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Friday, February 27, 2015

The dance with death

The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel.

by John Macbeath Watkins

"To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything," Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death.

I was about seven or eight when I first faced my own mortality.

We were living in the old colonial house we rented in Maine from old Mr. Adams, and my bedroom had a dormer window looking out over the verdant summer landscape. I don't know why it came to me, but I realized that not only would I die some day, I actually had some control over when it happened.

Not that I was suicidal. The fact that I could end my life at will gave me a feeling of control, a feeling that my life was a choice. Having very little notion of anatomy, I rested a pocket knife against my abdomen, relishing the fact that I would not pierce my flesh. I would choose instead to live, to go out into the green, down to the creek to watch the minnows, out to the old oak to climb.

For some reason, the knowledge that I was mortal and that my life was a choice gave me a feeling of significance. And significance is exactly what we need to feel to deal with the knowledge of our own mortality.

Some of us attach ourselves to something larger, like a cause of a church that will live on past our lifetimes. Some will procreate, and find meaning in parenting, and carrying on the species.  Some will seek to be with people who are like us, and will know us, and give us a feeling that we are significant because we are known.

And some of us write, and try to influence the whole structure of thought that is the realm of meaning, because in the end, meaning is what it's all about. In psychology, all these methods of dealing with our desire to live and the knowledge that we will die is called terror management theory, the study of how we try to feel immortal by establishing meaning in our lives. The desire to live and the awareness of death mean that we spend some large part of our lives, consciously or not, dealing with the terror of death.

But do we all feel the rumble of terror that underlies everything? I think not.

For example, I've known several people who died climbing. I'd gone for a scramble on the rocks with two of them, and they scared me. The kept placing themselves in positions where only their skill lay between and a fall that could severely injure them, even kill them if they landed wrong. In each case, I was saddened but not surprised to learn that they had fallen to their deaths.

The joy of dancing with death seemed to enliven them. This should not be surprising; after all, we never contemplate what we're living for when we are faced with our imminent death.

When my father retired after a career in the Air Force, he felt something was missing. It took about a year for him to sort it out.

It was danger. When he flew in B-17s in World War II, those who completed as many missions as he did in heavy bombers had a loss rate of about 70% killed or missing in action. He told me that when they were gathered for a briefing, and were told about 10% might be lost on that mission alone, every man in the room was thinking, "those poor bastards." None were thinking about their own deaths.

He served through three wars, and even in peacetime, people he worked with were dying every year. Military aviation is just not as safe as flying on an airliner, and practicing the things expected of them killed aviators even in the safest units.

Yes, there are people who fear death. A 2009 Harvard study found that deeply religious people were more likely to ask for heroic measures to keep them alive, and fewer had "do not resuscitate" orders than the general population. Andrea Phelps, a senior medical resident at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and the study's lead author, suggested that such people might be more satisfied with life, but that seems unlikely to me.

I think they sought the comfort of religion and heroic measures to preserve their lives for the same reason: A fear of death. Religion offered them assurances, but still the fear remained.

But Becker argued that this is not how most people deal with the problem. Most, he said, attempt an "immortality project," an attempt, rather than relying on the heroic measures of doctors, to do something heroic and eternal.

Humans have a dual nature, their animal bodies and their symbolic selves. In the animal world, there are acts to preserve your life and the lives of those closely related, but these are not heroic in the sense Becker means. Heroic acts, in his framework, are symbolic acts. Heroic acts either make us a part of something eternal or involve us creating something eternal, allowing us to live on past our allotted time on earth.

Becker believed that religion, our traditional hero system, was failing in the age of reason, and that science could never take over that function. He thought we needed new illusions to sustain us.

But that's like seeking to advance medicine by making more potent placebos. In the age of reason, it is difficult to retain any illusions. We need to consciously invent our own meanings, and be aware of how we are embedding ourselves in the structure of thought and the structure of society that carries on beyond our lives.

That means being conscious of how much we are made up of all those who have influenced us, and how much we can influence those who come after us. We must be careful who we are, because that is what lives on when we die.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Friday, February 6, 2015

Psycho killers, corporations, and the limits of individualism

by John MacBeath Watkins

Any Rand, so often read by the young and impressionable, and so often recommended by the old and
implacable, was a great admirer of a psychopathic killer named William Edward Hickman.

This was early in her life, when she was an impressionable 20-something, the sort of youth that would be impressed by Nietzsche and by the works she herself created later in life.

Rand's most memorable characters, such as John Galt in Atlas Shrugged and Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, have some traits in common with Hickman, in particular their selfishness and egoism.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is reported to have his clerks read The Fountainhead, Rand Paul is named after her, and Paul Ryan told the Weekly Standard in 2003 that he had his staffers read Atlas Shrugged. Ryan has since disowned the atheistic author.

Ayn Rand was in love with the concept of the superman. Not the DC Comics character who is constantly engaged in self-sacrificing attempts to save the world, but more the sort of superman admired by Rodion Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Gentle reader, you will recall that Raskolnikov, in this novel, murders a pawnbroker to steal her cash, justifying this with notions that he is a superman like Napoleon Bonaparte, who refuses to be restrained by common morality.

Raskolnikov commits his crime under the influence of the philosophy that some people are naturally capable of great things. By the same philosophy, these supermen, to accomplish great things, have a right to commit acts which would be immoral for the common herd.

But the fatal flaw of this hero is that he has a conscience, and empathy for others, and he is consequently tortured by what he has done.

Rand, in her early 20s when Hickman's case was in the news in 1928, admired Hickman because he did not have this weakness.

She wrote in her journal that she had an "involuntary, irresistible sympathy for him, which I cannot help feeling just because of [his anti-socialness] and in spite of everything else." She admired his "calm, superior, indifferent, disdainful countenance, which is like an open challenge to society."

Hickman shot a druggist in a holdup, but didn't get much money. He decided to try his hand at kidnapping. His victim was 12-year-old Marion Parker, and he demanded $7,500 for her safe return, which was a fair chunk of change back then.

He got the money, but didn't bother with the safe return part. Hickman, who had enjoyed wringing the necks of chickens as a child, did the same with Marion Parker. This was not a rational crime, because her father needed to see her alive before turning over the ransom. Hickman cut off her arms and cut her torso in half, apparently just for the pleasure of doing so, then realized he'd have to make her look a lot better before showing her to her father.

He sewed her eyes open with wire and stuffed her torso with towels so that he could prop her on the passenger seat and tie her in place.

Rand was not ignoring his terrible acts in her journal. Instead, she was going to bat for him.
"Yes, he is a monster—now. But the worse he is, the worst must be the cause that drove him to this. Isn’t it significant that society was not able to fill the life of an exceptional, intelligent boy, to give him anything to out-balance crime in his eyes? If society is horrified at his crime, it should be horrified at the crime’s ultimate cause: itself. The worse the crime—the greater its guilt. What could society answer, if that boy were to say: “Yes, I’m a monstrous criminal, but what are you?"
So it was the old "I blame Society" ploy, which is rather surprising coming from Rand. She was at that time working out her philosophy and planning a novel which was never completed, called "The Little Street," in which the hero would kill an evil minister. Rand did not like religion even then.

