Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Democracy

A brief exchange on an article posted on 3 Quarks Daily started me thinking about democracy again.  It is an interesting phenomenon how people cling to the idea that democracy is an essential element of government when that is not necessarily the case.  As Winston Churchill sensibly said, "Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

I find faith in the democratic system followed in the U.S. somewhat irrational.  Not to sound cynical, but people will support any system that seems to support their best interests, and like every government the system here does not serve everyone's interests equally.  A case can be made that the system of government in the U.S. is at odds with equality, which leads me to believe that if you value equality more than democracy, you ought to support changes to the current democratic system.

One of the problems that has developed in every system of government is the acquisition of power by an individual or group that does not serve the best interests of other groups or the whole population.  The founding fathers in the U.S. were well aware of this and went to great pains to spread power around in the hope that it would be more difficult to abuse. Thus we have two houses of Congress, an executive branch and a judicial branch at the federal level.  I am confident that if they were still around, they would be advancing broad legal changes to limit the encroachment on government by corporations and other special interest groups, which obviously have tilted the balance of power.

Furthermore, the founding fathers did not believe in full democracy, and George Washington was elected the first president with voting rights extended to only 6% of the population, consisting of white male landowners. It was widely recognized at that time, correctly I think, that every adult is not capable of voting competently. Since then, with the gradual extension of voting rights to other constituencies, the problems associated with voter competency have been largely overlooked because the extension of voting rights has been associated with greater equality.  In theory that is correct, but, while the founding fathers could be fairly confident in the overall competency of voters then, there is little doubt that they would not feel the same today.  They would see modern campaigns as corporate-controlled spectacles in which the latest marketing techniques are skillfully applied to lull a gullible public into voting for their agents.

The idea of democracy is especially appealing to those who have lived under oppressive regimes, but not many seem to recognize that human nature is present in both dictatorships and democracies.  There is already enough evidence to say that the pursuit of personal gain infiltrates and corrupts democracies just as much as totalitarian regimes, only more slowly and less obviously.  For this reason, I am an advocate of an option that was not available when Churchill made his statement in 1947.  Democratic principles could be encoded into a set of algorithms and placed beyond the reach of pernicious influences.  Artificial intelligence is nearing a point when it will be possible to replace politicians with computers and software.  It may make sense to retain some traditional politics at the local level, but I don't see a need for it at higher levels of government if the technology is available.  Frankly it would be fine with me if there were no national politics: then I would never have to worry about government shutdowns, unnecessary wars, corruption, incompetent leadership, etc. Although this may sound far-fetched, it may soon be technologically feasible and is certainly worth some thought.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Boycott The New York Review of Books

I've generally stopped reading the NYRblog, but today I went back to look at the comments on Pico Iyer's article relating Proust to Buddhism, and I noticed that they had deleted all of my comments that had been there previously.  A few months ago they did the same thing on another article on which I had made comments.  This must indicate something.  The comments I wrote on Iyer's article were carefully considered and received a lot of "likes." Moreover, there had been a discussion between me and another commenter that is now unintelligible, since they completely removed my comments but left his intact.

The main reason that I started this blog was for personal freedom of speech.  I found it frustrating and unfair to subject my thoughts to moderators whose policies extend no rights to their readers. Ever since I became critical of the NYRB, which had been one of my primary sources for web articles for over 3 years, they have stopped replying to my emails, have deleted some of my comments at the moderation stage and have deleted others after initially posting them.  I urge anyone who cares about free speech to boycott the NYRB and stop reading the NYRblog.  

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Capitalism and Education

The weaknesses in public education in the U.S. provide a good example of how discussion among policymakers is often framed in concepts that divert attention from the underlying problems.  American students have been underperforming compared to students in most other developed countries for some time now.  The universal outlook is that if the U.S. is to remain competitive globally, the educational system must produce the best students. In addition, it is generally assumed that those who do not receive good educations will become less productive members of society and are more likely to be failures as adults.

What is wrong with this outlook is that is assumes that the economic model under which we operate is the only tenable one. An alternate way to see the problem is to look at how the economic system actually created it. As I said earlier, capitalism creates an adversarial environment of winners and losers. The wealthy are able to provide better educations for their children either by moving to expensive school districts or by sending them to private schools. The poor typically have fewer options, and if they happen to live in a school district with unsatisfactory schools, there isn't much they can do about it.  Furthermore, the poor can be seen as the losers in this economic system, and whenever the population increases, there are going to be at least as many more losers as winners. Over hundreds of years, the numbers add up. The problem is a predictable result of the country's trajectory since its inception.

