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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Puny Earthlings, your planet is not worth invading

by John MacBeath Watkins

It seems Earth is a much less common sort of planet than we have supposed in the recent past. This means that any aliens who evolved in a more common sort of solar system would find our planet too cold and our atmosphere too thin to sustain life.

You can blame Jupiter, which seems to have wiped out the early inner planetary system before retreating to
The alien warlord is ready for his closeup (okay, it's a water bear.).
the sidelines.

We've discovered about 500 other solar systems with planets, and most solar systems don't resemble ours at all. They tend to have giant inner planets with atmospheres hundreds or thousands the pressure of earth's, closer to their suns than Mercury.

They would probably be hot enough on the surface to melt lead.

Our solar system was likely similar to this before Jupiter came into low orbit around the sun and destroyed such inner planets as had formed, until Saturn formed, and drew Jupiter out to a wider orbit.

This would explain why the three inner planets, Mercury, Venus, and Earth, are younger than the outer planets. They would have formed from the debris left over from Jupiter's destructive juvenile period of acting like a wrecking ball in the inner solar system.

Imagine an alien warlord from a more normal system, looking for new worlds to conquer.

"Any habitable planets in this system, Lackey?" he would ask the science minion.

"None of these planets could support life as we know it, sire," Lackey replies, "but there is something funny..."

"Funny peculiar, or funny 'ha-ha?'" the warlord demands to know. Warlords like a laugh as much as anyone.

"Well, sire, the third planet out is so cold that it has dihydrogen monoxide oceans covering most of the planet, and if you dropped lead into them it would become solid. The gravity is very low, and it retains only a wisp of an atmosphere, and the pH level is so alkaline that there is hardly any sulfuric acid in the rain. Yet there is a thin layer of life on it."

"But not, of course, intelligent life?" the warlord inquires imperiously.

"Well, there seem to be some large hives, and they are generating chemicals intended to make the planet hotter and put more acid in the rain, so it's possible they are trying to make their planet more habitable for life adapted to a normal atmosphere. However, they are so far from the sun and the gravity is so low, I doubt they will succeed."

"Amazing! The poor, doomed creatures are trying to evolve into a decent life form, but there's no way their planet can be properly turned habitable by higher life forms," the warlord observed. "Put it down for further study, low priority. I've little use for pure science, but it might amuse my nerdy youngest son."

And so, the alien warlord passes on, looking for decent planets to conquer.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Tribalism and religion in the clash within civilizations

by John MacBeath Watkins

Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of mythology, objected to the Bible because it was tribal, and set one group against all others. Most of the tribal elements of the Bible are in the old Testament, so his comments could be applied to the entire Abrahamic tradition, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.

In a 1983 interview with writer Tom Collins, he said the following:
The thing I see about the Bible that’s unfortunate is that it’s a tribally circumscribed mythology. It deals with a certain people at a certain time. The Christians magnified it to include them. It then turns this society against all others, whereas the condition of the world today is that this particular society that’s presented in the Bible isn’t even the most important. This thing is like a dead weight. It’s pulling us back because it belongs to an earlier period. We can’t break loose and move into a modern theology.
This is an interesting insight, but my problem with it is that not all members of the three Abrahamic religions act this way. In fact, the great age when Muslim culture and science were the envy of the world was a time when Muslim countries were more free and inclusive than Christian ones. The Koran says that other members of Abrahamic traditions are to be respected, and they were in Moorish Spain, for example. This changed in the 11th century, when a stricter form of Islam became popular, denying that inquiry and doubt were paths to knowledge, insisting that only the Koran was a path to the truth.

And mainstream Protestant churches, such as I was brought up in, tend to be quite inclusive. In fact, that's probably why they've become less popular than churches which provide a stronger tribal element.

This tribal element is the basis for the clash within civilizations. Samuel P. Huntington notoriously wrote a book in 1996 titled The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, in which he argued that the great conflict of the future would be between the Christian and Muslim civilizations.

