Category Archives: Economics

The angel behind my ear

This poem is dedicated to the memory of Russian poet of protest Yevgeny Yevtuschenko, and to his fellow Ukrainians.

If you enjoyed this poem, please consider donating to Nova Ukraine or Razom to help the war’s refugees.

If you’re in the US or UK, please reach out to your lawmakers to demand tighter sanctions against Russia to keep step with our NATO allies, and ask for a ban on importing Russian fossil fuels.

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Filed under Corruption, Economics, False controversies, Poetry

Putin captured Chernobyl

So Putin captured Chernobyl. A symbolic victory for someone who threatens to nuke Europe if he is opposed in his wars of aggression. Do we even have a plan for how to respond if he follows through? Because this is 1939 all over again, only with nuclear weapons on both sides.

For more on how to #StandWithUkraine, read my Medium post here.

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Filed under Corruption, Economics, False controversies, Poetry, Postmodernism

However, we will not inform…

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February 14, 2022 · 3:01 am

These citron trees…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Filed under Economics, False controversies, Poetry

Hekabe

In the hands of an ironist like Euripides, the last days of queen Hekabe are a miserable sight. Above, you see the death of her daughter, Polyxena, to honor the grave of Achilles at Troy. Having lost all her children at once, she feeds her revenge on a target of convenience, and upon seeing that even then she cannot escape her fate, she casts herself into the sea. This poem, inspired by the 74th Psalm, comes before the news of her last child’s death, before she has abandoned all hope of redemption.

As Simone Weil points out in the Poem of Force, even a slave’s tears are not her own to shed for those she loves – she may weep only for her master’s sorrows, and no longer dare weep for her own. So even Hekabe’s prayer to Apollo is an act of outrageous defiance, for already she is a slave, and this she will not accept.

To what end, Apollo, are we cast off?
You rage against those under your protection.
Recognize our ancient heritage,
as people of your fiefdom, in your debt,
whose kingdom raised royal temples in your name.
Set foot upon the smoldering sanctum,
all looted and blood-smeared, altars defaced.
The Greeks have overrun your Ilium,
made mock-ups of portents, and scorned the gods.
Aegeans felled our princes and our priests,
summarily as woodsmen clear young pines.
Our graven images are ground to dust
in blows from spear hafts, maces, shields and slings.
These arsonists reduced your throne to ash,
and shat upon the altar at your feet.
They would erase Troy from the very Earth.
They scorched your groves and feasted on your kine.
Your oracles we did not heed in time.
The prophetess Cassandra is a slave,
and no one understands her either way.
How long, Sun God, will Greeks with their snide jokes
dismiss a queen and mother’s right to mourn?
What holds back your darts, seeing us butchered,
your silver bow at rest and not deployed?
The Furies are an older lot, but you
once prized our safety and our shining walls.
You smote the serpent Python in his cave,
as ancient and as fearsome as the Flood.
You pulverized the monster’s gaping jaws,
filleted his flesh for dolphins, mice and crows.
You severed stones between the laurel’s roots,
where springs gushed forth, and stilled them into pools.
Your chariot announces break of day,
and Night herself waits on your horses’ neighs.
You, the inventor of maps, drawings, laws,
medicine, learning – you gave men reason.
Justice demands you take heed of our plight,
their barbaric gesture, blood sacrifice.
Do no dare feed these dogs daughters of Troy,
the wrath of a mother will reckon this.
See to your city, take heed of our prayers,
for the Furies are moved, they scent clotted blood.
Turn not aside from an old woman’s needs,
for even a slave may pray on her knees.
Apollo, aid me if you will not be shamed,
for the Greeks mock our loss with funeral games.

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Filed under Corruption, Economics, Poetry

After the flood

In the wake of yet another series of terrible man-made storms, it seems fitting to write about Noah again. Some people are building Arks for wildlife to survive extreme heat waves these days – the time for desperate acts is already upon us. And they can only save so few – the tragedy unfolding around us is relentless.