She described the hero in these terms: "Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should. He knows himself—and that is enough. Other people have no right, no hold, no interest or influence on him. And this is not affected or chosen—it’s inborn, absolute, it can’t be changed, he has 'no organ' to be otherwise. In this respect, he has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel 'other people.'"

The novel would have been Crime and Punishment without the conscience. A mature Rand chose not to make her heroes murderers, but instead captains of industry, moving from murderous psychopaths to "pro-social" psychopaths who succeed without committing the sort of crimes that get the death penalty. This gained her a following among the Captains of Industry and Masters of the Universe types, and those who aspired to be the Masters of the Universe.

She had, in her lifetime, a cult-like following. Today she has a wider following. The superman idea she wrote about, in its 19th century form, was linked to a radical individualism that has a long history in America. The social Darwinist had the notion that those who are strong succeed, and that this is the natural way of the world. In fact, Objectivism is pretty much social Darwinism minus the bogus biology.

In Europe social Darwinism talked about the German "race" and the Italian "race," but in America social Darwinists were more concerned with the superior individual.

The history goes back further. In the 19th century before the Civil War, there was a radical individualist movement that claimed working for other people was equivalent to slavery. This is where the term "wage slave" comes from. The notion never really caught on, because working for wages is nothing like slavery, but the idea that people needed to own the means of production to be their own master persisted. At the time, this meant to most people that people should have access to land.

The Homestead Act was popular with the radical individualists, as a way that people -- by which was meant white male people -- could own a piece of land and be self-reliant. One of the philosophers of individualism was Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose famous essay, Self-Reliance, said that we are born into an oppressive conformity, and must escape it. Emerson believed there was genius in each person, and breaking free of restraints could release it.

“No government or church can explain a man’s heart to him, and so each individual must resist institutional authority,” Emerson wrote. Rand, in her admiration of Hickman, might be said to echo (and twist) Emerson's claim that “To be great is to be misunderstood.”

Not that Emerson would have admired a man who lacked moral sense. But his philosophy, like Rand's, conflicted with the need to work together to build and maintain a society.

The U.S. Constitution says:
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
(Emphasis added.)

The notion that there could be a "general welfare" for the nation indicates that we're all in this country together

Radical individualism is at odds with the notion of a social contract, which indicates that we can only enjoy our rights by forming a society. It is also at odds with organic conservatism, the notion that the traditions and culture that shape us are the wisdom of our civilization and should not be quickly set aside, and yet, it finds most of its followers on the right.

But it fits very well with our notion of the creative individual, the sort of person who changes society, and we are a society that is in constant change. This makes it all the stranger that radical individualism has become a favorite theme of conservatives.

Perhaps it has to do with justifications. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkley, did an experiment where a game was rigged to give one player a cash prize, and showed how, as that person accumulated more money, they became more likely to cheat. Keltner wrote of his research:
"If I have $100,000 in my bank account, winning $50 alters my personal wealth in trivial fashion. It just isn't that big of a deal. If I have $84 in my bank account, winning $50 not only changes my personal wealth significantly, it matters in terms of the quality of my life — the extra $50 changes what bill I might be able to pay, what I might put in my refrigerator at the end of the month, the kind of date I would go out on, or whether or not I could buy a beer for a friend. The value of winning $50 is greater for the poor, and, by implication, the incentive for lying in our study greater. Yet it was our wealthy participants who were far more likely to lie for the chance of winning fifty bucks."
The New York State Psychiatric Institute researchers surveyed more than 40,000 Americans and found that the poor are less likely to shoplift than the rich. As a shopkeeper, I can confirm this finding from experience.

Keely Muscatell, a University of California at Los Angeles neuroscientist, has found that if you show both the rich and the poor pictures of children with cancer, the poor show more activity in the part of the brain involved with empathy.

Michael Lewis, who interviewed Keltner and Muscatelll for an article in The New Republic, reports that Keltner said:

“As you move up the class ladder, you are more likely to violate the rules of the road, to lie, to cheat, to take candy from kids, to shoplift, and to be tightfisted in giving to others. Straightforward economic analyses have trouble making sense of this pattern of results.”

This seems even stranger when research shows that while the rich are more likely to cheat to get more money, getting more does not make them happier. Mike Norton, from Harvard Business School, surveyed clients of a large investment bank, and found that although additional money does not make the already rich happier, they continue to think it will.

That lack of pleasure in additional money is a result one might expect based on the declining marginal utility of money, but why do the rich cheat to get more, as Keltner's study showed? Why, in the face of the fact that more money does not make them happier, do they persist in wanting more?

The answer seems to be a sense of entitlement. Instead of saying, I've been blessed, I should help the less fortunate, it seems to be human nature that when we have more, we believe we deserve to have more.

And when we have experienced misfortune, we have greater empathy.

The psychological mechanism here seems to be the "just world" fallacy. We want to believe that the world is just, that those who deserve more will get more, and it helps with society's functioning if we can get people to act as if this was true. People are more likely to work hard if they believe hard work is rewarded, for example.

If you believe in a just world, and you have been given more than others, you feel more entitled. The Koch brothers, who inherited great wealth and have gained much more, are objectively entitled to a great deal. Why would they not feel entitled to more than other people, and less constrained by the rules others must obey? And yet, I cannot help but feel that these men are morally disfigured by inherited wealth, causing them to act to get their way regardless of what needs others may have. Certainly the legal history of Koch Industries seems to confirm Prof. Ketner's research.

But however much we may wish to believe in the just world, life is often unfair, and those with the power to seize life's rewards are more likely to get them, regardless of fairness.

Social Darwinism and Objectivism act as a salve to the conscience of those who have a good life and don't want to be bothered about the injustice of inequality. These philosophies justify inequality by comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted.

But can we have the creativity Emerson advocated without the psychopathic tendencies inequality encourages?

Certainly. Greatness, in Emerson's mind, was not tied to wealth, but to creativity and realizing your own purpose. Why has our understanding of the value of individualism changed?

The research cited above indicates that inequality is part of the reason it has changed. We can expect greater disparities in wealth to trigger the sense of entitlement revealed in Ketner's research.

(How has it been part of the reason? And in what ways has inequality changed it?)

In addition, as capitalism has evolved, it has changed. Corporations now define most of the great capitalist enterprises, and corporations, like psychopaths, lack moral sense. The frightening thing about psychopaths is that while others understand you and empathize with you, psychopaths understand you and manipulate you.

Like Rand's hero in The Little Street, corporations "can never realize and feel 'other people.'" The empathy that is the basis for our moral sense is not merely dulled by wealth, it is lacking because corporations are undead things that live in law and finance without conscience or empathy. And as more people work for corporations, this monstrous lack of moral sense becomes the world we live in.

And Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy is one better for corporations than for people. Corporations can live forever, so they need not make the kinds of sacrifice parents make for their children. They can be selfish and single-minded pursuers of profit in a way only psychopaths among humans can.

The only thing that can oppose them is human empathy, and caring for each other.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Introducing Khalid

by John MacBeath Watkins

For the next few months, the Ballard Twice Sold Tales will have an intern. Khalid Mohammed, 20, will
be learning the business, serving customers and cataloging books.

