Friday, November 4, 2011

Where has Wealth Discrepancy Come From and Where is it Going?

Where does the inequality come from? Could it be that the saying "The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer" is right? It has happened in virtually every age and every country. Obviously the dynamic has taken many different forms -- the economy of the middle ages was not that of the "gilded Age" which was somewhat different from the (American) economy of the 1920s, which was somewhat different from that of today. The economies of 18th century France, of the Pharaohs, the Chinese Mandarins, the Aztec lords -- all no doubt substantially different. When power of any sort (including that of money) reaches some critical mass, it will snowball unless there is some counteracting force. The economic dynamic of recent decades (at least) is that if you have a large enough pot of money to invest with appropriate diversification, in periods when the market is rising 20-30% a year, it is obvious what can happen. If you are well enough connected, when the market crashes, you can be one of the early ones to pull out. Then, until the market starts to move again, you sit on your money, or invest in the least risky (and least growth-producing) sectors.

These dynamics have not changed without some kind of intervention. We can look to Britain and the U.S. for cases of orderly intervention, as opposed to spasms of violence (which tend to produce something as bad or worse then the prior regimes).

In the late middle ages, illiterate peasants lived in mud huts while barons lived in drafty stone castles, and were almost as likely as anyone to die of the plague or childbirth. I am no master of how we got from there to today's world, but am pretty sure it involved the barons giving up some of their treasures in a way that lead to public roads and canals (in the early days), and widely available free or subsidized education, and postal systems (in the American case, these from the very beginning subsidized the spread of printed matter). In the nations that followed this policy, the rich were rewarded by having an educated healthy populace available for the development of more and more technologically brilliant and powerful enterprises. The rising tide of welfare of the "99%" lifted all boats, including those of the very rich. The nations that didn't follow such policies, where the rich and powerful tried to hang onto everything, suffered a huge decline in relative strength and succumbed to colonization.

Another saving grace, in the case of the U.S. – the U.S. was exceptional alright; it had a huge public domain — the vast preponderance of potential capital, consisting of public lands belonged to the government, and unlike Russia in the 1990s, a newly minted democracy in a similar position, we did not say “This is terrible — all this property in the hands of government — we have to get rid of it, putting huge chunks into private hands or something terrible will happen”; instead we calmly, or the course of 100 years or so, sold it mostly in small plots to individual farmers, and sometimes even give it free to homesteaders, and we also set aside portions as assets to pay for educational institutions. Why? Because our government had the “general welfare” of the people in mind.

But omigod, that sounds like a welfare state! Well yes, the "welfare state" as conceived by people who see value in it, is not about "welfare", which has curiously become another word for the dole. It is about a state which takes positive actions for the welfare of its citizens. Unfortunately, we have become so unimaginative as to think the only way to do that is to dole out money to those out of work. And the U.S., and even more so Europe, have suffered by creating a class of people with nothing to do and no sense of purpose, which is not in the interest of anyone's welfare.

Monday, October 31, 2011

I'm Making Some Progress on "Knowledge in a Social World" Despite My Ridiculous Isolation

I am ridiculously isolated; isolated enough to go crazy.  This comes partly from being self-employed in the business of selling (mostly used) books via internet and the mail.  It wasn't always like this.  At my wedding about 25 years ago, there were two large groups of friends, maybe 20-30 in each category: A folk-dance circle based in Redbank NJ, and another group of volunteers for a subgroup of something called "Breakthrough Foundation - Youth at Risk" that I was leading.  Back then I spent a few nights out most every week which involved hanging out and talking with friends.  I won't try to deal with how I got from there to here -- just giving a sort of "full disclosure".  Maybe I'm a social person; maybe not so much.

But I can't remember a time when I didn't see knowledge as a very social phenomenon.  What kind of firm foundation for knowledge is it to crawl into ones head wondering "How do I know anything? How can I know anything?" and then to say "Hey I sense these words going around.  What can that be but myself, and therefore 'I think, therefore I exist'".

