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The Demise of Democracy August 31, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in politics, Uncategorized.
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As a philosophy professor I am very seldom without words; but this video clip leaves me speechless.

Last weekend Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin staged a “rally” in Washington, DC. From reports, it isn’t obvious what the rally was about.

Here is a clip full of interviews of people in attendance. After watching the clip I am even less sure what the rally was about.

I challenge anyone to find a shred of reasoning here. Political thinkers often say that democracy requires an educated public.

How about a public that maintains some connection with reality?

book-section-book-cover2Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

A Good Idea, But… August 30, 2010

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Democrats and Republicans have competing views on how to end this recession. Democrats want more stimulus and government spending to increase demand for goods and services; Republicans want to cut taxes to encourage more spending on consumer goods.

But there is reason to think neither strategy will work.

Over the past 30 years, consumers have been spending more by going into debt assuming that increased value of assets such as homes will keep them solvent. But that created artificially high prices, especially in real estate and real estate-backed securities, that collapsed when the financial crisis hit. Thus, there has been a massive loss of wealth since the beginning of the recession which makes it harder for people and businesses to borrow money and makes it harder to service the debt they have already incurred. Until the level of debt held by individuals is brought into line with current income levels, spending will be sluggish no matter what the government does. According to  some economists, it may take 10 years to work of the excess debt in the economy.

So what to do about the recession? William Galston has the right idea:

A different era … How long will it take our policy makers and political parties to absorb the implications of that stark, undeniable phrase? When they do, they will realize that we have only two strategic options: Either we accept years of sluggish growth and high unemployment, or we shift to a new model that mobilizes the record level of private capital now sitting on the sidelines for public investments that will boost economic activity and employment in the short term, and economic productivity and growth in the long term, while generating rates of return sufficient to interest investors.

This is why we need a national infrastructure bank as the linchpin of a public investment strategy driven by economic analysis rather than congressional politics. Rather than bridges to nowhere, we need a bridge to the future. It’s time for hide-bound appropriators to get out of the way.

Our nation’s infrastructure is old and deteriorating. Now is the time to mobilize capital to rebuild it and put people back to work as well.

But what Galston fails to mention is that conservatives are likely to see a government supported infrastructure bank as more “socialism” since the idea is coming from Democrats.

Why would they be more welcoming toward this idea that any of the others Democrats have floated?

The problem is not a lack of ideas; the problem is Republican intransigence fed by public ignorance.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Do We Think What Our Language Tells Us to Think? August 29, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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What if our entire capacity for thinking is limited and determined by our respective languages, forever preventing true cross-cultural understanding from taking place? An interesting article by linguist Guy Deutscher in the New York Times Magazine gives a good overview of the linguistic debate while introducing his new book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.” In brief: in 1940 anthropologist Benjamin Lee Whorf suggested that language molds your capacity for thinking, to the point that if the language does not contain a certain concept, you’re incapable of thinking about it or understanding it.

In particular, Whorf announced, Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”). For decades, Whorf’s theory dazzled both academics and the general public alike. In his shadow, others made a whole range of imaginative claims about the supposed power of language, from the assertion that Native American languages instill in their speakers an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension to the theory that the nature of the Jewish religion was determined by the tense system of ancient Hebrew.

Deutscher tells us that the theory has been abandoned and ridiculed by linguists for decades, but for one thing, linguists aren’t the only ones who have an interest in the epistemological side of language—20th century philosophers have had many a discussion on the subject; and for another, I’ve certainly heard scholars from many different fields refer to such ideas as established truths. But, says Deutscher, Whorf’s theory lost out because of it radical approach:

Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts. The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept. If a language has no future tense, for instance, its speakers would simply not be able to grasp our notion of future time. It seems barely comprehensible that this line of argument could ever have achieved such success, given that so much contrary evidence confronts you wherever you look. When you ask, in perfectly normal English, and in the present tense, “Are you coming tomorrow?” do you feel your grip on the notion of futurity slipping away? Do English speakers who have never heard the German word Schadenfreude find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune? Or think about it this way: If the inventory of ready-made words in your language determined which concepts you were able to understand, how would you ever learn anything new?