The less advantaged do not necessarily view their options the same way the privileged do. They may have no exposure to well-educated people and be comfortable with what they have.  They may not care if China produces more Ph.D.s than the U.S. Perhaps they would rather forage for food than put on a suit and tie and commute to an office every weekday. Certainly it makes sense that someone would want greater security and more resources, but this is supposed to be a democratic country. Conversely, there are some well-educated people who would prefer to live "off the grid."  In effect, policymakers are telling them that they all have to get with the program.

It sounds to me as if the programs that the policymakers want to advance are often anti-democratic and authoritarian. They want to fire teachers whose students don't get high scores on tests and outsource the educational system to private businesses. Privatization often results in inferior service, because profits are constantly being siphoned away from the primary objectives.  In the larger system of capitalism, privatization can be seen as a canny device used by businesses to gain access to unlimited flows of taxpayer money. Military contractors are good at it, and where has that got us?

Perhaps what disturbs me the most about policymakers is that they do not address the larger problem of the systemically poor, of which inadequate education is only one aspect. The systemically poor need much more than better educations.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Websites

Over the last few days I've been looking at the website 3 Quarks Daily (http://www.3quarksdaily.com/) and would like to recommend it.  The content is more appealing to me than that of any other site I've come across.  I am continuing to look at Berfrois (http://www.berfrois.com/), which is also very good but does not appeal to me quite as much.  Both of these sites draw content from multiple sites, which gives them an enormous advantage over sites that rely on a fixed group of writers.

3 Quarks Daily, as the name suggests, values science, but it covers the arts quite well too. There seems to be somewhat of an emphasis on Pakistani topics because of the backgrounds of some of the editors. Berfrois has a very English feel to it and reminds me of the LRB and the TLS.  So far I would say that both sites are far more interesting to read than the NYRblog.

I have to confess that, while I don't particularly enjoy reading purely scientific essays, I have reached the point of becoming nauseated by literary essays. I've had a go at engaging the literary community over the last few years, and here is my conclusion: they are frivolous people who have little of value to say. Creating art is one thing, but writing about it is usually a waste of time once you get past the basic facts.  My impression is that the literary community is guilty both of not producing much of anything that I would consider to be art and of doing almost nothing of importance to identify, draw attention to or solve any of the problems facing mankind. Collectively they are like a bunch of flakes who moved to an art colony in 1968 and never came back - except that many of them now have substantial incomes from universities, literary works, arts foundations and journalism.  Collectively I find it impossible to take them seriously.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Capitalism II

It is interesting to speculate on when the current system of capitalism will come to an end. There are both practical and theoretical reasons to believe that this will occur.  On the practical side, capitalism tends to favor lax regulation, lower taxation, greater risk-taking and the concentration of wealth.  Lax regulation encourages increased pollution, unstable financial markets and corrupt business practices.  Lower taxation encourages infrastructure deterioration, which eventually leads to a less competitive economy. Greater risk-taking encourages more business failures and the corresponding waste of resources.  Finally, the accumulated wealth in capitalistic systems is not distributed equally, and wealth inequality often leads to social instability, civil unrest and wars.

On the theoretical side, capitalism is based on a model that has not proven to be accurate. Most economists today believe we have a sustainable system that operates in much the same manner as originally described by Adam Smith: the invisible hand. According to the mythology, businesses provide goods and services in a competitive marketplace, and those that are inefficient eventually go out of business, in a process that leads to greater efficiency, better products and lower costs. Society benefits and becomes wealthier, presumably ad infinitum. A central flaw to this theory is that markets are always inefficient, except possibly over very long time periods that do not fall within the purview of any studies. Inefficiency manifests itself in many ways, but it is most noticeable in financial bubbles like the one we have seen recently. Bubbles occur when people in aggregate pay more for something than its intrinsic worth. In 2008 it became apparent that real estate was overpriced, and world financial markets nearly collapsed. Furthermore, economists do not create models which take into account all of the costs associated with successful businesses. One of those costs that we are barely starting to deal with now is global warming. Economists also fail to account for the social unrest that is likely to accompany extreme wealth inequality. Their field is too narrow in scope to assess which types of government models are best suited to operate in a capitalistic framework. Under the current arrangement in the U.S., there is an ostensible democracy, but corporate intrusions have gradually reduced government control by the people, and it is unclear whether the government will act in the best interests of the citizens. In any case, pure equality is incompatible with pure capitalism, which is inherently based on a system of winners and losers.

