Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Real Education

The power of degrees to draw salaries wanes as more people obtain degrees: this is one viable lesson that they still teach in economics, though many PhDs seem to have missed it (or to think that creative mathematics can make it disappear, more or less the same way astrology used to correct character flaws).

What matters more than "education" is the right kind of education (i.e. training in a viable, sustainable method of living). Given our current circumstances, this sort of education is really unpopular: it does not put money or influence or raw power into the hands of established interests (who consequently found few institutions to teach it, endow few scholarships or professorships to facilitate it, and use whatever political and social clout they possess generally to mock and undermine it). The right kind of education requires a student able to imagine living a life unlike that of his parents (or the rich people of his parents' generation, whose mores he is constantly bombarded with as desirable insofar as they make him easier for established interests to manipulate--via debts, social obligations, and desire for "nice things" made in a sweatshop somewhere). It requires radical freedom of thought--not the kind of regimented bean-counting that stops short of articulating any idea remotely threatening to established interests (who understandably position themselves as pillars of social and political and economic stability, even as history reveals that they are built upon sand that is shifting as we speak).

Real education involves living, not just thinking. It cannot come from a classroom, not even when that classroom has been outfitted with all the best technology that a committee of experts can imagine and acquire. Real education teaches us how to adapt and survive along an entire lifetime--and beyond. (One utility of studying history is that it reminds you of a time when people didn't think in terms of single generations, let alone market and election cycles measured in terms of a few months or years.) Real education does not teach us how to get and maintain jobs in a narrow market defined by scarcity and fragility. It teaches us how to maximize independence rather than servility. It costs a lot in terms of effort, and little in terms of cash (the reverse of many degrees offered by modern universities). It incentivizes process over completion, independence over employment, integrity over profit, and virtuous failure over depraved success.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Coming Age of Bust

If capitalism is the pursuit of monopoly, then I must be anti-capitalist. The question is how to do this. How to offer meaningful opposition to something so ubiquitous as the pursuit of zero-sum games in which winners embrace unlimited growth. This is not easy. I suspect it involves re-imagining what constitutes wealth (in ways that people who think like Peter Thiel will find ludicrous, perhaps dangerously ludicrous as they realize that my intent is to become less involved and less susceptible to involvement in business that will make them richer, on their own terms). The current, integrated economy needs to shrink, so that smaller, decentralized economies can become larger (but not too large, never again as large as the system we have now). The immediate outcome of this will be economic depression and conventional poverty ("austerity"), but I think the long-term prognosis is better for people who know how to live well with less than for people who think the solution to all economic woes is more of Keynesian stimulus (administered by public or private powers that be, via "free markets" rigged by monopolists on the Right or "fair markets" rigged by monopolists on the Left).

I do not think that there is such a thing as reforming Wall Street or Washington, if by that we mean making them serve their current populations in such a way that our conventional wealth increases without limits. I think the current system is running pretty close to optimal (as close to perfect as it gets without crashing prematurely), and that it is over-taxed (set to blow, with the real question being one of how to manage fallout rather than how to avoid crashing). Life exists, it seems to me, as a series of boom and bust, with the volatility occurring in less devastating fashion as society depends less on any one market (or regime) to serve its needs. We need more markets, not better versions of the ones we already have. We need more businesses, not better monopolies than the ones we already have. We need more (and smaller) governments, not a bigger or better version of the one we already have. In light of the economic depression that is clear on our horizon, we also need plans for living well with less (less wealth in the conventional sense: less growth, lower wages, fewer luxuries, weaker businesses, less taxes, weaker governments, etc.). The boom is over; now is the time of bust. If we manage the bust correctly, it might be a good time for us. We might come out on the other side alive, with a better appreciation for what it means to be wealthy in really straitened economic circumstances. We might have more control over our own destinies (in material terms) than our richer grandparents (who were able to out-source production to social conglomerates whose existence we can no longer support). Or we might be like those people on the side of the road out of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  That is not what I want.  I do not want to hang about as the hurricane approaches, praying that the crumbling levee holds.  I want to build a boat ahead of the storm, or pack whatever vehicle I have, and move out--with the idea of making new worlds, new societies with mores and expectations that match our new human environment.

