Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The end of the world as we know it

In respect of the economic prospects for Western economies, there have been doomsayers for as long as I can remember – and longer.

Moral and cultural critiques dominated in the early 20th century, economic/environmental ones in more recent times.

Many of the predictions (about oil availability, for instance) have proved to be spectacularly wrong. Nonetheless, Western countries like the United States and most of Europe are undoubtedly undergoing rapid relative economic decline (relative to most of East Asia, for instance); and we may be on the brink of something worse, something quite irreversible.

A particularly bad sign is that the doomsayers are becoming more mainstream.

For some years now we have had the rather too flamboyant and hyperbolic Marc Faber. But behind the media personality is a former investment banker with a good doctorate.

Jim Rogers (Yale and Oxford) is another. Though he projects a more conservative image, he agrees with Faber about most things economic. [Here is a good, relatively recent, interview.]

Dr. Tim Morgan, Head of Global Research at Tullett Prebon, is another commentator with grim tidings for Western countries. The Economist's Buttonwood reports that Morgan has just produced an 82-page 'note' (hah!) called 'Perfect storm: energy, finance and the end of growth'.

'The economy as we know it,' Morgan writes, 'is facing a lethal confluence of four critical factors – the fall-out from the biggest debt bubble in history; a disastrous experiment with globalization; the massaging of data to the extent that economic trends are obscured; and, most important of all, the approach of an energy-returns cliff-edge.'

As Buttonwood points out, very little, if any, progress has been made in bringing down debt-to-GDP ratios, but Morgan goes beyond the numbers and sees deep cultural factors at work here.

Since the 1980s 'there has been a relentless shift to immediate consumption as part of something that has been called a cult of self-worship. The pursuit of immediate gratification has resulted in the accumulation of debt on an unprecedented scale.'

Buttonwood notes that this theme 'was picked up way back in 1976 by Daniel Bell in his book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Bell's idea was that the driving force behind capitalism was puritanical – it relied on deferred gratification as entrepreneurs cut back on current consumption in order to accumulate capital and build businesses. From the 1950s onward, western societies became more interested in immediate consumption – the car in every garage, the kitchen stocked with white goods and so on. Since then, arguably, governments have been desparately trying to satisfy those needs, first with fiscal policy and then with debt-financed growth. Oddly enough, it is now the nominally communist Chinese who display the capitalist virtues of high savings and capital accumulation.'

The globalization arguments are more complex, but at the root of the problem is the fact that, while Western economies like the U.S. have switched from manufacturing to services, most of the services involved are internally consumed and not globally marketable, and so are not really adding value to the economy. Thus chronic U.S. trade deficits financed by debt from abroad.

The distorted statistics claim is one I have only recently become aware of (or taken seriously). In blissful ignorance, I had assumed that the professionalism and impartiality of the economists and bureaucrats charged with dealing with these sorts of things could be relied on, and suggestions of data being massaged or distorted were the sort of thing one expected only from know-nothings and conspiracy theorists. Not so.

As Buttonwood points out, 'inflation has been understated because of adjustments for quality improvements (hedonics); GDP growth has been overstated; and national debt totals omit the cost of contingent liabilities such as pensions.'

Morgan's last and central point is less well-known. It is that we have developed the easiest sources of energy already and that new sources are less efficient to produce as measured by the EROEI (or energy returns on energy invested) formula.

'High energy prices,' explains Buttonwood, 'have weighed on consumers ever since 2007. Normally prices slump during a U.S. recession but demand from emerging markets means that hasn't happened; the west has turned from being a price-setter to a price-taker.

'... Whereas Saudi oil had an original EROEI of 100:1, shale oil is just 5:1... If we depended entirely on shale, energy cost would consume 16.5% of GDP, compared with around 3% of GDP in the 1980s and 1990s. Cheap oil played a major part in that late 20th century boom just as expensive oil was a big factor in the turbulent 1970s.'

Frankly, I don't need the EROEI argument to be pessimistic. But adding it in does make the future look even more bleak than I had bargained for.

Morgan concludes that, if (as seems likely) EROEI measures fall materially, 'our consumerist way of life is over. It is hardly too much to say that a declining EROEI could bomb societies back into a pre-industrial age.'

Friday, January 25, 2013

Genes and behavior

Matt Ridley referred recently to some new research on a population of free-living monkeys (macaques) which claims to show that individuals having a specific version of two genes tended to be less social.