Looking at the problems of capitalism positively, there is always the chance that it will gradually defuse itself by evolving into a combination with some form of social democracy that limits its destructive effects.  Some of the governments in Western Europe are like that now.  But it is probably more likely that a clash between capitalism and socialism will persist for some time.  In the intermediate term, much rests on how China evolves politically and economically.  If China adopts a full-fledged capitalistic model, wealth inequality will become more pervasive worldwide and will increase the conflicts between the rich and the poor, both within nations and between nations.

It is difficult to imagine the U.S. warming up to socialism, but if conditions arise that are similar to those that occurred in the 1930's, socialism could become popular again.  I would like to see a socialistic, non-capitalistic world government in the future, but it appears far off at the moment.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Religion

A topic that has interested me for many years is religion. I could write a book about it, but instead I'll probably just make a few posts. If you are a religious person, this may be hard for you to read, so you may want to skip it. I don't pull any punches.

First I'll give you a little background. I was raised in the Episcopal Church and confirmed at age 12. At the time I didn't really understand what it was that I was supposed to know, though I tended to like stories from the Bible. Then when I took science classes in junior high school I realized that physical reality does not correspond to Christian conceptions of it, and I began a very long process of observing and analyzing how people adopt religious views, why they persist in holding them, and what the consequences are. From about age 14 onward I have been an atheist, though I must qualify this somewhat. Technically I would have to be an agnostic, since it is simply not possible to know with certainty that no god of any kind exists.  However, my position is that none of the gods postulated in Judaism, Christianity or Islam exist, and since these are the significant ones in Western culture, I am an atheist in at least that sense.

During my sophomore year in college, my roommate was a pretty bright guy who was a little confused. This was the time of sex, drugs and rock and roll. He dropped out of college and tried to be a writer. When that didn't work, he joined an ashram.  I'm not sure about the teachings, but I think they were loosely based on Hinduism, with an emphasis on Kundalini yoga.  The ashram was in a large university town and had many young people living in it.  I was skeptical of the swami leading it, because he used the ashram members for free labor, with which he set up several profitable businesses.  Later he was run out of town and moved to the Boston area, and finally he settled in Portland, OR.  He has been accused of having multiple sexual relationships with female members and of pressuring members to turn over their assets to him.

The ashram was a sham, but it served a purpose for those who entered it.  My friend later became a lawyer and seems to have had a successful career.  It drove a wedge between us, though, and I have had almost no contact with him ever since he joined.  A friend of my friend, an acquaintance of mine, joined the same ashram and later became an M.D.  He is now on the faculty of a medical school.

In this vein, I had another college friend who was a talented painter. After college he moved to the same town as the ashram and attempted to live as an artist. However, he had no marketing skills and eventually became homeless, living in an abandoned bus. He was the son in a family that owned a major office equipment company, which he had been expected to take over. It seemed he had failed both in fulfilling his family's wishes and in achieving his artistic aspirations. I have wondered about this, and suspect some kind of mental illness. I used to think it may have been adult-onset schizophrenia, but it is probably less severe. Anyway, while he was homeless he took an interest in Hinduism, and the last time I saw him he was a monk living in a Hindu monastery in Ganges, MI.  He still paints, but only to Hindu themes, and I don't think he's made much progress.

Religion has never been of any personal interest to me, and the above history is included simply to inform the reader of some of my early observations. I have read books out of curiosity by authors such as D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Ram Das, and the much lesser-known Swami Rudrananda, but more for informational purposes than for religious purposes. Of these, as I recall, Watts is the only one worth reading, because, if nothing else, he writes very well.

I now think that religion is an invention that fills various needs for individuals. It is so obvious to me that God is a made-up entity that I don't think it even merits discussion. The same goes for miracles. The major world religions have historically been effective at organizing large populations. On the individual level, religion fills many needs that are difficult to meet otherwise. It is sort of like software that provides orientation and purpose when none is there. Being conscious can be a great burden, and few can face it without adopting something that resembles a religion. Religion also adds a social structure that encourages behavior that benefits everyone. In this sense it is a meme that indirectly has a positive evolutionary effect on humans.

One thing that often amuses me is how the beliefs within a religion evolve over time. Often what the founder said becomes distorted or is completely ignored by later followers. My favorite examples are from Christianity. According to Jesus, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. The U.S. is purported to be one of the most Christian nations on earth, yet there is almost no evidence of this being a popular belief here. Quite the contrary, the basic premise, held almost universally in the U.S., is that we are here to become prosperous and achieve eternal economic growth.