Holy Mirth

Some thoughts inspired by the recent slaughter of French cartoonists responsible for the comic Charlie Hebdo, a slaughter perpetuated by Muslim extremists angered by the comic's crude mockery of Islam.

When I put myself in the public sphere, with an agenda that I want you to accept (or at least grapple with in some way), then I become fair game for ridicule.

When I was younger, I served an LDS (Mormon) mission to northern Spain. As a result of being out and about talking to people regarding religion, their own and mine (which I was available to offer those who wanted it), I was fair game for ridicule--and I was ridiculed. While this experience was not always pleasant, I think it was valuable--and I did my best (succeeding for the most part, I hope) to "roll with the punches" (which I knew that my position invited, and even required). I learned that people often use humor to facilitate friendly relations with outsiders whom they might otherwise hate (and perhaps physically injure, even to the point of death). I would much rather be mocked than beaten (let alone killed). But we do not all tolerate mockery the same way. I think we learn to deal with it better, as a population, when we must endure it without the means of an escalating retaliation: as a Mormon missionary, I had neither the friends, the time, nor the resources to plan a violent strike against the people who mocked me (some kindly, some viciously, all with some kind of moral justification that I respected and still respect). I might go home and cry, or get mad on the street and make some aggressive gestures, but there was no such thing as declaring war on society. (There really isn't for the jihadis, either. As a result of their activity in Paris, most of them are dead--right?--and more people will die. Even if society falls apart, the people of France are not going to rise up and convert to Islam en masse. Even if they did, they would promptly divide into separate Muslim factions--such as exist already in dar al-Islam--and commence hostilities with one another. If they were lucky, these hostilities would involve lots of mockery and little actual violence. If not, France becomes another Syria or Iraq.)

I think mockery is actually an important human art, a liberal art that people generally need more practice giving and receiving. The art of laughing at others without losing sight of one's own absurdity is really one of the most civilized--and civilizing--arts available to us. Too many people study how to laugh at others without learning to laugh at themselves. Too few among us are brave enough to face our own absurdity and laugh (instead of crying or becoming very angry and wanting to make someone else suffer because we appear weak, foolish, or stupid at some point--as we all do). Thus, when I teach humanities today in the classroom and tell my students, in a jesting tone, that I see my role as that of a professional clown, I am actually being serious. Seriously silly. I am teaching humanity to laugh, at itself and the world--to laugh and let the little things (a cartoon here, an insult there) go, without rancor.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Writing Books and Making Art

Some random thoughts inspired by this observation from Nassim Taleb (NNT): "For a book to survive at least decade, it should not be summarizable, and if summarized, no two independent summaries should be alike" (posted to Facebook on 9 January 2015).

The quality of longevity is one that tends to belong (it seems to me) to books whose relevance to society exists outside the realm of summaries. People don't write summaries of romance novels, especially not of romance novels that they really like. They re-read them (for the experience, not the "information" that Jane was hot and Dick lived up to his name). People often compose summaries of books that they wish they did not have to read (e.g. many of the summaries I wrote for my dissertation)--so that they can refer to an argument without having to care or know too much about it. This kind of summary exists to facilitate lack of experience or engagement (with an idea that one does not really want). Another kind of summary exists to help synthesize what one knows about a book one loves (and this kind of summary is typically idiosyncratic, in keeping with NNT's heuristic: my retelling of the Iliad is not yours).

