Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Inside AIG

I thought that I would include the link below for any of you who might be interested. It's blog entries and letters from a few folks from inside of AIG, or so this site maintains. They're not terribly enlightening, but they are interesting, in a let's-watch-the-soaps sort of way. There's only one entry on this page, but there are links to a few more at the bottom.


Two Books

I haven't read much by Michael Chabon, just The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It's a fine novel, and I've meant to read more of his fiction, but I haven't gotten around to it. Somehow, though, I found a book of his essays, Maps and Legends in the library. I say "somehow" because I didn't run across it while browsing. I went looking for the book and checked it out, though I don't recall how I learned of it. In any case, I found it interesting.

There are three basic topics that he dwells on in these essays. First, there's comic books, of which he's fond. In fact, the protagonists of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay become comic book artists upon immigrating to America. Then, there's the golem. That's interesting too. Something I hadn't thought of before is that the Frankenstein monster story is a gloss of the myth of the golem, and Chabon likens a novel to a golem that the author animates and sets loose in the world. I can see his point, but it doesn't resonate with me in that way.

The most interesting topic that Chabon discusses in his essays is genre fiction, which he likes. As he points out, genre fiction is looked down upon by literary critics and by writers who take themselves seriously. Here's how Chabon puts it. "A detective novelist or a horror writer who made claims to artistry sat in the same chair at the table of literature as did a transvestite cousin at a family Thanksgiving. He was something to be allowed for, indulged, pardoned, excused, his fabulous hat studiously ignored."

That pretty much sums it up, though there are lots of reasons to be disdainful of most genre fiction. As Chabon puts it, "A genre implies a set of conventions -- a formula -- and conventions imply limitations (the argument goes), and therefore no genre work can ever rise to the masterful heights of true literature, free (it is to be supposed) of all formulas and templates." He goes on to add that this is mostly the fault of publishers, who use genre as a marketing tool. I might also add that, in most genre fiction, the writing is just plain bad. It pains me to read it.

However, it's not as simple as all that. So-called literary fiction isn't as free of formulas and templates itself. Take a look at a book of short stories by an author who is acknowledged as someone to be taken seriously. As Chabon points out, they are likely to be mundane and plotless, with a moment-of-truth epiphany at the end. He's right on the mark there, and Chabon admits that he himself has written many such short stories. Of course, he's the product of an MFA program, so he probably didn't have much choice.

I finished another book a few days ago. It was a novel called The Resurrectionist by Jack O'Connell. It's a nice piece of work. I read an earlier novel of his, The Skin Palace, that I didn't much like, but I'm glad I gave him a second chance. The Resurrectionist isn't what you would call a conventional novel. It's about this guy by the name of Sweeney, who has a six-year-old son who is in a coma as a result of an accident. He's moved the son from the care facility where he'd been staying to the Peck Clinic, where they are supposed to be doing cutting edge work on treating patients who are in persistent coma states. Things get weird from there.

There's a parallel story that's going on at the same time. You see, Sweeney's son loved a series of comic books called the Limbo comics, about a traveling band of circus freaks, and Sweeney reads aloud from these books to his comatose son. As soon becomes clear, the events in the comic book parallel those in the real world in a strange, surreal way. I use the word "real" advisedly, since the book is, and I'm using a genre term here, a fantasy. O'Connell would probably prefer the description "magical realism", since fantasy often implies unicorns, busty witches, and imaginary realms. In any case, it's a damned good book, and worth a read.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Coup and the Rapture

The article, "The Quiet Coup", which appears in The Atlantic and is linked to below, is an interesting take on the current economic crisis. Its thesis is that there will be no solution to the crisis until we overthrow the financial oligarchs who have seized effective control of the government and economy over the last thirty years. The author of the article was chief economist at the IMF in 2007 and 2008, and is currently a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, so he doesn't state the thesis in such stark terms, but that's what it comes to.