Says Deutscher, the interesting thing isn’t that language limits your thinking, but enforces a certain kind of thinking:

Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

In German, Spanish, Russian and many other languages, you have to think about nouns in terms of masculine and feminine. In English we have to think about actions in a certain tense—have we done something, will we do something, or are we doing it? In Chinese apparently you don’t have to be that specific. In Western languages we tend to put ourselves in the middle of most of our spatial references (left, right, back, forth), but some tribal languages do not: their talk about space involve cardinal points (north, south, east and west), not relative references to ourselves. If our language has certain words for colors, we are more apt to perceive them. The bottom line is that language does affect our way of thinking, in terms of what we have to be aware of, and what we learn to pay attention to, and to disregard. But to what extent?

For many years, our mother tongue was claimed to be a “prison house” that constrained our capacity to reason. Once it turned out that there was no evidence for such claims, this was taken as proof that people of all cultures think in fundamentally the same way. But surely it is a mistake to overestimate the importance of abstract reasoning in our lives. After all, how many daily decisions do we make on the basis of deductive logic compared with those guided by gut feeling, intuition, emotions, impulse or practical skills? The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.

Whether Deutscher’s reevaluation of Whorf’s theory is really something new in linguistics I can’t say—I’m not a linguist—but philosophically this is hardly a new approach; on the contrary, it is reminiscent of what some Continental philosophers of the twentieth century said a while back (actually, it was that brilliant linguist Nietzsche who first floated a similar idea!): we don’t all think the same way, because our available language creates a perspective or horizon, for all that we take for granted and are likely to notice—a hermeneutic circle. Not Whorf’s thought prison, but a Lifeworld of our interpretations into which we are thrown, and which takes some intellectual effort to rise above—hard, but not impossible. You can find similar ideas in the writings of several contemporary German and French scholars, and some of them have actually been influenced by Jakobson.

So without having read Deutscher’s book yet, it seems to me that the idea of  language as a primary condition for understanding the world, but not per se a prison of interpretation, is not exactly new in the general realm of scholarship. And philosophically as well as scientifically, it is already the subject of a revisionist overhaul, focusing on our neurological/ontological similarities beneath the cultural differences! 

But I’m glad Deutscher brought up the name and influence of  Roman Jakobson. I myself  actually had the privilege of meeting him at the 500th anniversary of the University of Copenhagen in 1979. Jakobson was talking about his amazing life in a succession of countries, and to the best of my recollection he said, “The surest way to stay mentally active is to change country and language every 10 years!” And he wasn’t talking about just learning new words and rules of grammar…

The Big Lie August 29, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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“The Big Lie” is an expression coined by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf that refers to a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously”. In 1984 George Orwell explains how it works. “The key-word here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts.”

And as a propaganda technique it is working very well for Republicans.

Newsweek’s Jonathan Alder:

Our maddening times demand that the truth be forthrightly stated at the outset, and not just that the president has nothing in common with the führer beyond the possession of a dog. The outlandish stories about Barack Hussein Obama are simply false: he wasn’t born outside the United States (the tabloid “proof” has been debunked as a crude forgery); he has never been a Muslim (he was raised by an atheist and became a practicing Christian in his 20s); his policies are not “socialist” (he explicitly rejected advice to nationalize the banks and wants the government out of General Motors and Chrysler as quickly as possible); he is not a “warmonger” (he promised in 2008 to withdraw from Iraq and escalate in Afghanistan and has done so); he is neither a coddler of terrorists (he has already ordered the killing of more “high value” Qaeda targets in 18 months than his predecessor did in eight years), nor a coddler of Wall Street (his financial-reform package, while watered down, was the most vigorous since the New Deal), nor an enemy of American business (he and the Chamber of Commerce favor tax credits for small business that were stymied by the GOP to deprive him of a victory). And that’s just the short list of lies.

