Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bullshit or Not: Hayek Version

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." It's a line I like so much that I've stolen it for an irregular series of posts.

I've been thinking about Friedrich von Hayek's arguments since reading Cass Sunstein's "Infotopia." Hayek is one of the economic thinkers most associated with modern capitalism. He argues that knowledge is distributed in society, so that markets rather than elite groups of select individuals on central planning committees will be most likely to make most efficient use of that knowledge. Following that line, we have the following quotations:

In a civilized society it is indeed not so much the greater knowledge that the individual can acquire, as the greater benefit he receives from the knowledge posssessed by others, which is the cause of his ability to pursue an infinitely wider range of ends than merely the satisfaction of his most pressing physical needs. Indeed, a 'civilized' individual may be very ignorant, more ignorant than many a savage, and yet greatly benefit from the civilization in which he lives.
It is, indeed, part of the liberal attitude to assume that, especially in the economic field, the self-regulating forces of the market will somehow bring about the required adjustments to new conditions, although no one can foretell how they will do this in a particular instance. There is perhaps no single factor contributing so much to people's frequent reluctance to let the market work as their inability to conceive how some necessary balance, between demand and supply, between exports and imports, or the like, will be brought about without deliberate control. The conservative feels safe and content only if he is assured that some higher wisdom watches and supervises change, only if he knows that some authority is is charged with keeping the change 'orderly'.
Note, of course, that the terms "liberal" and "conservative" as Hayek uses them in this second quotation refer to classical liberalism and conservatism and are reversed with respect to our standard contemporary American usage.

So, bullshit or not? As usual, feel free to leave a single word or a dissertation.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What Is Peace?

The kids have this little book by Todd Parr called "The Peace Book" and it got me to thinking. Peace is a positive concept, not defined simply as the absence of war. What else, then, is a necessary or sufficient condition for peace? I don't mean peace in terms of quiet or solitude, but as a social/political concept. When we say of a place that it is peaceful or when we say we are working for peace, what is it exactly that we are pointing to?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Best Blog Others May Not Know About

We all have our blogs that we check out regularly -- some are major names, others not so much. What would you recommend that you think more people need to read? Looking for blogs here that are insightful, but underrated (you can include your own if you sincerely believe it to fall in that category).

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Strawman/Straightman

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week is kvetch-time for Comedists. Sometimes it's just good to get it off your chest, so whatever you have to whine, complain, or rant about, this is it.

Me, I have a comedic bone to pick. There is a rising trend in stand-up that rubs me the absolutely wrong way, a combination of two perfectly legitimate forms of comedy that simply do not work together.

The first is a form of observational comedy that is best described as "don't you hate it when," wherein you take some aspect of life that is annoying and describe it in a way that everyone can identify with and poke fun at it or more likely those who make it so annoying. Think Bill Cosby's dentist sketch. Utter and complete genius.

The second sort of comedy is where you take something normal and blow it out of proportion but keeping it recognizable making it absurd and the more absurd it gets, the funnier. My favorite example of this is Richard Jeni's ode to yeast infection commercials, "A Private Itch/Exploding Scrotum Syndrome." I can't even think of the line "I'll never get that big account now", much less listen to it, without convulsing in laughter. "For God's sake give the man his two dollars."

So, on their own, great stuff. But what has been happening is that they are being combined in an unfortunate way. Many comedians are now taking something mildly annoying, blowing it up to something no one actually does and then using the non-existent annoyance as the hook for a "don't you hate it when" bit. It's using a strawman as a straightman. If it doesn't really exist, people aren't really annoyed by it.

That's not to say that you can't lampoon "don't you hate it" bits. Stephen Wright's line "I hate it when my foot falls asleep because that means it's going to be up all night" is fantastic, but the whole joke hinges on the fact that it is absurd, not that it hides the absurdity, dressing it up as if it were real.

