Economics, Philosophy, Politics, Science

The media at the hinge of political history

I’m beginning to wonder whether the media is in some sense the most crucial actor in understanding political change in a democracy.

The more you read in political science, the more you find grounds for skepticism that various ostensibly powerful actors can bring about change through their own actions. The presidency, for example, doesn’t appear to be all that it’s cracked up to be. Despite our desire for a President who will use the “bully pulpit” to sway the public, the evidence suggests that Presidents rarely succeed in changing public opinion. At most, their public statements can help shape the agenda, forcing the public to have an opinion on an issue — by influencing what the media talks about.

The courts rarely depart significantly from public opinion, despite the myth of the Supreme Court as the last refuge of liberty and equality in times of crisis and stress. In theory, the Supreme Court might be able to bring about political change by decree, ordering the government to do this or that radically unpopular thing. But that almost never happens in practice.

I suppose someone could argue that Congress is a driving force for political change. Maybe they’d point to the Senate’s ostensible deliberative golden age in the antebellum era. But I don’t imagine many people would seriously suggest that Congress today is leading much of anything, or more influencing than influenced.

The public itself is remarkably uninformed, and seems likely to remain uninformed despite the dreams of theorists of deliberative democracy for “deliberation days” and so on. To the extent that some portions of the public are informed, they’re largely informed by the mass media — and, perhaps, social media, to the extent that the two are different.

How about grassroots activists? There’s no doubt that activists can be a real force for political change — on those rare occasions when their decades of Sisyphean efforts bear fruit. But, when this happens, it is usually in part because they have succeeded in getting favorable coverage by the media. Or because they have made their own favorable media, for example by creating a popular, muckraking documentary film.

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Economics, Philosophy, Politics, Science

Civil Disobedience: the Poor Man’s Lobbying

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So let’s assume, as I considered in an earlier post, that there’s a relatively stable hierarchy of political needs among voters in democracies like the United States — a rough ranking of concerns that tend to determine voting behavior, especially in presidential elections. And let’s assume that in this ranking, “national security trumps economic policy, and economic policy trumps other issues, such as civil liberties, or campaign finance reform, or more altruistic goals like saving future generations from the consequences of severe climate change…”

That means that voters will tend to vote based on how they perceive the economy to be doing — unless there is a perceived threat to national security, in which case voters will tend to support the candidate or party that is perceived as strongest, or at least will only support candidates that are perceived as sufficiently strong, on national security. Maybe there’s something that trumps even national security — something like honor, identity, or recognition — but I’ll set that aside for the moment.

What if you, the engaged citizen, want to bring about change on some issue that is beneath the economy on the hierarchy of political needs? What if, for example, you want to see the federal government change its policies on carbon emissions? Is this a hopeless dream?

It seems to me that there are several mechanisms in our democracy for getting around the hierarchy of political needs.

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Law, Politics

The Supreme Court, Backlash, and Gene Sharp

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Gene Sharp is a political scientist who wrote a celebrated handbook for carrying out a nonviolent struggle against a repressive regime, From Dictatorship to Democracy. Sharp’s work has been used by activists around the world, from the color revolutions in the former Eastern Bloc to the uprisings in the Arab Spring of 2011.

I’ve never seen anyone connect Sharp’s ideas to the role of the U.S. Supreme Court in American democracy. But it seems to me there is a connection: the importance of backlash.

Like Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., before him, Sharp recognizes the importance of what he calls “political jiu-jitsu,” using nonviolent means to provoke an oppressive (and possibly violent) response from more powerful opponents — which may then cause the powerful opponents to lose support from those who object to the excessive response.

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If, Literature

Dendritic fiction: the structure of If

if graphviz kindle loc PNG

At long last, by popular demand, the graph above shows the structure of the chapters in If — using the “loc” (location) numbers from the Kindle edition, rather than the page numbers from the print edition. Click on the graph for a higher resolution, printable version.

A similar graph already appears at the beginning of the print edition, but with page numbers instead of loc numbers.

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If, Literature

If, Modernism, and Metamodernism

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As the publication of If recedes in the rear view mirror, and I move on to some other projects, I find myself wondering whether I took the right approach to presenting the novel.