The deadest dead-wood literature out there is academic books like one I am currently reading on Herakles. It contains much valuable information, presented in such a fashion as to erase any valuable idiosyncratic perspective from the author (who speaks not for herself but for "the field" and writes not a monograph but an extended encyclopedia entry that might as well have been composed by a machine--as maybe one day it will). She writes summaries of her argument at the end of each chapter (like a bad dissertation), and makes each sentence with as little care as needed to convey the essential information (which is the only thing keeping my nose in the book, long enough to write my own summary and return it with hope that I never need to check it out again--not because the author is not a fascinating person, but because she barely exists as a meaningful voice in this book).

Why does an author write such a book as this? I don't know. I suspect that the academic culture ("one must write a book to get tenure ... and/or other nice things like reputation") is to blame. Of course we need people writing books (and making music, painting, building, designing, dreaming, etc.). But not all art is created equal. Most of it, in fact, is shit.

The really great art does more than merely convey information: it conveys what pseudo-Longinus (delightfully anonymous, as most literary critics should be) calls "the sublime" (an insight into the human condition that is at once universal, recognizable to a large population, and particular, arising from conscious awareness of human particularity, the individual perspective of a thoughtful author). Few works of art achieve this, and that is well: if it were easy, we would all do it, all the time. The pernicious aspect of cultures like the academic is their tendency to over-value production for its own sake, as though we might atone for failing to become the next Mozart by writing a bunch of shitty cantatas (or whatever) instead of taking whatever time we need to produce the best work of which we, particularly, are capable. I do not write music to become Mozart. I do not write books to become Nietzsche (though that is much more likely for me than becoming Mozart). I do not wrestle to become Cael Sanderson (or Alexander Karelin). I do not paint to become Picasso. I do what I do, I make whatever art I make, to express who I am--a quality and experience unique to me. If I never develop that quality, if I am so busy accumulating a curriculum vitae to impress tenure committees that I neglect my muse, then my work will only ever be shit. The only people who read academic shit, in my experience, are academics, and we mostly do it holding our noses (especially if we love literature). We grit our teeth and "shit out another book every year" (as one of my best profs in grad school said of a prolific scholar in my field) because that is how one obtains academic laurels--but these pitiful rewards (such as they are) are not really κλέος ἄφθιτον, not even when history conspires to make them endure for centuries (as the garrulous farrago of disjointed thought composed by Athenaeus of Naucratis, zum Beispiel). They are means to some end, not any end in themselves. Their significance to human experience is remote, and a better work might easily replace them (if only by offering a really good summary--one that keeps all the information artists want and omits the shitty facade).

Monday, December 29, 2014

Modern Economics: A Quick Look

The reduction of economics to science has destroyed the ability of people to see value that is not monetized, to the gross impoverishment of society (even when material profits have never been higher). People who cheerfully tout the superiority of "modern" to "ancient" society are dealing mostly in caricatures, which they turn into facts by manipulating mathematics. Also, I observe that many of them assume a view of "modern" that is incredibly narrow (excluding the 19th century, for instance, and even much of the 20th): "modern" society thus becomes the latest vision of a "return to Eden" that has yet to occur. 

People who want to make money these days in the US become, by and large, administrators (with degrees in economics, business, political science, communications, and various related fields that are all aptly euphemized under the title "marketing"). Administrative work consists largely in creating opportunities to squeeze money from people and institutions for spurious value (no "value added" to justify the expense that administration requires).

Why does college tuition continue to rise into the stratosphere? Administration. The people taking the money are not your professors, your instructors (who will soon outnumber the professoriate), nor your janitors and groundskeepers. They are deans, sub-deans, vice assistants to the provost, etc. Why do banks and car manufacturers require public money? Administration. The people taking the money are not your line-men, your mechanics, your bank-tellers. They are mostly middle management (with CEOs and CFOs and their like representing the flower of the cancer, not its root). Why are healthcare costs so large? Doctors and other providers are not hell-bent on making large sums: many of them work appalling hours for less money than the people who trained them (and the trend is to pay less and less to the providers, who are increasingly forced to avoid private practice and become the mercenaries of large corporations). Again, the people raking in the dough are middle managers, who sit at desks and fill out forms and pass absurdly high bills back and forth (from the middle manager in the hospital to the middle manager in your insurance company to you, and your jaw hits the floor when you realize that your ER visit cost $7000, and you must pay it all out of pocket).