It really pisses me off when the thing blown up out of proportion vilifies or plays on a negative stereotype or bias. I was watching a Larry the Cable Guy routine and he was complaining don't you hate it that you can't walk into a fast food restaurant these days and find a single cashier that speaks English. Um...yes you can. But then you wouldn't be playing working class white Americans against working class Hispanic Americans. You find it in other conservative comedians as well like Jeff Dunham and Jeff Wayne, but it is not just there. It's becoming standard in Chris Rock's writing also. It's laziness and it's an insult to the legacy of folks like Mort Sahl and those who followed. Cut it out and work harder.

There's my rant for the week. So what's got your hackles up?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Nice "Work" If You Can Get It

So, looking at the 2008 White House Office Staff Salary List, there are four "Ethics Advisors":

George, Allison Carr $130,694
Green, Marcella Moira $107,836
Sarkany, Sergio Francisco $86,279
Molinaro, Rachel E $58,206

None of whom seem to have any philosophical background. To be fair, "ethics" in this context generally means avoiding conflicts of interest rather than deliberating about difficult moral conundrums, but still... 130 G's to be an ethics advisor to the White House? There's a job I'd love to have. Reminds me of a comment I heard years ago made about a certain philosopher -- "Having him teach ethics is like having a blind man teach aesthetics."

Get a Job

Playing off of yesterday's post on devil's advocates, let's advocate for the devil. I've always been baffled by the Book of Job. It is bizarre and interesting on so many levels.

It is one of the first places where Satan shows up. He comes off less as God's evil twin than as his enforcer/drinking buddy. They're hanging out in Heaven when God says, "Look at that Job, man, he's one righteous dude." "Nah, he's just been lucky. Bet he'd be like all the rest if he had a tougher lot." "You think Lot was tougher than Job?" "That's not what I'm saying. I mean if you mess with him, he'll turn on you." "Twenty bucks says your wrong." "Give me odds and your on." "Two to one?" "Done."

So, God has Satan kill Job's livestock, destroy his livelihood and then murder his kids. When Job does not curse God, God wins the bet and pays off Job by giving him back everything tenfold. And that's supposed to make everything all better?

First, who bets against God? O.k., the whole omniscience thing is only inserted once the Greek influence kicks in, but still. How could anyone take seriously the idea of picking a different bracket from God in the righteousness version of March Madness?

Second, how do those who buy the omnibenevolence thing make sense of this? He puts out a contract on innocent children. Sure, Job is rewarded tenfold, but then he gets ten new kids for each one who was murdered. What about the original kids? I don't want ten new kids, I want the ones I loved, but you killed them. Who are these kids anyway? They ain't Job's, he didn't make them and if he did, man, would his wife be cursing God. Wouldn't you be completely pissed if you were one of those kids. "Wait a minute. Let me get this straight. You murdered me to win a bet? And now these fake brothers and sisters get to grow up in a life where they are ten times richer and me, I'm here murdered."

Third, when God orders all the nastiness, how does Satan end up with the bad rap when he was just following orders? Is this the theological version of My Lai?

Fourth, what a peculiar sense of justice. If I give you lots more stuff, it's ok to mess with your head, destroy your livelihood, and kill your family. Who looks at the old guys in Trading Places and thinks, "Hey, now there's Godlike behavior. If only more people acted like that."?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Devil's Advocate

In the last chapter of Cass Sunstein's wonderful book Infotopia which considers the places where epistemology touches social psychology, he devotes a section to the effectiveness of Devil's Advocates in helping to avoid groupthink in its various forms.

When there is genuine confrontation in a group, what tends to happen is polarization, where participants not only cling to their pre-existing viewpoints, but become more extreme and more confident. We dig in and tend to ridicule, rather than engage our interlocutor out of a sense of being threatened on some level. I've even seen that happen here from time to time, as good as we tend to be as a community about avoiding ad hominem attacks.

But interestingly, when the person we are arguing against is someone we know to be playing Devil's Advocate, the threat diminishes and the discussion actually proceeds at a higher level than when there is a legitimate advocate (as long as the Devil's Advocate puts his/her heart into it, of course). I used a similar method in teaching Contemporary Moral Issues where the papers were to take dialogue form and competing positions had to be worked out in great detail forcing the student to be his/her own Devil's Advocate.