Thomas Berger, The Social Construction of Reality  has been an idea in the wind for at least half a century.  My reaction to the title was "Yes, of course!"  My reaction to the book a big disappointment.  I never tried to summarize that book and it's been a long time since I read it, but my first posting in my first attempt at a blog, "The Ontological Comedian", on the author's 's other famous book, was "Berger's Sacred Canopy". I wrote it in December 2005.  It was short, and like so many of my other postings, ended with [to be continued].

My second idea for a blog was called "The Real Truth Project".  Its manifesto, as presently stated, is:

 What is "The Real Truth Project"?
Understanding of the world around us is a survival need -- as much so as food or shelter. Yet we seem barely concerned by the fact that all but the tiniest portion of what we think we know comes packaged and delivered to us from .. other realms that we hardly know even exist. I don't mean some kind of supernatural realms -- I just mean hundreds of thousands (at least) of academics, reporters, teachers, government spokesmen, and sometimes friends, family, and neighbors.

Considering this, it is remarkable that our sense of reality has protected and served us to the degree that it has. In North Korea, to take an extreme example, people are totally controlled through the picture of reality they receive. It is such a radical distortion of reality that a mini-encyclopedia of basic facts about the rest of the world has been made to present to those few who get out, or who visit China. It is called "Welcome to the World", and generally comes on a PC thumb drive or memory card. (SOURCE LINK)

Philosophers of truth/knowledge ("epistemologists") have long debated what we know and how we know it - but under the unconscious unquestioned assumption that we must act as individuals and must take the world just as we find it.

Today, I think we must ask "How can we adjust the world so we might tell at least the most important truths from falsehoods? As an ultra-simple metaphor, think of adjusting a telescope to bring something into focus. It sounds presumptuous, but otherwise, I fear, we are headed toward a brave new world of perfect counterfeiting of reality which will make it far more difficult to maintain our freedom.

I named this blog the Real Truth Project because "The Truth Project" was already appropriated -- by TWO entities. One, a "Focus on the Family" project to promote a "biblical world view"; the other advocating a sort of leftest paranoia -- that the 9/11 attacks were faked by the U.S. government. They call themselves "truthers". It is strange how the phrase the truth is made to serve one or another particular (often obsessive) idea, rather than suggesting the whole staggering business of making words reflect what is going on around us.
 It certainly has not to date turned into a "project", and it sort of largely drifted into debunking of political nonsense, esp on forwarded emails, sort of summarized in "My Not-really-right-wing Mom and her adventures in Email-Land".

I also wrote a longish rant about "Epistemologies of the Right - a slapdash prospectus", a much more ambitious attempt at profundity.

Finally, about a year ago, I felt I was maybe zeroing in on something with an "Epistemology of Consensus".  Partly, it was Daniel Boorstin who opened my eyes with Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers; in particular revelatory comments on the Enlightenment as a cluster of social phenomena one of which centered around the Royal Society [of London for Improving Natural Knowledge], and its "Transactions", the prototype of all peer-reviewed scientific journals.  Getting to know the "Early Modern Period", esp. the English, as key to understanding the ideas of the American Revolution, and some classes at Rutgers in the History of Ideas kept some of my thinking circling in the same vicinity.

When an odd concept pops into my mind which I think may be a useful distinction, yet I've never heard anyone use it, I have from time to time experimented with "googling" phrases that attempt to express it, to see if what if anything has been said about it, and see if I might join in the conversation.  So far joining in the conversation hasn't worked out too well.  "Ontological Comedian" was one such phrase.  I think there might have been only 1 or 2 hits, but it lead me to accidentally discover Ricky Gervais, creator of the original "The Office" series and the IMHO better series "Extras".

And Then Something Happened

My interest in "Epistemology of Consensus" was growing, in part due the Climate Deniers' (some people are infuriated by the associations they make to "Holocaust Deniers" when the phrase comes up.  I can only say that there are all sorts of deniers: evolution deniers, God deniers, consciousness deniers, ..., and it is useful to distinguish the deniers from the true skeptics.) frequent use of the meme "science is not based on consensus".