When you investigate closely what it is that this middle management does to justify its increasing (and in my view unsustainable) expense to society, you find that it is engaged in a kind of legal piracy. Where it used to be "economical" to deal directly with the people you wanted something from (e.g. with a professor, a doctor, or a local banker--even a local politician), you must now call upon some middle manager (or a call center run by middle managers), take a number, and wait for a bill that will always cost as much as possible (and will cost more over time: next year, it will more expensive). You become used to this phenomenon; indeed, some of you are so used to it that you don't bother to wonder why it is that aspirin, tuition, cars, houses, justice, and basic healthcare cost so much more all the time. You don't stop to look at the deals other people (including some "poor" and "Third World" people) get from their providers (largely by having no time or infrastructure to impose the costly regime of middle management upon a public understandably eager to avoid paying a pirate for the right to live their lives). You accept the regime of extortion as "the way things are" even when you go to "fix things" (usually by voting for a change in the identity of your extortioner, as though swapping one face for another were the crux of the problem: it isn't).

The solution is both simple (to understand) and difficult (to apply in a practical fashion). Simply put, you must avoid doing business with middle management. Don't waste time talking with them, paying them, reforming them, voting for them, etc. Instead, you must build alternatives to them. Recreate relationships with service providers who exist without middle management. This will not be easy (or even "cheap" in the short-term; in the long-term, however, it will be much cheaper than any scheme that involves paying the pirates their protection money). You must put away the notion of being a consumer. There are no passive customers in a real market: instead you have to offer something to get something. You have to be trustworthy yourself, and have the acumen to recognize for yourself when someone is trying to take you for a ride. No "consumer protection" agency is going to help you (unless you give them real money, and even then, I would not trust them--whether they were public or private). You have to realize that abstractions are meaningless without some kind of concrete environmental referent. I don't care what the GDP is doing: it is a meaningless thing, since its rise might just indicate the proliferation of piracy rather than the creation of something really good (real value). Growth is ambiguous that way. I care what is growing, how it grows, more than that some growth occur. Middle management is eager to sell you growth, without drawing your attention to the fact that it wants to grow at your (and the world's) expense, via a process of piracy whose moral ethic is, "Make more money, no matter what: more is always better, no matter what the fallout is." If you like that ethic, then buy into it with your eyes open, instead of falling for the commercials that repackage it as something less brutal or short-sighted (like Adam Smith's capitalism or Karl Marx's humanism).

Friday, November 28, 2014

Job Security and Lack Thereof

To me it seems that we often ignore solutions to institutional indifference or hostility that involve breaking away rather than moving in.

If I am already a playing member of some institution--dea
con in a church, shareholder in a business, official in a government, tenured faculty in a university--then it makes sense to push for reform, as an insider, where I see it as useful or helpful ("the right thing to do"). I can campaign from a position of relative strength as an insider, using social and political capital that I already have to fix problems I see. As an outsider, I don't have that capital, the capital for reform. I cannot make a meaningful dent on insider culture, really, except insofar as I avoid participating in it where I find it obnoxious.