But is that what we're seeing? Islamic State is at war, but not with Europe or America, really. It is at war with other Muslims. Even the massacre at the Paris offices of the satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo killed a Muslim policeman. Nor were the men who committed those murders particularly devout Muslims. They were angry, violent men who felt their group had been disrespected.

For such people, the issue is not religion, but tribalism. In the case of Islamic State, they have committed atrocities against Christians and Shia Muslims. They are at war with the mainly Sunni Muslim Kurds.

Any time you define your group, part of that definition is who belongs in it, and part of it is who belongs outside it. In the case of Islamic State, this definition seems to define who gets treated as human. Yazidi have been taken as slaves, and according to the BBC, Islamic State's Department of Research and Fatwas has decreed that Christian and Yazidi girls may be taken as slaves, and their owners may have sex even with those who have not yet reached puberty.

Raping the other tribe's women is a program of annihilation, a way to make sure only the children of your tribe's men are born. It has an ancient and horrific history in warfare.

Many Syrian and Iraqi Christians and Yazidi fled to Kurdish territory. Kurds for the most part belong to the same religion as is claimed by Islamic State, Sunni Muslim, but do not agree with the way IS practices it.

In fact, Islamic State seems less concerned with devotion to Allah than to its vision of tribal solidarity and triumph. They want Shariah law (religious law) because it is the law of their people, not because it is religious.

Not everyone in their territory wants to live in a society that dehumanizes those not belonging to the tribe as defined by Islamic State. That's why they've resorted to brutal executions to enforce their will. And that is why this conflict is not between civilizations, but within them.

We have, in this country, a more peaceful version of this conflict. Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, had a monument to the ten commandments installed in the Alabama Judicial Building. The left half of the monument tells people to be good Christians, the right to commandments not to do things that are prohibited in about 100% of human societies, and with very little mousing around on the internet, you can find videos of Moore giving speeches claiming American law is based on the Bible.

And he's not alone. Rick Santorum did pretty well in the Republican primaries in 2012 with a Dominionist message. Dominionism is the view that all secular power should reside in Christians (as defined by them) and ruled by a conservative Christian understanding of Biblical law. Santorum accused President Barak Obama of basing his administration on a "phony theology." Reuters reported that on Feb. 18, 2012, he said:
Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology,” Santorum told supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement at a Columbus hotel.
 This clash within our civilization is between those who see religion as a tribal matter, and those who define our nation in a more inclusive matter. For Santorum, a "real American" would be one belonging to his kind of church, either conservative Catholic or White Evangelical. He has made the argument that mainline protestants are not real Christians, as reported by Beliefnet.
After he’d accused Obama and other Democrats of religious fraudulance for a few minutes, journalist Terry Mattingly of asked whether it’s possible that rather than being fake, perhaps, Obama was sincerely reflecting a form of liberal Christianity in the tradition of Reinhold Neibuhr. Santorum surprised me by answering that yes, “I could buy that.”However, he questioned whether liberal Christianity was really, well, Christian. “You’re a liberal something, but you’re not a Christian.” He continued, “When you take a salvation story and turn it into a liberation story you’ve abandoned Christiandom and I don’t think you have a right to claim it.”
Unlike so many Republicans who make the silly claim that President Obama is a Muslim, Santorum has acknowldeged that he is a Christian, but said that because he practices the kind of religion Reinhold Neibuhr did, he's a phony Christian.

This is the problem with an established church. Once you have an official state religion, you have to define who is inside it and who is outside. America's founding fathers -- well, mainly James Madison -- saw that to have freedom of conscience, to be allowed to practice religion as you see fit, you must be free of other people's interpretation of religion. That is why the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office, and why the First Amendment prohibits establishment of religion.

In the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, negotiated during George Washington's second term and ratified by a unanimous vote of the U.S. senate during the first days of John Adams' first term, Article 11 declares:
As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries. 
 I submit that George Washington knew more about whether America was founded as a Christian nation then Rick Santorum or Roy Moore. My country was founded as a secular nation specifically to protect freedom of religion and allow for the election of people who did not have to represent the religion of the voters.