When I tried "Social Epistemology", voila, there was something there.  Prior to discovering the Wikipedia article, I found it was the name of a book and a journal by Steve Fuller, and I got the book Social Epistemology. I was disappointed with that book, however.  Fuller seemed to be, despite his protestations, too close to a post-modernist.  Post-modernism has, by the way, some popularity with religious intellectuals, and, wouldn't you know it, Fuller is a defender of "Intelligent Design".

I was learning that "social epistemology" had been taken in "two divergent directions" by Fuller and Alvin Goldman, and have just today started to look into Goldman and
                       this really seems like what I've been looking for!!

 The decription in its Amazon entry says he creates
"a thoroughgoing social epistemology, moving beyond the traditional focus on solitary knowers. Against the tides of postmodernism and social constructionism Goldman defends the integrity of truth and shows how to promote it by well-designed forms of social interaction. From science to education, from law to democracy, he shows why and how public institutions should seek knowledge-enhancing practices. The result is a bold, timely, and systematic treatment of the philosophical foundations of an information society."
 [to be continued]

Monday, October 24, 2011

Meanderings - 1

OK, instead of me telling you "what's so" like John Travolta in Get Shorty, might the process of meandering around the web trying to make better sense of the world through it, be more engaging?  OK, I'm trying that now.

Ezra Klein's economic blog ( leads me to a book titled Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy.  Kindle edition $4, which kind of illustrates the point.  Amazon may be replacing most aspects of publishing, as well as book stores.

When the next really radical change comes, how will we be able to deal with it? and if it's beyond the capability of most people to understand it, how will we be able to trust those who will make the decisions?

I don't say "will we", but "how will we", not out of a happy confidence in the future, but because only if we can is there any real point in thinking and talking about it.  Otherwise it's just idle, if possibly entertaining, talk like "Who do you think will win the game?"  I don't have a happy confidence in the future, but really don't know.  So many parts of the world have been put through so many catastrophes that they couldn't have imagined previously.  The U.S. hasn't had a catastrophe on a fraction of the scale of World War II (the way Europe and Russia experienced it) since 1865.

So the chances may be a billion to one (there's no way to know what they are really), but I can only find any sense of dignity in living as if I, with others, can find a way to cope with whatever crisis may come along, in large part by having accountable leaders such as I don't believe we have at present.  I don't  believe the quality of the leaders is as big a problem as the lack of a real and effective linkage between us and them.

Although I haven't been a human resources executive, or any executive involved in hiring employees for business, it seems safe to say that the process by which we hire our leaders is ludicrous.  The process isn't usually referred to as "hiring", but why not?  It seems like a reassertion of our dignity to do so.  We tend to see them as gods or heroes, or scoundrels or worse.

[to be continued]

The Benefits of Economic Freedom Require (guess what?) An Economy

In 2003, Iraq was turned into a nation of people with no jobs and no way to get jobs, no daily routine, and essentially nothing to lose. However, the existence of an occupying power, and a few fanatic demagogues filled the void for many of those newly directionless people, and what happenned next is pretty well known.  It should have been predictable

Let me take a stab at a rough division into sectors of economies in the modern world:
  • Government proper - military, police, courts, postal service, tax collection, ...
  • Government-industrial complex - i.e. most manufacturing in the USSR as well as in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but should we also include road building and maintenance in the U.S.?
  • Education - may well belong to some larger category - to be determined.
  • Private goods-creation (industry but also building, restaurants, ...)
  • The business of exchange of everything else
  • The Primordial Soup, from which new political life forms are apt to emerge. The people with nothing to do and nothing to lose.
So you could say one factor in Iraq was that half or more of the population got thrown into the primordial soup overnight. A similar thing happened in post-Soviet Russia.

Iraq seems to have been approached with the simplistic idea that, with the help of the "invisible hand":

  Toppling the dictator ==>
          Freedom and Democracy ==>
                  Things will be "normal" like in the U.S.

Had our government instead done a sober analysis of the institutions that kept peoples' lives from falling apart, and tried to preserve their continuity (with improvements to be made over time), we would not have set up such a breeding ground for both plain criminality (first looting and trashing the infrastructure) and later, a multi-headed beast of a terrorist insurgency.