When I decided to write If, I had in mind two general models, both modernist: Hemingway’s attempt, in his earliest stories, to “write one story about each thing that I knew about,” and Joyce’s attempt in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to show the evolution of the character’s linguistic consciousness through the form of the novel. In If, it’s not so much the narrative voice as the genre and style of the novel that change in response to the protagonist’s development. I guess you could say that if the stylistic shifts in Portrait can be seen as reflecting how the protagonist might write (or, earlier on, think), the stylistic shifts in If often reflect what the protagonist at a given place in life might read.

None of the publicity materials for If mentioned either of these modernist models.

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Economics, Philosophy, Politics

Thucydides and the Social Sciences (Autobiographical)

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This post offers a little piece of intellectual autobiography that I hope will place some other posts in a clearer light — especially the posts related to the later Wittgenstein, and the posts on economics. For me, it’s a chance to sort out some of my current thinking by considering what preceded it.

There was a time, shortly after my first exposure to the history of economic ideas, following years of being focused almost exclusively on the humanities, when I thought that what the scholarly world really needed was a kind of new grand unified theory of the social sciences. All I look for from a social science — from any science — is an increase in the power to predict and control nature in ways that serve our purposes, whatever they are. The intellectual run-up to the global financial crisis seemed to show that orthodox economics, as practiced by the world’s leading economists, was failing by this standard.

And economics appeared to be at the vanguard of the social sciences. If economics was driven by “physics envy” — the scientistic desire to emulate the mathematico-deductive rigor of theoretical physics — then other social sciences, such as political science, seemed to be afflicted with “economics envy.” But the global financial crisis called into question whether the emperor was wearing any clothes. Under such circumstances, it seemed to me, wasn’t it worth questioning the reigning assumptions? Might it not be time for some revolutionary science?

Once I began reading about the history of economic ideas, along with critiques of contemporary economic thought, my enthusiasm for this idea grew. To begin with, the secondary literature on economic thought is full of persuasive critiques of the intellectual underpinnings of a great deal of contemporary academic economics, especially the kind practiced in “freshwater” economics departments and by business school professors teaching finance. The more one reads about rational choice theory and the assumptions of quasi-omniscient, hyper-mathematical rationality that dominate so much of mainstream academic economics, the more the field seems ripe for a paradigm shift based on a skeptical rethinking of the basic phenomena under investigation.

In fact, it occurred to me that the predictive successes of modern economics, such as they are, might be largely attributable to the fact that when one is investigating human behavior related to money and closely related subjects — the core focus of economics as a subject matter — the single most important factor in human behavior is calculated self-interest, or, as economists sometimes call it, “rationality.” When making money, people will generally try to make as much as they can with as little effort as possible; when spending money, people will generally try to spend as little as they can for the greatest possible return; and so on. If you’re trying to predict money-related human behavior using as simple a model as possible, a model based on the assumption that individual actors are more or less rational agents (in the economic sense of rationality) is probably your best bet.

But even if you achieve good predictive results with this model in the context of money-related activity, this success obviously does not imply that rationality will always be the most useful model for predicting human behavior, especially in contexts less directly related to money, or where we have good reason to believe that non-pecuniary concerns may trump pecuniary ones.

For example, when we try to imagine what contemporary American political life would look like if all the political actors behaved purely based on calculated self-interest — without gaming the results ahead of time by redefining “self-interest” to include all sorts of ad hoc preferences and motivations that we would not ordinarily view as “self-interested” — the thought experiment leads to absurd results. Do we live in a world with no voters, where politicians run for office without any ideological commitments, tribal affiliations and moral commitments play no role, and officials attract the public’s support by offering generous populist benefits, such as lavish infrastructure and a guaranteed minimum income, with no concern for the deficit? Not at all. Many of the central features of our political life are phenomena that one would not expect to see if the relevant actors were behaving purely as rational actors — unless, again, the idea of rationality is transformed beyond recognition or usefulness.