The secular state was a response to religious conflict, a way of shifting the source of government legitimacy from religion to the people the government serves. After the 30 Years War had reduced the population of Europe in some places by a third and the English Civil War had seen the execution of a king, Thomas Hobbes suggested in Leviathan that people need a government to protect them from violent death, and that the legitimacy of the government could rest on the fact that it is needed.

Hobbes advocated a hereditary monarch as the ruler, because he was the tutor of the son of the king who had been executed, and wanted to see Charles II seated on the British throne. He did see his Catholic pupil seated as king of a largely Protestant nation, but his logic did not really support hereditary monarchs. If the sovereign serves the people, the people aught to have some say in who governs, so it is this secular legitimacy that is at the heart of the shift from monarchs to democracy. And it is secular democracy, not Christianity, that outfits like Islamic State object to, however much they may want to portray the conflict as one between them and "crusaders."

The clash we are seeing is not between the Christian and Muslim worlds. It is between those who want a tolerant, secular state, and those who want a religious, intolerant, tribal state.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sir Terry Pratchett has died

by John MacBeath Watkins

Sir Terry Pratchett, my favorite living author since I discovered him about a quarter century ago, has died, surrounded by his family and with his cat asleep on the bed with him.

I had hoped he'd live as long as P.G. Wodehouse and be as productive into his 90s, but earlier today his Twitter account carried the words of one of his most famous characters, Death:


 Death always spoke in capital letters in Pratchett's Discworld novels, a flat world riding on the backs of four huge elephants riding on the back of a giant turtle. His books were funny and wise. He understood that the best ideas are often so simple, most people don't notice them, like, don't treat people like things, and first sight -- accurately seeing what's in front of you -- is more important than second sight, and rarer.

As a bookseller, I'm a devotee of one of his theories, that since knowledge = power, and power = energy, energy = matter, when you put enough knowledge together in the form of lots of books, what you have is a sort of genteel black hole, an entry into another kind of space.

You might think someone with such wild ideas would have an idiosyncratic writing style, but Pratchett, a former journalist, had a writing style that didn't get in the way of the story, a thing remarkably difficult to achieve.

I saw him speak several times at events set up by the University Bookstore. He was gentle, funny, and humble. One of my friends at the U bookstore was involved in Pratchett's last appearance here, when he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. My friend, Brad Craft, was worried that things would go horribly wrong, but Sir Terry's fans were gentle and loving. He had created a world much like himself, and attracted people who delighted in visiting it.

Pratchett shared with Wodehouse the unusual talent to leave me feeling better about life when I'd read one of his books. There is a saying in Hollywood, that death is easy, comedy is hard; yet we don't regard comedy writers as being great writers, preferring writers who deal in tragedy. Pratchett's books are a step above most of the "serious" novels produced during his career.

By the way, Neil Gaiman, who wrote Good Omens with Sir Terry, says that it was anger at unfairness that drove Pratchett to write so well and so much.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The clash within civilizations, authority versus liberty

by John MacBeath Watkins

I submit the following as evidence that the world now faces, not a clash of civilizations, but a clash over what civilization should be:
...the American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs—and she shows all this and does not hide it.[5]

-- Sayyid Qutb, The America I Have Seen

Sayyid Qutb was an early firebrand of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a fundamentalist who feared his people would be seduced by western culture. In the passage above, I hear lust and repression, envy and condemnation.

Qutb never married. He was a fierce critic of secular Egyptian society and a supporter of a severe form of religion which would be superior to secular law. He wanted to conserve the values of traditional Muslim society, and feared his people would find western, secular society more attractive than the society he wished to see.

We have people like that in our own society, opposing sex education, the teaching of evolution, marriage equality for homosexuals, and other ways people would take liberties with their notions of traditional values.

And Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he fears the decadence of western culture. He's had laws passed for the repression of homosexuals, for example. In a 2013 speech, he said:

Too often in our nation's history, instead of opposition to the government we have been faced with opponents of Russia itself...
Another serious challenge to Russia's identity is linked to events taking place in the world. Here there are both foreign policy and moral aspects. We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.
The excesses of political correctness have reached the point where people are seriously talking about registering political parties whose aim is to promote paedophilia. People in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation. And people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.

And indeed, he seems to regard the Maidan movement that overthrew his corrupt allies in Ukraine as a threat to his own power in Russia.

It is not the particular religion or ideology of American fundamentalists, Islamists, and Russian nationalists that these have in common, although a certain prudery seems to be an element of each. The common thread is the authoritarianism, the desire for order, and the condemnation of the liberties of the libertines.

Theodor Adorno would have would have identified these as elements of the authoritarian personality. He measured this on what he called the "f-scale," for Fascist. The traits he identified were:

Characteristics of the Authoritarian Personality (Horkheimer and Adorno)

  1. Conventionalism. Rigid adherence to conventional, middle class attitudes.
  2. Authoritarian Submission. Submissive, uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities of the ingroup.
  3. Authoritarian Aggression. Tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values.
  4. Anti-intraception. Opposition to the subjective, the imaginative, the tenderminded.
  5. Superstitions and Stereotyty. The belief in mystical determinants of the individual’s fate; the disposition to think in rigid categories.
  6. Power and ‘Toughness’. Preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension; identification with power figures; overemphasis upon the conventionalized attributes of the ego; exaggerated assertion of strength and t oughness.
  7. Destruction and Cynicism. Generalized hostility, vilification of the human.
  8. Projectivity. The disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world; the projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses.
  9. Sex. Exaggerated concern with sexual ‘goings-on.'
 (The source for this list is in the link, just click on the quote.)

Now, it strikes me that any ideology or in-group can contain people with these traits, from self-righteous hipster assholes to conservative preachers and "citizens for decency." Most will be attracted to conservative causes.

I actually met a man who organized "(name of his hometown) for Decency" who liked  to come into the newsroom of the local paper, pick out an attractive young female reporter, and start showing her sexually explicit pictures, and talk about how disgusting they were. His particularly repellant combination of lust, repression, and authoritarianism seemed extraordinary to me at the time, but it is really just an extreme form of the authoritarian personality. Less extreme versions of that personality are, in my opinion, part of what holds society together.

Every civilization needs some degree of conservatism, some value placed on tradition and order. But for a civilization to learn and grow, it must also be open to new ideas and new experiences, and in a time when the world faces rapid change, these needs are in conflict. The psychologically conservative will be disturbed by the disorder of rapid change, while those with minds more open to change, the need to adapt society and leave behind old prejudices will lead them in a different direction.

When people look at Islamist extremists, and tell me that this is a clash of civilizations between Muslim and Christian civilizations, I can't help but think of that disgusting "citizen for decency." The clash is not between religions, it is between tolerance and intolerance, between liberty and authority.

What we are seeing is not a clash between regions or cultures or religions. We are seeing a clash between people who want to conserve traditional values and people who want to open society up to new freedoms. Tip the balance one way, you have the Islamic State, tip it the other and you have San Francisco.

When the world changed slowly, these groups were not much in conflict. New experiences were rare in Egypt's Old Kingdom, and the need to adapt to a changing world was rare. We no longer live in that world, and many people are made profoundly uncomfortable by this, while others delight in it.

Count me as one of the delighted. And I am happy to see that surveys of young people show them sharing more and more of my views as I get older, because they are adapted to the changes that have occurred. I was a damn hippie kid, and not a great fit with society. Today, more and more people agree with my views. But I still recognize the need for a counterbalance, even if I sometimes become impatient with the way people cling to what I feel are outmoded views.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Bookstore video 2: Khalid reading Emerson

Khalid Mohamed, intern extraordinaire, reading an excerpt from Self Reliance, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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.