Khalid was born in Ethiopia, a member of the Oromo people. He speaks Oromo and English, and is studying French. He is interested in international business studies, quigong, meditating, reading, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality.

He is learning rapidly, and we believe our customers will like him as well as we do.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The cage of addiction: Filling the emptiness with oblivion

by John MacBeath Watkins

The first time I met my cousin Mark, he tried to hit me with a truck.

It was a Tonka, so he wasn't driving it. He was about five, I was a little older

His family visited years later, when I was 13. He attacked me, we wrestled, and I demonstrated that being wiry and understanding leverage is better than being a bit bigger. He seemed to want to establish dominance rather than build a connection each time we met.

Mark went on to become a commercial fisherman who drank so heavily that his liver was a smoking ruin by the time he was in his 40s. My extended family has not been touched much by addiction, so Mark's difficulties are some of the little personal contact with addiction I have. Mark grew up in a loving family, and no others in that family have had this problem. But I wonder, in retrospect, if his aggression was part of a difficulty in connecting to people. That may have been the real problem.

A team of researchers at Simon Frasier University started exploring this problem in 1977. I was living in Seattle at the time, Mark was living in Alaska, and the research was happening in the Canadian space between us. The classic research on addiction had been done with an experiment involving rats in cages.

Rats were set up with a self-injection system and taught to use it to administer heroin to themselves. Placed in a cage with access to food, water, and heroin, most rats would administer heroin to the exclusion of eating and drinking until they died. This was the basis for the drug war, a version of addiction that said the cause of addiction is the drugs, so we can only avoid the problem of addiction by interdicting the drugs, or keeping drug addicts away from drugs.

Canadians James Olds and Peter Milner in 1954 even demonstrated that rats would do this to get electric stimulation of their brain's pleasure centers until death overtook them.

But in 1977 lead investigator Bruce Alexander at Simon Frasier wondered if he'd do the same in solitary confinement with only the heroin/cocaine/electrode-in-his-brain as solace. So the Simon Frasier team tried it a different way. First, they got the rats addicted by using the now familiar form of the experiment, placing them in standard mesh cages, unable to see or touch other rats, with a choice of plain water or water laced with morphine. After 57 days, the rats were well and truly hooked.

Then, they moved half of them to Rat Park, a 95-square-foot facility with things to play with, space to mate and raise litters, and a generally pleasant environment with the company of 16-20 other rats.

Almost all the rats shunned the morphine water and chose to live the sort of social life rats in nature live.

This echos the experience of troops returning from Viet Nam. Something like 20% of soldiers who served in Viet Nam used heroin. When they came home, about 95% of them never used it again. No special programs, all we did was take them out of a terrifying dystopia and put them in a supportive and normal environment, surrounded by family and friends.

Which makes me wonder. I have no difficulty connecting with Mark's parents or his sisters, but I never felt I could connect with him at all. We look at the wreckage of peoples' lives associated with addiction, and we assume that correlation means causation, that addiction has brought about the wreckage. But what if it simply has the same cause as the wreckage? Mark got married, had a lovely wife and children, who in the end left him. Was the problem that alcohol wrecked the marriage, or was it that the same demons that made Mark unable to sustain the marriage were what drove him to drink?

When people get into a 12-step program, one thing it does is give them a group of people to connect to. I wonder now, looking back at the tragedy of Mark's life, if that is not the most important part of the cure. Sometimes I think of a couple who were alcoholics, and of how little comfort they seemed to take in each other or in their children, seeking dominance rather than comfort in their relationships. They were living in Rat Park, but they had built themselves a cage, and filled the emptiness of the void with oblivion.

So, if we catch an addicts with their drugs, what do we do with them? We put them in a cage, a panopticon dystopia, separated from anyone they love.

Good luck with that.

We have a huge system built to enforce our erroneous assumptions about the nature of addiction. The system itself blights lives, and does not solve the problem. We need to find a better way.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and the war machine: Why the clash of civilizations is a lousy way to frame the problem

image alt text
 Illustration by al-Bīrūnī of different phases of the moon, from Kitab al-tafhim. Source: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study, London: World of Islam Festival, 1976. An illustration of the flowering of intellectual inquiry in the 10th century.

by John MacBeath Watkins

The massacre of a dozen cartoonists, staff, and police at Charlie Hebdo magazine on January 7 has awakened an old debate about how we should respond to terrorism.

Some conservatives want to revive the frame of the conflict between the West and Islam as being a "clash of civilizations," a term popularized by American political scientist Samuel Huntington. In a 1993 Foreign Affairs article, he wrote:

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.[2]

Neoconservatives writers have taken this in a way Huntington did not intend, as a call to arms for Christian nations against Islam. Huntington was not advocating such a clash, just describing what he saw.

What he saw was two civilizations based on evangelizing religions that insisted that only they were right, forced into interactions by increasing globalization of the world economy.

Now, we get people like George Friedman arguing that by adopting secular governments, we have disarmed ourselves. He recently wrote:

If no one but the gunmen and their immediate supporters are responsible for the action, and all others who share their faith are guiltless, you have made a defensible moral judgment. But as a practical matter, you have paralyzed your ability to defend yourselves. It is impossible to defend against random violence and impermissible to impose collective responsibility. As Europe has been for so long, its moral complexity has posed for it a problem it cannot easily solve. Not all Muslims - not even most Muslims - are responsible for this.
(Emphasis added.)

Collective responsibility, however, is exactly the response the gunmen were hoping for. They claimed to represent Islam. To impose collective punishment is to promote them to the status of speaking for all Muslims, or as many as you punish. The idea of the murders was to radicalize more Muslims by provoking a reaction against all Muslims.

To treat them in this way, adopting the 'clash of civilizations' frame for their acts, is to dignify them as warriors for their faith. To treat them as the sordid murderers they were is to degrade them as mere criminals. The idea is to somehow get an outcome in which the West and the Middle East are not at war. Yet Friedman goes back to the Muslim occupation of the Iberian peninsula and the battles against the expansionist Ottoman Turks to claim that we've always been at war with Eastasia the Muslim world, or at least for a thousand years.

This framework is an invitation to another thousand years of struggle. The notion that one side can defeat the other through warfare, and bend it to its will, reflects a lack of understanding of the limits of violence as a means of persuasion.

Europe went through a reformation because Christians in the north began to feel the Catholic Church had become corrupt at the same time as northern European monarchs were chafing at the restraints the Church placed on their power. Islam had a sort of reformation, in two steps.

First, we should remember that the Muslim world was once a center of learning and science. In the 11th century, an intellectual cataclysm occurred.

His name was Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, and he lived from 1059 to 1111. He used the tools of philosophy to undermine the use of philosophy to find truth, favoring instead the expertise of those who studied the Koran. His ideas fell on fertile soil, in an Arab world where political factionalism caused large-scale irrigation networks to collapse and the Crusades and Mongol invasions showed the limits of Muslim power. In a world where Muslims felt set upon, a doctrine of the Koran's infallibility offered greater comfort than the Greek rationalism that had informed Arab philosophy.

This was also a doctrine of intolerance when compared to the earlier flowering of Arab rationality. But the conversion was not sudden, nor was it universal. The Ottomans gained a great deal of power and respected at least the scholarship of the clerics. The next step down the road to intolerance was another sort of reformation.