Ordinarily I would not concern myself with religion, but it increasingly seems to play a major role in serious armed conflicts both between different religious groups and between sects within religions. I think that the problems far exceed religion alone, but religion is the ideology placed at the forefront of many of the conflicts. Among the underlying problems is overpopulation, which forces previously isolated groups into contact with other groups and creates conditions of scarce resources. Then there is the remembered history of American and European imperialism throughout the globe. If the world became more secular, that would certainly help, but that is not in the cards. Having one world religion would also be an improvement, but that is even less plausible. Greater prosperity worldwide could be a short-term solution, but I think it would be temporary at best and would soon create new problems such as more overpopulation and more pollution. From an American standpoint, I am inclined to support much more international restraint, perhaps to the point of isolationism. When America acts abroad, it usually advances its own economic agenda, which is a vestige of imperialism and is often resented with good reason. Furthermore, the U.S. still unofficially goes by the Christian brand, which is an ongoing disaster in the Middle East and elsewhere.

More on this at a later date.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Internet Discussion I

The Internet presents an enticing face, leaving you with the impression that you can communicate with all sorts of like-minded people or engage in extended discussion with others who may or may not agree with you. In my experience, this is hardly the case. My perception is that it has become a gratification magnet that has been shaped by the profit motive, and it causes participants to become more isolated, with diminished social skills that render society less cohesive than it once was.

There are commercial sites that allow you to rate products, which can be helpful even if you never communicate directly with anyone. And there are forums that provide useful information on a wide variety of topics, along with chitchat. Many people have blogs like this one - much more carefully designed than mine in most cases - which nobody reads. There is some chat on gaming websites, but they are often breeding grounds for hostility and rudeness. And then there are the social media websites, which I'd rather not think about.  One would not expect a lot of depth of discussion on the sites mentioned here, although there is always the potential for it. On the whole they tend to be trite.

I have found some value in the websites of idea-oriented publications. However, their inherent design tends to limit how involved a user might become. They all seem to be set up to highlight their lead articles, and any discussion is relegated to a comments section which is almost always unsatisfactory for one reason or another. Major websites such as The New York Times simply post too many comments, rendering the section unreadable. They have attempted to winnow them down by recommending a few of the many, but there is still no discussion, mainly just statements of agreement, mentions of related ideas, etc., in the recommended comments.

One would expect a little more from the highbrow publications, but they're not much better. Rather than too many comments, they often have none. The ability to comment on comments does add a dimension that used to give me cause for optimism, but it no longer does. Here I sense the differing motives of the various stakeholders in the process. The publications are mainly interested in promoting their publication or increasing advertising revenue, or both.  This means that the authors of the lead articles are carefully selected and ideally they will appear smart and ahead of the pack. Thus there is no point to a lot of discussion that might diminish perceptions of their authors.  The authors themselves are generally working to fulfill the terms of their financial agreements with the publishers, which makes them complicit with the publishers. The instances I have seen of authors engaging in discussion with commenters are extremely rare. I suppose if commenters were well-known pubic figures, the publications and authors might welcome them, but that is not the way the system is currently set up and it rarely occurs. Even if it did occur more frequently, it would probably have the effect of further marginalizing the man-on-the-street commenter. We are already "the little people," if I may borrow a phrase from the late Leona Helmsley.

That leaves the commenters themselves. Who are they? On the whole they seem to be well-read people who have reacted to an article for one reason or another. Unfortunately, it is of no interest that they liked an article, which is about all they ever say. Sometimes there is a small amount of back-and-forth between commenters that can be interesting, but it seems that people soon stop reading them, and then the articles along with the comments are consigned to oblivion, with no one giving them a second thought. My impression from being a web commenter for about 8 years is that most people are not interested in ideas or tolerant of those that are different from their own. The Internet is hardly a marketplace of ideas.

Where does this leave me? Writing this blog. These are things that I simply want to go on record as having said. But most likely oblivion is the destination here too.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Darwinism II

In my experience, people tend to be repulsed by Darwinism, particularly when it becomes apparent what it implies.  It never reaches the center stage in public policy discussion or the news media because people don't like hearing that they're basically just smart apes.  Politicians can't get elected that way, and manufacturers can't sell their products that way.  For this reason, the Darwinian view has not been incorporated into the political systems that arose before Darwin during the Enlightenment. Here I will briefly discuss how a Darwin-adjusted political system might differ from the systems currently in place in most of the developed world.

If I may grotesquely summarize the Western political view, it is that mankind is inherently good, and that all citizens must be afforded the possibility of living to their potential in a competitive system that is controlled by checks and balances to limit excesses, maintain stability and provide a level playing field.  I think that more or less sums up the official American world view, and it is accepted as conventional wisdom here.  But it isn't quite right if Darwin was right, and I think he was.