I’m lucky to live in a part of the country where the electric grid is already almost carbon-free, and where the public transit system is robust enough that I don’t need to use a car to get around. I remember how helpless and resigned I felt when I didn’t have all these advantages of place. Now it’s easier to feel angry, and impatient with the rest of the world for not changing fast enough.

Is it really enough, in a global economy, to, “think global, act local”? My “local” goal for this year is to further reduce my carbon footprint by eating more local organic produce and cutting back on internet shopping. My “global” goal is to focus my retirement investment portfolio on financial products that have divested from fossil fuels. What’s yours?

This poem is based on the 69th Psalm.

God of my father, pull back these waters,
for the deluge now robs me of breath.
I have sunk to the basins of the damned,
on my knees in the slime – now all is lost.
I embarked on your voyage, my calling:
the frailty of my own heart failed you.
I am hoarse from prayers of supplication.
My strength gives out – I cannot lead on.
My very eyes dim in this gloamy hell
from straining after signs, bereft of hope.
Harried the whole of my life by the damned,
inexplicable hatred pursued me.
The men who intended to slay us drowned,
yet I see their weakness still, in my sons.
What Methuselah smuggled from Eden
bore fruit – how can I root out our line?
My weakness is not so different from theirs;
though I withdraw with shame, love stayed my hand.
Let these souls hope for grace in spite of all.
Creator, your Word decides each struggle.
Let my reluctance not condemn my sons,
for you are the father whose help they need.
In their eyes, in your name, I stand to blame,
and they turn aside, they avoid my face.
My wife has turned her back on all we once shared –
I became a stranger to my children.
The courage to attempt to do your will
has branded me a traitor to mankind.
I turned from the fruit of the earth and wept –
my own person seizes me with disgust.
I rolled naked in sand upon the beach
to the shame of my sons, who looked on.
Their talk then could only be of reproach,
for the vine and the press left me helpless.
And I – dare I offer another prayer?
In this afterworld, dare we mortals hope?
Creator, the kindness you showed us once
gives me courage – I ask again for help.
Wash away my fault, for it bears me down.
Pull me back from the riptides of despair.
I fear being swept far from those I love,
naked as driftwood on a barren rock –
the alien shore of death would have me.
Answer what poor remnant I am, O Lord,
out of your strange and perfect compassion.
Bare your face to your weary messenger,
for what I built for you is not enough.
Time runs short, and I would be near you.
Those that seemed vanquished corrupted us all.
Only you can plumb the depth of my fault,
I who have failed all those you sacrificed.
My very being stutters from the shame;
I look for a reprieve where nothing is,
and though I would be understood, none can.
Instead I suck on vines, eat bitter fruit,
and slake my thirst on dry, fermented dregs.
Just so, I longed to see Cain’s huntsmen choke,
who dragged each other down when all were drowned.
All this, that men blinded by greed see no more,
all this that men raised without shame should quake.
Torturous anger moved heaven and earth,
a convulsion of hatred engulfed them.
All the inhabited earth is stripped bare,
that of mankind nothing should remain.
The descendents of Cain are now wiped out,
long having hunted the innocent down.
To men who disowned their own guilt, add blame,
deny them the earth, and all that’s in it.
Their ways and their writ are rubbed out for good,
and their wickedness must be unlearned.
But what am I, save wretched and forlorn?
What shelter can I seek from works undone?
How can I sing my grandchildren to sleep,
whose heritage was meant only for God?
Theirs now the oxen, the flocks and the droves –
the innocents under them shy and stamp.
Those that survive now warm to the sun,
yet I cannot tell if they still trust the Lord.
But God alone hears us cry out in need;
when we quaked in his power, he softened.
The gray skies, the blue earth, stir at his touch,
green mountains, sea meadows – all life responds.
The Creator gave warning, saved our line,
to us gave the stewardship of all life,
to husband the fields and preserve the wild.
Perhaps we are equal to this great task,
and can ready the world to turn towards love.

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Filed under Corruption, Economics, False controversies, Noah, Poetry

Recovery

This movie scared the pants off me. I picked up on it because I was in a David Tennant vortex on YouTube (a highly recommended place to be if you need some extra goofiness in your day) and it pulled me right in.