So, when one discovers that the rational choice methodologies of economics have expanded, perhaps based partly on economics’ scientistic allure, to other domains in the social sciences, the case for a new grand unified theory of the social sciences seems even stronger. If the use of rational choice theory in economics invites skeptical questioning, the use of rational choice theory in, for example, political science — in so-called “public choice theory” — can sometimes seem not only absurd but useless. What unexpected predictive successes can public choice theory claim, against the countless instances where its models would lead us astray? The same could be asked of many rational-choice-based forays into sociology, such as the study of family life.

Certainly, focusing on calculated self-interest may help to dispel comforting illusions about human behavior — for example, if anyone thinks that crime results from some kind of mental pathology, it could certainly be useful to show the contexts in which rationality helps explain crime. But how many comforting illusions are there left to dispel today? Hasn’t the Machiavellian assumption of cold, calculating rationality as the driving force in all human behavior become our own dominant illusion — comforting us not by flattering our moral characters, but by flattering our cold-eyed realism, our courageous perceptiveness and freedom from childish illusions — even where an equally tractable alternative model might yield superior predictions?

With these thoughts in mind, I asked myself: why doesn’t someone develop a better alternative to rational choice theory that can displace its imperialistic role within the social sciences? Why, for example, doesn’t someone follow the lead of Thucydides, who recognized the great importance of self-interest to human behavior, but saw self-interest as one only one of human beings’ three central motivations — the other two being fear and honor?

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Politics, Science

Syll, Krugman, and Models in the Social Sciences

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The heterodox Swedish economist and gadfly Lars Syll had a blog exchange with Paul Krugman recently that reminded me of some thoughts I’ve been meaning to post about modeling in the social sciences. First, Syll accused Krugman of not being a “real” Keynesian, because Krugman subscribes to the model-driven, orthodox-economics “John Hicks IS-LM interpretation of Keynes,” not to the true Keynesianism that passed down through Syll’s heterodox mentor Hyman Minsky.

Krugman offered his usual responses, noting that “Keynes said a lot of things, not all consistent with each other,” and that in any case, the important thing in economics — as in any field hoping to be a science — is predictive power, not faithfulness to some oracular founder.  Then Krugman offered a remarkably direct challenge:

And as I have often argued, these past 6 or 7 years have in fact been a triumph for IS-LM. Those of us using IS-LM made predictions about the quiescence of interest rates and inflation that were ridiculed by many on the right, but have been completely borne out in practice. We also predicted much bigger adverse effects from austerity than usual because of the zero lower bound, and that has also come true.

Now, what have those who declare themselves the true Keynesians had to offer? Has insisting that expectations are volatile and unpredictable been helpful in this context? Actually, if anything it lends support to believers in the confidence fairy. After all, if it’s all animal spirits, who are we to say they’re wrong?

Has declaring uncertainty to be unquantifiable, and mathematical modeling in any form foolish, been productive? Remember, that’s what the Austrians say too.

If you can show me any useful advice given by those sniping at me and other for our failure to be proper Keynesians, I’ll be happy to take it under consideration. If you can’t, then we’re just doing literary criticism here, and I’m not interested.

What surprised me — and I have to admit, disappointed me — was Syll’s response. He failed to offer any example of “useful advice” (good predictions) made by heterodox economists like Syll but overlooked by gadget-driven, orthodox “Keynesian” (i.e., not dogmatic right-wing neoclassical) economists like Krugman.

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Politics

A hierarchy of political needs?

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Longtime readers of the blog may remember that when I first started posting, in March 2014, I began with an odd question: what would a progressive Milton Friedman say? Underlying the question was my sense that contemporary American progressives have failed to articulate a vision of government that could replace the crumbling vision of the Reagan era, as embodied in Milton Friedman’s rhetorically powerful and very influential Capitalism and Freedom.

In retrospect, one of the unstated assumptions of that series of posts — to which I hope to return, especially as the materials for a progressive post-Reagan-era vision continue to accumulate, if not coalesce — was the idea that a contemporary, progressive Capitalism and Freedom would be primarily about economics, as Friedman’s book was.