I was talking with Confused, Maybe Not a while back about this idea and I think it is time to implement it. We need a Devil's Advocate here. But not just a given person, rather a given name that anyone can assume who will be universally recognized as the Devil's Advocate. Anytime you see what may be groupthink or poorly defended consensus, feel free to post a comment as the Devil's Advocate. The only rule is that the name cannot be misused -- you must set out the strongest, most thoughtful case against the reigning opinion. You have to really throw yourself into the role in good faith.

Now, what we need is a name. "Devil's Advocate" would be clear to newcomers, but seems far too bland for a playground where nicknames are the norm. "DA" seems not clever enough. The Navajo trickster's name, "Kokopeli," appeals to me, but I'm not sold on it. Other thoughts? We need a good one here, folks.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Health and Party: A Study in Common Cause

A new study finds that Americans rank first in the world in terms of money spent on health care and 42nd in the world in terms of life expectancy. Not much of a bargain, huh?

Turns out, though, that there is a wide difference along geographical lines. Different states will have extremely different average life spans. Check out this map. The darker the brown, the longer the average lifespan in the state.

Compare that map to this one:This is Poblano's projection map of the upcoming Presidential election. With the exception of Alaska, all of the states with the longest life expectancy, those with the two darkest shades of brown are likely voting Democratic. All the states with the shortest life expectancy, with the exception of New Mexico, are likely voting Republican.

Quite a striking correlation. Does this mean that Democrats live longer? Does this mean that states with better funded social programs create situations where people have greater lifespans?

As Marty Kaplan points out, it more complicated than that:

How can that be? What could possibly determine whether America is among the industrial world's healthiest nations, if not the thing we're all clamoring for: universal heath insurance? The answer -- and this isn't a political opinion, it's an epidemiological finding -- lies in the social determinants of our physical condition. Determinants like income, class, education, racism, the availability of public transportation, land-use policy, environmental policy, participation in the political process and a host of other factors that don't depend on our genetic makeup or our propensity to take personal responsibility for diet and exercise. Determinants that flow not from luck or individual choices, but from laws, regulations and priorities set at all levels of government and in the private sector as well. (If you want an alarming eyeful about this, check out the new California Newsreel documentary "Unnatural Causes.")

The way we currently think about health in America -- about health care, that is -- is completely understandable. We all want access to the best possible health care for our parents, our kids and ourselves, and we want it to be affordable, and we want plenty of choices. What's astonishing is that even if we covered all the uninsured's health care, we would still likely rank at the bottom of industrial countries for healthiness. The major causes of our country's healthiness or unhealthiness are all upstream of the things that send us to doctors and hospitals and pharmacies. The causes are poverty, and stress, and the amount of control and autonomy we have at our jobs, and whether there are showers there, and what they put in the vending machines. The causes are access to early childhood education, and to day care, and whether schools are built near asthma-breeding freeways. They are whether your neighborhood offers public libraries and public transportation and walking trails, or public dumps and liquor stores and fast food franchises.
Turns out that the idea of health really is more than just bodily functioning, but is a matter of the full lived life.

Why is there a connection between voting patterns and life expectancy? Wealth, education, social infrastructure all play roles. Certainly access to good quality health care is important. A dear friend of mine is a surgeon at Johns Hopkins, the top hospital in the country, which happens to be located -- intentionally -- in a bad section of Baltimore. He tells me how the cases that come in from all over the world are exotic, tricky, the hardest most medically intricate and interesting who are sent to Hopkins. But those who come in through his emergency room are complicated also. Some he has taken bullets out of before, others with substance problems, many with nutritionally connected or tobacco related concerns, medical problems of class and race...and this is in Maryland, one of the dark brown states.

It shows how intricate social problems really are. We can't solve the crisis in health care without tackling the environment and education. The problems in our schools are connected to the problems with nutrition. These are connected to under and unemployment. These are connected to education and health to close the complex circle which closes in on itself in any number of other ways.