The writing is honest, the performances from David Tennant and Sarah Parish are heartbreaking. As the filmmakers said of the production, what patients with traumatic brain injury asked them not to do was to tack on a Hollywood ending that pretends everything is going to be okay. Because brain damage doesn’t just go away.

Sometimes with a head injury, even the injured person can tell something is wrong afterwards. But most of the time, it’s more subtle than that. And that’s why I needed this film. Because it shows what your loved ones are going through when you, yourself, don’t even realize anything is wrong with you.

Because you don’t remember exactly what happened. The you that was the “before” you just isn’t there, not even in your own memories. Major props to the filmmakers for showing that compassion goes both ways between carers and the disabled.

But Recovery is more than a film about loss – it’s also a story about moving on. About learning not to treat your losses as some sort of ‘get out of jail free’ card. About recognizing that who you are now matters more than what you once were, because tomorrow isn’t waiting around for you to get back up again and pull your life together.

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Filed under Acting, Dream Ensemble, Economics

Systems of Survival

I brought up Systems of Survival in my last blog and mentioned I wanted to return to the ideas in this book and go into them at length. The author is Jane Jacobs, a very creative thinker but fairly obscure as intellectuals go, known mostly for her work in urban planning. The topic is ambitious – she has gone through journalistic and archival records of public life cutting across historical epochs and continents to try and abstract moral principles operating in public discourse that transcend human history and culture. What’s the use of taking all this out of context? Well, she quickly hit upon vital applications in the study of political corruption and crime, topics you can think of as timely or timeless, on which moral philosophy has heretofore shed little light.

Although her non-Western sources are usually presented through a Western analytical lens (ancient history or anthropology), it is tempting to give her credit for having transcended these limitations with a natural history of human civilization that doesn’t flatter present circumstances as the best of all possible worlds. Her abstract principles are compellingly simple and her approach to organizing them into systems is at once easy to support with empirical examples and theoretically coherent. So rather than worry too much about her idea’s pedigree, I’m running with it as a tool for studying motivation, organizational behavior and corruption.

Her idea is that in public life, there are two possible codes of conduct that are internally valid but diametrically opposed to one another, and civilization needs adherents to each to play different roles for which their different values are uniquely suited. I liked this at once, because I enjoy dissecting false controversies and I think one of the main reasons Americans look for post-partisan candidates is that we see false controversy in the very way our bipartisan system is organized. Strikingly enough, her two moral codes of conduct fall out along the same fault lines as the Democratic and Republican parties in U.S. politics. One moral code of conduct is for commerce, the other for governance. She calls the second category of roles “guardian work” because it encompasses the military and police, but administrative and regulatory watchdog work that is in the public interest (rather than providing services from the private sector) belong in the same category.

I’ve illustrated her two lists with examples from Russell Crowe’s filmography to show how closely they correspond to the professions of the characters he plays. For me the correspondence between the ideas in the book and the values in these movies is fascinating and encouraging. I think movies are fertile territory for illustrating this sort of theory, because of the plurality of perspective so common in film. You can see characters from different walks of life interacting on their own terms, and have a sense of each person’s perspective in the same scene even if they disagree. Of course, we know Russell Crowe best for playing “guardian” types, muscular and adventurous, but Cinderella Man is an interesting exception. For Jim Braddock, boxing is a professional sport and his adversaries aren’t supposed to be trying to kill him. Work isn’t supposed to be dangerous, and outside the boxing ring he shuns force and puts the utmost importance on abiding by voluntary agreements rather than simply taking what you can for yourself.

The first thing you might notice about these lists is that they seem incomplete. Universal virtues appear on neither list, though Jane Jacobs can think of many: cooperation, courage, moderation, mercy, common sense, foresight, judgment, competence, perseverance, faith, energy, patience, wisdom. No one disputes these virtues, whereas adherents to the moral code of commerce hold values diametrically opposed to those of adherents to the guardian code of conduct. It is the values that have twinned opposites that distinguish these ways of life from each other and function interdependently with the other values within the same code.

