Friday, April 21, 2017

A little political philosophy won’t kill you (or will it?)

Some anxious readers of this fine blog have been complaining of late that the frequency of my musings has decidedly diminished of late, and wonder if my much decreased output is due to an irreversible disenchantment with the medium, or is rather a temporary blip, hopefully to be soon reversed. Difficult to say for sure. I enjoy writing furiously almost unintelligible blabber as much as ever, but it’s true that the number of my commitments has increased, with the career in mathematics and the demands of the weightlifting club. It doesn’t help that April and May are usually the busiest months at work (I’m the head of the quality organization within my firm, and in May we pass our annual certification with external auditors, which require a lot of attention). So for the foreseeable future my posts will be few and far between, and I’ll need to compensate my faithful followers with extra doses of quality (in the form of pungency of the commentary on the follies of our current and past mores, rather than in brevity and pithiness, of course) as a form of compensation for the decrease in quantity…

Now to the matter at hand: I finished a couple weeks ago a rather infuriating book by a retired editor that had published too many Marxist historians, and it showed, as he had himself imbibed too much of their wacky outlook during his professional career. Nothing unusual or shocking that would merit a post to comment, as Marxist historiography in Continental Europe held almost a monopoly position within the opinion of the learned since the end of WWII. To make things worse, the author in this sad case was Spanish, where a Marxist orientation was almost mandatory if you wanted to be published in the post-dictatorship squalid intellectual milieu of the last decades of the last century. The result could be summarized as a mediocre book by an incurious author (incuriosity masked by the mandatory hundred pages of bibliographical notes containing all the canonical leftist blabber, plus some liberals in the Anglo Saxon tradition to keep the appearance of academic impartiality) that leans too heavily in every conceivable stereotype and commonplace to describe a century (the XVIII) whose intellectual forces he barely understands. But such lack of understanding is in itself revealing, as he essentially takes a trope well loved by left-leaning thinkers the world over, namely, the fact that every product of the human spirit, be it art, political discourse, philosophy or the arrangement of society itself, is a manifestation of “ideology” to mask the only thing that really matters: the relationships of production (in Marxese, the fact that owners of capital force the proletariat to sell their labor for a pittance, to extract from them the maximum benefit trying to compensate for an ever diminishing rate of return on their investments) and runs with it as long as it would allow (it could be argued that he indeed runs with such tired trope a few hundreds of pages longer than what it would allow, but let’s be charitable here).

Our author (whose name will be left unsaid, there is no need to publicize mediocre writing) doesn’t resort to the pseudo-economicist language his brethren is so sadly famous for (I use the prefix because the relationship between a Marxist and Economics is similar to that between a logical positivist and Religion; they may dabble in opinions about its syntax and how their statements are built, they may, that is, pontificate about the “object language” without actually being able to use it for its original purpose, without really “getting” it), and relies instead in a simpler concept that seems easier to grasp: what makes our own age awful, and made the XVIII century in the West even more awful (and I would argue made the whole of human history everywhere else the absolutely most awful thing ever, but the author seems strangely unable to reach that self-evident conclusion, as it would imply that our current age was the less-awful actually obtaining in the real world’s history, something no self-respecting leftist could ever agree with) was its appalling inequality, an inequality whose defense and justification is the ultimate explanation of everything that every historical character of that time and place set out to do: Mozart operas (“the magic flute” first and foremost among them)? A mere justification for growing differences in wealth and income. The American, English and French revolutions? A shameless power grab by elites to ensure they could increase their exploitation of the hapless populace. Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau and Kant’s philosophy (an odd mixture if there ever was one)? All barefaced defenses of the great unfairness of their society. The ultimate force behind the Industrial Revolution? The desire of greedy capitalists to amass more material goods and differentiate themselves from the toiling masses (and their sequestration of the legislative process to ensure they could do so in ever more egregious ways).

Not especially subtle (or original, again) but it got me thinking about how the perspective of every author is tinted (defined by) his previous political persuasion, and how a few simple concepts (like inequality, in this admittedly somewhat extreme case) are marshalled to provide an explanatory scaffolding far beyond what their ramshackle frame would allow them to comfortably do. It is probably an unavoidable part of our mental architecture, and surely we all do it to a greater or lesser degree. So I started considering how my own thinking may be constrained (or oriented) by my own big idea (the fact that a lot of social constructions, from the most complex organizations to the most everyday individual decisions, are guided by what I’ve called “dominant reason”, which can be summarized as the collectively agreed upon answers to three key questions: “what is the ultimate goal of life?”, “what desires are socially legitimized to attain such goal?” and “how is socially precedence determined (and thus, how are conflicts between individual’s desires solved)?”). And it dawned on me that such big idea could indeed be applied to classify, and better understand the political persuasion of most people, not only the residual and somewhat nostalgic leftovers that constitute the dwindling crop pf disciples of Marx.

It stands to reason that although everybody participates in the main tenets of such dominant reason (everybody is aware of them, as they constitute the default answer to such questions that he may individually offer, prior to any reflection), not everybody endorses them with the same enthusiasm. Every society has its critics, and some are more vocal than others. While most criticize some accessory aspects of the social organization, advocating very minor changes (like the substitution of one governing party by another within the same constitutional framework, which I’m learning more and more is of very little consequence), a few others go against the most fundamental elements that serve as foundation for the whole social edifice. That allows for grouping very naturally political tendencies that, although apparently very different, share between them a definite “family air”, just by considering their attitude towards the current dominant reason. That way you may find that certain strain of conservatism and certain strain of progressivism have more in common than what immediately meets the eye. When the terms “right” and “left” were coined (that was in the States General of France in 1788, according to where the representatives of the Nobility, Clerisy and the “third state” sat), being more or less for maintaining the institutions of the Ancien Régime could be a meaningful distinction, but nowadays it most certainly is not.

Accepting then that such attitude towards the dominant reason of the age is one defining feature of every political persuasion, we may identify a further dimension for distinguishing between those that reject it (or share a basically negative outlook) if we focus on what they would replace it with. Is it something that has already been dominant in our history, or something entirely new? If the former, how close is what they yearn for in time? If the latter, how hierarchical is what they envision as an alternative to today’s system?

Given the characterization along those two dimensions, we could elegantly plot the existing political options in the following diagram:  


Which I would argue defines the different political outlooks of our days better than other, more traditional classifications, typically along a single axis (like progressive vs. conservative, or democratic vs. authoritarian, or individualistic vs. communal). Our taxonomy would then classify the different political philosophies:

-          According to their attitude towards the dominant reason we find first the ones that enthusiastically endorse it (considering more of it should be applied, so it more fully and completely determines your own and everybody else’s life). Let us call them either libertarians (desiderative reason is highly accommodating to possessive individualism, and it can be argued that it has indeed provided for unprecedented levels of individual freedom) or neo-liberals. Both groups overlap, albeit do not entirely coincide: the first appellation is most used in the USA and the 2nd in Europe, but both refer to people relatively opposed to state intervention in the economy and oriented to a mythical laissez faire economy in which the “market” optimally regulates what is produced and how it is distributed, externalities be damned. Note that the opposition to state intervention can be construed as a rejection of any interference with social status being determined by anything different than the possessions any individual is able to acquire all by himself (one of the central features of desiderative reason), as the dreaded state intervention introduces a redistributionist tendency that necessarily alters the “natural” outcome of the market with some exogenous criteria. Distinct from those enthusiastic endorsers we would have people which overall agree with the prevailing dominant reason, but rather than making it “more” desiderative would try to fix it in its current form, which already requires a significant participation of the State in the economy (understood, in opposition with the former groups, as acceptable), and which could admit of an even greater intervention to reduce the inequality of outcomes that the unfettered operation of the markets may produce. As the size of the public sector in most advanced economies is relatively high compared with the historical standard (much, much higher if we extend the comparison to the eras before the development of modern, technologically advanced Nation-States) such people today tend to be classed broadly as conservatives, if they are happy with the last four decades of growing inequality, and consider such an acceptable price to the concomitant increase in GDP (however inequitable distributed -they tend to be in the winning side) or social-democrats (a more European label, in the USA they are simply those aligned with the Democratic party) if they have become increasingly queasy about it. The important thing about those two latest groups is that, as we’ve already stated, they are both essentially happy with the status quo, and think that very minor tweaks are necessary to maintain it humming along (just putting their preferred representatives in power, identified with a political party within the purported democracy in which they think they live). Also happy with the current desiderative reason, but unhappy about how it is being applied we have the populists, with which we will deal in more detail separately. For now, it is enough to note that they are attracted by the current system of values (which they understand as a meritocracy) but not by the way it’s being, or has recently been, applied (as it enhances the social recognition, and gives all the spoils of the social product, to “others” defined in a way that excludes them, based on criteria they can not share) which makes them willing to bet the house on untested formulas that promise to correct such wrong. Finally, we would have the (so far mostly in the fringe, and with little prospect of acquiring political power anytime soon) outright critics (considering the current dominant reason, and its subsequent social system, an unmitigated disaster that cries for being replaced with something better).

-          To analyze the latter, it serves us better to resort to the second dimension, that is, which is the alternative dominant reason they consider optimal, be it a future (mostly undefined) one, or any of its past incarnations. In the former case, I’ve labeled anybody who doesn’t want to share in the dominant reason of any age, including the present one, an anarchist, as they obviously have a problem with settled and commonly accepted rules, be they for determining hierarchies (they would rather dispense with all of them outright) or for establishing what a life well lived looks like (better to leave each individual define it for him or herself -punctiliousness in gender assignations seem to be a fastidious feature of the anarchist tradition). As a brief aside, such outlook, which I have looked with great sympathy in the past, is extremely naïve (Duh!) and self-contradictory. As I’ve said in many other forums, people con not auto-legislate individually the foundation of their morals, or in other terms, give themselves an ultimate goal in life and decide in a vacuum what desires are acceptable and which ones are not. All of those have to be socially provided to boot, and they are both the prerequisite and the consequence of any minimally functioning society (as we see in our own current one, less functioning by the day as the agreement on such issues wanes and weakens). You can aspire to change the dominant reason, but it is irrational and misguided to aspire to live collectively without any reason being dominant at all in the sense I’ve described…

So let’s commiserate poor anarchists for a moment, forever doomed to vie for a dominant reason perpetually in the future because of their wholesale rejection of the current one, whatever the current one happens to be (indeed, since the creation of the movement they have already rejected, and rightly so, the two types of reason that have become dominant: both the bureaucratic one, against which they rebelled in the first international, and the desiderative one, which they currently fulminate). They are joined in their rejection by traditionalists and counterrevolutionaries and legitimists and reactionaries of different stripes, which similarly reject the current reason, but in their case because they would like it to return to a (typically highly idealized) past. Such past may be more or less remote: Marxists would like a restoration of bureaucratic reason, and have the state fully determine everybody’s position in the social hierarchy; Nationalists would like a restoration of romantic reason, and the genius (the ability to embody the spirit of the people, the mythical volk) of each gifted individual being again the sole determinant of the recognition (and eventually the material wealth associated to such recognition) to be granted to him; Alt-righters (or Neoreactionaries) have upped the ante, and are claiming for the rejection of the whole modern project embodied in the three last iterations of the dominant reason, which would take us all the way back to Baroque reason, where the ultimate goal in life was not to satisfy desires, but to prepare for the next life, social rank was determined by birth and only simple, survival-oriented desires (eat good food, have a nice house and a comfortable bed) were socially sanctioned. Surprisingly, they reveal their affinity with the other publicly visible group today that espouses such quaint views of how the good life and the good society that would nurture it look like: radical Islamists (Wahhabis) equally suspicious of modernity, that would like to take society to a pre-modern state not that different from the one proposed by Mencius Moldbug, Nick Land, Andrew Anglin and the like (well, the clothing, the traditions and the race of the simple, contented masses lorded over by the übermensch that know better may be different, but that’s all).

But before leaving my readers to ponder about such fanciful taxonomy of the political kingdom and its consequences, I would like to dwell a little more on the particular taxa that has forcefully occupied the limelight of late: the populists. According to my schema, populists in all ages are essentially conformists that agree with the three tenets of the dominant reason, but feel slighted by the results of its application. There are interesting ways of interpreting great upheavals in human history as populist movements acquiring power and finding out that they could not just redistribute more of the social product to their followers while keeping the ultimate goal of life, the acceptable desires to achieve it and the criteria for deciding who should take precedence in case of conflicting desires between individuals intact, so ended up overturning the dominant reason in which they thought they were comfortable enough:

·         In a big European country, towards the end of the XVIII century (under Baroque reason, although a neighboring country on the other side of a certain channel had already started moving towards the next type), a relatively new class (the commercial bourgeoisie) just wanted to pay less taxes (but at the same time enjoying a similar level of national prestige and security, which required noblemen and priests to pay a bit more). They all publicly professed a religion that in private they mostly despised (but not as much as the aforementioned noblemen). They all harbored the same simple desires and, by seeking to buy a nobility title as soon as their rents permitted, agreed that birth was the main determinant of social precedence. They saw that poor harvests had bred a level of popular discontent between the peasantry that allowed for minor tweaks in the existing system they thought were enough to improve their lot. And they ended up causing the French Revolution, the Terror, the fall of the Old Regime and the consolidation of a new kind of dominant reason in all of Europe and its American colonies.

·         In a much bigger country, straddling Europe and Asia, at the beginning of the XX century (but living in a complicated mixture of reasons that had not fully congealed in a coherent whole that could be called dominant, hence the difficulties of the ruling dynasty to translate the country’s many natural riches in power and international recognition) a group of daring intellectuals tried to harness social discontent from a foreign war gone wrong to impose the rule of a tiny minority (nominally the urban proletariat, in reality y a cadre of opportunists and bandits extracted from the very scarce students of certain branch of German political philosophy) over a huge majority of illiterate peasants. In this case, they succeeded in imposing the reason that was already dominant in the rest of Europe (bureaucratic), developing it in the general direction of more despotism (the Asian tradition?) and less respect for human life and flourishing.