Polls measure just how effective it is:

In 2008, 13 percent of Americans were under the misimpression that he was a Muslim. Now the figure is 24 percent. One explanation may be that Obama’s connection to his Chicago church was fresher in the public mind then. But the deeper problem is a growing number of people who think the president is not just disappointing or wrongheaded but dangerous. More than half of Republicans surveyed (52 percent) think it’s “definitely true” or “probably true” that Obama “sympathizes with the goals of fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world.” This says more about the mindset of the GOP than about Obama. It reflects not just the usual personal and partisan animus of the age (George W. Bush was subjected to exceptionally nasty attacks from the left) but a flight from facts—a startling disconnect between a quarter of the country and what some of Bush’s aides once disparagingly called “the reality-based community.”

Part of the difference between the use of the Big Lie by today’s conservatives and ordinary partisan bickering is that the Big Lie is being promoted by mainstream political figures:

Meanwhile, the right-wing and left-wing backbenchers who once sharply attacked each other in Congress, then walked off the floor arm-in-arm as colleagues, now barely speak. And the congressional leadership is getting into the venom game. When the racist Gerald L.K. Smith charged in 1937 that FDR was a secret Jew (he later called Dwight Eisenhower a “Swedish Jew”), no one could have imagined that the Senate minority leader would be asked about it, much less tacitly endorse the claim. But there was Mitch McConnell last week saying that “I take the president at his word” when he says he’s not a Muslim. That’s what’s known in politics as a “dog whistle”—a coded message to followers. Many conservatives don’t accept Obama’s “word” on anything. McConnell was thus giving them permission to consider the president’s faith an open question, even as he said it wasn’t in dispute.

Why would a “responsible” politician like McConnell engage in Big Lie propaganda? As usual in Republican politics, just follow the money. Via Frank Rich in the NY Times:

ANOTHER weekend, another grass-roots demonstration starring Real Americans who are mad as hell and want to take back their country from you-know-who. Last Sunday the site was Lower Manhattan, where they jeered the “ground zero mosque.” This weekend, the scene shifted to Washington, where the avatars of oppressed white Tea Party America, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, were slated to “reclaim the civil rights movement” (Beck’s words) on the same spot where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had his dream exactly 47 years earlier.

Vive la révolution!

There’s just one element missing from these snapshots of America’s ostensibly spontaneous and leaderless populist uprising: the sugar daddies who are bankrolling it, and have been doing so since well before the “death panel” warm-up acts of last summer. Three heavy hitters rule. You’ve heard of one of them, Rupert Murdoch. The other two, the brothers David and Charles Koch, are even richer, with a combined wealth exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among Americans. But even those carrying the Kochs’ banner may not know who these brothers are. […]

Only the fat cats change — not their methods and not their pet bugaboos (taxes, corporate regulation, organized labor, and government “handouts” to the poor, unemployed, ill and elderly). Even the sources of their fortunes remain fairly constant. Koch Industries began with oil in the 1930s and now also spews an array of industrial products, from Dixie cups to Lycra, not unlike DuPont’s portfolio of paint and plastics. Sometimes the biological DNA persists as well. The Koch brothers’ father, Fred, was among the select group chosen to serve on the Birch Society’s top governing body. In a recorded 1963 speech that survives in a University of Michigan archive, he can be heard warning of “a takeover” of America in which Communists would “infiltrate the highest offices of government in the U.S. until the president is a Communist, unknown to the rest of us.” That rant could be delivered as is at any Tea Party rally today.