She recounts being surprised to discover a variant on her own idea in Plato’s writings, and notes how adamant Plato was that each citizen must mind his own work and not try to do anyone else’s, in support of her claim that corruption occurs when people mix and match values from both codes and combine roles. She points out that the British navy was set up with a merchant fleet that merchants did not wish to operate themselves, because of the temptation to use warships to raid one another’s trade ships if they were responsible for their own protection from piracy, fearing anarchy would make the seas un-navigable if trading vessels were armed. In the drug trade this is a constant threat, because drug dealers are quick to resort to violence.

She does point out that there are jobs in civilization that mingle the priorities of governance and commerce, inevitably as without guardian enforcement of contract rights or fraud liabilities, commerce would be an unreliable way of life. The darker side of collusion between governance and commerce is illustrated in the colonial history that prefigured what we now call globalization. I used a graph to illustrate these overlapping responsibilities and undertakings, and used the axes to underscore the basic functions and modus operandi of each code of conduct. Jane Jacobs argues that in many managerial and administrative jobs, one must wear two hats, one at a time, adhering to the code of conduct appropriate to the task at hand. These are delicate responsibilities, easily mishandled. The corporate confidentiality agreement among tobacco executives in The Insider is an example, ethical when it protects trade secrets, unethical when it conceals knowledge of fraudulent public statements or practices like adulteration. The Brown & Williamson lawsuit against Jeffrey Wigand for violating his confidentiality agreement was not upheld in court because the expectation that he withhold knowledge of corporate malfeasance was unethical. The U.S. government is less understanding of whistleblowers within the guardian services, treating Wikileaks as treason instead. But this hypersensitivity to betrayal of government secrets is closely linked to the edict “shun trading,” which for a public official means not selling out the public interest, not selling military secrets to the enemy, and not subverting one’s professional responsibilities for bribes.

I doubt I’ve said enough to be clear yet, you should really read the book. But I’ll keep drawing examples from movies as I think of them, to try and show how her ideas work. So far my favorite examples are Master and Commander for guardian/governance values, and Cinderella Man for commercial/professional values. I pulled a picture from the scene where Jim takes his son to the butchers to return the salami because it underscores the importance of not taking what you need without paying for it in a voluntary transaction. In Master and Commander, in contrast, the crew speculate that if they take the Acheron as a prize, they’ll enjoy shares of her stolen loot. Thus far, the basic taking/trading distinction.

The importance of luxuries like rum and music on the HMS Surprise is part of the guardian way of life, dangerous at times but taking some of its core values from hunter/gatherer lifestyles rich in leisure time and creative arts. Jane Jacobs speculates that one reason hunter/gatherers cultivated skills in art and other leisure activities was to keep their predations on the game animals sustainable. The introduction of fur trade in the Americas subverted this conservation ethic and created incentives to maximize kills and waste meat in favor of pelts. Rum also functions as largesse, dispensed by the powerful to placate subordinates expected to abide by a rigid hierarchy with few rewards at the bottom of the pecking order. Hierarchy and discipline are explicit themes in the script, along with cunning, prowess, fortitude and tradition.

State largesse comes into play in Cinderella Man when Jim goes on welfare, and as such it is help he is reluctant to accept. He would not expect charity without obligations from peers, and it hurts his pride as an equal among other ordinary citizens to go to the welfare office. His friend Mike dismisses FDR’s reforms as politically motivated and not a redress of what had been taken from families like theirs. Jim repays the welfare office as soon as he’s able as if it had been a loan, like the cash assistance he asked for at Madison Square Garden, which he also repaid. As a professional boxer and wage laborer, he’s uncomfortable taking something for nothing even when his family is in need, impatient to return the welfare money even when his family’s future is still precarious. It’s a matter of keeping true to his own way of life, which has no part in governance, although he respects the need for the government to step up in a national emergency.

I’ll refer back to this account of the core concepts in Systems of Survival later, so I hope it’s adequate since you probably won’t have time to read the book. I have a lot of ideas about how to apply this theory of corruption and public life to the analysis of other movies, and I’ll bring in more material from the book as I go along. Hopefully I’m not the only one eager to see how far her ideas pan out. I think I can use them to study corruption in hospitals, since my work is in public health, so I have a great deal of interest in the details of her theory.