The two previous cases show us populism before democracy, so it was a populism of certain factions of the elites vying for power and trying to grab a larger share of the pie, that only in an advanced phase resort to the masses to strengthen their hand and unleash forces they are typically not able to contain and that end up consuming them (the proverbial revolution devouring its sons). I’ll analyze now two cases that happen in the more familiar milieu of representative democracy and party politics:

·         Again, big European country that had been the poster child of the improvement in material wealth and shared prosperity that bureaucratic reason can generate, with a vibrant cultural life and universities that, both in research and applied science cause the envy of the world. Unfortunately, its cultural and material success makes it arrogant, and it ends up caught in a global war that destroys most of its infrastructure and ends up losing. Far from uniting the population, it ushers a wave of cross-recrimination that is only exacerbated when an international economic crisis sinks its economy even further. Along comes a clear sighted leader, that tells everybody that everything will be OK. He’ll make the country great again without having to change mental habits or old hierarchies. Their dominant reason had not failed them, the motive it was not working any more was that a powerful cabal of secret conspirators was thwarting the normal outcomes of the democratic process, so if they kicked them out, everything would be good again. The guy barely wins a contested election, but scrapes by to form a government that in few months has monopolized all the levers of power within the country, and embarks in a furious program of public works to refloat the economy. Unsurprisingly (given the low level of resource utilization) it rebounds strongly, and in a similarly unsurprising way (given that the renunciation of previous international commitments has closed any means of foreign borrowing) in few years the economy overheats, inflation threatens to rear its ugly head again and corruption and graft in a single party state with no checks and balances are more and more prevalent. To extend the party’s grasp of total power the staid, vaguely boring bureaucratic reason is jettisoned and replaced by none other than its predecessor, romantic reason, as any appearance of fixed rules and impersonal merit recognition is displaced by party loyalty and belonging to the “right” race. You all know how it ends, when the need to keep growing the economy can only be met by crazy rearmament, then imperialist expansion in neighboring land, then total war and then near total annihilation.

·         A very big American country that has emerged from a series of fortunate historical circumstances as the single hegemon of the world system, with unmatched military power, at the beginning of the XXI century (the age of maximum dominance of desiderative reason). By the end of the previous century the system was giving clear signals of exhaustion: innovation was slowing (although most people were not aware, as the media kept reporting more and taller tales of breakthroughs and disruptions that somehow failed to materialize and actually affect average people lives’), median income had been stagnant for almost three decades, and even the frequent wars the country embarked on to keep hidden the continuous flow of resources from the public sector back to (few and well connected) private hands (“weaponized Keynesianism”) never seemed to be won, or even to actually end. Although the middle class has seen its fortunes dwindle, two classes have kept steadily improving: the super-rich (more and more visible in an era where the only true progress happens in communication technologies, thus making everybody’s lives more and more interconnected and visible) and the urban poor. Along comes a clear sighted leader, that tells everybody that everything will be OK. He’ll make the country great again without having to change mental habits or old hierarchies. Their dominant reason had not failed them, the motive it was not working any more was that a powerful cabal of secret conspirators was thwarting the normal outcomes of the democratic process, so if they kicked them out, everything would be good again. The guy barely wins a contested election, but scrapes by to form a government that in few months has achieved little, as checks and balances seem to preempt his every move. In the face of sinking popularity (the ultimate fuel that keeps him going, like most populist leaders) he makes more and more outrageous claims that somehow leave his followers undaunted…

Of course, the final outcome of the second case study has yet to be written. The orange one may be a blip, an anomaly after which the system regains its footing and continues towards ever more enlightened, fairer, more prosperous configurations (with or without desiderative reason that, long as its reign has already been, will some day be superseded, as all dominant reasons have been before). Or he may be the harbinger of something more substantive, a true (and infrequent) revolution that provides the final push to a crumbling system to force it to radically change, setting in motion the (typically serious) disturbances that announce (and are the prerequisite of) a change in dominant reason.

And what I’ve said of the American president could as well be applied to the many populist leaders-to-be waiting in the wings in so many other countries: Will Marine Le Pen end up inhabiting the Élysée Palace? Beppe Grillo in the Quirinal? Is it legitimate to compare the two, and both of them with the Donald? I’ll have more to say on the French election (summarizing: I think not in the end, but wouldn’t be surprised if she did), but I say the comparison is fully legitimate. What we see in all cases is a bare majority forming thanks to the discontent with a situation where no discontent is easily granted. Voters of populists are not the downtrodden of the Earth. Most are employed in economies that, in historical terms, are wildly successful and wealthy. But they all see the future with anguish and feel they are not getting from society as much as they should. I don’t understand them as saying that the rules are rigged against them, they seem to be fine with the rules, at least with how they were interpreted and applied twenty or thirty years ago (when their parents benefitted from them to achieve a standard of living unheard of, and most likely unexpected even by themselves). What has changed (it is important to note that in the populist imagination this is always the case) is that suddenly those same rules that benefitted their parents are benefitting somebody else, and not leaving enough for themselves. Those free-riding immigrants, mostly (although in the middle-class white North American the role the immigrant plays for the European is played by “blacks” and, a late addition, “browns”). It is them who have to be purged from the social body, put back in their place, so the current rationality works again for the benefit of the native sons.

I think that expectation is basically deluded. The generation that is nowadays beginning their professional careers (from the kids entering college to the thirty-somethings that should be settling in a job and being offered their first significant promotions, or starting to generate benefits in their self-started businesses) is working longer and longer hours for more meager rewards not because immigrants are siphoning off all the riches we are collectively capable of creating (what in its face is a pretty absurd notion), but because we have exhausted the possibilities of our current dominant reason, which at this point is not able to make us collectively produce more, or even just enough people to replenish the ranks of consumers that modern economies demand to keep chugging along. We could close our frontiers and prohibit trade as firmly and as tightly as we wanted, and our economies would still be in the gutter (again, compared with those of our parents, which still leaves ample room for them to be outstanding compared with 99,9% of human history) for lack of aggregate demand in the face of a dwindling population AND lack of Total Factor Productivity growth in the face of lack of innovation outside of Telecomms and video games. Want proof that getting rid of the maligned “other” used as scapegoat by the populist leaders rarely, if ever, works? The Germans kicked out the Jews really bad, and see where that took them (I’m aware revisionist historians see their defeat at WWII as the ultimate proof of the existence of that powerful cabal, which then successfully whitewashed history to exonerate themselves… hogwash, the German economy had proved to be inviable before the Nuremberg laws, and certainly long before the start of the war). Expect nothing different if Trump built his wall and repealed every single trade treaty (or Marine did the same). The ills that have created populism in the first place can not be cured with populism own recipe’s.

How could they be cured, then? That, thoughtful reader (you have to be really thoughtful to have made it up to this point!) would be the subject of another post. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The shape of dominant reasons to come

If you are a regular (the regular?) reader of this blog you already know that you should be devoting all your waking hours to craft a new, healthier dominant reason to replace the crumbling, failing one that has been keeping Western societies together since roughly 1750, and the whole world since 1950.