Last week the Kochs were shoved unwillingly into the spotlight by the most comprehensive journalistic portrait of them yet, written by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker. Her article caused a stir among those in Manhattan’s liberal elite who didn’t know that David Koch, widely celebrated for his cultural philanthropy, is not merely another rich conservative Republican but the founder of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which, as Mayer writes with some understatement, “has worked closely with the Tea Party since the movement’s inception.” To New Yorkers who associate the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center with the New York City Ballet, it’s startling to learn that the Texas branch of that foundation’s political arm, known simply as Americans for Prosperity, gave its Blogger of the Year Award to an activist who had called President Obama “cokehead in chief.”

The other major sponsor of the Tea Party movement is Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, which, like Americans for Prosperity, is promoting events in Washington this weekend. Under its original name, Citizens for a Sound Economy, FreedomWorks received $12 million of its own from Koch family foundations. Using tax records, Mayer found that Koch-controlled foundations gave out $196 million from 1998 to 2008, much of it to conservative causes and institutions. That figure doesn’t include $50 million in Koch Industries lobbying and $4.8 million in campaign contributions by its political action committee, putting it first among energy company peers like Exxon Mobil and Chevron. Since tax law permits anonymous personal donations to nonprofit political groups, these figures may understate the case. The Kochs surely match the in-kind donations the Tea Party receives in free promotion 24/7 from Murdoch’s Fox News, where both Beck and Palin are on the payroll.

And we should be under no illusions about these benign public-spirited businessmen trying to make our country a better place to live.

When David Koch ran to the right of Reagan as vice president on the 1980 Libertarian ticket (it polled 1 percent), his campaign called for the abolition not just of Social Security, federal regulatory agencies and welfare but also of the F.B.I., the C.I.A., and public schools — in other words, any government enterprise that would either inhibit his business profits or increase his taxes. He hasn’t changed. As Mayer details, Koch-supported lobbyists, foundations and political operatives are at the center of climate-science denial — a cause that forestalls threats to Koch Industries’ vast fossil fuel business. While Koch foundations donate to cancer hospitals like Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, Koch Industries has been lobbying to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from classifying another product important to its bottom line, formaldehyde, as a “known carcinogen” in humans (which it is).

So when can we expect the Democrats to fight back against the Big Lie? Frank Rich is not holding his breath.

When John Kennedy’s patriotism was assailed by Birchers calling for impeachment, he gave a major speech denouncing their “crusades of suspicion.”

And Obama? So far, sadly, this question answers itself.

Obama is too busy burnishing his bi-partisan credentials trying to win the votes of people who think he eats babies for breakfast.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

The Press Should Stop Making Philosophical Claims August 25, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Science.
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In the Times Literary Supplement, Jerome Burne reviews Irving Kirsch’s book The Emperor’s New Drugs, in which Kirsch argues that anti-depressant drugs—SSRIs like Prozac, Seroxat and Lustral—are no better than placebos.  The evidence for his claim is impressive and it does not surprise me that the pharmaceutical industry has made billions of dollars by suppressing evidence.

What is bothersome about Burne’s review is his utterly misleading use of 20th Century philosophy of mind to make his case.

His review is subtitled: “A debate on Cartesian dualism has led to radically differing approaches to the treatment of depression”. The introduction of the article suggests that opposition to Descartes’ claim that the mind (or soul) is a non-physical substance led to the assumption that brain functions are nothing but chemical reactions that can be controlled through drug intervention—an approach that is now proving to be ineffective.

Sixty years ago, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle published his famous attack on Cartesian dualism, The Concept of Mind, which claimed to find a logical flaw in the popular notion that mental life has a parallel but separate existence from the physical body. Among other effects it provided sophisticated support for the psychological behaviourists, then in the ascendant, who asserted that since we could not objectively observe mental activity it was not really a fit subject for scientific investigation.

Nowhere was the notion of banning mental states taken up more enthusiastically than by the emerging discipline of neuropsychiatry. If consciousness and all its manifestations were “merely” the firing of neurons and the release of chemicals in the brain, what need was there to focus on mental states? Once the physical brain was right, the rest would follow.

It was an approach that has spawned a vast pharmaceutical industry to treat any pathological psychological state – anxiety, shyness, depression, psychosis – with a variety of pills.

