Monday, December 24, 2012

Odds and ends

Regular visitors and subscribers may have noticed over recent months that too much comment spam has been getting through the filter. I have adjusted the settings (without reinstating that distorted word and number reading exercise) and so far, so good. The spam seems to have stopped, and it should still be easy to make comments if you care to.

Though visitor statistics have improved significantly, there are fewer comments, and I take this to be part of a general trend away from (commenting on) blogs and towards social media.

As the year draws to a close, I have been (as one does) wondering about future directions, both in terms of which particular interests to pursue, and how and where (at what level, using which forums, etc.). Should I have a look at Google+, I wonder? And/or look at more specialized forums?

And should the two blogs be maintained or consolidated into one?

As it stands, Language, Life and Logic allows me a bit more scope to be boringly scholarly. I intend to put up something there soon on Noam Chomsky's ideas on language, but, if I wanted to discuss his political ideas, I would do it on Conservative Tendency.

I don't analyze visitor statistics, but am pretty sure the majority of hits are fleeting and superficial. To those visitors who have read something here they relate to in some way, thanks for your interest.

A tolerable Christmas and a happy new year to all.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ethics, emotion and ideology

As I was writing an earlier post (bearing on the relationship between personal ethics and business), I found myself confronting the fact that the application of certain modes of ethical thinking to business and investment, etc. leads naturally to left-wing and even totalitarian conclusions.

Specifically, if one applies standard Christian-like ethics to these areas, one ends up feeling one should care for and protect consumers and the general public as one would one's loved ones, not only from 'market forces' but also from themselves. The result is inevitably going to be a form of socialism, or at least a nanny state.

Tweak the ethical starting-point (by rejecting universalism for nationalism, for example) and you may get something like fascism.

But, at any rate, you will be committed to trying to create an extended economic, political and social community modelled on the family or tribe. Something warm and human and emotion-based, but on a large scale.

It is a potent and alluring idea, but, as history shows, it just doesn't work. Or, at least, it doesn't work for long. The consequences, in fact, are generally disastrous.

European-style social democracy could be seen as an attempt to realize this idea of an extended human community without resorting to totalitarian methods. Social democratic systems never really managed, however, to create a true, extended sense of community, remaining cold and bureaucratic (as well as being economically unsustainable).

Paradoxically, one of the cruelest totalitarian regimes of the 20th century had more success (for a limited time and not for the whole population) on the affective front. I am thinking of Hitler's rallies, and the stories told by (non-Jewish) Germans about growing up in the early days of National Socialism (the state-sponsored camping trips, the sense of community and belonging).

I don't have a neat conclusion; only the sense that an emotional approach to broad social questions can be dangerous, and perhaps the best kind of general ethical framework for business and politics will be unemotional and rule-based.

Of course, emotions are part of being human, and all of us are emotionally engaged as individuals in our professional and business lives. The main dangers seem to lie in trying to impose one's own emotionally-charged vision on the broader community.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sellers of dreams

Lawrence Ho, who with James Packer set up the City of Dreams casino complex in Macau, made some revealing comments recently.

"Chinese people are very superstitious and they believe, one, that they are luckier than the casino themselves and, two, they are probably luckier than the other casino patrons and that's why they can win."

Of course, the tendency to overrate one's own luck or ability is a universal human trait. But the Chinese cultural heritage is particularly rich in beliefs and customs relating to luck and fortune, and there is no doubt that Chinese people are often strongly drawn to gambling in general, and casino gambling in particular.

Many Chinese are suspicious of the stock market and the big investment banks, and Ho suggests they see the casino as a fairer option. In baccarat, for example, you have a 50-50 chance of winning.

Well, it's not quite as simple as that! But Ho and his fellow casino entrepreneurs are quite happy to exploit the naive ideas of the new Chinese middle class.

In fact, growth in the VIP or 'high roller' sector is flat, whereas the mass market for what casinos have to offer is currently growing at 30% per annum. The focus is now squarely on the new middle class rather than on professional gamblers or the super rich.

I wonder how the likes of Lawrence Ho and James Packer, respected and admired as they are, justify to themselves their exploitation of human weakness and irrationality. Are they hard and cynical Social Darwinists at heart? Or do they believe that they are providing a real service to the community?

I am reminded of a childhood friend whose family ran a corner store which made a significant proportion of its money from cigarettes, many of which were purchased by young people.

My friend's trite observation that it was a dream they were buying, 'not just a packet of fags,' was true enough, but not particularly convincing as a moral defense.

The way I see it is that we humans do all sorts of stupid and self-destructive things. The relatively good business person may exploit some of these activities but provides an honest (and legal) product and refrains from outright deception.

The real reprobate is the purveyor of contaminated goods, counterfeit medical drugs, that sort of thing.

Or am I setting the bar too low?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A conservative moment

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's recent admission that she, not so long ago a proud libertine who identified strongly with the political left, is now une bourgeoise who loves family life and having a husband and doing the same thing every day is not without significance.

Don't ask for how long (I want to say) she will be content with her domestic routine; enjoy the conservative moment. For Carla Bruni is one of the few contemporary figures who has old-fashioned star quality, and so symbolic importance.

In fact, the 44-year-old seems to have developed a strange kinship with a former generation of Hollywood stars whose public personas transcended their cinematic achievements and somehow represented for many people an ideal, a mode of life at once sophisticated and traditional.

Emma-Kate Symons has written a piece which discusses Bruni's mid-life conversion as 'counter-cultural' in the context of our 'post-familial' world.

And so it is. But whether the paradox of a counter-cultural conservatism can deliver long-term moral benefits is doubtful.

Symons notes that a number of writers have recently elaborated on the negative moral and demographic consequences of the anti-family culture which now dominates Western social and political life.

It has been clear for decades, however, that, while the model of the traditional family may survive, it has lost its dominant position and normative influence; rapidly becoming, in fact, just one possible option amongst many.

I sometimes think that humans in general – and not just children – function better and more happily when choices are constrained.

I know this raises awkward political questions, about who determines and applies the constraints, for example; and social questions about the legitimacy of traditional cultural constraints.

But I am not making policy prescriptions here – just making the observation that freedom is often a mixed blessing.

Carla Bruni may even agree with me on this.