OK, all your waking hours may be a bit of a stretch, it would still be a worthy and courageous and gallant feat to devote a few hours a day to such complex endeavor. Problem is, dominant reasons are defined by being unquestioningly accepted by the vast majority of members of the societies in which they take hold, which means here and now that for your (or mine) effort to bear fruit you need to convince about 7 billion people (give or take a few million here and there) that:

·         The ultimate goal of their life is wrong, what they have been told a life well lived consists in is crap, the definitive good they strive for is a poisonous lie. They need instead to orient all their energies towards “A”

·         The socially sanctioned desires they have been nurtured to harbor, cherish and satisfy are internally incoherent, self-defeating and a source of discontent and dissatisfaction with their own lives. They need instead to start desiring “B”

·         The criterion for deciding your position (and everybody else’s) in the social hierarchy, which determines who yields to whom, who gives orders and who obeys, how the products of the collective efforts are apportioned and who gets precedence and recognition in every public gathering is unjust, unfair and illegitimate. We need to substitute it with “C”

Seems like quite a tall order, doesn’t it?  Specially when neither you nor me have the slightest, darnedest, frigginest idea of what “A”, “B” or “C” look like. To make things even more difficult, their current configuration, somewhat obscured by what good ol’ Karl called a “superstructure” that obfuscates its real nature, has produced a historically unparalleled prosperity and opportunity for enjoyment between the masses. I don’t want to wax too rhapsodical about the benefits and advantages of our current system (I already did in Da System, you know ), but if you want to change the underlying justification that has, in the first place, conjured literally billions of people into existence (no other combination of answers to social organization basic questions has proved, in all of our species history, to produce enough wealth to allow as many of us to be born and survive into reproductive age) and then lifted so many of them out of poverty (regardless of what some theorists, mostly of a Marxian bend, may enjoy pointing out to the soul-crushing, unacceptable, astronomical inequalities of today’s society, they are nothing special seem from a historical perspective, and they constitute the norm rather than the exception of how humans tend to organize their affairs, romanticized imaginings of a “golden age” in our common past aside), you have to be very sure of what you intend to put in its place, as it has many, many, many more chances of making things worse than of improving them (see every experiment of reforming society along entirely new lines, unburdened by the ideas of the past, of the last three centuries, practically anywhere in the world).

What I mean with such “justificatory” reminder (lest my readers forget I tend to group philosophers in two broad camps, one being the former, the other formed by the “critics”) is that there is a strong, well intentioned case to be made for a strong conservatism, as any changes in the basic fabric of social relations (and dominant reason is the most basic of those fabrics, as it constitutes the pre-condition for people being able to agree about anything at all) that has brought us here would be vastly more likely to do harm than good. What I will kindly bring to the attention of my readers is that we are not in normal times, and caution in this case may not be the best part of courage, but the proverbial last nail in the coffin. Having acknowledged that the elements of our dominant reason haven’t become dominant by sheer luck, but because they also happened to be the ones that made the societies which embraced them militarily more powerful (and thus in a Darwinian fashion eliminating those that were more lukewarm in their adoption), we should also remember that the “fitness” of a system (understood as the dominant reason that sets the tone of what ideas have chances of being implemented plus the institutions and customs and mental habits that embody their implementation) is a function of the environment in which it evolves, and that the environment has as much to say about how it thrives (or shrivels) as the system itself.

And what I’ve been arguing in my last posts about technological stagnation, the decadence and demise of our social model and the impending doom of most of what we hold dear (a functioning society, for starters) is that the wild success of desiderative reason has so much altered the landscape that originally facilitated its bloom as to render itself entirely “unfit”. What until now has worked so brilliantly to displace and annihilate any rival system has become completely maladaptive, like a virus that, having colonized most of the cells of its host organism, has little room for expansion short of killing it, and thus condemning itself. Consider:

·      Demography sucks: There is no demographic growth, and in the most advanced societies (Japan, Korea, Singapore, Western Europe, the USA once you take last-generation immigrants from the birth rolls) there is an accelerating population contraction. This is not an aftereffect of the 2008 recession, as the tendency had been brewing for decades. You may search for fancier or fanciest underlying explanations, but I’ll stick to the simpler one (which I’ve dubbed “the gonadal vote”): for most people in those societies, life is simply not worth living. They may not confess it, and even declare to pollsters that their “subjectively perceived life satisfaction” is a 4 or a 5 in a Likert scale of 5, but facts talk louder than words, and the surest way to know how they really feel about their life “all things considered” is to assess to what extent they would fight and exert themselves to extend it to other people (namely, their children). Applying that metric, the undeniable answer seems to be “not much, really”.   

·      Innovation sucks: There is not much technological advance. I know this assertion goes against the grain (to put it mildly) and flies in the face of a real deluge of assertions by journalists and “opinion makers” that insist every single minute and every single day that we are living in the most wondrous, most “disruptive” of times. I’ll remind my readers that a career in journalism consists essentially in acquiring the ability to talk about something you do not understand at all to people (the proverbial masses) that understand about it even less than you. Any doubt? Try to read in the MSM (or even in specialized media) a single article about a subject you are truly knowledgeable about without feeling a) sorry b) indignant or c) shocked by the amount of stupidity, bias, half-truths, common places and outright lies it contains. It is safe to assume the rest of the content is not much better, so extract your own conclusions. So we can safely ignore what journos say (I’m looking at you, Tom Friedman). Regarding opinion makers, they all suspiciously hold titles (either consultants or venture capitalists, or hacks for the former) that make them very likely to benefit from the anxieties and doubts of a society duped into believing that seismic changes are just about to submerge them in a sea of unprecedented innovation. I may devote more time to explain why this society in fact innovates so little (completely head-over-heels incentives, which reward blatant and naked rent seeking instead of risk taking), but as of now, just take my word for it.

Please note I’m not saying no invention will ever again be made. I do not have the slightest clue of what creative contraptions the fewer and fewer true innovators out there may come up with. Neither does Mr. Friedman, or Ray Kurzweil or Elon Musk or Peter Thiel (which doesn’t prevent them from confidently stating that an “AI revolution is just around the corner”… it is not). What I do have is a strong and well informed hunch that the majority of “revolutionary” technologies now in the making will disappoint and fizzle out, that truly disruptive inventions are few and far between, and that our society requires growing amounts of resources to keep a similar pace of innovation to the already anemic one we have grown accustomed to, and that marshaling those resources is gonna be more and more difficult to accomplish.

·      Economics sucks: Even in the realm in which the societies that embraced desiderative reason excelled, the production of material goods, there is not much growth. Well, of course, if demand doesn’t grow (rather the opposite, as there are less and less consumers around due to demographic contraction) and supply doesn’t become more and more effective (due to lack of technological advances that have any measurable impact on productivity, regardless of what brilliant algorithm some kids are developing to play obscure Asian ancestral games better and better) why, oh, why on God’s green Earth would you, a responsible industrialist, want to expand your production? Why incur in the same or more costs (as you can not wring any more productivity from your current factors of production) if you are not going to be able to sell more and more products (as there are not going to be more consumers, and those that are already in the market are not going to have additional income to spend) and thus obtain greater benefits?

Please note I’m not saying no economy will ever grow again, and that the current  trend of long recessions followed by underwhelming (albeit sustained) growth periods will last forever. The whole world right now seems to be in a sweet spot, every major economy growing and with no major scares in the horizon (just like in March 2007, isn’t it reassuring?). The West is not growing its GDP at a dazzling speed (again, compared with the central decades of the XXth century, that really seem to have utterly spoiled us), but growing it is. Ditto for India, China and even Latin America. True, and I’m the first one to rejoice in such blessed state of affairs. But I just don’t see it as either sustainable or equitably distributed (as 99% of the added production is being hoarded by the wealthiest 1% of the population, something that has been happening since the 70’s of last century, as shown in the “chicken graph” I painstakingly devised here: The lies we are told ).So yep, China will experience its ups and downs, more of the former than the latter. It will hit some major bump in the road, and it may get pretty ugly (major social upheaval, overthrowing of the CCP, those kind of things), and then it will resume growth, approaching asymptotically the more advanced economies (that means: never really completely catching up with them, not in this century at least). Ditto for India. Western Europe, Japan, Korea, Singapore, the USA? Minimal growth in per capita terms, and negligible one aggregated, when seen with enough perspective. Sorry to bring bad news, it is what it is.