But, as Ridley points out, there is nothing very surprising here, as studies of human twins have previously found evidence of genetic heritability with respect to sociability and related traits similar to that reported in the monkeys.

'The mutations making monkeys less social,' Ridley explains, 'have been tied to anxiety and a tendency to avoid risks. This may explain why they persist. Although well-connected monkeys generally have more offspring, anxious monkeys may be more vigilant to threats.'

It may not be drawing too long a bow to see here an embryonic simian parallel to the conservative/liberal divide, as traits like anxiety and risk aversion are normally associated with a conservative tendency.

The weight of research evidence has gradually muted the protests that this sort of research (linking genes and behavior) used to inflame.

Ridley alludes, for example, to the controversies sparked by the pioneering work of Seymour Benzer, who set out in the 1960s to find mutations in fruit flies that affected behavior. [On a slightly different tack, Benzer's mother was quoted as asking skeptically: 'From this, you can make a living?']

Benzer 'was soon able to identify mutations related to hyperexcitability, learning, homosexuality and unusual circadian rhythms, like his own: Benzer was almost wholly nocturnal.'

Ridley is not a genetic determinist, however. 'A discovery that genes affect behavior is no more or less deterministic than a discovery that family or education does so. Whether you are anti-social because your mother was unemotional – a fashionable theory in the 1960s – or because of a mutation tells you nothing about whether your condition can be remedied by some intervention.'

This is the crucial point: the extent to which these tendencies are amenable to change. Individual variation complicates the picture of course: some of us, no doubt, are more nocturnal or whatever than others.

But I daresay future research will lead, not only to detailed knowledge of particular gene-behavior linkages and potential intervention techniques, but also to a more satisfactory general understanding of the potential for reconfiguring our brains than we have at present.

Which is not to say that we should be too ready to intervene, even where it is possible; but, clearly, where it proves not to be possible – or not to be practicable – it makes sense to embrace our natural tendencies and integrate them as best we can into a broad social vision and way of life.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Ethics and philosophy

I recently tried to sum up my general approach to moral questions in a few hundred words. (See Ethics in a nutshell.) I see myself as just stating what most non-religious people would generally see as obvious, really. The aim – given a secular and science-friendly outlook – is just clarity and certainly not originality.

Here I want to begin to extrapolate on what I said there, bringing out some ideological points which were not explicit in the original post. (I will have something to say another time about the specifically conservative thrust of my position.)

Philosophical discussions of ethics all too often get pushed off course into unproductive disputes which are sometimes reflective of fundamental metaphysical disagreements between the antagonists, and sometimes a result simply of competitive argumentation.

I have reservations about such discussions, which inevitably involve labeling one's own and others' positions, attacking the positions of others, refining and defending one's own position, and further attacking and refining and defending ad infinitum.

I suppose I would find myself labeled as some kind of (moral) anti-realist. The last time I looked, moral anti-realism was not particularly well-regarded in the philosophical community.

Why is this, I wonder, when I (and, I would have thought, most non-religious non-philosophers) would take it as relatively uncontroversial that, as I claimed in the linked post, there is no absolute or objective ethical authority, and no objective method for determining 'moral truths'?*

My explanation is as follows.

The philosophical community is not a random sample of intelligent people. Quite obviously, it is largely self-selected, and, although it comprises a wide cross-section of people with widely diverging views, those with certain general orientations are over-represented (by comparison with the general educated population).

Specifically, people are drawn to graduate studies in philosophy (and especially ethics) who wish not only to explore but also to promote certain ideas.

Clearly, the philosophical arena is attractive to religious people as it gives them an opportunity to promote, not so much their particular religious view (that would be unprofessional), but at least a view of the world which is in accord with their beliefs.

Similar considerations apply to non-religious people who have a prior commitment to certain moral, social or political views. Feminists, for example, have generally found academic philosophy to be a particularly receptive and protective environment, and very useful for the propagation of their ideas. Likewise those with liberal and left-wing political views. (Conservatives are not well-represented amongst contemporary philosophers.)**

No one is going to bother funding significant research into this kind of thing. (And why should they? Besides, such ideological issues are very hard to pin down scientifically.) But I am confident there is a lot of truth in what I am saying.