It's interesting though. Not so long ago, anyone who proposed such a thing would have been condemned as a commie or ridiculed as a woolly-headed utopian. Now it's MIT economists. Could this be a sign? Perhaps the damn fool Christians are right, and their Rapture is just around the corner. Did you know that there's actually a "Rapture Letters" web site?* Here's how it works. If you are a believer in the Rapture and you want your non-believing friends and family to know what happened should you suddenly disappeared, you just send their email addresses to this site. When the Rapture occurs, emails will automatically be sent to these people, letting them know what happened to you and encouraging them to get right with God before it's too late. Now, you might ask, since the web site's owner presumably thinks that he will be one of those who will be taken up into heaven, how will the letters get sent? Well, you see, it's a dead man's switch situation. He resets his program everyday and, if he fails to do so, off the emails will go. And the guy who runs the site and is in his late forties is convinced that the Rapture will occur in his lifetime. These poor folks, they're so afraid of their own mortality.

*I refuse to link to such a site. If you want to see it, you can search for yourself, but it's pretty unremarkable as web sites go.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hey, Paul Krugman

I ran across this cute little political tune called "Hey, Paul Krugman". It's catchy too. Upon watching the video, I couldn't help but wonder at how times have changed. Back when I was young, the political singers, guys like Pete Seeger, sang folk songs to acoustic guitar accompaniment. Now we have videos and synthesizers. Some changes are indeed for the best.


On Trash for Cash

This is a great summary of the current financial situation, and of the so-called solution that is being implemented by the Obama administration. I found it on the Naked Capitalism site.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Things Turning Around?

I get DSL from AT&T, so my home page is Yahoo! I know, I could change it, but that's where my web mail is, so I'd have to visit the damned page anyway. That being as it may, one of the headlines there says, "Wall Street rally reignited, stocks soar". The article under the headline, which comes from AP, says,

"Analysts who have seen the market's recent false starts are still hesitant to say Wall Street is indeed recovering from the collapse that began last fall. But the day's banking and housing news bolstered the growing belief that the economy is starting to heal, and that is what had investors buying."

So, what do I take from that? First is what it reveals about those who are calling the shots. They seem to think that this is nothing but an ordinary recession writ large. If that is the case, then we're simply suffering a crisis in confidence. Restore confidence and things will start to right themselves. Sounds good, if the analysis is correct. There are those, like Paul Krugman, who say it isn't. As he says in today's New York Times,

"If the reports are correct, Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, has persuaded President Obama to recycle Bush administration policy — specifically, the 'cash for trash' plan proposed, then abandoned, six months ago by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

"This is more than disappointing. In fact, it fills me with a sense of despair."

Who is one to believe? Well, I don't know, but I'm inclined to disbelieve the AP article. In the first place, it is not the case that the stock market necessarily reflects the strength of the economy. For one thing, it's all too easy to manipulate, particularly by the big institutions. We don't know whether or not the Treasury and Geithner's pals on Wall Street are manipulating the stock market in order to put a positive spin on the "cash for trash" plan that the Obama administration is implementing. If I had to guess, I'd say that's a large part of it and then there's a coattails effect. If word gets out among Wall Street traders that the Treasury is pumping funds into the market, traders will buy in the hope of riding the upsurge and getting out with a tidy profit before the rally collapses.

The National Association of Realtors' reported an increase in existing home sales. That's the good housing news that the AP article referred to. There's a caveat here though. One needs more details about those sales. Here's an example. According to another AP article, a "truckload of investors" have descended upon Detroit, where the median sales price for homes has fallen to $41,000. These investors aren't people who plan on living in those homes. They plan on fixing them up and moving them back onto the market when it recovers. If it recovers. I don't call sales like these a positive or negative sign. They're pretty much neutral, yet we don't know what percentage of existing home sales are of this type, so how can one call it good news?

The banks need to be nationalized and cleaned up. Glass-Stegall needs to be reinstituted. Other forms of regulation need to be implemented and rigorously enforced. Unless that happens, I have to agree with Krugman. There's cause for nothing but despair.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Apres Moi

I'm linking to an article from the Rolling Stone. Its basic premise is as follows. "The reality is that the worldwide economic meltdown and the bailout that followed were together a kind of revolution, a coup d'état. They cemented and formalized a political trend that has been snowballing for decades: the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders, who used money to control elections, buy influence and systematically weaken financial regulations."