·      But politics sucks even more: As a result of the three previous trends, politics is broken beyond repair. Most groups have been historically appeased (made to accept their subordinate status) with the promise of an ever growing economy that would, sooner rather than later, “lift all boats”. For a good portion of the XXth century (the period between 1945 and 1970) that promise hold (more or less) true. But not any more. At this point, 90% of the population is proletarian (in the Toynbeean, not in the Marxist, sense). They do not identify themselves with the values, the tastes, the preferences or the policy choices of the 10% that concentrates roughly 100% of the wealth (and 80% of the income, static riches are much more unequally distributed than monetary flows). The 10% favors free trade, open borders, multiculturalism, a meritocratic distribution of outcomes (heavily biased by the differences in endowments different people start with in life) and market based allocation of resources like health services, housing and infrastructure. The 90% favors protectionism (that right or wrong they associate with better paid jobs and labor stability) and restrictions to immigration, identifies chauvinistically with their parochial nation and culture, want to equalize opportunity and a needs based (communal) allocation of resources that ensures that everybody receives a bare minimum compatible with human dignity. Or they will, if the elite hadn’t inadvertently discovered (since the eve of time?) that the best bridle to the masses redistributionist impulses was to show them an easily identifiable outgroup that lived worse than them, and that would thus benefit more from such redistribution. What in the USA so noticeably happens between the non-college educated whites and other minorities: they have been taught to associate taxes with improving the lot of blacks and latinos (to the point of almost reaching their level of consumption), and thus they would rather slash taxes on the rich and be themselves worse off, as long as said outgroup is considerably worse off (the way McCloskey tells it, they choose to have one of their eyes plucked off, as long as their neighbor has both of theirs plucked).

In this case, I am positively saying that I see no respite or occasional improvement in the horizon. Lacking a common understanding of what the good life consists in and how to legitimately pursue such life, we will continue seeing more and more rent seeking, more and more outrageous inequality, more and more traditional politicians deaf to their electorate’s needs (and running for office just to make a buck, or a load of bucks, from it), more and more “anti-system” parties with no positive program, kept together by mere scorn and detestation of any particular pet cause that happens to push their buttons, attracting increasing percentages of the vote and producing more and more hurtful outcomes (Brexit, Trump, Front Nationale, whatever, expect more of them…) This is the area where we can more clearly see that the system is crumbling, that the elites just want to extract as much rent from everybody else as humanly possible (I’ll expand a bit in how they use Economics to justify and legitimize such extraction in a forthcoming post), that the vast majority has been turned into proletarian masses more and more opposed to such elites, but contented and neutered and unable to offer an alternative vision of their own, capable only of saying no, distrusting any “expert” opinion (from climate change to vaccines) and turning to increasingly more destructive ideologies (from radical Islam to alt-right ethno-phantasies).


Given all that, I hope my readers share at least a bit of my concern and my urgency for developing a viable alternative reason that can prevent such dire tendencies, and arrest our slide into ever less functioning social mores.

But starting to shape such alternative will, once again, have to wait for another post…

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

So how is decadence and societal decay going in your corner of the world?

Time for some merry thoughts and uplifting ideas, amid the general squalor of the latest news. Consider:

-          The probability of Geert Wilders winning the Dutch elections now stands close to 50%. They were as high as 80% in February, but latest polls give him about 22 seats in a 151 seats parliament, coming in 2nd or 3rd. Even if he wins, no other party has declared they would be willing to consider a coalition with him, so his chances of becoming prime minister and enacting any of his proposed policies (from a Muslim ban to leaving the European Union) seem basically zilch. According to the (mostly liberal) press Wilders is a bigot, a xenophobe, an anti-muslim candidate whose PVV party is the Netherlands version of the old German NSDAP, and whose election would usher in an age of darkness and turmoil in which his country would leave the EU, expel its foreign population and impose an ethno-state based on racial discrimination and exclusion. If you hear him without that filter, he is a mediocre candidate with a peculiar hair saying things that were non-controversial (and pretty commonplace) twenty years ago but which our politically correct times have turned unimaginable. As the vote is being conducted today, we will have a clearer picture in a few hours, but my hunch is that this first attempt at electing a “European Trump” will fizzle and turn out to be the proverbial storm in a teapot. Not so sure about what may happen in a month in France, though.

-          It’s been eight years since the last recession, and we don’t seem to see any major crises in the horizon, at least in the USA. So we may be on our way to beat the longest expanse of time ever recorded without a recession (10 years, achieved both between 1961-1971 and 1991-2001). Admittedly, like in so many periods of “great moderation” before things doesn’t seem so great for significant numbers. Even with technically full employment, labor force participation rate is the lowest ever, salaries have been mostly stagnant since the 70’s, median income has barely budged and there is an opioid epidemic (again, talking just about the USA here) that has contributed to life expectancy to decrease, a historical first in absence of major war or epidemic.

-          Although Theresa May announced last year that she would invoke Article 50 of the EU treaty on March, and thus effectively trigger the exit of the UK from the Union, she hasn’t taken the step yet, although she has just received the explicit authorization of parliament (with a majority of the MPs being less than enthusiast about such vote, one has to applaud the ability of the prime minster to strong-arm them and bend their will). With an unexpected gain for  the Republican party in Northern Ireland and the Scots threatening with a new independence vote (fueled this time by their desire to remain in Europe, regardless of what the English have decided, and apparently unconcerned by the barriers that countries with independent-favoring minorities of their own would oppose to any newborn state) it seems this would be the time for extra caution and circumspection. But after botching so badly the whole voting process and what has come afterwards I don’t expect this particular piece of cheerful news to last long… 

-          After more than two months in the Trump presidency, no major war has broken out, no twitter feud has absurdly escalated in a nuclear exchange, and no sector of the economy has imploded. Furthermore, every major initiative of the president has either stagnated or quietly fizzled. No wall is being built in the southern border. No commercial treaty has been repudiated. Obamacare repeal is growing more unpopular by the day (more markedly since the Republicans actually spelled what they would replace it with). There seems to be a “kinda” ban on immigration from seven (six according to last count) mostly Muslim countries more or less in place after a disastrous first attempt at implementation, but one has to wonder what percentage of Muslims traveling to the USA it has actually deterred (shocking piece of news for liberals -or Trump follower that believe their man is delivering on his campaign promises: there are many, many more Muslims living outside those countries than inside, and all of them are free to enter the USA without impediments). I know relaxing after so short a time, for lack of such astoundingly bad outcomes is setting the bar absurdly low, but remember we are trying to work up our spirits here… on the big order of things, what the 45th president has done so far seems to confirm that inexpediency, ineptitude and stupidity will be the defining marks of his administration, and although an occasional nuisance such trifecta is likely to have limited effects on the global economy, which so far seems to be coasting along just fine.