A reformer named Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, who lived from 1703 to 1792, accused the Ottoman sultan and his traditionalist scholars of corruption, materialism, and decadence, rejecting their tradition-based and rather moderate system of jurisprudence with a version of law that was more radical in its punishments and less discriminating in the evidence required. al-Wahhab had difficulties in his religious studies because he was arrogant and defiant, and when he began preaching, his arrogance got him into trouble.

You see, al-Wahhab denigrated certain practices as not sufficiently pure Muslim practice. Citing passages in the Koran prohibiting grave worship, he had a political ally level the grave of a companion of Mohammed, Zayd ibn al-Khattab. Then he had a sacred grove cut down. This created enough trouble that he had to leave town, and seek sanctuary with a rebel named Muhammad bin Saud. He gave religious legitimacy to Saud's rebel kingdom, now known as Saudi Arabia. This is the sort of doctrine that came to have great influence in the Sunni Muslim world.

The problem, then, is that while the West moved from religious legitimacy to a social contract concept of government, the Arab world never did. Instead, it moved to increasingly severe versions of Islam, from an open, rational system of thought where skepticism and doubt had a role in defining truth to an increasingly closed system in which doubt and skepticism were punishable by imprisonment, flogging, and death.

The West used to have blasphemy laws about as severe as the Wahhabist ones. In 1697, just six years before al-Wahhab was born, a Scot named Thomas Aikenhead was executed for blasphemy (he expressed atheist sentiments.)  The two civilizations have been going in opposite directions for centuries..

One reason for this is that government backed by religion pretty much destroyed its own legitimacy through conflicts such as the 30-Years War and the English Civil War. How could you rule by divine right, if some large percentage of the country thought you were an apostate?

In the Middle East, the solution was for one side to beat the other and subjugate such followers of the beaten sect that remained in the conquered territory, such as the Shia Muslims in Iraq,. who long lived under Sunni rule.

In the West, the solution was a new basis for the legitimacy of governments. The concept that you needed a government to keep the peace and allow people to live their lives and build their fortunes must have seemed transparently obvious to people in places like Germany, where the population was about 2/3 as large after the 30-Years War as before it. If the sovereign ruled because the people needed a ruler, that sovereign was working for the people, not for God, which meant neither side had to win for order to be restored. But the logic of a ruler who was a servant of the people implied that rule should be by the consent of the people as well, which in turn required some means for the people to show their preference.

That required freedom to debate the matter and put it to a vote. But we have seen that when we put the question of who should rule to a vote in the Middle East, the tendency is for the winner to act as though their side had won, and the other side should be subjugated as if they had been defeated in battle. The Muslim Brotherhood ruled Egypt as though no other group's priorities mattered, Nouri al-Maliki  ruled Iraq as if the priorities of the quite substantial Sunni minority didn't matter, as if they should accept being subjugated by his own Shia group. Each wanted their own group to control all aspects of government, and each failed for that reason.

The ideals of liberal democracy have considerable appeal, as we've seen in the Arab Spring, but as we saw when the optimism of that movement faded, its lessons are hard to apply where religious leaders still have great legitimacy. I fear that they must either undermine themselves through abuse of power, or find a way to represent the will of the people without subjugating those who don't agree with them.

Ali Eteraz, in an essay in The Guardian in 2007, noted that:
There is universal consensus that Muslim dictatorships, supported by the west, are the root of evil. They destroy political culture, kill extra-judicially and their repression foments violence.

The primary opponents of these dictators are the populist Islamists. They want to vote; except after voting they want to appoint an extra-constitutional body of clerics to strike down legislation they do not approve of.
And, one might add, they are not in favor of allowing people to vote for candidates who might change such arrangements.

The question is, do we help or hinder the cause of the social contract and the ideals of the liberal democracy by treating outrages like the Charlie Hebdo murders as a clash of civilizations? I suggest that to do so is to deny that there are factions within Islam, and that cultures do change. If you treat the murderers as warriors for Islam, and insist upon "collective responsibility," you cut down any green shoots of a return to rationality and freedom in the Arab world.

The Muslim world can return to its former glory by returning to those values, and we know they are compatible with Islam because they were practiced before the decline of the Muslim world. But people very often act as they think you expect them to act. Defining our interactions with Muslim culture as a clash of civilizations rather than a dialogue between them only invites more conflict.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Greetings from an obsolescent profession

by Jamie Lutton

Reflecting on Christmas presents:

It has been a few weeks, but I am still recovering from Christmas.

One problem for the used book seller is giving presents to family members. Rarely do they like books as much as you do, and so they weary of getting something cool that they know you paid 50 cents for.
My solution is to give new and used DVD's as presents. You usually know the target person's taste in movies, and so can guess at what they would like. And became there are so many good old movies and documentaries out there, there are lots to pick from, especially for young people who are not familiar with classics.

I give comedies, usually. After the crash of 2008, I gave everyone a gloomy documentary about the corruption in the stock market, called Inside Job, but I don't think a single one of the recipients  watched it.
This year I was wiser, and stuck to comedies or action-dramas that fit the person who got them.

The problem with a DVD as a gift is that it will not with handling fall open one scene or another to tempt someone to play the thing. It has to sell itself on the packaging alone. A way to improve DVDS would be that they would play when you handled them, some blurb perhaps, to tempt you to put it in the machine.  For example, I gave How to Tame Your Dragon, a children's fantasy movie,   to my big brother this year. If the thing started talking in a Scottish accent, or roared, , it would charm the casual handler of the thing to play it. Or show the face of the Black Dragon in the movie, which was drawn and animated to strongly suggest a giant black cat with green eyes. But the gaudy packaging and the reviews are all it has to sell itself on it's own (if the recipient does not Google it).

I suppose this feature will be added to physical DVD's in a few generations of design. I do hope that film makers do not rely totally on the cloud for storing movies, because some very good films will be forgotten, if there are not physical copies around.

That is why SCARECROW VIDEO in the University District is so good. It has 120,000 + videos, and you can go around and LOOK at the packages, all arranged in a library form, for rental. Sorry for the plug, but this place is the very best place I have found for locating obscure films, and is the closest thing to the feel of a used bookstore, or library, just for movies.
No other place is open anymore, anyway; Broadway Video was a close second, but it is gone now, due to lack of support, as is the video store on 15th on Capitol HIll.I went in to SCARECROW  six months ago to try and find a movie I saw once when I was 13 or so, on broadcast TV, that scared the crap out of me.
I only remembered a few scenes, and the plot. That it was about a piece of the Earth being torn away - by accident, by a Scientific Experiment Gone Wrong.  And one scene where the Hero and Heroine are fleeing up from under ground in an elevator, and a big timber crashes through the elevator, almost killing them. I gave a vague description to one of the guys at SCARECROW, and he thought for a moment, and told me to look at the end of the world section of the disaster movie room, and I would find it there.  I look at a few packages and found the movie, rented it, and it was as good as I remembered.

Crack in the World, made in 1965, is the name: it had very good special effects for the time, (dubbed in video of Hawaiian volcanic eruptions, etc) and good writing for this sort of film.  I recalled the terror I felt seeing it as a kid. This film and The Birds by Hitchcock gave me a taste for well written science fiction films, which I still have today.