It turns out that the body politic is much like the body, the thigh bone is connected to the hip bone, a disease in one part will effect other parts in unexpected ways. Just as our parts are not autonomous atoms, neither are we. The live lived by everyone else does indeed effect the quality AND length of our own.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Crosswalk Pushbuttons

Do the buttons at intersections really do anything other than give you a sense of agency, that is, the feeling that you have control over something while you are waiting for the light to change as it would anyway?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Passing the Plate: Musician Edition

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

It is that time again. Other religions ask for monetary donations, but Comedists tithe jokes. This round's theme: music. Pull out your best music jokes and put them in the plate.

Here's a couple to start us off:

I’ve never actually met Ani DeFranco, so, I mean, she might be a really nice person. I’m just saying that if I was hanging out with someone whose first name was the plural of anus, it might make me a little leery.

I went to a great jazz-themed seafood restaurant the other day. The "Fluke Ellington" was very good, but I wasn't about order the "Salmon Ella."

Why did Bach have so many children?
He didn't have a stop on his organ.
So, my fellow Comedists, dig deep and contribute what you can.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Foreign Languages

So, last week addressing a meeting of La Raza, Obama argued that we shouldn't worry about immigrants learning English because, like all other immigrants before them, they will. He argued that instead we ought to be worried about the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans only speak English. Let's put the energy into making sure our children are multilingual.

He argued that it it is embarrassing when Europeans come here speaking English, French, and German when we, in general, only know simple phrases at most. Being bilingual, he argued, helps in getting good jobs and it makes us part of the global community which improves international relations, not to mention that it makes individual life richer.

The xenophobic right-wing has gone bananas over it: see Lou Dobbs and John Derbyshire, because it shows weakness on illegal immigration, everyone else in the world does or should speak English, and Obama's an elitist for thinking that everyone else is smart enough to learn two languages.

We were in Montreal the other day, so this issue really hit home. We like putting the kids in a place where they realize that not everyone speaks like they do, that the world is bigger than they usually see.

But the one objection that is probably worth discussing is Derbyshire's question of aptitude. Neurologically, of course, Derbyshire is full of it. The young human mind is so flexible that it much more easily picks up languages -- it is not some ability limited to liberal intellectual elites. But, given all of the things our schools need to improve upon, given that arts and physical education are being cut back, given that we have biology teachers who are creationists, how high should this be put on the agenda? Would widespread multilingualism really make us more sensitive to the world beyond our borders? Would it really lead to more and better engagement with the world for u individually, for our government and our businesses? Is language acquisition something crucial or is it oversold?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

How Contextual Is Taste?

There is no doubt that taste is not directly accessed, but is influenced by all sorts of other factors. The question is how sensitive taste really is to that which has nothing to do with chemistry, physics, or biology. My kids, like all kids, insist that aspects of the food that adults deem irrelevant to taste, indeed consider ridiculous, are in fact crucial. Does (or can) a sandwich really taste different if it is cut into two rectangles as opposed to two triangles or four squares? Does the corn on the cob taste different from the same corn off the cob? Isn't this why restaurants garnish meals? How much of taste is a function of chemical reactions on the tongue and how much of it is psychologically constructed?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Is Deliberation Fatally Flawed?

Been reading Cass Sunstein's Infotopia and have been thinking about his argument in chapter 2 where he contends that deliberation as a means of decision-making is deeply flawed.

Philosophers have long held deliberation up as the key to finding truth. The Socratic method, the elenchus, is the template for virtually all philosophical methodology and is based on the idea that two people working off of each other will guide them both to truth. Aristotle, the thinkers of the Enlightenment, and post-Enlightenment figures like Popper and Habermas have placed open and fair competition in the marketplace of ideas as the cornerstone of the edifice of reason, as that which gives us the surest path to knowledge.

The idea is that when the arguments compete, the stronger will survive and unpopular views that turn out to be right will have a fair chance against widely held views that turn out to be wrong. Deliberation allows us to combine our perspectives and ideas into bigger grander visions and to test them stringently against competitors and counter-arguments.