First of all, man is neither good nor evil, but a combination of the two, which makes the distinction somewhat useless.  Some of the members of al-Qaeda may be good family men despite planning to kill thousands of Americans. The same goes for Barack Obama, the drone executioner, who cannot be popular in Yemen or Pakistan.  While it may be possible to argue from al-Qaeda's point of view or Obama's, Darwin tells us that this is an evolutionary process that will result in more of some organisms and less of others.  Darwin would note with interest that all of our closest primate relatives became extinct within fairly recent times: was that because we were good?  We don't know whether our ancestors influenced these extinctions, but it's certainly something to think about.

A corrupted version of Darwinism known as Social Darwinism became popular in the U.S. during the late 19th century. This provided a rationale for capitalists and is still popular among the wealthy and within parts of the Republican Party.  The thinking is that the rich deserve to be rich because they work harder, are more productive, etc. They also see themselves as the fittest, in keeping with Darwin's theories.  This view mistakenly incorporates the very odd Calvinist religious ideas held by the Puritans with Darwinism. Somehow, doing well financially came to mean that you were a better person.

Now let's fast forward to the present.  The economic boom cycle in the U.S. is nearing an end.  This may not unfold for decades, but it seems to have started in earnest.  Wealth has begun to concentrate in fewer hands, and this trend is probably irreversible without government intervention.  Yet elected officials are more dependent on satisfying their corporate sponsors than their electorate.  This state of affairs more or less guarantees the continuation of wealth inequality: those who now possess large amounts of financial assets will become wealthier, while median-income workers will stagnate or decline in economic terms. Darwinism always wins, but in this case it is because the political system doesn't recognize its existence.  The wealthy, who are neither good nor bad, have found a way to advance their families and associates, and they don't care about anyone else.

My proposed solution, mentioned earlier, is to replace the electoral process with an automated process conducted by algorithms.  The idea would be to limit the intrusion of destructive self-interest into a system that emphasizes fairness and equality.  There is no a priori reason why such a system couldn't eventually replace the democratic process currently in place.  Admittedly the world would be different, but we don't need eternal economic growth, and it's time to get the chimps out of the war room.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Capitalism I

The presumption in most of the developed world and in the emerging markets since the fall of communism is that the only viable model for the organization of humanity is a combination of democracy with capitalism. The democratic aspect satisfies a deep human need for fairness and control over one's environment, but the capitalistic aspect is less fundamental and is largely predicated on the realistic observation that the world is becoming increasingly competitive in economic terms, and that countries with weak economies will sooner or later succumb to those countries that have greater economic power.  The history of the world over the last 300 or so years can be summed up as the domination and exploitation of technologically and economically weak countries or regions by better-organized, more competitive, technologically advanced countries with greater economic resources.  In a surprisingly short period of time, China and Russia have come to resemble the U.S. and Western Europe in their national outlooks.  The question that I would like to address briefly on this post is whether this trajectory is sustainable.

Although the endorsement of democratic principles is almost irresistible, one must determine whether in fact it is possible to construct a democratic society that is capable of lasting not hundreds but thousands or millions of years.  If you look at the history of the U.S., which has existed for less than 250 years, there is little cause for optimism.  The basic legal structure may have remained somewhat intact, but other than that almost everything has changed, arguably for the worse.  This is no longer an agrarian society composed of farmers, small manufacturers and merchants, but a post-industrial society in which corporations dominate everyday life, the population is more than 100 times larger, the planet has become seriously polluted, and the weapons used in military conflicts have become unimaginably deadly.  While the knowledge exists to create a sustainable population level in which the standard of living is relatively high for all, the current trajectory does not seem to be in that direction.

This is such a complex subject that I can only touch on a few of its aspects here.  The U.S. model requires everyone to gain employment of one kind or another even when many jobs contribute almost nothing of value to society and there would be no difference if those jobs didn't exist, except that some people would have no income. Corporations, which have mistakenly been identified as people in one of the most absurd Supreme Court decisions ever, have no incentive to contribute anything to society, as they are specifically designed to enrich their owners and managers under the greatest legal protections available.  In theory, if resources and human habitats were infinite, this model could work indefinitely as long as old and new businesses could generate sustained economic growth.  However, that is not the case, and we are seeing a migration of wealth to a minority while the majority is increasingly subject to long-term trends of corporate downsizing and the disappearance of low-skill jobs.