I’m still uncertain about the effect it will have on the impending American (second) Civil War, as it doesn’t seem to be doing anything at all to ameliorate the venomous partisanship that has taken hold of the public. So far, his supporters seem to be very pleased of how well things are going, with his man keeping his promises (easy to do when you have promised every thing and its contrary) and showing the middle finger to the despised “establishment” with a new outrage every day (as long as you don’t include in such establishment, that is, the half dozen ex-Goldman Sachs Directors he has appointed to different positions in his administration), and the only remaining hope is that after a few more months of inaction and economic decline of the majority of whites without college education that gave him the crucial mid-Western states they will turn again him and his enablers, feeling betrayed (or duped, or manipulated) and stop watching Fox and hearing Rush Limbaugh and the like. Although that narrative is presented as highly likely by liberal sources, I’m somewhat sceptic about it, and can very well imagine Trump followers maintaining a Republican majority in both Houses in the midterms of 2018, and even giving him a second term.

-          China continues to grow at a reasonable pace, slowly converging to a rate more in line with that of an already advanced (medium income) economy, but still overperforming them all:


Although you have to (always, and the same applies to the national accounting of any developed world country) take the figures cautiously, it seems that the World’s most populous country (yet, soon to be surpassed by India, more on which in a moment) is advancing in the transformation of its economic structures from an export-driven model to one more supported by internal consumption, in both cases hugely dependent on a tremendous capital investment which will be more and more difficult to sustain (and that more and more exceeds its internal savings capacity, which in absence of a trade surplus explains its growing resource to borrowing, and hence increasing debt).

More interesting for the world’s poor, that other huge economy that in previous decades seemed condemned to eternal stagnation is for some years now showing signs of activity, and is slowly (but sure-footedly) in the path to growth, having the “advantage” of starting from a substantially lower level, and thus having more room to play catch up:


You may have noted that many of the reasons to be cheerful are things that have NOT come to pass yet, but will surely do, sooner or later. If not Wilders in the Netherlands, some populist will come to power in a European country (Marine Le Pen will have a good shot soon, Viktor Orban is already in power in Hungary, as is Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland -I know, the prime minister is nominally Beata Szydlo, recently injured in a car crash, but my Polish friends assure me it is Kaczynski who calls the shots). May will invoke article 50 and the UK will be gone, gone, gone, into international irrelevance and economic oblivion (more or less, not that Europe will be doing so much better), with or without Northern Ireland and Scotland. We will have another recession at some point. Trump, of course, may cause a catastrophe in any moment. China is building the World’s biggest credit bubble, and it will burst, and it will be pretty ugly (all the irrational investments made in the last decades to keep things going will be revealed, and forestall any possibility of state-led aggregate demand growth for many years, believe me, I know how it works).  

And we don’t have a clue of when any of those may happen, and how to prepare for them. What we do know is that economic growth will be disappointing and technological advance will be more hype than reality: no “general purpose” artificial intelligence in our lifetime, most likely no self-driving cars, for sure no commercially viable fusion energy, no human in Mars, no permanent base on the moon. Regardless of what wealthy investors and consultants with much to gain from causing “technological anxiety” in gullible CEOs will keep on parroting. Just wonder, who has more to gain from people fearing an ever-accelerating mysterious technology that, although somehow failing to materialize in any measurable metric like TFP growth or life expectancy improvement, continuously threatens every employee of boss with becoming obsolete if they do not pay the dues of the technologically savvy priests of progress that are always knowledgeable about the latest trends (maybe because they themselves conjured them from thin air, regardless of their actual existence)?

If the economy and technology are more likely to disappoint us than not, in the political realm is where things look positively grim. Remember, the dominant reason that allowed Western societies to surge forward since the middle of the XVIII century and that in its latest incarnation became global (desiderative reason) is broken beyond repair, and is not doing the work that a dominant reason is supposed to do: allowing people to coordinate their collective efforts towards a goal universally acknowledged as worthy, through the medium of satisfying socially sanctioned desires and the immediate feedback mechanism of a widely accepted criterion for determining each member’s position in the social hierarchy.

In its absence, what we have is increasing anomia, a proliferation of both self-destructive and society-destructive behaviors in expanding pockets of fundamentalism and nihilism, growing in the margins, fed by the many disaffected that perceive they have nothing to loose, whose attacks on the mainstream foster in response a growing tribalism and nationalism. And remember, economics without technological advance is entirely unable to make the economy grow, you need productivity to substantially improve for that (and such improvement is entirely exogenous in any model).

But as for how the benefits of what society produces are shared it is not economics, but politics who holds the key. And politics require a common understanding of what constitutes a reason for its arguments and conclusions to be accepted as legitimate by the majority. When such understanding is lacking, what we have is a ruling minority keeping most of the gains of whatever lackluster technological advances there still are for themselves, and a ruled majority disconnected from the values and worldview of such minority turning in what Toynbee called a proletariat (Those pesky rebelling proles). Hhmmmm… sounds like a pretty darn accurate description of what has been happening in most of the developed world since 1970, a small fraction of society (the infamous “1%”) hoarding all the gains, and hectoring the other 99% to be more industrious, more frugal, to invest more in their own development, as they bore in the end the sole responsibility for their ultimate failure: failure to cultivate themselves, failure to acquire the needed skills for the jobs of the “new economy”, failure to earn more than their parents, failure to ascend the economic ladder, failure to lead traditional lives with ever more hectic schedules, both parents working for longer hours and less benefits.

And, guess what? People get tired of being told once and again that it is all their fault, but that if they somehow try even harder (or teach their few kids, with unbelievable sacrifices, to work even more) they will reach the promised land of consumerist bliss, when they will all have a bigger house and a more expensive car than their neighbors and their in-laws (something, I almost don’t need to clarify, statistically impossible; that’s the downside of hierarchically ordered groups). Haranguing only works for so long, and people may accept their elder’s judgment at first and internalize their shortcomings for some time, but it is very hard to sustain such belief indefinitely. Sooner or later someone will find how irresistible it is to point to “someone else” as being the real culprit of people dissatisfaction, of them not living up to what is continuously being shown as proper and deserved. As I mentioned in the previously linked post, until now we’ve seen people have protested in a mostly peaceful way, simply voting for the most obnoxious candidate on offer (so expect many more of those to pop up like mushrooms). But, again, that will solve nothing, and will ultimately lead to the discredit of the electoral system itself.


And the prospect of the disaffected masses, having rejected the until now prevalent mechanism for aggregating their will (democratically elected representatives) and sniffing for those “other people” they think are to blame for the thwarting of their ambitions, the frustration of their expectations, the abandonment of their youthful dreams, is truly terrifying. Think in torches and pitchforks. Think in riot police and secret prisons. Think in 1789 France or 1917 Russia. But in the meantime, cheer up, as things are just fine and dandy and everything seems to be going OK!

Friday, March 10, 2017

The importance of ideas (for McCloskey & for me at least)

Coming back to an old theme, I stated in a recent post that it was ideas, big bold generic overarching ambitious ideas what really mattered, more than inventions, more than the application of this or that technology to solve the puny problems we face (in the first world or in the third, the latter not so puny); More, for sure, than the well-intentioned (or mean-spirited) buffoons we seem so fixated on, be they politicians we have voted in office to advance what we understand to be our interests or popular culture media stars who we follow because (baffling as it is for media-averse me) we find their vulgar lives interesting.