Sunstein argues that when we look at the results of social psychology, the real story is completely different. Deliberation in some cases can be wonderful, but by in large deliberation fails for three reasons:

(1) As Alfred Adler said, "To be a human being means to feel oneself inferior," we are insecure beings and when we hear others, especially a majority of others disagreeing with us, we will tend to silence ourselves thinking that we were wrong or that our view is flawed. As such, minority views are often self-censored out of personal doubt and therefore not pressed allowing flawed majority views to win.

(2) Social norms are enforced. Those with minority views, even if they do not doubt them in the face of competing views, will often self-censor out of fear of reprecussions. Being different has its costs and this often impoverished the deliberative process making it ineffective.

(3) Even if someone has a good argument to support a view, there is not often sufficient motivation to partake in deliberation. You know you are right, why bother fighting the good fight, especially if you have an advantage of some sort by having a truth others don't?

The effect of these factors is that when you look at people's beliefs after a deliberative process, more often than not, what you get is not consensus around a universally acknowledged superior view, but increased polarization. Studies show that those who came in with a liberal leaning will leave with an even more liberal viewpoint and a stronger degree of certainty in it. Similarly, those who were predisposed to a conservative view will have a more hardcore right-wing position with a greater confidence in it. For this reason, he contends that the philosophers' dream of deliberation as a golden road is wrong.

I've been thinking about this a lot. Does it make sense to teach critical thinking as a philosophy class and not couple it with a social psych class?

But more interestingly (at least to me), there seems to be an important disconnect between Sunstein's argument and that of the champions of deliberation. The Enlightenment thinkers pit argument against argument in some sort of metaphorical Darwinian ecosystem. It is the view that wins or loses. But what Sunstein considers is not the abstract argument, but people's own views. The difference is like comparing Plato's idealism in which ideas have an independent existence of their own to Berkeley's idealism in which ideas require a mind to think them. Sunstein reduces the entire process to people's beliefs whereas the classical and Enlightenment views holds that truth is something other than belief.

The question, of course, is what. Sunstein gives us actual, operational, measurable variables. We can ask people what they believe and how much confiedence they have in it. If this is all we have to play with, then perhaps Sunstein is right. But is there more? If so, what?

We can talk about consensus belief. We do this in terms of "the scientific community" all the time. There is a wonderful passage in Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac where he makes the same sort of argument with respect to increasing sphere of moral considerability wherein more and more people became people, animal abuse became seen as morally problematic, and ultimately he argues we will have to consider the land itself in making moral decisions. Here we are talking not about individual beliefs but group beliefs. Could this move restore a long-view faith in the ability of deliberation?

Or do we need some sort of extra-personal status concerning propositions? Martin Luther King, Jr. famously quoted Stephen Oates in saying "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice." This notion requires a metaphysical standpoint, something the Reverend King would not have been bothered by, but surely we don't need a god to have deliberation work as we hope.

Social psychology may have shown us that deliberation is not effective in the short run in terms of making individuals better decision-makers, but what would have to be true to make it effective in the long-run? Do the local failings of deliberation make it a globally flawed process?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Hair-Trigger Democrats

A couple of jokes have a number of my fellow liberal bloggers in a full snit and I'm not exactly sure why in either case.

First, there is the cover of the latest edition of the New Yorker. Clearly, a bit of satire ribbing the far right wackos trying to paint Obama as Muslim and pro-terrorist. John Avarosis at Americablog sees this as

"A liberal media that bends over so far backwards to be "fair" that it becomes just as bad as FOX News."
He quotes Jake Tapper,
I wonder what the reaction would be were it the Weekly Standard or the National Review putting such an illustration on their covers.

Intent factors into these matters, of course, but no Upper East Side liberal -- no matter how superior they feel their intellect is -- should assume that just because they're mocking such ridiculousness, the illustration won't feed into the same beast in emails and other media. It's a recruitment poster for the right-wing.
It is not merely intent that matters, it is context. This is clear sarcasm. The fact that someone could misconstrue the sarcasm makes it offensive?