The clear implication of the article is that we should return to a dualistic conception of the mind that treats the mind as independent of physical states.

But this is just silly. Ryle rightly criticized the Cartesian picture of the mind as assuming a “ghost in the machine”—a weird supernatural entity that somehow issues in experience and rationality. Ryle’s criticism of Descartes was surely apt.

However, Ryle’s solution to uncovering the nature of the mind, behaviorism, was rejected by cognitive science decades ago and few researchers think that we can understand the mind by ignoring mental activity. I doubt that behaviorism had much impact on the development of pharmaceutical interventions.

Furthermore, the fact that we haven’t yet discovered the complex brain functions that cause psychosis or depression does not entail that the mind must be non-physical. The failure of drug interventions simply shows that the brain is more complex than many researchers had thought and mental illness is unlikely to be cured by a pill.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

A Letter to Students August 24, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, politics.
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Berkeley Professor Michael O’Hare wrote a letter to his students that all California college and university students should read.

After extolling the virtues of his students, he gives them the bad news:

The bad news is that you have been the victims of a terrible swindle, denied an inheritance you deserve by contract and by your merits.  And you aren’t the only ones; victims of this ripoff include the students who were on your left and on your right in high school but didn’t get into Cal, a whole generation stiffed by mine.  This letter is an apology, and more usefully, perhaps a signal to start demanding what’s been taken from you so you can pass it on with interest.

Swindle–what happened? Well, before you were born, Californians now dead or in nursing homes made a remarkable deal with the future.  (Not from California? Keep reading, lots of this applies to you, with variations.) They agreed to invest money they could have spent on bigger houses, vacations, clothes, and cars into the world’s greatest educational system, and into building and operating water systems, roads, parks, and other public facilities, an infrastructure that was the envy of the world. They didn’t get everything right: too much highway and not enough public transportation. But they did a pretty good job.

Young people who enjoyed these ‘loans’ grew up smarter, healthier, and richer than they otherwise would have, and understood that they were supposed to “pay it forward” to future generations, for example by keeping the educational system staffed with lots of dedicated, well-trained teachers, in good buildings and in small classes, with college counselors and up-to-date books.  California schools had physical education, art for everyone, music and theater, buildings that looked as though people cared about them, modern languages and ancient languages, advanced science courses with labs where the equipment worked, and more. They were the envy of the world, and they paid off better than Microsoft stock. Same with our parks, coastal zone protection, and social services.

I will just post the entire letter because it is crucial that students have this information.

This deal held until about thirty years ago, when for a variety of reasons, California voters realized that while they had done very well from the existing contract, they could do even better by walking away from their obligations and spending what they had inherited on themselves.  “My kids are finished with school; why should I pay taxes for someone else’s?  Posterity never did anything for me!”  An army of fake ‘leaders’ sprang up to pull the moral and fiscal wool over their eyes, and again and again, your parents and their parents lashed out at government (as though there were something else that could replace it) with tax limits, term limits, safe districts, throw-away-the-key imprisonment no matter the cost, smoke-and-mirrors budgeting, and a rule never to use the words taxes and services in the same paragraph.

Now, your infrastructure is falling to pieces under your feet, and as citizens you are responsible for crudities like closing parks, and inhumanities like closing battered women’s shelters. It’s outrageous, inexcusable, that you can’t get into the courses you need, but much worse that Oakland police have stopped taking 911 calls for burglaries and runaway children. If you read what your elected officials say about the state today, you’ll see things like “California can’t afford” this or that basic government function, and that “we need to make hard choices” to shut down one or another public service, or starve it even more (like your university). Can’t afford? The budget deficit that’s paralyzing Sacramento is about $500 per person; add another $500 to get back to a public sector we don’t have to be ashamed of, and our average income is almost forty times that.  Of course we can afford a government that actually works: the fact is that your parents have simply chosen not to have it.