These institutions included "inefficient" state run industry (by the quotes I'm not asserting it was efficient, but compared to what? To nothing being manufactured, and people having no place to go to work?), which I gather the occupying forces tried to disband overnight, as well as the military, which was either disbanded or non-functional during the period when most of what was left of Iraq's infrastructure was destroyed, which made it far more difficult to bring back any sort of normal economic life, which in turn multiplied the number of people being dumped into the primordial soup.

The disbanding of the state industrial complex was done in the name of Free Marketism, but it took the Iraqis further away from the ideal of a humming society of people producing and exchanging goods.

"Free marketers" tend to be fixated on noninterference and nonparticipation by government to the point of overlooking the destruction of the closest thing to a market that there was, and leaving a chaotic vacuum, as happened in Iraq and Russia.  The Russia case is well described in Sale of the Century: Russia's Wild Ride from Communism to Capitalism.

[this is an update of a previous post]

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bipolarism vs Radical Centeredness

"There are two kinds of people in the world,
     people who think there are two kinds of people in the world,
     and people who don't."
                    --source unknown

"You're either with us or against us".  --George W. Bush

"You're either part of the solution or part of the problem." --Eldridge Cleaver

Usually, when you hear "There are two kinds of people in the world...", you can expect to hear two characteristics one of which the speaker approves of and thinks he or she has, and the other is bad in any of an infinite number of ways (lazy, greedy, stupid, elitist, ...).

When confronted with a problem, our minds are always tempted to find out who is to blame, and, if possible, do something to them -- in the mild case, maybe putting them out of office.  When we can't do much directly, we take inordinate pleasure in labeling, ridiculing, and disparaging those we think are to blame; we often compete to see who comes up with the best zinger, or put-down.  Frequently, I read comment sections of blogs, and that is practically all that I see going on -- clever and not so clever put-downs of some favorite target or class of people.

What is the purpose of all this labeling, ridiculing or satirizing of some perceived villain or fool, that goes on when like minded people get together?  I think it sharpens the consensus on who the people to blame are.  They are the people with nice clothes and their noses in the air, or the people who pay us too little, well no, they are the rich, or a further refinement: they are the capitalist ruling class or especially the defense contractors or oil magnates or bankers or the international Jewish conspiracy.   Or we may start out talking about rude, lazy and immoral teenagers, well particularly the, you know, inner city type, or well it's them, but what's behind them are the "politically correct" teachers, and "Did you know that political correctness is really cultural Marxism, and really, it is the Marxists and other totalitarians (Fascists, Marxists, they're all the same) who are behind everything, and anyone who wants government to solve problems has at least one foot in their camp?"

How likely is this to really solve our problems?  It may be that for most of the last 100,000 years of human existence, it worked really well (for reasons that we might consider later), and even in modern times it may have served well - when the world was rapidly being conquered with brute force by a German Nazi and Japanese militarist coalition, and it was feasible to totally demolish that juggernaut.

But what if the threat propagates not through brute force, but through ideological or religious seduction, and is diffuse, with small outposts and cells in friendly and neutral countries, and even our own country.

And what if the problem is a breakdown in the smooth functioning of the economy, and any analogy to invading armies with distinct geographical bases or anything remotely like that only occur because our minds just leap to that sort of image when we feel threatened or anxious?

Political and other belief systems tend to be more than belief systems.  Like fashion statements among teenagers, they become inseparable from our identities.  And at the same time, a counter-identity is formed in our minds, especially in troubled or anxious times, of those people that believe that other thing.  And you can tell them by the way they talk, dress, what they eat, what sports they enjoy if any, and so on.

In times of fear and anger at least, most people go around mentally dividing the world into good (or sane, or calm, or clear-headed, or angry-as-they-should-be) people like me vs those others who are screwing things up -- acting as if that was their purpose in life -- that they were absolutely born for the purpose of screwing up the world.

There are many stories of people going around confused, their lives having no meaning until that aha moment when one realizes "I am a proud member of group A, and the noblest thing to do in life is to battle those other people, of group B".

The more alarmed and fearful we are, the more clear and distinct we want the distinction to be.

[to be continued?]

