The Meridian of Her Greatness

On The Great Transformation, suffering, and still using Malick stills for all of my blog posts.

meridian.PNG

Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation

I

Every so often, a piece thinker trips onto the global stage and says something like: “Sure, people say that they’re unhappy, and they say that it’s the economy, but GDP is steadily growing and a lot of those people are rich. So they’re wrong.” Then Donald Trump gets elected or some country ‘exits, and the slightly clammier thinker regurgitates their argument, but this time they punctuate it with: “You dicks.”

More nuanced thinkers add a few parentheticals (“2008”, “racism”, “coastal gains and middle drains“, etc.) but they retain the basic structure.

It’s important to understand something: They’re not wrong. They’re just insane.

The same thing happens on the left, this isn’t split across the French National Assembly. It’s something more like “current system” vs. “new/old one”, which does sound like “conservative” vs. “other”, but doesn’t match any such party we have.

Take Occupy. No, first, take this graph:

gdp per capita

Ok. The left is quick to point out inequality, or the fact that poverty still exists. Here’s the counter: though inequality might be a problem, it’s not clear that it’s the problem. Our society has made everyone richer by [expression for large multiplier here]. Boats and tides, something about rising-but-not-like-Bane-rising, etc. Man’s root state, after all, is not wealth but poverty. If we started with very little, and then capitalism made us all wealthier, is it really the devil if, while doing that, a few got wealthier than others?

This is a hard argument to counter, and one has to question the instinct to counter it. That graph and the common narratives – mass dissatisfaction, endemic poverty, social malcontent – do not work together. And yet we do observe such things – people are really angry. There’s something strange about telling a very angry person that they aren’t, in fact, a very angry person. The real problem is reconciling that anger with an economic motivation. “What if they’re just wrong?” Fine, phrase it this way: what’s the motivation for being angry then? It means the same thing with less presumptions.

So we have: Trump, Brexit, and Occupy. All of those threatened the status quo, all of them claimed economic reasons (more or less), and all of them had no way to deal with the graph above.

Here’s how one economist puts his colleagues’ position contra the critiques:

Nothing in the nature of a sudden deterioration of standards, according to these writers, ever overwhelmed the common people. They were, on average, substantially better off after than before […] and, as to numbers, nobody can deny their rapid increase. By the accepted yardsticks of economic welfare – real wages and population figures – the Inferno [of capitalism], they maintained, never existed; the working classes, far from being exploited, were economically the gainers and to argue the need for social protection against a system that benefited all was obviously impossible.

Critics of liberal capitalism were baffled.

Except that that isn’t about our time. The brackets are, respectively, “…before the introduction of the factory system“, and “the Inferno of early capitalism“. The description is of the Industrial Revolution and its contemporaneous debates. The author is Karl Polanyi, writing a history of said debates.

I really wanted that to be more of a gotcha, but Polanyi is just such a fucking dated writer. So, yes, finally: that’s from 1944.

Continue reading “The Meridian of Her Greatness”

Man as a Rationalist Animal

Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott, and also some stuff about fundamentalist christianity

seeing like a state
On Seeing Like a State
I

Subconsciously or not, most of us presuppose malice behind failure. This goes doubly for historical failures, and quadruply for political failures. The daily form of this hisses about “corrupt politicians” (past and present), perhaps about “businessmen and special interests”. The more extreme forms fall into conspiracy theory. Often this is diagnosed as a form of pessimism, especially “pessimism about politics”. That’s wrong; it’s optimism.

The pessimistic view is this: “Everyone is just trying their best.” If the horrors of history are the result of ill will then we should take comfort. It may not always be possible to avoid evil dictators, but at least we know that human agency has some power. An evil person realizing their evil machinations implies that perhaps a good person can successfully realize a good plan. Stalin may have been mean and bad, but if we just get the right people in there (read: me), then surely The Good will result. But if everyone is just “trying their best” then none of this is assured. Indeed – something is so broken that our best intentions still produce misery. So… what happened?

Seeing like a State sets out to answer this question. Namely: why do we see large state schemes cause so much misery even when guided by good intentions and (seemingly) careful design? And that also explains its subtitle: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

If I had to give a one-sentence explanation of the book, it would be: “The effects of technocracy on a polity are almost always negative (Now with 100% more ‘why’!)” Of course, that argument is detailed across four-hundred pages, and nothing but the book itself can really capture that analysis – I’ll do  my best, but just read the book.

Its popularity means that many other bloggers have attempted more detailed analyses. These two are particularly good: a Ribbonfarm piece by Venkatesh Rao, and the more critical Slate Star Codex review by Scott Alexander. The SSC review, in particular, goes into a lot more detail than I will. (FN: On the economic side, J. Bradford Delong writes a some-what skewed (but good) analysis, which is here corrected by Crooked Timber.) Finally, if you read anything, here’s James C. Scott’s own overview of Seeing Like a State.

The plethora of reviews also means a plethora of criticism. This is helpful: I don’t want to describe the book but explain its import, and contrasting analyses are better for that than a cursory retelling. But since explaining the book is going to take a lot of time, I’m going to have a whole other post replying to criticisms I’ve seen levied.

Continue reading “Man as a Rationalist Animal”

Scraps 1: Collapse/Jane Austen/Spengler/Cowen

Scraps and puzzles. Riddle: everything below is talking about the same thing. How?

1. 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed

I

~1250 BC is the standard archaeological date for the Biblical Exodus, if in fact an exodus occurred. Most material evidence we would expect of such an event is lacking.