Amen to that. What I particularly like about this article is that it discusses the economic crisis in plain, in-your-face language with a minimum of the buzz words that the financial types like to use to obfuscate the issue. I would like to say that it offers some hope, but it doesn't. It merely documents in some detail what others have said, that the Treasury Department has become a branch of Goldman Sachs. Hank Paulson was a Goldman boy, as was Geithner and his chief assistant. The claim is made that AIG is going to get even more money because it owes Goldman. Oligarchy at work, man.

I hate to say it, but I see my worst fears being realized. Obama talks a good game and he's got the common-man touch with his very public college basketball brackets and his appearance on the Jay Leno show, but he's a captive of Wall Street. He's not going to be able to do the things that will turn things around, namely nationalize the big banks, sell off the parts of them that have some value, and deep six the rest. Once people see that his promises have turned empty, they're likely to turn to more extreme figures, figures like Rush Limbaugh, or at least someone with his stamp of approval. It's a depressing prospect. The oligarchs are determined to hold onto their money and power at all costs, even if that means fascism, and if they go down, they intend to take us down with them. Apres moi, le deluge.

I found the link for this article on the Naked Captitalism site, which I'm now including in my list of sites. It's often wonky and heavy going, but it's also informative.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Harlan Ellison

The writer Harlan Ellison is pretty much a hack, but he is an outsized personality. As one example of that fact, consider this. He once flew from LA to New York just to punch out some guy who had unsuccessfully hit on his girl friend decades before. And Ellison is only five-four. Well, he's apparently suing Paramount and the Writers' Guild West over some script he wrote for the Star Trek TV show. I don't know much about the merits of the suit itself, nor do I much care, but this rant of his is wonderful, so I had to reproduce it here.

"And please make sure to remember, at the moment some Studio mouthpiece calls me a mooch, and says I'm only pursuing this legal retribution to get into their 'deep pockets,' tell'm Ellison snarled back, 'Fuckin'-A damn skippy!' I'm no hypocrite. It ain't about the 'principle,' friend, its about the MONEY! Pay Me! Am I doing this for other writers, for Mom (still dead), and apple pie? Hell no! I'm doing it for the 35-year-long disrespect and the money!

"The arrogance, the pompous dismissive imperial manner of those who 'have more important things to worry about,' who'll have their assistant get back to you, who don't actually read or create, who merely 'take' meetings, and shuffle papers -- much of which is paper money denied to those who actually did the manual labor of creating those dreams -- they refuse even to notice...until you jam a Federal lawsuit in their eye. To hell with all that obfuscation and phony flag-waving: they got my money. Pay me and pay off all the other writers from whom you've made hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars..from OUR labors..just so you can float your fat asses in warm Bahamian waters.

"The Trek fans who know my City screenplay understand just exactly why I'm bare-fangs-of-Adamantium about this.

"They maintain fortresses staffed and insulated with corporate and legal Black Legions whose ability to speak fluent bullshit is the ramadoola of gyrating, gibbering numbers via which they cling to every dollar. And when you aren't getting paid for the marvels you helped bring forth -- fine, hard, careful artifacts that are making others pig-rich -- at some point any sane person knows he has three, and only three choices: the first is to sit around dinner parties and ceaselessly whine over your sushi about how they screwed you, boo hoo, but you can't beef about it Out There in the World or they'll blacklist you; the second is to pick up an Uzi somewhere, crash your SUV through a Studio gate, and just run amok; and the third, last, choice is this one -- to act like an adult, to take 'em on in Federal Court and to make the greedy, amoral bastards blink blood out of their eyes. What they do is tantamount to common street-thug robbery...just add the pig-rich Madoff-style smoothyguts attorneys.