If I am a shareholder in a business, then I have a meaningful voice when it comes to decisions that business makes. If I am not, if I am merely one of several million faceless consumers (passive beneficiaries of business I don't make), then my most meaningful decision is often simply to take my investment elsewhere. If I were tenured faculty, then my outlook on academic culture would be different than it is. I would advocate more for political solutions involving existing powers. As matters stand, my advice is that nobody should bet too much on the success of an academic career (with "too much" loosely defined as "debt sufficient to procure a middle-class life like that of my parents, who owned homes and had pensions and vacations and whatnot"). I am open to publishing work in alternative venues (e.g. using Amazon to self-publish rather than submitting to journals or academic presses). I am open to distance learning, with or without the umbrella of institutional support. I am open to the reality that many of us do many different things over the course of variegated lives: there is no such thing, not even in my relatively small coterie of academic friends, as "the academic lifestyle" or even "the academic career" that moves predictably from grad school to tenure. If a student asks me about making a career in academia, you had better believe I will mention all of this stuff. I will mention that it is wise to have back-up plans, and a working partner, and reasonable expectations of the rewards available. It does not make sense to care more for institutions than they can care for you. Feel free to make professional inroads into business outside the tenure track, for strait is that gate, and narrow the way, and few there be that find it.

My own situation is not wholly without hope, though I appear to be headed down an employment rabbit-hole that swallows some people whole (adjuncting as a career).  I am hoping that having really low expectations and being frugal will help us as we come closer to death of natural causes. I really like the tiny house movement, myself, and will never have a mortgage if I can help it. Maybe we can move into a shed or an RV (or a yurt!) when the kids grow up and move out. We definitely won't be paying their college tuition, if they go to college (which I am not going to push as a necessity, not least because there is no way in hell we could afford it).

Healthcare is a problem that persists, thanks in large part to the really stupid system we Americans have jerry-rigged in which the only way to see a doctor is to pay some bureaucrat (with a private or public company of dubious value to anybody except career bureaucrats). But for now my wife has benefits, even if I don't, and we are young enough to aim for good health as a long-term option. I suppose I may have to invoke sudden death if I get a really nasty disease that nobody can pay to cure--but honestly, those diseases are often death sentences even with the best care that money can buy. My great-grandfather fell on a pitchfork (the blunt end, not the tines) while working in a barn-loft. He spent a few weeks in agony, and then was dead. He was not even 30 years old. Life happens. Sometimes all we get to do is clean up the mess, bury the dead, mourn, and move on. It isn't Obama's fault (or Boehner's).

Cars are an expensive nuisance, as are computers, but so far we have been fortunate with used machines and good deals. I think there is hope that we may make it all the way to death without needing more than a serviceable jalopy and a few relatively cheap machines that are not phones that can handle word-processing and other activities our employers require. Beyond that, all we need are clothes and food--and time to spend together.

At some point, which I seem to reach sooner than many, I would rather forgo extra income and spend another hour with my family. I know that my academic employers do not value me as a human being: I don't expect them to do so. They have a need for services that I happen to be able to provide, for the moment--impersonal services that they can afford to hire for a relatively small sum. I know that they care more about the services than about me. That is the way of institutions, which necessarily value data over anecdotes, process over people. Seeing this truth as I do, I make a point of limiting my exposure to the institution. I want a relatively low ceiling on the amount of distress that the university is capable of causing in my life. When the dean hauls me into her office, swears at me, and tells me that I am a loser who should go fuck himself and die, I would prefer to smile, tear up my performance review, and walk out--rather than sweat and weep and wail and gnash my teeth. It is easier to be impervious to ill fortune that we expect, I think--so I make a point of expecting indifference and occasional hostility from the university, seeing that it often rewards my colleagues with such things (and I am not magically different or special or superhuman).

My family care about me as the university does not and cannot, even if it were to offer me tenure. I would be willing to care more about its future, and so its institutional decisions in the present, if I had a real stake in them (such as the prospect of tenure would raise), but even then I would not love it as my family. And I would not expect it to love me this way. As an adjunct, my principal loyalty is to students, and to the integrity of my work (as a teacher and a really independent scholar, free to read and write and publish what I want on my own schedule, without giving a damn for whatever intellectual fad is currently hot with tenured faculty whose collective attitude towards me is largely one of indifference or disgust). I value those professional people I know personally--the friends I have made at work--and I endeavor to be worth something to them as another human being, no matter where they may be professionally. I like many academics, including some with tenure, and naturally I hope that they like me back. But this is hardly the same thing as liking the university. I like teaching, if you want to know the truth, and thinking and writing, so for the present I put up with the university. I don't really like it, and I know better than to expect it to like me.