To get to the collapse in 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization CollapsedEric Cline has to give an overview of the major Bronze Age civilizations. He casually mentions the following detail: While we don’t know if Exodus as real big Exodus happened, we do know that there was extensive Semitic-Egyptian interaction. There’s evidence of a Semite vizier to the pharaoh, and it’s unlikely that you’d get such a figure without some sort of storied history. Aper-El, the vizier, held his post in the 14th century during the reigns of Amenhotep III and Akhentaten. Since I’m not particularly  pious, I feel free to pick and choose my biblical chronology as it suits me. That places him at roughly four generations before the proposed exodus, the traditional period between Joseph and Exodus (ignoring that the Bible says each of those is about 100 years). There’s more:

Akhenaten was, infamously, the pharaoh who tried to make Egypt a monotheistic kingdom. During his reign, Akhenaten abolished worship of all gods except for Aten. No matter how one thinks of Aten, the image of a single Semite working as vizier to a Pharaoh who then, for reasons no one can quite figure out, becomes a hardline monotheist, is too fecund of an idea to ignore. One can imagine a particularly rambunctious bilblical literalist seizing on this factoid to weave a grand tapestry – Joseph in the palace of Akhenaten, preaching the word of proto-God, and the mad pharaoh rearranging his kingdom based on Joseph’s powers.

I’m not a biblical literalist and I want to.

II

Also in 1177, the theory that the destruction of Troy took place much earlier than anticipated, and possibly twice. That… sort of goes a long way towards explaining why you have military descriptions from totally different time periods just floating around the Iliad. At the same time, if they preserved that, why wouldn’t they preserve at least some vague notion of the Hittites having hired them?

Probably not useful as literary theory. Possibly interesting as actual history. Continue reading “Scraps 1: Collapse/Jane Austen/Spengler/Cowen”

Identity is the enemy. Finale.

let's go
STOP MAKING LAST MEN

(Part I here, social currency here, Part II here, Part III here)

I

Quoting yourself is tacky, but for continuity’s sake:

I used a monarch and their palace for an example earlier. The palace costs $200, they only got $170 in revenue because of Laffer Curves. There’s a question that everyone should have asked then: “Why not just wait another year and then you’ll have enough for the palace?”…

…the question you need to ask yourself is what is our equivalent to that palace?

I’m afraid that this lays a trap, and perhaps more than one.

The palace looks like a concrete goal. If it is, then the social state equivalent might be something like “policy change”. If the real question is not the palace but its time frame, then we need to follow this logic. Q: “Why would someone push for policies knowing that they’re impossible within such a short period?”A: If the goal is not the policy.

The palace is almost a red herring, but not quite. A palace is enjoyed by the monarch, but it exists as a sign of monarchy. It’s the architectural embodiment of a state. As a project it’s almost meta – the state wants to gain more power so that it can display the kind of power it has. Raising taxes here isn’t just about getting a project done. The real goal is the demonstration: “We can build this in a year.” This is simply another way of saying: it stands for power and identity, not a goal.

Social power is a tactic and its purpose is political. These are “goals”. But the social state is an organization, and like all organizations its fundamental purpose is to maintain power and to provide identity. Better: the power of the state is what attracts people who want to identify with it. The “goal” has come to metonymically stand for the state itself.

“Ok, sure. But why do this?” For monarchs? I dunno. For us, citizens of a social state? Continue reading “Identity is the enemy. Finale.”

Social Laffer Curves that go for a thousand screaming years.

caesar

FINDING MODERN TRIBALISM IN THE TAX CODE

(Part I here, some subsequent clarifications here, Part II here)

I

There’s 1. Here “social left” is a stand in for the left most aligned with social justice (insert whatever here). “The other side” is the motley collection confusingly stretched between Gamergate and Marxism. a common fear among the social left [1] that no matter how persuasive their rhetoric and how many studies they mount and how many articles they write, people’s behavior will not change. Men benefit too much from the patriarchy, whites benefit too much from systematic racism. A thousand years of lip service and everything will wind up exactly the same as it has been.

There’s a common fear on the other side that social goals are mostly about policing language, fighting culture wars, and that they will not stop. The goal posts will always move, the rhetoric will remain as extreme no matter how “bad” the problem is. That structural change has become impossible or ignored.

These two concerns are the exact same thing, and that thing is the Panama Papers. Continue reading “Social Laffer Curves that go for a thousand screaming years.”

Publicani in Berkeley

brazil2

A PROGRAM FOR DEMOLISHING YOUR POWER BASE THE OLD ROMAN WAY

(Part I here, some subsequent clarifications here. Disclaimer: this is more metaphorical or more literal based on your preference. I don’t think it changes much about the argument.)

I

I know, I know. We live under fascism now, according to people who know that fascism is a word one can use. I’m extraordinarily excited for some greenhorn to notice the fasces in the House of Reps and tie it to Trump, but currently the #Resistance is focusing on (sigh) Milo Yiannopoulos. This is annoying for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that now I have to talk about him.

Milo’s a twat, etc. but the press is also worthless.

A term much favored by Milo is snowflake, to which the left tried “Enough snowflakes make an avalanche!” After they’ve landed, sure, but before that snowflakes make blizzards. This is also a powerful thing but one that has different effects. An avalanche crushes you; a blizzard blinds you, turns the world a furious wail of black-and-white, and slowly freezes your lost ass. Continue reading “Publicani in Berkeley”

Theses on Social Currency

nocountry2

INTERLUDE BEFORE SOCIAL LAFFER CURVES

I

Economic laws impact our lives so mysteriously and with such awesome power that we resort to mythologizing them. Their effects are natural disasters, and we are confused animals on a windswept plain. They are dark, primordial forces that shift us around. And they do so seemingly without human input.

Job: imprecating the sky justly, but for that very reason utterly lacking comprehension.

It is no mistake that Chigurh is a primordial force that uses coins to determine his actions. Nothing is a mistake; everything is economics. Continue reading “Theses on Social Currency”