.

IN CASE YOU'RE WORRIED, here's an item from Newsweek about how the superrich are surviving tough times.

ANIMAL PLANET? Not so much. Many species are vulnerable to climate change.


October 13, 2008

On the folly and hubris of the powerful

“There is a way that seems right to a man and appears straight before him, but at the end of it is the way of death and destruction.” Proverbs 14:12

El Cabrero has been musing lately on past and present events. It occurs to me that people in general and wealthy ruling groups in particular are not always the best judges of what is in their own long term interest.

Take the decades of sectional conflict over slavery that erupted in the American Civil War as an example. The slave owning aristocracy and their intellectual and political retainers made a practice of indignation, outrage, insolence and provocation.

Vehemently opposed to any measure that might limit the spread of slavery, they dreamed of conquering and annexing Cuba, Mexico, Central and South America to form a grand empire for slavery. The opposed even moderate measures to achieve a modicum of political compromise.

With the election of Lincoln in 1860, something that they ironically helped to bring about, they were faced with a president who did not propose to attack slavery where it existed but who wanted to contain it within its current bounds.

When the southern states seceded and attacked the United States at Fort Sumter, they basically forced the enactment of the measures they feared. The United States immediately responded with the "Anaconda plan" of surrounding and containing the rebellious states. So much for the expansion of slave territory. We know how the rest of the story played out over four years of war and the abolition of chattel slavery in the south and the US as a whole.

You could see some of the same thing in the responses of US business elites to the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt--peace be unto him--during the Great Depression. The "economic royalists," as he called them, fought it tooth and nail even though it wound up preserving and strengthening capitalism in the US and laying the foundations for a broadly shared prosperity and decades of economic expansion.

Some people never got over that and planned for years to dismantle the remnants of the New Deal and unleash unrestrained capitalism. For three decades and with considerable success they pushed for lower taxes for the wealthy and for corporations, deregulation of industry, weakening labor unions and the shredding of the social safety net.

Now we are all "enjoying" the fruits of their labor.

As Bob Marley sang, "Now you get what you want--do you want more?"

It's about time to take the keys away from some drunk drivers.

ONE NATION, UNDER DEBT. The nation's spiraling economic problems, fed by failed economic policies, tax cuts for the wealth, the cost of the war in Iraq, and the Wall Street meltdown, could seriously weaken its standing in the future.

ANOTHER MARKET FAILURE. Employer-provided health insurance declined for the seventh year in a row.

HOW LOW CAN IT GO? Several economists weigh in on likely scenarios.

THINK THE BAILOUT IS EXPENSIVE? Consider the potential costs of environmental destruction.

ON A RELATED NOTE, CNN reports that a new NASA website provides up to the minute information on climate change data.

ARE MALES NECESSARY? Maybe not for some sharks.