I’m writing this to you because you are the victims of this enormous cheat (though your children will be even worse off if you don’t take charge of this ship and steer it). Your education was trashed as California fell to the bottom of US states in school spending, and the art classes, AP courses, physical education, working toilets, and teaching generally went by the board. Every year I come upon more and more of you who have obviously never had the chance to learn to write plain, clear, English.  Every year, fewer and fewer of you read newspapers, speak a foreign language, understand the basics of how government and business actually work, or have the energy to push back intellectually against me or against each other. Or know enough about history, literature, and science to do it effectively!  You spent your school years with teachers paid less and less, trained worse and worse, loaded up with more and more mindless administrative duties, and given less and less real support from administrators and staff.

Many of your parents took a hike as well, somehow getting the idea that the schools had taken over their duties to keep you learning, or so beat-up working two jobs each and commuting two hours a day to put food on the table that they couldn’t be there for you. A quarter of your classmates didn’t finish high school, discouraged and defeated; but they didn’t leave the planet, even if you don’t run into them in the gated community you will be tempted to hide out in.  They have to eat just like you, and they aren’t equipped to do their share of the work, so you will have to support them.

You need to have a very tough talk with your parents, who are still voting; you can’t save your children by yourselves.  Equally important, you need to start talking to each other.  It’s not fair, and you have every reason (except a good one) to keep what you can for yourselves with another couple of decades of mean-spirited tax-cutting and public sector decline. You’re my heroes just for surviving what we put you through and making it into my classroom, but I’m asking for more: you can be better than my generation. Take back your state for your kids and start the contract again.  There are lots of places you can start, for example, building a transportation system that won’t enslave you for two decades as their chauffeur, instead of raising fares and cutting routes in a deadly helix of mediocrity.  Lots. Get to work.  See you in class!

Economist Robert Reich makes a further point in an email that O’Hare includes as a postscript:

…one big reason why middle-class Californians began thinking more about themselves than posterity starting in the late 1970s: Their real incomes started to flatten. In the thirty years before that – when their parents invested in California’s education system and infrastructure – the median wage tracked productivity gains. The typical family grew so much better off it could afford to be generous. But then the median wage flattened even as productivity gains continued. Public-spiritedness is harder to inspire among people who feel they’re losing ground.

I’ve posted on this issue earlier this summer. We have in fact been losing ground for decades. Our current troubles just make this trend toward stagnant middle class incomes very visible, a reality that students especially are experiencing.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Lessons Unlearned August 23, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Economics professor Teresa Ghilarducci reports:

The shocking story in this week’s Financial Times had this lead: “Call center workers are becoming as cheap to hire in the U.S. as they are in India.” High unemployment in the U.S. has forced down wages for low-paid workers in the U.S. so that in many cases Americans are cheaper to hire than those in a country where most people live on less than $8.00 per day.

She links this story to another about an ongoing strike at a Dr. Pepper/Snapple factory in upstate New York where workers are attempting to prevent cuts in wages and pensions despite healthy company profits.

Unlike other companies that have gotten drastic pay cuts from union members when they opened their books to prove their economic distress—GM, Ford, Chrysler, Goodyear tire company—Dr Pepper Snapple admits they can afford to pay; but they argue (I imagine some with some smugness) that unemployment is so high that competition between desperate workers will boost profits further as workers accept less pay to get and keep a job.

Of course, if you are a free market fundamentalist you will find nothing wrong with this scenario. Workers deserve only those wages that the market will bear. If an increased supply of labor suppresses wages so be it.

But as Ghilarducci argues:

Falling wages is a bad thing, a very bad thing. Even if you are channeling gilded age Jay Gould—who said, “I can hire half of the working class to kill the other half”—you must concede that if workers don’t buy stuff, there is more unemployment, which means even lower wages, leading to more unemployment, in a spiral downward of recession and depression that eventually means you won’t be able buy stuff, no matter how cheap it is.