The video rental industry is vanishing like book stores, because 70% of all films are easy to get on NetFlix, and you can order the rest on Amazon. The trick is, and this is a big trick, what if you don't know what to rent, or read?

Many young people have never heard of many great films. They will look at you blankly when you recommend The President's Analyst (1966 comedy), or even To Have and to Have Not (Adaption of a Hemingway book - a Bogart film where he met Lauren Bacall, and they light up the film ). Any film made before 1977 is The Dark Ages to most people, and not visited, even on bored Saturday afternoons when channel surfing on Cable.  It takes a good video store employee to suggest watching one of these old movies, or a rabid movie buff who can then take you to a (still existing) video store to rent a given old movie.

 This is the same problem booksellers have. Amazon will get you Where'd you go, Bernadette  or I Feel Bad About my Neck, recent best sellers, but it takes a bookseller to suggest you read Down and Out in Paris and London or To my Niece on First Reading Jane Austen, The first title is George Orwell's 'breakout' book, the second, a brilliant book,  by an otherwise mediocre writer Fay Weldon.  To know about these old titles, and to stock them and hold them for the months they take to sell takes patience and knowledge, and not selling books like they were quarts of milk, interchangeable.

Supporting places that stock these older titles, and even more, staff that have read books other than the current best sellers and who can tell you about them, is vanishing rapidly.

Places like NetFlix and Amazon take our customers, by stripping out the 'bestseller' sales, which support the sales of these lesser known books.  This is a real pity. We are living in the platinum age of writing. More people are literate than ever before, more people are writing, yet we have fewer and fewer readers.  And it is the same for film.  The number of films made is growing rapidly, but fewer and fewer older films are being watched and enjoyed. Maybe 50 films made before 1977 are known to the general public, but that number is dwindling.

Most people age 25 have not seen a Humphrey Bogart movie, let alone most of them. Or a Kathrine Hepburn movie, or a Cary Grant movie. Or going even further back, a Frank Capra movie, a Hitchcock movie or a Kurosawa film.  Same with older writers.

Even the incredibly well known authors suffer this. Few people read any book by Herman Melville except Moby Dick: when I mention The White Jacket by him, a book was not only popular in his lifetime, but caused such a scandal that it stopped sadistic flogging in the American Navy (a good generation before it stopped in the British one).

My supernal favorite in books are the nonfiction titles, which are particularity neglected. A best seller in nonfiction such as history from 10 years ago will be so common on the market that Amazon sells it for a penny; making it very hard to stock and sell. What with the iPhone technology, I can hold such a book up and try to sell it, and my 'wise' customer will find that it is a penny online, decide that it 'cant be any good at that price' or just buy it online, leaving my copy behind.

One problem I have that SCARECROW VIDEO does not have (?) is that I am 'showroomed' more than they are. My wise customers go around my shop taking photos of books they like, so that they can go home and order them on Amazon Prime, and ''save a few dollars."

This is very discouraging. If I quit this being a bookseller, it will be because of that practice. The insanity of using my shop to make lists to buy online, really discourages me.

I would be better off just having a shop where every book is over $20, and not carry the exciting $5 to $10 books, if that is the future of my business.  And restrict my sales to online sales, to avoid the public altogether.

I want to ask the people who come into my shop to 'showroom' me about how they can live with themselves, but I suppose these are the same people who take cellphone calls while I am ringing them up. In other words, moral idiots.   Well, I will let the marketplace decide, and if it 'decides' I am obsolete,  I will have been driven out of the 'open shop' side of the used book trade. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Robot Workers Stoke Human Fears; how we can still win

by John MacBeath Watkins

Finally, a headline that made me feel like I was in the 21st century appeared on the print edition of Tuesday's New York Times:

Rise of Robot Workforce Stokes Human Fears

The e-version of the Times, not restricted by the character count, had a longer headline that did a better job of explaining the fears of human workers as artificial intelligence makes machines more capable, but the headline in the print edition is what a time traveler from 1950 might have expected to see above the fold on the Dec. 16, 2014 New York Times.

In some ways, the future has been late to arrive, but as Louis Althusser noted, "l'avenir dure longtemps" (usually translated as "the future lasts forever," the name of his memoir.) There is plenty of time for the future to happen, and it will arrive in unexpected ways.

Let me first tell you my solution to the automation problem, then I will explain what it means.

We have been managing our economy for a "natural" rate of unemployment and an inflation rate of 2%, with inflation defined by the core consumer price index number. We have no real empirical knowledge of what the natural rate of unemployment is, nor have we any reason to assume 2% is the proper level of CPI growth. We should be managing the economy by some objective metric.

Even the core CPI is subject to external shocks. The inflation metric we should be using is wage inflation, and we should be managing it to match productivity growth. In fact, since we have not done so for a long time, we should be managing for wage inflation higher than that until it catches up to the pre-1980 trend. This would ensure wages don't, in the long run, exceed the structural capacity of the economy, and that they don't trail so far behind it.

One of the things that makes capitalism different from previous systems of market economies is that in most of them, the workers owned their tools, and land and labor were the keys to making a living (which is why if you wanted to be wealthy, you needed to get land or a mine.) The total amount of wealth was presumed to be finite. Capitalism is a system where the tools usually don't belong to the artisan, they belong to those who accumulate and invest capital. And investing capital in technology is often a way to increase wealth, meaning that capitalism isn't a zero-sum game.

The transition from a traditional market economy to a capitalist one is not great for those who used to be the skilled artisans, which is why the invention of mechanized weaving sparked the Luddite uprisings of the early 19th century. The Luddites recognized that while weaving made cloth cheaper, and enabled most people to buy more clothing and make it a smaller part of their budget, it also meant that the weavers, once high-skilled and well-paid artisans, were surplus to requirements.

Eventually, we found things for people to do. The key was to have enough economic activity that the increased productivity does not permanently unemploy workers whose careers have been disrupted by more productive technology.

Economists used to think that there was an inverse tradeoff between inflation and unemployment, a relationship called the Phillips Curve. This was displaced in the late 1960s and 1970s by a new concept, the natural rate of unemployment, championed by Milton Friedman and Edmund Phelps.

Friedman and Phelps argued that for there to be a permanent increase in employment, something would have to change in the real economy. Essentially, he argued, the Phillips Curve relied on an illusion, and when inflation expectations for wages and prices caught up with reality, this would leave unemployment unchanged.

The problem with managing the economy for the natural rate of unemployment is, there is no established way to know what the natural rate of unemployment is. Friedman and Phelps, it would appear, moved us from managing the economy based on an illusion to managing it based on a guess.

How's that working out for us?
United States Labor Force Participation Rate by gender 1948-2011. Men are represented in light blue, women in pink, and the total in black.

Labor force participation peaked in about 1998, which is about the last time we had much in the way of wage inflation, but really, labor force participation has been stagnant or declining since about 1990. That's because wages, like any price, are a signal, in this case, a signal to come one out and get a job. Take a look at the comparison between productivity growth and average real wages:

1990 is about the time real wages for the average worker fell below the 1970 wage level, and it's been there since. Never the less, female participation in the labor force has increased, and women's wages, while they have not caught up to men's, have at least been increasing.