For now I’ll leave you with a quote from her book, about elementary school children evincing guardian virtues without coaching, lifted from John Holt: “Ten is a heroic age for most kids. They remind me in many ways of the Homeric Greeks. They are quarrelsome and combative; they have a strong and touchy sense of honor; they believe that every affront must be repaid, and with interest; they are fiercely loyal to their friends, even though they may change friends often; they have little sense of fair play, and greatly admire cunning and trickery; they are both highly possessive and very generous – no smallest trifle may be taken from them, but they are likely to give anything away if they feel so disposed.” Jane Jacobs thinks if Holt had watched the same children at a yard sale, they would have taken just as naturally to the commercial virtues, that all this is in human nature and flows naturally when the appropriate task is at hand.

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Filed under A Good Year, Acting, Cinderella Man, Corruption, Economics, False controversies, Gladiator, L.A. Confidential, Master and Commander, State of Play, Systems of Survival, The Insider

How do lambs become lions?

How can corporations be persons? Public Citizen is one of many grassroots organizations saying they can’t and proposing constitutional amendments to shut down SuperPACs. But their proposed amendments are modest restrictions on corporate speech, with an unmitigated loophole for corporations peddling news or information. Any corporation or political machine with privacy protection for all revenues in and the freedom to spend them on votes by any means, direct on indirect, should logically have a special attraction for the money laundering business, increasing the political clout of organized crime. First amendment protections for cash and corporations respectively invite corruption if they aren’t withdrawn absolutely. So why do constitutional law experts doubt simpler amendments specifying “money is not speech” and “corporations are not people” will work?

Corporations have long-standing rights to enter into legally binding contracts as individuals and bear liabilities as individuals, and the syllogism corporations:individuals :: people:individuals opened the door to First Amendment protections for corporate speech on logical grounds. Word play opened the door to reform of the political economy, but it is shaded. Thus far corporate personhood is due First Amendment rights, but not privacy protections against Freedom of Information Act requests. It is not a literal reversal and a literal reaction would have a muddled future in the courts, because contract law is indispensible and would trump the intent of the reform so completely it could be gutted in the interpretation.

The court’s intentions have hardly been discussed, their actions have so clearly corrupted our politics that popular opinion has no justification for them. Why did the court dare confront us with this unpopular new species of political machine? Perhaps there was more to it than deliberately fomenting SuperPAC politics. Ours is an economy driven by consumerism, and consumers are motivated to spend beyond their needs by aggressive marketing of consumer goods, using disinformation, bombardment, seduction and interactive marketing that relies on corporations’ freedom to gather personal information on consumers. Protecting these tools of the trade keeps our market attractive, and our country trades more on its capacity for consumption than on its capacity for production these days. What seems radical is the notion that corporations have the right to freely influence public policy through spending on political speech, and that this spending need not be reported – not even shareholders have the right to demand information about it. Can these reforms be reversed without bumping up against the economic imperatives of information exchange in the service of consumerism?

On the other hand, I’ve been looking at some textbooks on corruption that favor the conventional wisdom that the court’s attitude is permissive of corruption. Early economic analyses of corrupt practices often harped on this theme: “There are very few things worse for a country than having a corrupt, obtrusive bureaucracy, and one of them is having an honest, obtrusive bureaucracy.” Conservative thinking on economic policy is fairly permissive of corruption per se. Now look at our constitution in this light: “presidential systems are more corrupt, on balance, than parliamentary democracies and that proportional representation systems are more corrupt than first-past-the-post systems. The worst systems combine strong presidents with proportional representation under which a powerful executive can negotiate with a few powerful party leaders to share the spoils of office” (Susan Rose-Ackerman, International Handbook on the Economics of Corruption, 2006).

Steven Rosenfeld has an insightful article on the amendments that have been proposed thus far, their strengths and weaknesses. There is more to this than word play, and as he says, less discussion of ends and means than we will need to have to effectively reverse these reforms.