The only antidote to downward pressure on wages is a strong union movement. But most Americans hate unions and the power of unions has steadily eroded.

We have been through all of this before. Capitalism nearly destroyed itself in the early 20th Century because the business community refused to pay workers enough to create demand for their products. One of the reforms that helped produce mid-20th Century prosperity was laws that protected the right of workers to organize. But anti-union sentiment and globalization have conspired to take that option off the table.

Will capitalism have to learn the hard way again?

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Moral Naturalism is Back! And so am I! August 22, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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Vacation’s over, and I’m back after having been out of town all summer. Thanks to Dwight for keeping the blog hot, even with jury duty! Ever the optimist, I hope to weigh in on topics close to my heart, and mind (for I believe in the importance of both) with shorter intervals than last semester.

First, welcome to the new academic year, everyone—for I assume that most of you are involved in Academia in some form or other.  Next, let’s dig into the pile of saved articles I’ve accumulated over the past months where I haven’t had regular Internet access (and I survived!). Here’s a story that caught my eye, from New York Times July 22: A conference was held in Connecticut in which a new breed of moral philosophers (ethicists working with evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists) confirmed the philosophical presence, and importance, of moral naturalism. A quick recap: Moral naturalism is the philosophy that morality is a natural occurrence in the human mind—not (primarily) a matter of acculturation, or selfish/unselfish choices based on rationality. In the 20th century moral naturalism was crowded out by psychoanalysis, behaviorism, logical positivism, and other approaches which all have merit, but the idea that ethics could be founded in our emotional apparatus wasn’t getting much attention except for a few thinkers such as Richard Taylor and Philip Hallie. (You’ll recognize some themes here from many of my previous posts.)

But something started happening in the late 1980s—interestingly, paralleling the development of narrative ethics, the idea that moral values find expression, and may be developed through storytelling. From one direction came the new findings of neuroscientists: that an area of the brain seems to be devoted to moral considerations. From another came the evolutionary psychologists, connecting morals to our long history of evolution. Add to that experimental philosophy, with its (sometimes a mite oversimplified, but intriguing) “What if” questions such as the famous Trolley Problem, introduced by Philippa Foot. Combine that with narrative ethics, and you get a new form of moral naturalism (and that description is also oversimplified, but I’m just trying to paint a general picture): human emotions have developed certain built-in features that enable us, even as babies, to recognize right from wrong, from the perspective of being social animals; as adults, these features are still fundamental, but can be overridden—by experience, cultural pressures, and/or reason; and the stories we hear, and tell, about right and wrong, will combine our moral emotions with a sense of causality, and teach/explain the moral dos and don’ts that will provide either compliance with societal rules or rebellion against them. So here, moving into the second decade of the new millennium, we have a moral philosophy that is actually on fairly firm ground, working with science as well as recognizing the common human experience of moral feelings. This is exciting, folks. So doesn’t anyone see a downside to this? Yes, some ethicists question the loss of the exalted state of reason as the foundation and instigator of moral choices and values. And we may have to do yet another reevaluation down the line, reinstating reason as a fundamental element of ethics. I often argue that we’ll have to, because moral emotions are error-prone.

So here are some tidbits from the conference, reported by David Brooks:

Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia argues that this moral sense is like our sense of taste. We have natural receptors that help us pick up sweetness and saltiness. In the same way, we have natural receptors that help us recognize fairness and cruelty. Just as a few universal tastes can grow into many different cuisines, a few moral senses can grow into many different moral cultures.

Paul Bloom of Yale noted that this moral sense can be observed early in life. Bloom and his colleagues conducted an experiment in which they showed babies a scene featuring one figure struggling to climb a hill, another figure trying to help it, and a third trying to hinder it.

At as early as six months, the babies showed a preference for the helper over the hinderer. In some plays, there is a second act. The hindering figure is either punished or rewarded. In this case, 8-month-olds preferred a character who was punishing the hinderer over ones being nice to it.