Here is another set of data that most people have not incorporated into their analysis:

- See more at:

While working men's wages fell a bit from 1980 to 2012, men found it harder to get a job. As a result, the decline for income among all men has been much worse than the situation among working men.

Much of the decline in male incomes has been at the median and lower end of the distribution of education:

Data: Hamilton Project 

Dyland Matthews notes about the above chart (and I recommend following the link and reading his full essay)
High school dropouts' earnings have fallen 66 percent since 1969, and people with some college - the median level of education in the US - have seen earnings fall by a third.

Now, there's a good news/bad news situation here. Men's labor force participation has been falling since the 1950s, even though through the 1950s and 1960s their wages were increasing rapidly, so what's causing their decline in labor force participation isn't the integration of women into the work force. The bad news is that their wage gains started falling about the time women's labor force participation increased.

I'm not convinced that this is a case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. The thing is, at about the same time, we had a major recession, then started managing the economy for the unknowable natural rate of unemployment. Median male income started declining about the time productivity increases and wage increases became de-linked. That's about the time we adopted two of Milton Friedman's big ideas, managing companies for shareholder value and managing the economy for the "natural" rate of unemployment. I strongly suspect that these two ideas played a strong role in removing the link between productivity increases and wage increases.

Since incomes for men have fallen most for the least educated, the indication would be that the kinds of work available do not play to male strengths, such as upper-body strength and a willingness to take jobs with lots of heavy lifting, risk, and inclement weather, which would indicate one possible reason the male workforce participation rate has been falling since about 1950.

Teachers used to say, "you want to dig ditches for a living?" but now, to do that you have to be a heavy equipment operator, and a lot fewer of those are needed than ditch digging humans for the same size ditch. The increase in productivity is in an industry were the demand for ditches is not particularly price elastic.

While many people might say, "that's a pretty good price on shirts, I think I'll get two," few people look at a contractor's rates and say to themselves, "well, I don't really need a new ditch, but at these prices..."

More and more of those risky, physical jobs in the open air have been mechanized. Now, artificial intelligence offers the opportunity to replace humans at inside work with no heavy lifting, which will affect both genders.

This is also an opportunity for those who own capital to take more of the gains from productivity. The question is, why should they? Those weavers who became Luddites were employable, and had they had access to new skills and a hot labor market, they might not have minded so much losing their work as artisans. While the early part of the industrial revolution created great misery and inequality as the capitalists took most of the money, eventually, we figured out how to redistribute the wealth and start the great era of the middle class.

We need to give people access to new skills. Right now, higher education and the student loan program are a mess. How we expect to get a skilled labor force with any spending power out of that is one of the great mysteries of our time. The acquisition of new skills is one of the great levelers for a society, and we've made it tremendously expensive and difficult.

We need to manage for a higher level of employment. The fact that so much of our productivity gains have gone to the top instead of the working class indicates that we are managing for such low levels of employment that there is no pressure for higher real wages. Employers have been able to manage for stagnant real wages across the board, and plummeting wages for the class of people -- white males -- who had been paid best.

Managing for a slack labor market has certain advantages for the capital owning class, and which includes me to a small extent, but is concentrated at the top end of American incomes. Companies can spend their money on dividends and stock buybacks instead of worker's pay. The speculative natural rate of unemployment isn't particularly scientific, but it has provided a rationale for managing the economy for sufficient slack in labor demand to suppress the rise of real wages. The NRU has continued in use not because it is economically useful or provable, but because it is politically useful.

Ah, you say, but if we manage for wage inflation related to productivity growth, what about asset bubbles? I submit that those have as much to do with changes in banking as they do with monetary policy. The real estate bubble accompanied innovations in the banking industry that allowed the sale of securitized mortgages, making far more money available than could be invested by savings and loans making mortgages based on deposits. The great age of corporate raiders was also the great age of junk bonds. The tech bubble actually happened at the same time as some wage inflation.

Asset bubbles may well have more to do with the deregulation of the banking system and the rise of the shadow banking system than with monetary policy, and should be dealt with on that basis.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Surge Pricing and Cindi of the Shattered Shoes

by John MacBeath Watkins

There were three parking places in front of Mad Merlin's Joke, Costume, and Magic Emporium, and one was a 30-minute load zone. That is where Cindi of the Shattered Shoes was parked, and she was not done shopping.

She had come out to see if any other spaces had opened up, knowing that she'd been parked for nearly half an hour and her car was about to turn into a pumpkin. She found Jack the Blighter fuming, because the cars parked in front of and behind his Bulgemobile were too close for him to get out.

“Don't worry,” said Cindi, wincing from the pain in her feet that had been caused by a glass footwear-related accident, “I'll move out of my spot and take yours.”

A crafty look came into Jack's eyes.

“Oh, that's just what you'd like me to do,” Jack said. “If the spot's that valuable, I'm keeping it.”

The magic sigal the parking fairy had chalked on Cindi's left rear tire was beginning to glow.

“But the spot's no use to you, because you're done shopping,” Cindi objected.

:”Yeah, well, it's my spot, and I'm not moving,” the Blighter said.

Two people happened along just then. One was Prince Charlie, Earl of Studly, a region famed for its bull semen, the other was a parking fairy.

Maybe it was just the magic blowback from the parking fairy's wand as she turned Cindi's car into a pumpkin, but Studly was so charmed by Cindi that he immediately fell in love.

“Please,” Studly pleaded, “turn this young, beautiful and fecund young woman's car back into its original state, I wish to get busy with her and make some little princelings and princesslings, that my House may continue to rule, and I think it would really impress her if I got her car back.”

“Can't turn it back until the fine is paid,” the parking fairy said. “It's one magic pea.”

“I have a magic pea,” Jack the Blighter confided, confidingly. “I'll sell it to you for half your kingdom.”

“But the going rate for a magic pea is one farm,” Studly objected. “You're gouging.”

“Clearly, you wish to surge withing my lady's garden of delight,” the Blighter said. “Thus, surge pricing applies.”

“I will accept your hand and other projecting parts of you in marriage if you can get my car back to its original state,” Cindi declared, declaratively. The pain in her feet was becoming unbearable, and she really just wanted to sit down in her car. Plus, the guy still had half a kingdom.

“Oh, all right,” said the smitten prince, smitingly for some reason. With a flourish, he signed over half his kingdom to Jack the Blighter.

When he took the pea, Prince Charlie, Earl of Studly, discovered it was hot. As he juggled it in his hands, wincing, Jack winked at him, and Studly remembered that Jacks tend to steal things.

He quickly dropped the hot pea into the parking fairy's proffered purse. The fairy promptly turned to the pumpkin and waved her wand, turning it into an acorn.

“It was a Honda Accord, not an acorn,” Cindi objected, objectively.

“My remit was to return the pumpkin to its original state,” the parking fairy said. “When you bought the car, did you carefully read what it said on the boot? (Like many fairies, the parking fairy had attended an English boarding school.)

“But the lady who sold it to me was so nice!” wailed Cindi. “She said she only drove it to black mass every full moon!”

“Bent old biddy with a wart on her nose and sort of Goth taste in wardrobe?” the fairy asked, questioningly.