The current answer offered by conservative thinkers and economists, and, puzzlingly, by many so-called liberals, is that sustained growth is possible; if you minimize government interference with businesses everyone will benefit in the end as long as workers get the right training.  This is an astonishingly shortsighted and self-serving way to look at the problem.  To be sure, the standard of living in the U.S. is good by historical standards, if you don't compare it to parts of Western Europe, but most people here work longer hours than they used to and don't like their jobs. Not liking your job is actually a major quality-of-life issue that corporations and economists habitually ignore. Furthermore, the claim that people just need to upgrade their skills is at best unrealistic and at worst disingenuous. That laid-off assembly line worker in Michigan just needs to get off his butt and earn a Ph.D. in computer science!

The other part of the formula, democracy, or, for the picky, the process in place meant to approximate democracy, is just as problematic as capitalism.  The fact that the two-party system behaves more like a one-party system is just a manifestation of it.  Deep underlying problems are associated with the process by which  politicians get elected.  A politician only needs advertising money, some basic credentials and preferably a likable personality. He or she can comfortably enact laws that will prove to be complete failures years after they've left office.  If they get things done for their corporate sponsors they can look forward to cushy jobs when they leave office. Moreover, the voting public is supposed to sort through all this before voting without understanding many of the technical issues at all or being aware of the hidden agendas of their candidates.

I'll use Barack Obama as an example.  Here is a likable, well-educated fellow who gave at least one good speech, and voting for him was a no-brainer for me when the main alternative was John McCain.  In hindsight, I consider my vote for him in 2008 a mistake.  He did not have the right background for the financial crisis, was not able to gain credibility as a leader, reneged on closing Guantanamo Bay, ramped up the drone program and extended the Bush tax cuts.  One of the few things he deserves credit for is the Affordable Care Act, which may have been passed under any Democratic president and in any case leaves a lot to be desired after all the compromises.  A broad area that concerns me as a citizen is his apparent acceptance of distorted views about terrorism.  The dangers of terrorism are real, but, in my opinion, far less than sufficient to justify two major wars.  Obama seems to have bought into the fantasy created by the military-industrial complex and corporate-owned media, all of which have profited immensely from the wars. Obama did set a withdrawal date for Afghanistan, but if he had been courageous he would have stared down the military and told them that both wars, especially Iraq, were unnecessary, and advocated immediate withdrawal.  One need only look at Iraq now to see the absurdity of the warnings about the dangers of premature departure.  Even with a carefully planned departure from Iraq, the results have been catastrophic, and I expect the same in Afghanistan.

Where does this leave us?  There is always a very slim chance that the existing political and economic system can adjust over time to accommodate human needs while reducing conflict, creating greater equality and preserving the environment, but I believe the very design of this system is incompatible with these goals.  It promotes competition where none is necessary and is based on obsolete conceptions of human progress. The freedoms bestowed in the name of democracy have little meaning when nearly everyone is subject to economic forces that the elected government is barely able to control now, with its grip slipping.  Call me utopian, but I would like to see a system in which government is an agreed-upon set of algorithms, there are no elected officials, and corporations do not exist.

Darwinism I

If you read authors such as E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, you are soon likely to see Homo sapiens as just another big animal running around the planet.  Actually, you can arrive at the same outlook without studying science at all if you're skeptical about conventional wisdom.  Wilson and Dawkins disagree on whether a basic mechanism underlying human evolution is group selection or kin selection.  I tend to side with Wilson, the group selection advocate, because he has better scientific qualifications than Dawkins and because group selection has greater explanatory power to me than kin selection.  Dawkins has a vested interest in kin selection and the theories of W.D. Hamilton because they shaped his career, but to a non-scientist like myself, the kin-group dichotomy isn't all that important, and seems more like a turf war for people with big egos, Dawkins having the larger one.

Wilson's background is in the study of ants, but he is better known to the public for his popular books on Darwinism as it pertains to humans.  He claims that humans, like ants, are eusocial animals. Here is an excerpt of the Wikipedia article on eusociality that summarizes Wilson's position:

In Wilson's latest book, 2012's The Social Conquest of the Earth, he refers to humans as a species of eusocial ape. He supports his reasoning by stating our eusocial similarities to ants. Humans also fall under Wilson's original criteria of eusociality (division of labor, overlapping generations, and cooperative care of young including ones that are not their own). Through cooperation and teamwork, ants and humans gain a type of “superpower” that is unavailable to other social animals that have failed to make the leap from social to eusocial. Eusociality creates the superorganism. This has caused conflict amongst biologists as not all believe that a term reserved for invertebrates can explain humanity. Others do not believe that humans are eusocial because humans make the decision to be "cooperative" (i.e. babysitting a non-related child) whereas eusociality is a behavioral strategy that is not specifically selected by an individual.