But why should this be the case? Why must economic policy and the government’s role in the economy be the defining focus of the next “era” — the next political or constitutional regime — in the United States? Even if the New Deal era and the Reagan era were largely defined by changes in economic ideology and policy, must this always be the case?

In particular, as I turned toward thinking about the environment as part of a recent project, I wondered whether the next American political regime could be defined by the response to environmental problems and above all climate change, which, it’s at least plausible to argue, is the single most important political issue facing the United States and the world today. Maybe Europe’s Green Parties could be a sign of things to come.

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Philosophy

Philosophy “in the doldrums”

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According to an excerpt on Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog, Harry Frankfurt has come to agree with this blog’s sense that contemporary academic philosophy is “in the doldrums”:

I believe that there is, at least in this country, a more or less general agreement among philosophers and other scholars that our subject is currently in the doldrums.  Until not very long ago, there were powerful creative impulses moving energetically through the field.  There was the work in England of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell and of Gilbert Ryle, Paul Grice, and Herbert Hart, as well as the work of various logicial positivsts.  In the United States, even after interest in William James and John Dewey had receded, there was lively attention to contributions by Willard Quine and Donald Davidson, John Rawls and Saul Kripke.  In addition, some philosophers were powerfully moved by the gigantic speculative edifice of Whitehead.  Heidegger was having a massive impact on European philosophy, as well as on other disciplines — and not only in Europe, but here as well.  And, of course, there was everywhere a vigorously appreciative and productive response to the work of Wittgenstein.

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Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Wendell Berry, Deep Ecology, and Hermit Studies

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As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading some writing on the environment recently. It’s my first significant exposure to the field of environmental studies, and I’m still sorting out some of the basic categories. The term “environmental studies” seems to refer to the interdisciplinary study of the environment not only through natural science but through the social sciences and the humanities. It’s a major or concentration in some colleges. But if you read an anthology of “environmental writing” in America, it will probably have few contributions by natural scientists. Most of the writings will take a more or less humanistic (philosophical, historical, literary, journalistic) approach, in the tradition of Thoreau, although these writings will often make reference to or draw upon the writings of natural scientists in a non-technical way.

Then there’s the term “ecology,” which seems to be used by many different people to mean many very different things. (The unusually disorganized entry on “ecology” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy may reflect this confusion.) On the one hand, ecology might simply refer to the work of natural scientists — such as biologists — who study ecosystems. On the other hand, ecology might refer to a philosophy of the interconnectedness of all things in nature, sometimes accompanied by a commitment to the inherent value of all living things: biocentrism, as opposed to anthropocentrism or (what I called in the last post) animacentrism. This biocentric commitment is sometimes associated with the term “deep ecology.” There also appear to be a number of uses of the term ecology that aren’t primarily focused on the study of the natural environment as we usually think of it — urban ecology, social ecology, molecular ecology, and so on.

I’ve mostly been reading the non-technical, humanistic variety of environmental writing — especially by American writers like Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Wendell Berry. In the last post, I mentioned my concern that ecology in the second sense above appears so dominant in environmental studies that competing perspectives may be excluded. Now I’m less concerned. Ecology in the sense of the scientific study of ecosystems appears to be no different than any other natural science, and does not appear to be dominated by any problematic methodological orthodoxy. Ecology in the philosophical sense of “deep ecology” may represent a problematic orthodoxy in humanistic environmental studies — but the orthodoxy doesn’t appear to be enforced in a problematic way. In fact, nearly all of the key figures in American environmental writing have worked outside the academy, with very few tools to enforce orthodoxy.

Oddly, I couldn’t help but noticing that a surprisingly large number of these figures also lived at various times in isolated wilderness cabins as hermits: Thoreau, Leopold, Annie Dillard… The rumor is that even Robert Pogue Harrison, author of the classic literary study Forests (1992), lives in a cabin in someone’s back yard in the Stanford area. Then, of course, there’s Heidegger, whose later writings have profoundly influenced deep ecology and green parties in Europe, and who sometimes lived in a cabin in the Black Forest. And any list of environmentalists living in cabins would not be complete without mention of the Unabomber.

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