Then, there's Bernie Mack appearing at an Obama fund raiser did a ten minute bit that ended with this line:
"My little nephew came to me and he said, 'Uncle, what's the difference between a hypothetical question and a realistic question?' I said, "I don't know, but I said, 'Go upstairs and ask your mother if she'd make love to the mailman for $50,000.'"
Melissa at Shakesville titles her post about it "Unbelievable" labeling the joke misogynistic.

I consider myself somewhat well read in contemporary feminist writing and cannot see where a second or third wave theorist would have a strong argument concerning misogyny here. The second wave writers generally approach such cases by pointing out where speech acts reinforce negative stereotypes making them more deeply embedded in the gender categories we use to make sense of the world. In a patriarchal society, those categories begin in a way that male is equated with the positive and female-related properties have inherently negative connotations.

What is the property here that the joke is supposed to be reinforcing? That women are greedy? That women are promiscuous? That women harbor secret desires to become prostitutes? None of these seem to be parts of the standardly enforced traditional gender roles.

Third wave, sex positive theorists oppose the sociological bent of the second wave arguing that feminist theory needs to respect the autonomy of women in a way that appeals to patriarchal oppression models underestimates. It seems to me that these folks would see the question as one that plays upon exactly that autonomy -- would the women take the question as hypothetical or would she really accept the indecent proposal. That a question that should be purely hypothetical according to white middle class values might actually be taken seriously, that is, that the mother might not see her options limited by traditional socially enforced sexual mores -- an option we didn't expect since we are programmed to operate within that enforced structure -- provides the frame shifting that is necessary for the utterance to be a joke. the idea of freeing ones mind from these strictures would not be seen as offensive on third wave grounds.

It seems a well-crafted joke that sets us up based on social expectations and jars them in a way that titillates. O.k., I'll grant that titillation is probably not the best choice for a political fund-raiser, but that is a matter of poor taste, not misogyny. It seems more a case of working bluer than appropriate, but I'm not sure why the joke is offensive.

Steve Martin famously said, "Comedy isn't pretty." Am I missing something here or have the last eight years, the loss of a female candidate, and the passion of the election season just combined to give some of us far too thin a skin? I remember last election when Whoopi Goldberg made an obvious joke playing off of the last name "Bush," and the right getting themselves worked up into a lather. It was absurd. It was theater, false outrage. Are we finding ourselves in the same place?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Comedist Rituals and One Proud Poppa

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

So, we took the kids to Pizza Putt, a pizza joint, miniature golf course, and arcade. The shorties played in the arcade for an hour amassing a large number of tickets which could be redeemed for cheap plastic crap made in China. My son took his share of the tickets and in a very decisive fashion declared that he wanted the whoopie cushion.

My son has got first whoopie cushion. They grow up so fast [wiping sentimental tear from eye]. It truly was like a coming of age ritual in a Comedist household (and has the added advantage that I can now blame it on the whoopie cushion whenever I need to).

This made me think that we will actually need rituals marking off the important times of life and the year. For suggestions I turn to you, my friends. What should be the sacred Comedist rites and rituals? Baptism with a squirting lapel flower? Reading from the Friar Club joke book at 13? A roast for a funeral? Suggestions?

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

License Plates

Man, timing is everything. So, one of my favorite things to do on road trips is to look for license plates (40 states and 5 Canadian provinces on this trip, so far).

I had started working on a new bit about license plates (You can tell so much about a state from their license plate, just look at the colors. Deep south states like Alabama, North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas -- all red, white, and blue. Vermont has that beautiful deep green that makes you think you have to pick them up in the parking lot behind the DMV where some guy in a van gives them to you in a rolled up zip lock baggie. New Jersey, yellow, but not just any yellow...the exact shade of urine. They're planning a new tribute plate to Jesse Helms in North Carolina -- all white with eye holes cut out.)

And then YKW sends me a link to a story about South Carolina planning a new Christian license plate (the original CNN story is no longer up.) The plate is being challenged on church/state separation grounds, the argument being that this in some way counts as state advocacy for a given religion. The argument against is that this is a voluntary plate and that acknowledgment is not advocacy. Is there a legal problem here?