I have not read the rebuttals to Wilson's theory mentioned here, but the last objection sounds like a familiar free will argument: humans can choose to behave eusocially, while ants cannot. I side with Wilson here, because behavioral predispositions are simply a weak version of hard-wired behavior.  For an analogy, you could say that humans are not sexual animals in the same way as rabbits, because they may choose not to engage in sex and rabbits cannot.  Adding free will and choice to explain our differences with animals is, in my opinion, nothing more than a delusion that comes with our consciousness. The fact is that none of us would be here if we hadn't had thousands of ancestors who engaged in sexual intercourse. 100% of them did.  I had problems with a similar argument that I studied in philosophy years ago: the mind-body problem. I now think that there is nothing wrong with seeing human behavior as mostly determined by genes and environment, and that this type of determinism is different from that of other animals only because it doesn't operate quite as rigidly. This relates obliquely to the mind-body problem, because our body seems determined and our mind does not. I think our minds are mostly determined, but we are simply unable to see it. As Schopenhauer concisely put it, "Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills."

So if there is a difference between us and ants with respect to eusociality it is consciousness.  Consciousness doesn't really remove us from the physical universe and is probably better seen as an aspect of it.  The lesson to be learned here, I think, is that we have unconscious drives that are in fact similar to the unconscious drives of ants.  This is neither good nor bad, but it is something that we need to be aware of.

Believe it or not, this ties in with my post on capitalism.  As a species we have reached a point in the control of our environment where the main obstacles we face are overpopulation, pollution, diminishing resources and conflicts between groups. Our instincts encourage us to address these problems by electing leaders even as we clearly see that the leaders are unable to solve them.  In this case, thinking outside the box is more difficult than it seems.

Academia

When I look at American intellectuals from my vantage point outside academia, I am often struck by how removed most of them are from the big issues of the day. They seem to communicate within their groups while being oblivious of everything else.  It wasn't always that way.  Immanuel Kant made an important contribution to astronomy before he became known as a philosopher, and he wrote on a variety of subjects.  No one in academia today resembles Bertrand Russell, who made significant contributions as a logician, social critic and popular writer.  I suppose you could put Noam Chomsky in this category, but he is not perceived as an important thinker by most Americans.

What has happened?  Although I can't claim to have an insider's view, it seems that the vast amount of knowledge that has accumulated over the years can only be dealt with in small chunks by the human mind, necessitating a narrow focus in most subjects.  That must be a large part of it. However, there also seem to be more sinister causes.  Among those would be corporate intrusion into universities and the corporatization of universities themselves. Corporate thinking requires a narrow frame of reference, in which all thoughts ultimately revolve around cash flows and profits.

For a generalist thinker like me, this is a disturbing turn of events.  The American landscape is dominated by a business mentality that makes icons out of people like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, who are not big thinkers at all. In fact "big thinking" has become sort of a niche subject controlled by publishers who promote their feeble authors like commodities. One of the reasons I've started this blog is that it seems almost impossible to find current writing about this question.

The U.S. has always been an anti-intellectual country, and it would be a distortion so say that big thinkers ever had much of an impact here.  You would have to go all the way back to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to find that.  I wouldn't be surprised if a poll asking people who their favorite philosopher is would produce "Jesus" as the most popular answer.

In my view, the current state we are in is quite dangerous.  Without anyone to frame large issues for the public, the country ambles along with the blind leading the blind.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The New York Review of Books III

In my quest to find a replacement for the NYRB, I have taken a brief survey of what is available.  I'm sorry to report that there isn't much there unless I'm willing to make enormous compromises.  The Chronicle of Higher Education isn't bad, but it is directed specifically at academics, and I am not one.  I used to subscribe to the Wilson Quarterly but found it a little too conventional for my tastes.  The London Review of Books isn't bad, but it is too literary for me, and basically I've had it with literary writers.  I presently subscribe to The Times Literary Supplement, which, for me, is better than nothing, but obviously it emphasizes things literary. I have tried some online sites with mixed results. The New Inquiry seemed like a children's website when I first looked at it. Another site, Berfrois, is actually quite good, but it sort of overlaps with the London Review of Books in its outlook, though it has somewhat less of a literary emphasis. My main problem with it is that it has very few comments, which gives it kind of a dead feeling.

The dilemma seems to be that what is available for reasonably intelligent people who like to read interesting articles and discuss them online is quite limited.  The NYRB is a sinking ship of octogenarians who have been singing the same song for 50 years.  They will all be dying soon, so they don't care about anything complicated like innovation, new ideas, reader expectations, or anything like that.  Most of their peers are already dead.