"And I learned today that the Actors Guild is having to fight, right now, just to maintain the very concept of residuals as part of their agreement with the Producers. So I am happy as a centipede-with-track-shoes that this infamous behavior, arrogantly ignored for too damned long, is timed to call attention to the degree to which the creative cadres in this business are getting parboiled and served up in a dog-dish! The part of this imbroglio that truly dismays me, is that my once-tough, beloved Guild -- my UNION -- that got massively screwed when it let the Alliance scare the slacker-gen dolts into thinking not losing a job meant 'just bend over and grin,' -- if one's own damn Guild won't help you, – when you've entreated them for months -- then hell, you've got no choice but to raise the skull and crossbones, hone the edge of your demon attorney, and just start cutting off noggins and nuts.

"Cowardice is like parrot fever in this town; I think there are writers and other artists who revel in being bitch-slapped, in being pilfered on a regular basis, as if they were artistic trailer-trash! And if the WGAw isn't going to watch my back -- and I've been their loyal hit-man, pit bull, and go-to guy for 47 years -- I dread the possibility that the timorous Guild won't raise the bloody axe for other artists, writers, actors...saner and less pissed-off than I. So you can tell 'em I'm coming!"

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Writer Beware

My novel, Buster Bungle's Big Top, will be ready to turn loose upon the world at the beginning of next week. I've been looking into publication. In the best of times, it's extremely difficult to find a publisher. Even before the current financial crisis, publishers had begun to change their business philosophies. They had begun to shed their mid-list authors as they took the Hollywood blockbuster approach to publishing, looking for those homerun books that would sell in the millions and make the big bucks. Now it's even worse. Under financial duress, some publishers are breaking contracts and demanding the return of advances that they have paid. Some are no longer even accepting manuscripts until times get better.

The literary world is full of scams and questionable schemes of all sorts. The bogus poetry anthologies are probably familiar to some of you. Some asshole will set himself up as a publisher and ask for submissions to a poetry anthology. He'll accept a poem from everyone who sends a submission, but the poet will be required to buy one or more copies of the anthology at inflated prices. This isn't illegal if properly done, but it's certainly sleazy. Even worse are the phony agents, who demand reading fees and such, then do nothing for their unfortunate clients.

It's no surprise that these sorts of practices exist. There are so many would-be authors out there who are desperate for publication that a certain number of them are bound to fall for these schemes. In the current environment, the problem has only worsened. It is for this reason that I was very glad to find the Writer Beware blog run by one Victoria Strauss. Writer Beware is an industry watchdog group sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Don't let that put you off. The blog is full of valuable information and advice for anyone who might be interested in publication, whatever the genre.

The blog has already helped me in regard to the Authonomy web site that is hosted by Harper Collins UK. At first, it looked like a great deal to me, but not now. After reading about the experiences of others on the Writer Beware blog, I'm not going to bother with it. Here's how the web site works. You register and post 10,000 words or more of your manuscript on the site. Other registered visitors to the site can read your manuscript and critique it. Likewise you can read and critique their work. There's also a forum in which you can interact with others. The manuscripts that are posted on the site are ranked, based on the critiques they have received. The top five are periodically read by Harper Collins editors with an eye toward possible publication.

I liked the idea when I first came upon it but, as is pointed out on the Writer Beware blog, it amounts to an electronic slush pile and it's a sweet deal for the publisher. Harper Collins doesn't have to pay people to work through the pile. The web site's visitors do it for free. It isn't that this is a scam or anything like that. It just isn't what one might think it would be. As a few commenters on the Writer Beware blog who claimed to have experience with Authonomy pointed out, it becomes an exercise in networking. Even worse, it becomes a you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours situation. If you give an author a less than enthusiastic critique, you're likely to receive the same in return, so everyone tends to say nothing but nice things about the manuscripts. That being the case, those authors who work hardest at networking find their manuscripts rising to the top. That wouldn't work for me. I'm not lickspittle enough to thrive there.

The lesson to be learned is one that I've learned many times before. There's no easy road to publication. It's a hard slog, and you can't let it get you down. That said, I'm impressed enough by the Writer Beware blog that I'm including a link to it here on my own blog.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Media

The newspapers are dying, or so they tell us. Some have been going under. That's a fact, and others are laying people off. The consensus seems to be that this represents a change of paradigm and that the internet is to blame. I'm not so sure of that.