YKW thought it would be interesting to also consider other possible statements for SC plates.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Memory, Meaning, and Value

A friend was relaying a conversation she had a few years back when her kids were quite young. The family had taken an incredible long-distance trip and a friend remarked to her that it was a waste because the kids were so young they would never remember it.

How important is memory to the value of an experience? We certainly endow remembered events with meanings by creating stories. Some are stories in themselves if they are especially interesting or amusing. Major happenings are woven into complex narratives serving as pivot points, allowing us to use them as explanatory tools in describing who we are and how we got to be where and who we are.

But what of all the moments lost? Are they meaningless? Anyone who has ever kept a journal realizes just how much of our own past fails to survive the editing. We remember so little of what was our own lives. If you know that you would forget something, does that diminish its value in any sense?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Bullshit or Not: James A. Michener Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." It's a line I like so much that I've stolen it for an irregular series of posts.

This week's quotation comes from James A. Michener,

The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he's always doing both.
Voltaire argued in Candide that we needed time in the garden. Michener seems to be arguing that finding the right job is like being a constant gardener. Bullshit or not?

As usual, feel free to leave anything from a one word answer to a dissertation.

Monday, July 07, 2008

How Much Vacation Is the Right Amount?

Travel anywhere and you will find lots of Europeans, especially Germans who get much more vacation than American workers. Two weeks a year certainly does not lend itself to human flourishing. How much vacation would be appropriate? How much time off would be maximally compatible with living fulfilling lives and still being folks committed to our occupations?

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Happy 4th of July Everyone

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

Leaving for vacation, so a short one for the holiday weekend.Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, July 04, 2008

Best American Corporations

So, we've talked a lot about corporations this week. It's the 4th of July and we're about to head up to the land of Ben and Jerry's. So, who would be on the list of best American corporations and/or companies?

I nominate Dr. Bronners.


Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Choice Architects, Autonomy, and Responsibility

One of my favorite writers is Cass Sunstein. A brilliant man and a great writer, he's been on a roll the last few years with questions I've been thinking about as well: how do we mesh facts from social psychology -- facts that show how our choices are affected by social pressures, context, and sensory stimulation -- with our notions of rationality and morality that we inherit from the Enlightenment that paint us as intellectual atoms capable of autonomy and objectivity?

I heard an interview with Professor Sunstein and Richard Thaler his co-author and a Prof of Economics and Behavioral Sciences at University of Chicago concerning their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness In the book, they wrestle with the fact that small things, like the order of names on a ballot, for example, will have an effect on the outcome of an election. As such, we need to be cognizant of "choice architects," the people who set up the way our choices are made and especially those who design the defaults for not making a choice.

This is especially important because social scientists show a strong bias for the status quo, even if that state is harmful. We are wired to be conservative in the sense that the threshold for change is higher than it would be if we were purely rational beings. Human beings are unbelievably plastic entities; we can get used to anything, no matter how irrational, how harmful, or how inconvenient. And we will then defend nearly to the death the old faulty system. It brings to mind the old John Maynard Keynes quip -- when asked how his revolution in macro-economics was coming along, he replied, "We make progress one funeral at a time."

I've marveled at this. Progress in Northern Ireland, for example, was at a standstill until the horrible bombing at Omaugh killed innocent children. Only then were people willing to step back from terribly irrational and harmful stances and adopt a stance of openness and reconciliation. It seems as if the status quo must be knocked from our hands by tragedy if we are to progress at all.

But this reluctance is also contextual. Insecurity often causes us to cling to that we know is wrong when we are afraid of losing our identities, our places, or that which is familiar. There are many stock examples of harmful cultural practices that were being culled from societies until colonizers tried to impose a new way of life. The risk of losing identity caused a resurgence in even the problematic aspects of the culture.

It seems then that social psychology does not, as some post-modernists might argue, show us that rationality ceases to exist, but that contrary to the naive Enlightenment view, it is not necessarily our natural state. Rationality can occur when the factors undermining it are controlled for. But then this requires not only an ability to make decisions well, but also an understanding of those biasing factors and how they affect us.