“Well, yes,” said Cindi, agreeably.

“You got taken,” the fairy announced. “I'm only allowed to return the vehicle to its original state.”

“I'll bet you'd turn it into a car for another magic pea,” suggested Jack, leering at the prince suggestively.

The prince didn't care to trade off the other half of his kingdom, so he decided to try and persuade the fairy instead, and started moving toward her, raising his hands pleadingly.

The fairy whipped out her wand and shouted “stop or I'll shoot,” while firing her wand. Prince Charlie, Earl of Studly, turned into a frog.

“You saw him!” the fairy said, “He came at me!”

“He had his hands up,” Cindi replied. I'm afraid that replyingly isn't a word recognized by my spellcheck, so I can't tell you how she replied.

“Change him back,” Cindi suggested, suggestively.

“He had it coming,” the fairy said. “the grand jury will clear me.”

Jack sidled up to the frog and offered to sell him a magic pea for the rest of his kingdom.

“No, you don't!” Cindi snapped, snappishly. She was a practical woman in all matters not related to the choice of footwear. “He still has half a kingdom, his offer of marriage is still valid, and under recently passed marriage equality laws, I can marry the frog I love. He's my prince charming.”

“Charlie,” the frog croaked, correctingly, if that's really a word.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Our echoes roll from soul to soul

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of my wooden boat friends, Rick, in Australia, is dying, and doing so with dignity and fortitude. I posted this for him:

from The Princess: The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on hill or field or river:
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

I'm particularly fond of that line about how our echoes roll from soul to soul. Rick, you are a part of all of us now, and what we've learned from you will live on in us, and I hope will allow us to die with the dignity and fortitude you display.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Tamir Rice and the depraved heart

by John MacBeath Watkins

When I heard that 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by Cleveland police after waving a realistic toy gun around, I thought, what a tragedy.  Wouldn't have happened to me as a 12-year-old white kid if I'd been doing something that stupid when I was growing up in Maine, but it's the sort of thing that happens in cities.

Then I heard that the two officers at the scene did not render  first aid to the kid for four minutes, and at that point an FBI agent who happened to be in the neighborhood came along and rendered assistance.

In my opinion, that's a crime.

There are two possible interpretations of this. One is the doofus theory, that the cops were so freaked out by one of them having shot a kid, they didn't know what to do. If that's the case, they were negligent, and so useless in an emergency that I'd say they have no business on a police force.

The other possibility is more sinister and I'd say less likely. Sometimes, negligence is intended to cause harm or death. These are called depraved heart crimes, or sometimes depraved indifference. If the officers at the scene were convinced that they had screwed up to the point where it could cost them their badges, it might have been to their advantage if the kid died and could not testify.

In support of the doofus theory, we have information provided by the previous employer of the cop who shot the kid. Timothy Loehmann, the 26-year-old cop who did the shooting, had previously worked of a police department in a suburb of Cleveland called Independence. The city of Independence has taken the unusual step of releasing a letter recommending the dismissal of Loehmann.


A Nov. 29, 2012 letter contained in Tim Loehmann's personnel file from the Independence Police Department says that during firearms qualification training he was "distracted" and "weepy."
"He could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections, and his handgun performance was dismal," according to the letter written by Deputy Chief Jim Polak of the Independence police.
The letter recommended that the department part ways with Loehmann, who went on to become a police officer with the Cleveland Division of Police.
"I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to change or correct the deficiencies," Polak said.
So, maybe the guy had issues and should never have been hired. That doesn't explain why his partner, 46-year-old Frank Garmback, also failed to render first aid. Perhaps there's more to the story, but it's hard to think of a good reason for this.

The thing that makes both men look bad, and made me think of the phrase "depraved indifference," is the story they told before they knew there was video of the incident.

From the Daily Kos:

Not knowing that a camera recorded the entire incident, the police told what appear to be at least five lies about what happened.
1. Police said that Tamir Rice was seated at a table with other people.
2. Police said that as they pulled up, they saw Tamir Rice grab the gun and put it in his waistband.
3. Police said they got out of the car and told Tamir Rice three times to put his hands up but he refused.
4. Police said that Tamir Rice then reached into his waistband and pulled out the gun, and was then shot and killed by Officer Timothy Loehmann.
5. Timothy Loehmann was described as a rookie.

1. Tamir Rice as not seated at a table with other people.
2. Tamir Rice does not appear to grab the gun and put it in his waistband.
3. Police shot and killed Tamir in less than two seconds and could not have told him to put his hands up three times.
4. Tamir Rice absolutely does not pull the air gun out of his waistband and brandish it in any way. This fact is so crucial.
5. Timothy Loehmann was not a rookie, but had been an officer for over two years.
If both officers told this story and it didn't agree with the video of the event, that makes it look to me like they colluded on a story that would exonerate Loehmann.  But why would Garman do that?

Anyone who has spent time around cops knows that one of the most important traits a cop can have to survive in the work they do and support those they work with is loyalty, and especially loyalty to your partner.

I don't know if this is a case of misplaced loyalty or if the two men talked about what happened and became convinced that their erroneous account was true. If the latter is the case, it supports the doofus theory and indicates neither man is a reliable witness to a crime, and should not, in my humble opinion, be cops. If the statements of fact that were not true were a conspiracy to clear Loehmann, that would be another reason both men should not be cops.

Even if that were the case, it would not prove that letting the kid lay there bleeding for four minutes was a depraved heart crime. I'm not a lawyer, but it seems to me that you'd have to prove that they were letting him bleed out to eliminate the only other witness to the shooting.

That's a high bar to clear, as it should be, because I find it difficult to believe anyone would do that. But then, I find it difficult to believe anyone kills people for the flimsy reasons they do.

I doubt very much these men will be held criminally liable for failing to render first aid for those four minutes.

But unless I hear a damned good explanation for that failure, I'll always wonder: Did they have depraved hearts, or were they doofuses, or is there something I'm missing here?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Is America really so violent?

by John MacBeath Watkins

People who compare the United States to European countries say we have an extraordinarily high murder rate. But is that the appropriate comparison?

For a country located in the Americas, the United states has a relatively low murder rate. Canada and Chile are the exceptions. I suspect the issue is cultural. One thing that has happened with colonization is that some cultural aspects of the mother country are preserved from the time of colonization. I would look to the murder rate in the mother country at the time the country was colonized to explain a high murder rate in that culture today.

The murder rate in Europe in the middle ages was extremely high, and dropped quite a bit during the time the
Murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012.
Americas were being settled. Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, states that murder rates were about 30 times higher in the middle ages than they are now. If my theory is correct, the earlier a country was settled, the more likely it should be to have a high murder rate.

This seems to go against the fact that Chile has a low murder rate, even though the conquest of Chile started in 1540. One answer to this is that the low murder rate in Chile reflects the relatively strong state there. A strong state tends to reduce the murder rate because it's not good for the state to have taxpayers killing each other, any more than it helps a farmer to have his livestock fighting.

The early Chilean state was small and homogenous, prevented from expanding northward by the desert or southward by the unconquered Mapuche Indians. The conquest of Chile was gradual, and as a consequence of failing to conquer the Mapuche, Chile relied more than most Spanish colonies on European settlers. In fact, parts of the country attracted German settlers in the mid-19th century. Much of the country's expansion occurred after it declared independence from Spain in 1818, and with many immigrants arriving after that, the country could be expected to be culturally closer to modern Europe that nations settled earlier.