Last week, I watched some of a video of a speech given by Robert Fisk, the prize-winning Middle East correspondent for The Independent. He was speaking in Berkeley as part of a promotional tour for his latest book. During his address, he spoke to the question of the decline of the print media. He made some points that I found interesting. For one, there's the quality of writing. Fisk read a couple of short pieces by soldiers writing from Iraq. They were quite eloquent and, as Fisk pointed out, you don't read writing like that in the New York Times. Though it's a fair point, I don't think that's any part of the problem with the print media. It wouldn't help the newspapers if they were filled with the best of writing. In the first place, most people have trouble telling good writing from bad. Secondly, I don't think they could care less.

Fisk touched upon the true problem when he talked about how he hated this fetish with giving both sides of everything. When the Israelis recently invade Gaza, they were doing all the killing, and they were making little distinction between combatants and civilians. Yet the media made a point of presenting both sides of the event, as though the question of whether it was right or wrong depended on how you looked at it. Fisk believes that journalists should be advocates for the downtrodden. As he points out, too many journalists, particularly those covering wars, want to be soldiers. He tells the story of a reporter from the Midwest who arrived in Iraq with his shoes painted in camouflage colors. That's how badly the fool wanted to look like a soldier.

I don't think that Fisk went far enough though. If the reporters being sent to the Middle East are soldier wannabes, if they identify with the military instead of its victims, why is that the case? There are plenty of good reporters who would like to do hard-hitting, investigative journalism, but the papers won't put them in positions to do it. The fact of the matter is that, when it comes to the major media, both broadcast and print, the range of acceptable opinions couldn't be much more restricted. Maybe in the case of an out-and-out totalitarian dictatorship, but short of that, you've got Shields on the left, and Brooks on the right. God, but that makes my brain ache, thinking of Shields as a leftist but, the fact is, anyone who proposes anything left of him is seen as a wooly-headed fool who has trouble distinguishing reality from intellectual fantasy, or as an angry malcontent, who is just one step away from terrorism. More leeway is permitted on the right, when it comes to designating someone a terrorist. Imagine what would happen to Rush Limbaugh or Chuck Norris, if they had made their recent statements from a left perspective. The news shows would already be full of videos of their perp walks.

If the media addressed people's real concerns, things might be different, but why go out and pay fifty cents a day for something that doesn't address one's real needs? I live in Atlanta and, for a long time, I bought the local paper mainly to read about local sports. The rest of the paper didn't interest me. The reporting of international and broader national events was poor. The editorial analyses were shallow and lacked real insight. Several years ago, I finally gave up on it altogether and stopped buying it. Were there more hard-hitting reporting, I might have kept buying it, but it's now all about entertainment and distraction. A look at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's web site is instructive. In the center of the page is a list of headlines. This morning there are eleven. Seven of them are reports of local incidents, such as crimes, a court decision on guns at the airport, and kids drinking windshield fluid at daycare, all of which have the effect of convincing one that the world as a dangerous and unpredictable place. One is sports related. There are two headlines related to local political topics, and one about John Stewart's confrontation with Jim Cramer on The Daily Show. If that isn't bad enough, there's a box in a prominent place on the right with the title of "Buzz". Six more headlines are there, and they're all related to gossip about celebrities. If this is the press that's dying, let me throw a shovelful of dirt on its coffin.

Now, John Stewart's confrontation with CNBC slimeball Jim Cramer on The Daily Show. I'm not going to go into it. Stewart pretty much demolished Cramer. There's coverage of that in many places, and I'm not going to try to compete with it. I'd just like to make this point. It's an indication of just how sorry our media has become when a comedian on a sketch show is the most incisive critic of the mainstream media coverage. Just think about it. Stewart doesn't pretend to be anything other than a comedian, but he gets to the truth of things more often than those who would claim that it's their job to do so. Is it any wonder that people turn to blogs and web sites for their information? Maybe we shouldn't be lamenting the decline of newspapers. Maybe we should be celebrating it.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Health Summit

Obama is holding a health-care summit, so drop your drawers, bend over, and grab your ankles, but it won't be a procotologist who's coming up behind you. (I'm getting a colonoscopy tomorrow and I haven't had one before, so anal insertion is on my mind.) It'll be the insurance industry, gearing up to give you a ream job. Never mind that the majority of the public would like to see a government-run, single-payer health system with universal coverage. Never mind that it works well for Medicare and for our neighbors to the north. It ain't gonna happen, because the likes of the folks who brought us AIG are going to see to it.