Given that most people will never be able to acquire such information, then, can we really hold people responsible for irrational choices? Do the choice architects, those people who designed the system, bear responsibility for choices they did not make?

Bullshit or Not: Milton Friedman Edition

In light of yesterday's post, let's play Bullshit or Not.

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." It's a line I like so much that I've stolen it for an irregular series of posts.

Today's extended quotation comes from a famous piece from the New York Times Magazine in 1970 by Milton Friedman entitled "The Social Responsibility of Business Is To Increase Its Profits."

When I hear businessmen speak eloquently about the "social responsibilities of business in a free-enterprise system," I am reminded of the wonderful line about the Frenchman who discovered at the age of 70 that he had been speaking prose all his life. The businessmen believe that they are defending free en­terprise when they declaim that business is not concerned "merely" with profit but also with promoting desirable "social" ends; that business has a "social conscience" and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing em­ployment, eliminating discrimination, avoid­ing pollution and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of re­formers. In fact they are–or would be if they or anyone else took them seriously–preach­ing pure and unadulterated socialism. Busi­nessmen who talk this way are unwitting pup­pets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.

The discussions of the "social responsibili­ties of business" are notable for their analytical looseness and lack of rigor. What does it mean to say that "business" has responsibilities? Only people can have responsibilities. A corporation is an artificial person and in this sense may have artificial responsibilities, but "business" as a whole cannot be said to have responsibilities, even in this vague sense. The first step toward clarity in examining the doctrine of the social responsibility of business is to ask precisely what it implies for whom.

Presumably, the individuals who are to be responsible are businessmen, which means in­dividual proprietors or corporate executives. Most of the discussion of social responsibility is directed at corporations, so in what follows I shall mostly neglect the individual proprietors and speak of corporate executives.

In a free-enterprise, private-property sys­tem, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct re­sponsibility to his employers. That responsi­bility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while con­forming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom. Of course, in some cases his employers may have a different objective. A group of persons might establish a corporation for an eleemosynary purpose–for exam­ple, a hospital or a school. The manager of such a corporation will not have money profit as his objective but the rendering of certain services.

In either case, the key point is that, in his capacity as a corporate executive, the manager is the agent of the individuals who own the corporation or establish the eleemosynary institution, and his primary responsibility is to them...

[T]he doctrine of "social responsibility" taken seriously would extend the scope of the political mechanism to every human activity. It does not differ in philosophy from the most explicitly collectivist doctrine. It differs only by professing to believe that collectivist ends can be attained without collectivist means. That is why, in my book Capitalism and Freedom, I have called it a "fundamentally subversive doctrine" in a free society, and have said that in such a society, "there is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use it resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud."
So, is there any legitimate basis for corporate responsibility beyond increasing share holder earnings?

Bullshit or not? As usual, feel free to leave anything from a single word response to a dissertation.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Should Corporations Be Considered People?

Before oral arguments in the Supreme Court for the 1886 case Santa Clara County v. The Pacific Railroad Company, Chief Justice Morrison Waite famously said,

"The Court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does."
And so it has been that corporations are considered as artificial individuals.

One can argue that the corporation is an entity distinct from those who make it up. Bill Gates leaves and it's still Microsoft. One can argue that it is the locus of decision making, decisions that might not be identical to anyone within the company. For example, consider a board of directors who are split between three candidates, half love A and hate B, but a re fine but unenthused about candidate C. The other half sees A as a non-started, desperately wants B, but could live with C. In this case, the board might unanimously select a CEO who nobody championed. The board's "mind" is not the same as the members' and it is this board mind that made the decision and therefore is responsible for it. One could argue that corporations act in ways that influence our world. Anything that has a mind and intentionally chooses behaviors that impact others should be thought of as an individual of some sort and have the rights, responsibilities, and protections of an individual.

But do they really? They pay taxes. But they don't have a body. They don't act, it is the people within them who do. They are at best metaphorical individuals and we don't want to grant real rights to metaphorical beings.

So, should corporations be considered people?