This illustrates, Bloom says, that people have a rudimentary sense of justice from a very early age. This doesn’t make people naturally good. If you give a 3-year-old two pieces of candy and ask him if he wants to share one of them, he will almost certainly say no. It’s not until age 7 or 8 that even half the children are willing to share. But it does mean that social norms fall upon prepared ground. We come equipped to learn fairness and other virtues.

Brooks comments that the conference left alone the question of transcendence and the sacred, and that is a valid complaint, since so many people are convinced that the entire idea of ethics is founded in religion, and we can’t just disregard that conviction and throw it under the trolley—that’s as bad as 20th century ethicists disregarding the role of emotions. But my overriding concern is that the moral naturalists of the 21st century (to which I suppose I belong) are losing sight of the role of reason, and that the new moral naturalism will become another fad, a radical “ism” that will, in time, be replaced by a counter-theory, in good Hegelian fashion.  We’re not quite at the pinnacle yet, where we understand everything about ethics.

Global Warming Deniers Have Their Spokesperson August 19, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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How much fear, loathing, and self-deception does it take to be a global warming denier?

Mark Morford knows and he plays the role to the hilt.

Wouldn’t it be horrible if all this stunning, insanely mounting, irrefutable evidence — death, floods, fires, heat waves, the worst this and the most violent that in 1,000 years — were some sort of surefire, cumulative sign that we have, if not directly caused, then wildly accelerated and amplified the imminent implosion of this planet?

But we didn’t! And we haven’t! And we aren’t! I mean, whew.

I am delighted to remember that hardcore science has lied, misguided, misnomered and whatever else weird science does to confuse the world about the real impact humanity has had on global ecosystems. All those thousands of highly trained scientists educated at the finest universities, learning the most difficult and fraught information of our age, all in universal agreement that humankind’s actions directly affect climate change, and they are all totally full of it because they are clearly in cahoots with Nazi Liberal Jesus, the solar panel manufacturers and the hippies who want me to compost my KFC Double Down wrapper.

And it gets better.

I mean, so what if giant icebergs four times the size of Manhattan are suddenly breaking off in Greenland? That’s happening way, way up there. I’m overconsuming energy and blocking out inconvenient truths way, way down here. There is no cause/effect, no connection whatsoever, never mind that dark, nagging sense of self-wrought doom, deep in my bones. I know that’s just a liberal lie, an implant, completely futile — just like those failed climate talks in Copenhagen, and the soon-to-be-failed ones coming up shortly in Mexico. I mean, whew.

For a good laugh on a Friday read the whole article.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Why Our Political Discourse Sucks August 18, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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If you want to have a fruitful argument or discussion it must rest on some shared premises. And most fruitful conversations will begin with some shared facts on which everyone can agree. When there are no shared premises or agreed upon facts, conversation devolves into a  meaningless brawl where the loudest or most powerful wins.

In a democracy, the media is the institution in a position to report facts on which to rest a debate.

So it is really disturbing when the media reports outright lies such as the multiple references to the “Mosque at Ground Zero”. It is not a mosque and it is not at Ground Zero. It is a community center roughly two blocks from Ground Zero. Here are pictures of the neighborhood—does it look like hallowed ground?

Most people get their news from headlines and sound bites. When the news media are not careful to make their headlines and sound bites conform to the facts, millions are misled.

This “debate” about the Muslim community center in New York is a farce created by (some) conservatives intent on manufacturing enemies to run against in the upcoming election. It is just another in a long list of recemt “debates” over “concepts” that do not exist in reality. There were no “death panels” in the health care plan, Obama is not a “socialist”,  estate taxes are not “death taxes”, there are no “terror babies” planted by Muslims bent on setting off bombs when they grow up.

But the press likes controversy so they dutifully report the imaginary as if it were real.

And we end up debating the imaginary while real issues (like getting aid to Pakistan or dealing with climate change) are pushed aside.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com