Obama has spoken favorably of the Massachusetts health-care system, and that's apparently the best that we can hope for, though a recent Boston Globe editorial piece called it a failure. Here's how it works. Everyone is required by law to have health insurance. If your annual income is up to 150% of the poverty line, your premiums are fully subsidized. If your income is up to 300% of the poverty line, the premiums are partially funded on a sliding scale. Employers are required to insure a certain percentage of their employees. If you are unemployed or aren't covered by your employer, you must purchase insurance through a Massachusetts state agency. Failure to do so could result in fines of up to $912 annually.

There are lots of things wrong with such a system. In the first place, what it amounts to is a regressive, private tax on the public, the proceeds of which go to the insurance industry. Secondly, when you have sliding scales, with segments of the public paying the full premium while others are only required to pay a portion of it, you end up with a massive bureaucracy to handle the health-care system. Thirdly, the coverage is not necessarily all that good. With $30 co-payments for office visits, those with chronic conditions can find their costs mounting, and that's not the worst of it. As the Boston Globe editorial pointed out, someone with an annual income of $31,213 could end up paying $9,872 in premiums.

Think Obama will come up with something better? Think again. As I said, he's has publicly praised the Massachusetts system, and I think it's instructive that he's chosen Kathleen Sebelius as his secretary of Health and Human Services. Prior to her stint as governor of Kansas, she was its insurance commissioner.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Moral Midgets and Class Warfare

This is too sweet. Remember Rick Santelli? He's the bozo on CNBC who ranted about the government bailing out the "losers" who faced foreclosure. Well, as it turns out, CNBC is owned by General Electric, which accepted loan guarantees of at least $139 billion to keep from going under. So, Santelli himself is living off of a government dole.

Guys like Santelli piss me off so much that I can't even watch the news without my blood pressure going up. Last night I saw Bernanke on the Lehrer News Hour. He was testifying before Congress and he was asked about why they were giving more money to AIG. He said, and I paraphrase, that the idea of bailing out AIG's shareholders angered him, but that they couldn't afford to let the company go under. What a son of a bitch. Like those were the only two choices, bail out AIG's shareholders or let it go under. What about nationalization on terms favorable to the tax payers, not the shareholders. It all makes me so sick. In moral terms, figures such as Bernanke, Geithner, and Summers are just one step below the likes of Adolf Eichmann. They may not themselves be throwing people out of their homes, forcing people out of their jobs, and inflicting misery upon millions, but they are administrators of a system that does these things, and they are culpable. They are damned culpable, and they should be behind bars.

It is often said that politics is the art of the possible. That right there is why politics is a morally bankrupt pursuit. There are certain issues that are moral in character. To take one example, look at what the Israelis did in the Gaza strip. That was an outrage. A legislator who had any moral sense at all would have introduced a bill that condemned the action and immediately cut off all aid to Israel. If anyone in Congress introduced such legislation, it certainly hasn't been reported. On the domestic front, take health care. Anything less than universal, affordable coverage is an abomination. Yet, where is the legislation setting up a single-payer, government-administered health care system like they have in Canada? Nowhere, because the moral midgets who run this country are in the pocket of the insurance industry. They are deserving of nothing but our contempt.

The ordinary people of America need to realize that we are in a class war, and that these people, these politicians and business people are, with few exceptions, our enemies. Until we do, they will continue to walk all over us.


Here's a link to an article in Vanity Fair about the Iceland's bankruptcy by the financial writer, Michael Lewis. If you thought things got out of hand on Wall Street, they pale in comparison to Iceland. The article is long, but I found it worth reading.


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Walking Like A Socialist

I like this from Paul Krugman. You know things are getting bad when he comes off sounding like somebody who writes for the Monthly Review.