On a side note, at the core of the stagnation and ultimate decadence of the post-modern, post-truth, post-economic growth society that happens to occupy the whole surface of the planet I diagnosed an exhaustion of the great ideas that allow for the people forming the society to agree and effortlessly coordinate their actions, which I called their “dominant reason”. The heart of the problem, then, is that the latest evolution of the Western World’s dominant reason, which took its current shape shortly before the onset of WWII, was less and less believed, and thus its commandments were less and less followed, thus the multiple signs of social decay, fraying societal bonds, inability to tackle collective problems (environmental degradation, growing inequality, inability to grow the social product at a speed that would allow us to honor the amount of debts we have been collectively contracting for the last half century, etc.) and overall pall of hopelessness that clearly hangs on the advanced world collective consciousness.

But back to ideas, before diving in the main argument of today’s post, I wanted to dispel an alternative narrative about the utter irrelevance of ideas that had certain currency between historians roughly aligned with the Marxist tradition, for whom the real motor of historical advance were class struggles, and the real explanation of the more readily observable events that come to define each age are the relations of production between the social classes. According to this narrative, ideas belong (with ideology, religion, mainstream discourse and political affiliations) to the “superstructure” that masks the real levers and pulleys that cause people (in their different and multifarious groupings) to act one way or another. Even people (political leaders or widely respected opinion makers) were in the end irrelevant, as corks bobbing in a powerful current. It is the current, and not the cork, which should interest us. So it is the play of productive forces and the property of the means of production what we should pay attention to, without caring much for who won this or that election, or wrote this or that book or declared this or that war. Given the technology, the relations of production and the level of self-consciousness of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat sooner or later (around the middle of the twentieth century) an autocratic leader will seize power in Germany, a war will be declared between Germany and the rest of the world, a communist country will be between the victors of such war, and in the end communism will extend to the whole Earth and abolish the State (well, that turned out to be a less than stellar prediction, so we may treat the whole historical materialistic outlook with a grain of salt).

Sounds fishy, as there are just too many examples of individuals that seem to have had an outsized impact on how events turned out. The rise of Nazism looks pretty much tied to the quirks and peculiarities of Hitler himself, and it is highly doubtful that any other figure would have guided Germany down the path he did. Ditto for Attila, Genghis Khan, Bismarck, Henry VIII of England, Louis XVI, Philip II of Spain and so on and so forth. May be in the end they all rode the waves around them, and in the very, very long run the destinies of the peoples they ruled would have been very much the same (i.e Spain a third-rate country in a more developed Europe, France a second-rate one, very much as England, the Mongol hinterlands a backwater with no relevance whatsoever after the XIIIth century to the history of any other nation), but for the peoples living in the years around their peak influence, it is undeniable that such influence was very considerable indeed. Heck, we do not even need to search for remote and (to the spectacularly unschooled modern day reader) obscure past leaders. Everybody should be familiar with how abruptly the opinion in the leading industrialized (although the term is highly misleading, I’m using It for lack of a viable alternative: ¿”knowledgealized”? ¿”information technologized”?¿”networkized”?) country, the USA, has turned against free trade, much to the surprise of most of the economic profession that thought the universal goodness of trade was an already settled and universally agreed upon tenet:

It would be difficult to argue that such sharp turn is caused by the cunning of reason, or the development of the universal spirit, or the dynamics of the class struggle or the impositions of the relations of production given the current technological level. Heck, sometimes the simpler explanation is the best, and in this case a certain person, about to be elected candidate by one of the increasingly polarized halves of the US electorate dared to utter “trade is bad, we are being killed by those cunning foreigners!” and millions upon millions of his followers just flipped a switch, and went from considering international trade an unalloyed good to thinking of it as an unmitigated disaster. That half of the electorate had another 7 candidates to choose, and I dare to affirm that had another one indeed been chosen (all of which had expressed a more “mainstream conservative” position -at least mainstream back then) the attitudes reflected by the poll within the Republican respondents would be pretty similar to the Democratic ones.

So people matter, and one of the reason they matter is because they embody ideas, they voice ideas, they give credence to ideas, and highlight some and neglect others, they enhance the social status of the adherents of some and degrade the standing of the followers of others. As I mentioned in a previous post about the rise of Trump (unaware then of the extent of such rise), a set of ideas the until November 2016 would have not just disqualified anybody uttering them from any dealing with polite society, but definitely barred them from ever being elected were suddenly openly espoused by people in high positions of power. From the inane (“blacks are partly guilty of their own situation of disadvantage” -how could they not be, if you grant them freedom and agency?) to the morally dubious (“helping the poor perpetuates poverty, and is thus to be frowned upon, condemned and stopped”) to the outright nutty (“there is a genocide against white people being perpetrated by a secret cabal of Jews, blacks, latinos, gays and the UN”).

Let’s then assume that we all accept that ideas are important, and have considerable explanatory power when it comes to the history of mankind and the development of societies. Are all ideas created equal? Or, put another way, which ideas should we focus on, as being most conductive to the advancement of arts and science, most favorable for the flourishing of the lucky humans brought up under their sway? To advance towards an answer I want to turn my attention to a book I finished reading three weeks ago, Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity. Why Economics can’t explain the modern world (needless to say, it was the subtitle which caught my attention, as granting dignity to the hated bourgeoisie, as much as one belongs to it part and parcel, would be too much to any self-respecting anarchist, traditionalist or not). I book I enjoyed immensely, although I strongly wanted to disagree with the author. But her wit, erudition and overall worldview were too overpowering, her putdowns of the pieties of left and right too brilliant and well-argued not to suspend my initial animadversion and finally surrendering with admiration.

Great book, then, by a sharply intelligent, fiercely independent author. In it she analyzes the explanations that have been given to the “great enrichment” (the hockey stick figure I myself used in my dissertation, showing how human history can be reduced to a single event: after tens of thousands of years in which nothing relevant happened, starting in Northwestern Europe in 1750 we have multiplied our ability to produce things we consider useful by a factor of between 16 -being very, very conservative and 100):

  
McCloskey makes a superb work of researching the numerous theses that have been advanced to explain such phenomenon, many of which I was already familiar with. So she (quite successfully, in my humble opinion) shows that it was not that the higher and middle classes started having more children, spreading their values (as Clark argued in his also superb Farewell to alms), it was not that the Protestant ethic made its believers more frugal and good at saving and accumulating capital (as proposed by Max Weber), it was not that Europe successfully copied China and, when arriving at the same dead end of ecological constraint had the luck to find coal geographically close to where it was most needed (the less convincing idea of Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, which I had conveniently finished a few weeks before McCloskey’s), and definitely it was not the greedy expropriation of the commons through enclosures, which in turn forced the pauperized peasants in the hands of the budding industrialists (Proudhon and Marx, although McCloskey is aiming her sights more against Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, another great book I can not recommend highly enough).

Of course, after almost four hundred pages reading what didn’t cause the great enrichment (and thus what formulas are set to fail if we try to apply them to developing economies, in which the evidence is still stronger than the one marshaled by the historic analysis) the reader is aching to learn what in the friggin’ hell did cause it. Alas, he is in for some (judiciously announced in the introduction) rough disillusionment, as for that he will have to revisit McCloskey’s previous book (Bourgeois Virtues) and then read the following one (Bourgeois Equality -both already ordered, but will not have an open slot until 2018 to read them, I’m afraid). However, she gives us enough clues of what she has in mind as the real causes: ideas. Precisely in that age and place (the Netherlands and England around 1750 CE) the bourgeoisie (not in the Marxist sense of “the owners of the means of production”, but just a bunch of merchants and entrepreneurs, as distinct from the Nobility and the Peasantry) were accorded “liberty and dignity”. Basically that’s it. That’s the magic sauce to economic growth beyond your wildest expectations (well, that and the magic of compound interest). You grant liberty and dignity to the middle classes (also referred to as the “aspiring class”, the “enterprising class”, the “merchant class”, the “middling persons” and so on, in an uncharacteristic weakness of the book, as such labels may end up identifying wildly differing sets of individuals, but let’s not nitpick) and Presto! You have your economy mushrooming and soon everybody, even the poorest pauper on the street, is wildly better off than the richest pasha of 1001 nights.