Anecdotes are not evidence, but this one will at least make my claims clearer. More than once, I have asked graduate students in philosophy why they chose philosophy. Needless to say, not all responses were the same. But one sticks in my memory as being both typical and emblematic.

And it wasn't just what he said but how he said it. With quiet passion.

'I strongly believe,' said the earnest, bespectacled young man with the wispy dark brown beard, 'that ideas matter; that, despite appearances to the contrary, ideas can prevail over self-interest. Might is not right…'

* And, if we can't reliably identify them, what sense is there in saying that these 'moral truths' exist? Actually, I'm uneasy about the term 'moral truths'.

Of course, there are moral facts, in the sense of facts about our systems of morality, 'moral instincts', etc.. But prescriptive ethics is all about choosing and urging and acting – about living – not about describing and theorizing.

Ethics is clearly not an intellectual discipline like mathematics and the sciences (including the historical and social sciences), all of which, to a greater or lesser extent, generate what one could call objective knowledge. [See also the comments attached to the linked post.]

** Many major philosophical thinkers of the past were, by contrast, politically conservative. I may do another piece on this, but a few big names that come immediately to mind are Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Hobbes, Descartes, Maistre, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bradley, Frege, Santayana, Heidegger, Ryle and Quine.

Monday, January 14, 2013


One thing Heidegger got right is that we are future-oriented beings. We are aspirational. We have marvelous visions of what might be, and, as we grow older and realize that this is as good as it gets, we resist.

We can't quite accept it. I still half-expect to stumble into a more real, more acceptable world. Where grown-ups are in charge, and there is a bit of grace and restraint... But I know we all have slightly different visions and ideals, and I don't want to impose mine on anybody.

I remember imagining during the summer holidays at the age of sixteen that I would go back to school and we boys would shake each other's hands and behave in a sensible manly way. But, of course, it wasn't like that. It never is (or not for long, at any rate).

The ideal in my head is a muddle of clichés; overlapping ideals actually, incompatible, inconsistent, but each one bearing a family resemblance to the others.

This is more than ideology, but it is where ideologies come from. Political ideologies select and simplify and make consistent.

Activists, more often than not, become victims of their own activism one way or another, victims of a thin, distorting vision that can capture and even destroy vulnerable minds. Tempted by notoriety, they can come to see themselves as heroes, and are often egged on in this regard by sections of the media and other cynical players.*

On the other hand, in a world where traditional social groupings and functions are breaking down, joining others in a common cause can fill a need for meaning and purpose as well as purely social needs.

In the end, however, I think it's better to try to juggle the inconsistent whole and keep as many possibilities alive as possible for as long as possible.

* I have seen a number of such people come to grief, and I wrote a piece a couple of months ago on young anarchists. Aaron Schwartz was a different kind of radical, but he also seems to fit the pattern I have described.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A boy, a bomb and a bus: more on Jews and politics

Following on from an earlier post, here are a few more (fairly inchoate) thoughts on Jewish intellectuals and left-wing politics.

First of all, it might be said that intellectuals (Jewish or otherwise) generally tend to the left. And the fact that so many intellectuals happen to have a Jewish background might give the false impression that the leftishness derives from the Jewishness rather than from the intellectuality.

But I am inclined to tie the particular ideals of left-wing thought, as well as its uncompromising moral vision, to the Jewish (and Christian) scriptures. And I have made the point that people with a Jewish background who no longer believe religious doctrines are more likely to continue to identify with their cultural and religious traditions than are non-believing ex-Christians.

This issue is complicated by the fact that Jewishness is such a vague concept. It simultaneously relates to genetic, cultural and specifically religious factors. So, identifying particular individuals as Jewish or not Jewish is problematic.

For example, Ludwig Wittgenstein was staggered to learn that the Nazis considered his family Jewish. And not only the Nazis. He is (despite having been baptized a Roman Catholic and even buried as one) widely seen as Jewish. And, indeed, many of his forebears were Jewish.

Similarly, Kurt Gödel, was, though a Lutheran, considered by many of his contemporaries to be Jewish. But he insisted that he was not.

It all becomes quite arbitrary – and tedious. Who is going to be interested in determining how many of (and how long ago) a given person's forebears practised Judaism?

The 'racial' side is also problematic because of the large numbers (for example, in Southern Europe during Roman times) who converted to Judaism. Genome analysis studies have reached no clear conclusions, but they do seem to show genetic similarities between the general population in Italy, for example, and Jewish groups in other parts of Europe.