"Every plan we’ve heard from Treasury amounts to the same thing — an attempt to socialize the losses while privatizing the gains. We’re going to buy up all the bad assets at premium prices; no, we’re going to offer the banks guarantees against losses; no, we’re going to let private investors buy the stuff, but offer them de facto guarantees against losses in the form of non-recourse loans [...]

the insistence on offering the same plan over and over again, with only cosmetic changes, is itself deeply disturbing. Does Treasury not realize that all these proposals amount to the same thing? Or does it realize that, but hope that the rest of us won’t notice? That is, are they stupid, or do they think we’re stupid?"

Economics Is Not A Science

Like many people, I've been reading a lot about the current financial crisis, and one thing that has really struck me is how thoroughly people have drunk the Kool-Aid when it comes to economics. Here's a quotation from the comments of a blog I frequently read. "Even Krugman is coming under fire from his readers for whining about savings rather than spelling out a strategy he thinks will work! If a Nobel Prize winner can't do it, who can?" This commenter apparently believes that economics is a science, and that a leading figure like Krugman should have the expertise to know how to approach the current crisis. Likewise, when Obama appointed Summers and Geithner to their posts in his administration, he was criticized on the grounds that they were among the people who got us into this mess. Supporters responded that, although this might have been true, they were possessed of the expertise required to deal with the current situation. Both of these responses imply the belief that economics is a science on the order of physics or chemistry, and that it's practitioners will best know how to deal with ongoing crisis.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Economics is rife with unsupportable assumptions and faulty reasoning. The Australian economist Steve Keen documents many of them in his fine book Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences. I won't try to summarize everything he says. I'll just give a taste of it. As he points out at the beginning of his book, economic theory assumes "that the best social outcomes result from individuals looking after their own self-interest: the market will ensure that the welfare of all is maximized." When it comes to modeling consumption, economists assume: "(a) that all people have the same tastes; (b) that each person's tastes remain the same as her income changes, so that every additional dollar of income was spent exactly the same way as all previous dollars -- for example, 20 cents per dollar on pizza, 10 cents per dollar on bananas, 40 cents per dollar on housing, etc." As Keen points out, those assumptions are patently absurd but they have the virtue of making possible the smooth demand curves demanded by the mathematics of econometric models. However, there are other consequences that attendant upon this approach. For one thing, by making unrealistic assumptions like these, economists can demonstrate that unregulated markets lead to the best possible outcome in meeting consumers' demands. For another, these assumptions banish class from economics.

I won't try to summarize anymore of Keen's arguments. I will just refer the reader to his book. It really is excellent, though it's tough sledding. I might add though that Keen is not a Marxist or anything like that. He's not pushing a radical agenda and using his critique of economics as a way of realizing that agenda. Rather, he's a university professor who is trying to effect a quantum revolution in his field of study. Addressing the question of why economics has not advanced, here's what Keen says. "There are many reasons for this failure of economics to accept fundamental criticism, and to evolve a different but richer theory. As I discuss later, these include the undeniable complexity of economic phenomena, and the impossibility of conducting crucial experiments to decide between competing theories. But a key reason -- the one which motivated me to write this book -- is the manner in which economics is taught."

Okay, I'll agree with that, but I'll go on to ask the following question. Why is it taught that way? Why don't those economists with a more profound understanding of the subject rise to prominence and thus influence the way economics is taught? Keen doesn't ask the latter question, probably because that's where political ideology rears its ugly head. I would maintain that the Chicago school of neoclassical economics has risen to prominence because it supports the status quo, and I don't see much prospect for that changing.

Here's how I see it working. It is only natural that the government and the large financial institutions are going to hire economists who support their policies and practices. Given their positions, these economists will come to be seen as dominant figures in their profession. When they leave the government or Wall Street, they will take positions in the economics departments of the elite universities like Harvard and Yale. The PhD's who graduate from the economics departments of those institutions will be seen as the most desirable hires by other universities. They will get their papers published in the most prestigious journals, and thus rise to the top of their profession. Next thing you know, the theories that support the status quo end up as the accepted doctrines. I don't believe that this is just the case in capitalist countries. I suspect that something similar happened in the past in the Soviet Union.