If the NYRB is literary, most of its competitors are even more literary.  People who get involved with literary projects seem to fall into two categories: the seasoned experts who got their foot in the door several decades ago and are fairly established, and the idealistic neophytes who have fallen prey to them. The experts often teach in writing programs and on college faculties, or they line up gigs like the regular writers at the NYRB and churn out what in effect are newspaper columns.  Under this model, the writing becomes repetitive and inconsequential.  The neophytes are even more problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, they have bought into an idea that is essentially false. The majority of them will never have successful careers as writers or teachers, and they are doomed to stay at the bottom of the pyramid of the Ponzi scheme. Secondly, being over-educated and coming primarily from upper-middle-class backgrounds, they don't know anything interesting.  In the most general terms, the American literary world consists of vacuous people who got good scores on the verbal section of the SAT.

Believe it or not, I am quite open minded and would appreciate any compelling arguments that might cure me of what you may perceive to be my jadedness.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The New York Review of Books II

After commenting at The Chronicle of Higher Education recently I was struck by how open it was compared to the NYRblog.  The comments appear immediately, without moderation, and you can almost have a real-time discussion with other commenters.  Comparatively speaking, the NYRblog is run by a Nazi regime.  All comments are moderated, and often the moderation occurs only once a day, sometimes taking several days. Thus, if you make a comment on Monday, it may appear on Tuesday.  If someone makes a comment on your comment, that probably won't appear until Wednesday, etc. The process is like pulling teeth.  I must also mention that if a moderator doesn't like your comment for any reason, he or she may delete it.  This goes beyond profanities, insults and incoherence.  If they disagree with your comment or believe that it is too critical of the NYRB or one of its writers, they may delete it.  There is no discussion with the moderator, and you have no recourse.  This has happened to me more than once. For example, I submitted a comment on Tim Parks's article of January 11, which was not positive but certainly was civil and honest, and it was deleted.  I suspect, after writing emails last year to Matthew Howard, Director of Electronic Publishing, Robert Silvers, Editor, and Rea Hederman, Publisher, in which I complained about the decline of the NYRB, and to which I received no replies, that I have been blackballed by the NYRB. This is the best they could do for a long-term subscriber to the print edition and the most prolific commenter at the NYRblog since its inception.  The warm and fuzzy feeling that is simulated on their website is basically a lie.

I had hoped to generate some discussion here about the limitations of the NYRB in order to find or create better means of discussing issues that interest me.  I am terribly disappointed with the NYRB but have no interest in leading some sort of vendetta against it.  At this point I  would go further than Russell Jacoby does in his excellent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education and say that it's a lost cause.  Whatever intellectual interest it ever had has mostly evaporated.  I only wish that I could find an adequate substitute.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The New York Review of Books I

I have been reading The New York Review of Books on and off for several decades. Often it was a primary source of intellectual stimulation to me. Recently I have been looking closely at the quality of its articles and the nature of its blog section. Rather than taking a position of intellectual leadership, the NYRB seems to have adopted the role of a niche player that caters to well-educated, upper-income readers who prefer well-written, traditional, full-length essays for their leisure reading. As a matter of editorial policy it has always supported its writers, even when they are closet hacks lacking in real expertise, and this quality seems to have worsened in recent years.  If there were an alternative publication, I would just switch to it and not be particularly bothered, but the fact of the matter seems to be that there is no other in this intellectual waste land that is the United States of America.

What triggered my concerns about the NYRB was the quality of its blog.  At first it seemed that that would be an ideal place to engage in extensive discussion with competent readers and writers. The outcome has been a great disappointment. Many of the blog articles are straight opinion pieces with little to back them up. Or they are arbitrary articles about presumptive aesthetic works that are of no real interest. This would be enough to disappoint me, but the isolation of the writers from the readers and the moderation policies in themselves severely limit the quality of the blog.  Poet W, translator X, historian Y or writer Z jot down trivialities and pet peeves for pay, a few comments are made, usually of the adulatory sort, and that's it. Many comments never see the light of day, which isn't always beneficial, though sometimes it is. The authors almost never engage in the conversation. The NYRB is coasting along on its reputation with complete disregard for those readers who see discussion as a route to better ideas and their propagation. I've given up on the New York liberal media in stages: first, The New Yorker, then The New York Times, now The New York Review of Books.

This topic doesn't seem to interest anyone other than myself, so I don't expect any replies, but I would be interested in your thoughts.