One of the uses Britain made of its American colonies was as a place to transport criminals. Once transportation to America as a punishment became impossible, Australia and Canada began to absorb Britain's malcontents. And whereas the French had chosen mainly to trade with the Indians and send only people they could trust to the new world, the British sent people pushed off the land by the Inclosure Acts, criminals and pretty much anyone they felt they were well shed of. As a consequence, the British culture imported to Canada was that of the 19th century, while the British culture imported to America was that of the 17th century.

Contrast this to Venezuela, a country where Columbus actually landed, which was colonized to a great extent in the 16th century. We find that it has an intentional homicide rate of 53.7 per 100,000 annually, in contrast to the 3.1 of Chile  or the 1.6 of Canada, and the United States of America turns out to be one of the least dangerous countries in the new world with a murder rate of 4.7 per 100,000 (all figures are for 2012.)

So, if the culture of violence in new world countries reflects the timing of their formative European colonization, what made European murder rates fall so much?

For one thing, violence became harder to get away with. As European states became more centralized, policing got better, and it became harder to walk away from a murder and start over elsewhere. In addition, as states became more centralized, warfare within a country became less practical -- dukes who might have tried to expand their duchy found that they were restrained by the increasing power of kings.

Another factor was the decline of subsistence farming and the increase in trade and industry. The key to wealth and power became less how many farms you could subjugate by the sword, and more the trade and industry you could dominate. Power moved from men with horses and armor to men with ledgers and gold.

While many a duke had risen to his post by violence (a duke was originally a war leader) few merchant princes found violence the path to influence and wealth. Because commerce is not a zero sum game, cooperation was a better path.

The shift from agrarian empires to mercantilist empires was a shift from warring tribes to warring nations, in which the violent domination of resources and trade routes led to greater national wealth. This was the great era of colonization. The shift from mercantilist empires to capitalism put further emphasis on cooperation, and undermined the colonial empires. Modern global capital creates stateless income that undermines colonial empires and makes wars less rewarding. Because the capital doesn't enrich the state that spends money one wars, but goes where it won't be taxed, much of the feedback mechanism that made empires possible is gone.

So, it's easy enough to see why violence has become less common in Europe. From the top down, it has become less rewarding and harder to get away with. The question remains, why did their colonies preserve the barbaric attitudes of an earlier age, and what can be done to move them beyond that?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Anomie and the search for meaning

by John MacBeath Watkins

The French have a word for it: Anomie. No norms. It is a condition when people find themselves so disconnected from social norms that they cannot find their place in the world. Emile Durheim used the term in his book, Suicide, published in 1887.

His theory was that a rapid change in the values and standards of society would lead to a feeling of alienation
and purposelessness. Picture the situation; society is changing rapidly, and while it may try to prepare you for your place in it, that place is no longer there by the time you are trained for it. Your entire life plan, the existence you have spent your childhood and adolescence preparing for, is nowhere to be found.

Are you a failure? No, worse. There was no path to a life of honorable labor, no place for you in the world.

You cannot even fail, because all that you have prepared for is simply not there. You were groomed to play a part in a pantomime that has been cancelled. And here you are, alone on the stage in a parody of makeup for a part no one cares to see you play. How meaningful is your life, then? If society were a dictionary, you would not even be a word, just an indecipherable squiggle in the margin.

That is anomie, diagnosed at the end of the 19th century, discussed to death to 20th century, a wallflower at the party in the early 21st century.

As you might expect from the title of Durkheim's book, suicide was one common response to this condition. Perhaps it still is. We don't talk about anomie much anymore. People still kill themselves, people still feel disconnected from social norms, but that 19th century term is less common than it once was. It's a shame, because the term explains a lot.

Much of what makes us human is in our interaction with others. It is in the social realm that we display our sanity or madness, and our very humanity. That is why solitary confinement is such a severe punishment, one that can even produce psychological effects such as hallucinations, paranoia and obsessive thoughts. We are meant to be social creatures, incomplete without interaction with others.

Once, society changed slowly, and when we spoke of the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom, we meant social orders that differed little and lasted a thousand years each. Then it was possible for generation following generation to fall easily into their social roles, and we can suppose anomie was not a problem. Those days ended in the Axial age, which we discussed in this post..

When the world started changing too rapidly for an entire society's structure to adapt new places for its members, individuals had to find their own places. That may seem hard enough, but when they invented their new positions, they had no norms established for the new ways of life they were inventing. They needed guidance, and they got it in a great age of prophesy. Across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, prophets told people that they should be compassionate, that they should do unto others as they would have done unto them. And that was enough, for two or three millennium. People could think for themselves, and still think about others, with the guidance of the prophets.

And then, the world started changing faster, and faster, and faster. The feeling of disconnection from social norms, social roles, spread wider and wider. Some felt the change, and said “God is dead.” Some felt the change, and said, “God, save me!” and started churches dedicated to preventing change. Some felt the change, and the loneliness, and the pain, and became angry, and said, “God, I will kill those who caused this!” and became terrorists. And some, strangely enough, said, “God is dead. I bet we can build a better one,” and started dreaming of an all-knowing computer.

Do you want to know how they felt? Do you know who's to blame? Look in a mirror. No, seriously, that's one way to study the problem. Psychologists have people look in a mirror in order to get them to focus on themselves, in order to study one of the central problems of psychotherapy.

People come to see a psychologist very often because they are depressed. The psychologist needs to assess the problem, so has the client talk about themselves.

This self-focus causes the people talking about themselves to become sadder if they perform this self-focus in private, or to experience social anxiety if they do it in public. In essence, they experience a heightened sense of anomie, of disassociation from the warmth and comfort of human contact, because they are focused on themselves.

There is the problem, then. To be human requires participation in human society, and rapid social change can cast us adrift, maroon us in an island of the self. And as we try to understand ourselves, we focus on ourselves, and feel more isolated and alone as a consequence.

The shared hallucinations of our social constructs are meaningless if we are alone. If we are only animals, eating, sleeping, reproducing, we are only the appetites our genes have programmed us to have. If we are human, we live in a world invisible to most animals, a world of language and symbol, in which what we pass on to others may not even be physical matter, such as genes. It may be our ideas, ideals, songs and gods. It may be the world of meaning, the most human world of all.

However out of place we may feel, however useless our social skills and unattainable our aspirations, what makes us human is the people who have shaped us. We are never alone, because they are a part of us, and we are a part of those whose lives we've touched. Even the worst families teach their children to be human. What those children rejects from those who have shaped them sets the boundaries of their souls, what they accept gives those souls their content.

Unlike most animals, we can cooperate with one another even without family ties. This is because in that ethereal world of symbolic thought, we can pass on a part of who we are to people genetically unrelated to us. Our thoughts are at least as fecund as our bodies, and we lust for the sort of social intercourse that will allow us to transmit our wisdom to each other and build up something greater than ourselves.

Anomie is a symptom of the failure to do this, a sign that we must find a way to reach one another and find comfortable niches for ourselves in the great body of civilization.