So you want to get Afghanistan out of its current predicament? Grant freedom and dignity to its bourgeoisie! You want to keep China along its current growing path? Grant (even more)  liberty and recognition to its citizens (not only the CCP members)! You want South Sudan to stop depending on international charity and be able to feed its population? Recognize the dignity of its merchants, and let ‘em be free! A bit cartoonish, I know, and Ms. McCloskey is too clever a thinker to fall in these facile traps, but that’s essentially the core of her message, and it is not that off the mark.

However, we may want to understand a bit better what that freedom and dignity consists in, and why it is that the citizens of the USA enjoy a lot of both, why the subjects of Tanzania have very little of both. And for that I may humbly offer my own explanation: dignity is but another name for the granting of a certain position in the social hierarchy that every primate group needs to establish. So when Ms. McCloskey says that the Western powers thrived because they gave dignity, or recognized the value, of the enterprising people between them she is using a different set of words to describe what happened in the transition from a “society of orders”, where such status was determined by birth (in its last iteration what I called baroque reason), to a “society of merits”, where such position was initially accorded to whoever had genius (romantic reason), to whoever was officially recognized by the Nation State apparatus (bureaucratic reason) and finally to whoever had more money/ could command more material goods (desiderative reason).

As for freedom, here McCloskey seems to me to be in shakier ground, as it is not immediately clear to me that a XVIIth century Dutchman or Englishman was in any meaningful sense freer than a Frenchman, or than a pastoralist nomad for what is worth. The argument seems to be that such freedom has in the end very little to do with what Isaiah Berlin termed “positive freedom” (the ability of enjoying unimpeded access to certain options of life) and more with what he termed “negative freedom” (the lack of permission to intrude in other people lives), regarding the State. So Ms. McCloskey seems to think that as long as the State respects the private property of the individuals, and regulates as little as possible their whereabouts, everything is all right and everybody can be considered free as a bird (if they can’t fly… such is life!) Not that I’m against that freedom, but it is too closely aligned to “possessive individualism”, and the story of its birth and gradual increase in the Anglo-Saxon world (explained in stark contrast with its absence everywhere else, from France and any other Southern European country to Germany and of course all of Asia and Africa) smacks too much of a post hoc ergo propter hoc to seem much convincing.

Fact is, for people to be free it is not enough to have the horrible, bumbling, good-for-nothing, interventionist Leviathan of the State off their back. It helps to have some basic guarantees that you will receive an education that equips you to explore and develop your potentialities, that you will be shielded from the worst effects of catastrophic illness. Even that you will not be abducted and sold as a slave. And except for the slave part, they didn’t have much (and specially, they didn’t have differentially more than their surrounding societies) of those in XVIIIth century England or Holland. It is not clear they have universally much of it in all parts of the powerful and distinctly rich USA of today. I’m not saying that liberty is not an important motivator for people, and that its total absence would not be a serious hindrance to economic development, what I am saying is that it doesn’t seem to be as essential a part of the dominant reason necessary to foster spectacular material betterment as having a solid hierarchical criteria that bestows recognition in accumulating material goods. As the Chinese example shows (they are less free in a McCloskeian sense than the USA, but for the last three decades they have been growing much faster… I know, I know, catch-up and all that, but still…) Also, I think McCloskey would be clearer if she substituted “private property” for “liberty”, as really that is what she is talking about: Private property + social hierarchy based on possession of material goods = everybody work their assess off to produce as many material goods as possible (in the hope of retaining as many of them as possible, and thus enjoying as high a status as possible).

Which is essentially correct again, and all I would add is that the efficiency with which people pursue such material betterment can be even more enhanced (and has historically been so enhanced indeed) if people is told that the only thing to live for is the satisfaction of desire, and the only socially sanctioned desire is to improve in the hierarchy, and thus to produce as many thingies as possible (because the more you produce the more you will be able to monopolize for yourself). But had she realized that, she would have written the Critique of Desiderative Reason instead of Bourgeois Dignity, and she would be even closer to being a historian of ideas than she already is…

A final (minor) gripe I would point to is her enthusiastic and unconditional praise of the current capitalist system, in all its neo-liberal glory. Yes, I readily admit that it has been an unquestionable success in lifting untold millions out of the abject poverty of 2,5 dollars a day. Yes, I readily admit that the poorest between the poor have been as much benefitted as any other, and that a pauper in New York today has a better shot at a dignified living than a tribal chieftain in II century Gaul (or in XX century Cuba, although that last contention could be legitimately discussed, with well-intentioned parties reaching differing conclusions). Yes, I readily admit that most of the critiques that have been levelled against such dominant system are harebrained, have been discredited when actually tried, come from unscrupulous hypocrites or from irresponsible (and not too brilliant) academics who do not really understand how the world works.

But, but. We can not choose what the facts are. Even in this post-truth era, truth itself is not up for grabs. But how we judge it, and how genuinely scandalized we are by its most unsavory features is indeed up to us. We can look at the many injustices of the world and just shrug our shoulders, or resort to the panglossian TINA (“There Is No Alternative”, which amounts to Leibniz’s “Lucky us! We already live in the Best of All Possible Worlds”, take it from a Leibnizian), or we can bemoan and protest and denounce and criticize it. We can choose to be “justifiers” (and we would be in the most egregious and excellent company: as I’ve said so many times some of the best philosophers have belonged to this genus, like Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Scotus, Bacon, Machiavelli, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Locke, Hobbes, Hume…) or to be “critics” (you already know who they are, don’t make me repeat myself). Although being “critic” without the certainty of what to replace the current arrangement with may be seen as silly or irresponsible. Although it forces you to believe at the same time that this is the best system that has ever been actually implemented and that it is inhumane and unacceptable, so that every effort has to be made to come up with a viable alternative (as I already said in this old but still very current post: Two views of "da system")

So where I part company with Ms. McCloskey, lamenting not being fully aligned with such excellent and uplifting company, is in my choice not to be a praise-singe, not to be a justifier, not to be a sycophant (not that she is all those ugly things, again she is too intelligent by half for that). Yes ideas are the ultimate explanation of why the West, and why then, grew so astoundingly. Yes “dignity” had a great part on it (and private property, as slight a part of complete freedom as it may be, had another, humbler one). Yes, granting a similar degree of dignity and recognition of the right to possess things is still the surest way to enable economic growth in the underdeveloped societies of today. But in our own, rich and developed ones it is not more justification of the current dominant reason what we need. Because such dominant reason, which still has a lot to offer to the poorest places on Earth, is exhausted and breaking down in the richest. Thus, overcoming it, identifying and promoting the most promising alternatives, those most conductive to human flourishing, is the most urgent task at hand.

Which, how else could it be? Would be the subject of another post.