In brief, when buying something really expensive (a house, professional training that lasts a decade or costs decades of work to pay off), consider the worst-case scenario rather than the best. If the worst is more than you can bear, then don't buy it (no matter how nice the best looks). I would advise the aspiring grad student to look elsewhere if she cannot bear vows of material poverty and intellectual humiliation--for such is the lot of many academics (probably all of them, at one time or another).

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Hope and Change

I do not have hope that the oligarchs who run Washington will decide to burn bridges with their masters on Wall Street--to save me, or people like me (small statistics who don't matter, until we become part of a large mob demanding Coke or Pepsi).

I do not have hope that it makes a great difference whether the oligarchs identify as Democrat or Republican.

I do not believe that America is the hope of the world.  (If it is, then I suspect that is at least as much a curse as a blessing.  We might legitimately hope to kill or bankrupt the world, given our past, but how can we hope to replace its hopes with our own?  How is this not the worst kind of arrogance, even supposing--as some do not--that we are in some sense envied by the entire world?)

I do have hope that individual people can make a positive difference in the communities where they reside.  I believe in doing good that we can see and respect, among people we know (or might know--as people rather than "constituents" or "customers").  I believe in the community I reside in.  I believe in my neighbors, my friends, my family.  I might even believe in local politicians.  But that is the limit of my belief.  I cannot believe in what I cannot know (America), in ideals pretending to serve a population or populations so vast that they become incoherent to the point of being practically meaningless.  "We the People" of the USA are 300 million souls, give or take, scattered over a geography and ecology (political, economic, religious, social) so vast and diverse as to be utterly incapable of sharing much besides ignorance and hostility--in my considered judgement (that anyone is welcome to question, to dispute, to reject, etc.).

Too often, when stewardship of others is invoked--by Left or Right--it is in a context of somebody else doing something for me, in my place, without my having to lift a finger or take any responsibility.  I am asked to punish people I never met, to give money to people I never met, to hope against hope that people who don't know me from Adam know better than I how to reward and punish.  I am supposed to cede moral agency to "representatives" who act in my name, waging war and granting charity for reasons I am never supposed to learn.  All I am required to do is listen attentively to the latest commercials, put my hand on my heart when the music plays, and burst into tears as I affirm with emotional conviction that Coke or Pepsi, Democrats or Republicans, is certain to save the world.  I find this vision of my activity as a citizen of a free republic rather confining--since I have no love for Coke or Pepsi, no private inclination to prefer either as I make my diet of water, coffee, tea, and milk.  It would be easy to brand me as somebody with no hope--a desperate cynic with no commitment to the ideals that made this country great, blah blah--but what does this really mean?  I was born in the United States.  I have lived the greater part of my life here.  I pay taxes.  I even vote--though I confess my motivation is not hope for change that my sober judgement views as impossible.  I work (for money when I can, for the comfort and security of those I care about when monetary employment is lacking).  I observe the laws as carefully and conscientiously as I can.  I am polite.

I don't expect people to live like me, to like me, to "join my cause" and make it into the kind of nationwide farce that is Coke, Pepsi, the Democratic Party, or the GOP.  Whatever hope I have for humanity existing in relative peace comes from my trust that individuals like me tend to love their family and friends, and the community around them--without losing sight of the reality that this love is fragile and historically inclined to become hateful (when the interests of my family bring me into conflict with yours).  I can give you space to make a family that is not mine, but I cannot bear it when we must all become part of the same gigantic, dysfunctional family.  "One nation" of 300 million people is a disaster, from my perspective, when we must all have the same moral values--the same diet, the same healthcare, the same marriages, the same education, the same careers, the same uncritical devotion to factional politics that makes us pawns.