To an extent, Jewishness has been defined by anti-Semitism and so it is hardly surprising that the whole notion is shot through with myth on various levels. The key driver of anti-Semitism is the belief that 'the Jews' rejected the true Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and were responsible for his death. During the Middle Ages, Christian anti-Semitism spawned a whole range of myths and legends which imputed sinister powers to Jews and reinforced various stereotypes. Interestingly, the Islamic 'reform' movements of the late-19th and early-20th centuries beefed up traditional Islamic anti-Semitism with elements derived from the rather more vivid and intense Christian tradition.

So any talk about radical Jewish intellectuals is a bit sensitive because it can easily appear to play into this anti-Semitic, scapegoating tradition.

Think of the early Hitchcock film, Sabotage, about a secret agent (played by Oskar Homolka) seeking to cause havoc in London. It involves a bomb, a bus and a child, the trusting little brother of the Homolka character's trusting English wife. Enough said.

Another kind of subversion was evident in the real world in the course of the Manhattan Project. And during the 1950s, of course. Jewish intellectuals and writers in particular were often under scrutiny.

The fact that there were real traitors who happened to be Jewish and who passed secret information to the Soviet Union served to give renewed life to some anti-Semitic stereotypes.

But my point – about the tendency of secular Jews to have left-leaning views – is, I think, generally true or at least defensible; as is the idea that this tendency derives from an essentially Biblical understanding of justice and morality.

I was going to say something about some of the names mentioned in the comment thread of the previous post, but, given the huge number of significant Jewish intellectuals who flourished during the last 150 years or so, not much would be gained by cursory comments on an arbitrarily-selected few.

It's pretty clear that Jewish thinkers spanned the ideological spectrum, even if the distribution is skewed in the direction of socialism and related philosophies.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Noam Chomsky, Judaism and the radical left

I mentioned that I was going to post on Language, Life and Logic a piece focusing on Noam Chomsky's linguistic ideas. In that post, I have also touched on (what I think are) some quite interesting ideological issues relating, in particular, to his family background and upbringing. So readers of Conservative Tendency may be interested to have a look at it.

You may also be interested in the transcript of a (in the words of Chris Bertram) 'wonderful interview with Noam Chomsky on work, learning and freedom' linked to this Crooked Timber post. (As I suggest there in a comment, there is some evidence in the interview of what a subsequent commenter refers to as a messiah complex.)

It surprises me that Chomsky does not see fit to devote any real intellectual energy to his social philosophy. Perhaps he senses that it would not survive the scrutiny of critical reflection. He seems to be content to live within an inherited myth. He compares unfavorably with many earlier thinkers in this regard (Georges Sorel, for example, whose use of myth was, I think, much more self-aware and sophisticated than Chomsky's).

There is also the broader issue of the general Jewish tendency to gravitate to left-wing, progressive and radical causes. What interests me particularly is the moral focus of Jewish culture which, I think, drives this tendency. And the link between this moral focus and religion.

I am inclined to see the passionate commitment to certain universal moral ideals which lies behind much radical, left-wing thought as having a religious source.

Furthermore, it seems to me that the atheism of many secular Jews is often quite unlike the atheism of ex-Christians, for example, in the sense that the former is entirely compatible with continuing to identify with and participate in the Jewish cultural tradition (which inevitably includes elements of Judaism), while the latter is generally considered incompatible with a continuing identification with Christianity.

In other words, the Jewish religious and moral tradition is arguably more 'sticky' (and so resilient) than its Christian equivalent because it is a part of a stronger, ethnically-focused, cultural tradition with which even secular and atheistic Jews continue to identify.

Noam Chomsky is a case in point. Whether or not he should be seen as a religious thinker is an open question. But I certainly incline to the view that he is.

Finally, as a footnote, I might add that – influenced by a figure very like Chomsky – I was involved in my late teens with the same sorts of radical groups which Chomsky has described in autobiographical notes, in which Jews worked together with Quakers and other radical Christians. It was a secular movement focused on issues of violence and exploitation etc., but it took its inspiration from an essentially Biblical understanding of justice. Writers such as Kierkegaard and Martin Buber were particularly revered, as well as contemporary theorists, most of them Jewish as it happens.