Friday, October 21, 2011

Extremism is a Boring Rut. Try Radical Centeredness

Why centeredness, and not, say Radical Centrism?  Part of my sense of something pulling me towards "the center" is just that it doesn't pretend to some sort of ideological purity, when I see "-ism", especially some fresh "ism" whose corners have never gotten worn and smoothed by reality, I am on the lookout for the sort of fervent ideology that can lead to disaster, such as Bolshevism in Russia in 1917, and free market fundamentalism in Russia in the 1990s.
Funny thing.  In the comment section of a Jonah Goldberg column, (one which vividly illustrates my point in "Intimations of Bipolarity" about taking "inordinate pleasure in labeling, ridiculing, and disparaging [the other side]" and competing to comes up with the best zinger/put-down ... 60 comments and counting, a real zinger-fest at the expense of Joe Biden.  To be fair, it reminds me of Dan Quale, and all the silly unproductive ink spilled over him) Um, as I say, in the comment section of a Jonah Goldberg column, I read "After [somebody's debunking of Biden] isn't this just one more nail in the coffin of liberals' self-regard as rigid empiricists?".  Yeah, just poll 100 liberals and see how many of them confirm "Yes, I'm a proud rigid empiricist."

Except for the 100% faith based types, don't all stripes like to say "Just look at the facts".  That's "rigid empiricism" in case you weren't familiar with the phrase.  But "rigid empiricist" sounds so much more pompous, and somewhere there must be a style sheet that says "Right-thinking patriots should be presented as wanting to 'just look at the facts' while Leftist rascals should be quoted as wanting to take a "rigidly empirical" approach to the world.
Um, did I just change the subject?  Well, I was thinking of the 50s especially when "consensus" and "pragmatic" were words used fondly to describe the traits of early Americans, as in the work of  Daniel J. Boorstin, especially in his The Americans series.  Back then it was the far left who had no use for lily-livered pragmatism.

Nowadays, the right coalition is more prone to attack "pragmatism" (Not that the Trotskyites wouldn't, but they are down in a deep well where no one can hear them).  Jonah Goldberg has done a good job of this.  I picked up my copy of his Liberal Fascists, and though I haven't touched it in weeks, it happened to be bookmarked to page 52, where he says: "Crudely, Pragmatism is a form of relativism which holds that any belief that is useful is therefore necessarily true.  Conversely, any truth that is inconvenient or non-useful is necessarily untrue.  Mussolini's useful truth was the concept of a 'totalitarian' society ... The practical consequence of this idea was that everything was 'fair game' if it furthered the ends of the state".  By this (crude indeed) definition, I would say there is a tremendous amount of pragmatism in movement conservatism.  For examples, see The Integration of Theory and Practice: A Program for the New Traditionalist Movement by Eric Heubeck.

[to be continued?]

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why Subsidize Solar, etc? Fragment of debate on

  • The debate is on at

  • Q: if this industry is so great, why does it need governmental support?

  • A: The space industry got billions in government support for years
    before it began to make huge contributions to weather prediction,
    communication, GPS.  The first computers were built for government
    applications.  The Transistor, laser, micro-circuits and much more came
    out of Bell Labs, a sort of R&D mega-university that would only have
    existed in the regulated world of the old AT&T.  Jet planes were a
    product of government military investment.  The Internet was a purely
    governmental creation, developed as a robust worldwide platform that
    happened to be able to support an open networked marketplace while
    Microsoft and AOL were developing centralized command and control based

    Sun-based (including wind and hydro) power will succeed
    in time even with no support.  Solar is largely a product of
    semiconductor physics and materials science which have huge momentum if
    only more of it would be focused on photovoltaic capture, and we already
    see solar power cost-effectiveness growing much much faster then the
    GDP.  If it takes a decade or two longer for it to make a big impact,
    due to lack of gov't support, we will be asking ourselves why we had to
    blow up so many mountains, and keep pumping up the accidental and
    inordinate powers of Saudi princes, and Venezuala, Russia for those
    decades, and maybe fight a couple more avoidable wars, and yes maybe
    accidentally transform the climate system in disastrous ways.