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Filed under Economics, False controversies, Robin Hood

Aristotle, meet Baudrillard

Virtual reality is on our horizon, and already video games are competing with face to face interaction as the dominant social venue for youth culture. Why are pictures of people more compelling than people in this market? The idea that our world is increasingly dominated by empty signs and simulations has been explored extensively in postmodern philosophy, particularly in the work of Baudrillard. Baudrillard is notoriously difficult to read, but someone at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy decided we ought to know something about the gist of his later work, and boiled one book down to this passage: “the society of production was passing over to simulation and seduction; the panoptic and repressive power theorized by Foucault was turning into a cynical and seductive power of the media and information society; … and revolution and emancipation had turned into their opposites, trapping individuals in an order of simulation and virtuality. .. within the transformations of organized and hi-tech capitalism, modes of Enlightenment become domination, culture becomes culture industry, democracy becomes a form of mass manipulation, and science and technology form a crucial part of an apparatus of social domination.”

Late capitalism is consumerism, the economics of compulsive spending and frivolous production for impulse buying and conspicuous spending. Consumerism posits money buys happiness, and if this is the thinking, spending displays are as significant as conspicuous consumption, because the idea is that money spent produces happiness, even though money is intended to have only token exchange value and does not magically add up to market conditions for acquiring happiness. The sign becomes the object, in the sense that the paper itself is believed to have the power to bestow happiness on its possessor, and acquiring money is as exciting as any Pavlovian precondition for a reward. This inspires industriousness in the pursuit of more money that far exceeds a successful individual’s appetite for discernibly more valuable goods. Hence the art in the vault, represented by a knockoff on the wall that can be replaced if stolen.

Is this really strange? You have to look back to find solid empiricism taken for granted. For empiricism free of caveat or equivocation, you need Aristotle:

“The most distinctive mark of substance appears to be that, while remaining numerically one and the same, it is capable of admitting contrary qualities.” From a postmodernist, this would be a preamble to showing that a word’s empirical referent can be two things at once. For Aristotle, it can only be one thing at a time. “The same statement, it is agreed, can be both true and false. For the statement ‘he is sitting’ is true, yet, when the person in question has risen, the same statement will be false.” For Aristotle, only the writing of the law is proactive, for this is how power is dispensed among the governed, and the truth about power changes with the letter of the law. Its interpretation he would expect to have empirical clarity that in our society is not the rule at all.

“Those things are called relative, which, being either said to be of something else or related to something else, are explained by reference to that other thing.” Aristotle gives examples of comparative words that denote relationships among the things described such as ‘superior’ or ‘double.’ But then he stakes his position deep in empiricism by giving examples of incomplete generalizations, such as ‘ruddered’ for a boat (a boat is not necessarily ruddered) or ‘winged’ for a bird (a winged animal is not necessarily a bird). These descriptions are not correct relationships for Aristotle. A word’s usage is only correct in relation to its empirical referent if it is exact. “All relatives, then, if properly defined, have a correlative. I add this condition because, if that to which they are related is stated as haphazard and not accurately, the two are not found to be interdependent.”

There you are Baudrillard. A world in which a sign that has taken on a life of its own is an aberration, and its endorsement is considered naïve. The reasoning is still available to us, if we allow that in this language there is no word for A, but in another language there are many particulars for A; should speakers of the two languages ever enter into conversation on A, the one would readily convince the other that a referent for A existed to be described, with the limitation that where conventional descriptions of A have novelty value their validity will be a subject for skepticism pending further enquiry.

Has experience of the real per se changed? Among video gamers, I assume investment in virtual reality on an emotional level erodes the importance of differences between pictures of people and people. But the availability of rewards in virtual reality exceeds their availability in the rest of the world, and reward seeking behavior is harnessed with empirical neuroscience in the marketing of products with an addictive potential.

I credit the simpler philosophy with the more enduring truth. Baudrillard understands contemporary culture, but Aristotle understood underlying reality, even if he never made the connection between tadpoles and frogs. The referent Aristotle had in mind is still there. Our level of self-assurance when we go about describing it is all that changed. And of the modest lady, it is often said she doth protest too much.

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Filed under Economics, False controversies, Postmodernism, Virtuosity