The upshot of what I'm saying is that economics isn't a science, not in the sense of physics or chemistry. Back in the nineteenth century, the discipline was called political economy. That was probably more accurate, since it will always have a political component. As for Keen, the approach that he champions is based on systems theory. You don't have to be an economist to believe that it's a much more realistic approach to economic behavior since the world's economies are, in fact, complex, dynamical systems.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Hating Christianity

I hate Christianity. I really do, and I've said it before. Don't get me wrong. I don't hate Christians. As they like to say themselves, hate the sin, not the sinner. Nor do I think that Christianity should be outlawed or anything of that sort. People believe a lot of foolish things, and it's their right to do so. Just pat them on their little heads, and tell them not to bother the grown-ups.

Why the antipathy toward Christianity? One of the things I really hate about it is that it teaches people to be ruled. Christians will say that God helps those who help themselves, which would seem to imply a participatory democracy, but that's not what Christians believe. Look at the evangelicals. They're always running around calling Jesus "Lord". In fact, one of their favorite exclamations is, "Jesus is Lord!" And what is a lord? According to The Oxford College Dictionary, its historical meaning is "a feudal superior, esp. the proprietor of a manor house." It also means "a master or ruler". So, evangelicals are saying that one's relationship to Christ should be as that between a serf or slave and his master. The language of Christianity is rife with these expressions that imply a feudal relationship between the Christian and God. To take just one example, how about, "God's will be done." This too is feudal, where it is the duty of the vassals to submit to the will of their master.

With Catholics, this master and ruled relationship is even more blatant. Their church an out-and-out feudal organization that makes no apologies about it. The Pope in the Vatican is the king. It is even claimed that his pronouncements on matters of faith are infallible. Yes, boys and girls, infallible. You see, he has a pipeline directly to God, so he can't be wrong. It's just the old divine right of kings rewritten a bit. The cardinals and bishops are the lordly earls and dukes, and the priests are the knights, responsible for keeping the serf-like flock in line. So a few renegade priests pop the cherries on the poop chutes of a few boys here and there, it pales in significance to what priests do for the church hierarchy. That's why the church does its level best to protect those priests from prosecution by the legal authorities.

Now there are those who will say that evangelicals and Catholics aren't representative of all Christians. They will maintain that there are Christians with a more nuanced understanding of the faith. To which I reply, bullshit! These supposedly more liberal varieties of the Christian faith still embrace a relationship between God and believer that is like that between master and ruled. Here's just an example. Even these denominations would say that they worship God. Look at that verb, "worship". It implies an unequal relationship. Remember all those Hollywood movies where people refer to kings and lords as "your worship". Now, I'm not saying that the Hollywood usage of the term is historically accurate, but it does touch upon the understanding of "worship" in the popular mind. Of course, this still leaves sects like the Unitarians, but are they really Christians? I had a roommate in college who was a Unitarian and he liked to say that Unitarianism was for people who no longer believed in God but couldn't break the habit of going to Church on Sunday.

Nothing that I'm saying here is new. Friedrich Nietzsche was much more eloquent on the subject than I could ever be. As he put it, Christianity is a slave religion. He claimed that the reason it spread so rapidly was because it maintained that the virtues of a good Christian were those of a good slave. Thus, the downtrodden of the Roman Empire rushed to embrace it. Whether or not that's historically true, I don't know, but his fundamental point is correct. Christianity is a slave religion, that lauds the virtues of slaves, which means that a lot of people were bound to love it. The fact is that human beings aren't democrats by nature. They don't want to put out the time and energy that it takes to rule themselves. An interesting book on that point is Fanshen by William Hinton. He happened to be living in a Chinese village during the Communist revolution. In the beginning, that revolution was characterized by a lot of idealism, and attempts were made to implement a radical democracy in the villages of the country. As Hinton shows, the people of the village in which he resided soon grew tired of the constant votes and meetings. That was the beginning of the end for true communism, and the beginning of totalitarianism. The fact is that we're sheep, and sheep we shall remain, but that doesn't mean we need a Jesus Christ or any other half-assed shepherd.