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Also Sprach Tea Partiers October 14, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, politics.
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3 comments
Berkeley economist Brad Delong laments
Somehow I Am Now Wishing I Had Read More Nietszche When I Was Younger…

I’m not sure if Delong wishes he had read Nietzsche’s discussion of “ressentiment” in the Genealogy of Morals (where Nietzche claims roughly that the weak and frustrated create a moral code that absolves them of responsibility for their frustration) or the end of the Gay Science where the madman warns of impending catastrophe and he is treated as a fool. But this conversation between Delong and standard issue right-wing crazies is hilarious.

If you are looking for evidence that no real debate can be had with these people, here it is.

Last week I spent some time with a group of people I don’t usually spend much time talking to. They were not rich–by which I don’t mean that they had overstretched themselves by buying a seven-figure principal residence but rather that they weren’t rich: their household income was in the five or, for some of them, perhaps the very low six figures. And (which is unusual for Berkeley) they were not lefties, neither cultural nor sociological. They were deeply concerned with the future of our country. And they were desperate to figure out how to engage in effective political action–but had few illusions that the politicians they would vote for in November were their kind of people with their interests at heart.

I suppose that in a previous era, back when there were private-sector unions, they might have been union stewards. But now we have no private-sector unions.

And so they are activists from the California Tea Party.

So I went through my standard spiel. Housing bubble. 5 million excess houses built in the desert between Los Angeles and Albuquerque, and on all of them the least $100K of mortgage debt will not be repaid. A $500B loss in an $80T world economy. Shouldn’t have been a problem—securitization exists to spread risks. But the banks pretended that the AAA MBS issued by other banks were high-quality Basel capital even though they knew full well the dreck that they were issuing. A financial multiplier of 40. A flight to safety. A big shift away from spending on currently-produced goods and services and on currently-employed labor as people tried to build up their stocks of safe assets. A multiplier as people who lost their jobs stopped spending, and the situation snowballed.

It could have been worse, I said. Without all of the rescue policies we would probably now have an unemployment rate of 16 percent rather than 10 percent.

But they question is what to do now with the economy. The idea is not to go to socialism—not to nationalize large chunks of the economy and have everybody work for the government—but to conduct strategic interventions in financial markets. Relieve the excess demand for safe high-quality assets and you remove the pressure on people to spend less than they earn as they try to build up their stocks of safe assets, and you get a virtuous circle of strong recovery.

So, I said, the right thing to do is the Bagehot rule: lend freely at a penalty rate. The government should throw huge amounts of money at the financial markets and in the process take a large chunk of the upside in equities and options.

SOCIALISM, they said. We don’t want SOCIALISM.

But it’s not socialism, I said. It’s an attempt to avoid socialism—it’s an attempt to conduct a strategic intervention into the market economy so that it can rebalance itself.

SOCIALISM, they said.

Well, I said, how about lending freely to the financial sector but forget Bagehot’s “penalty rate” stuff?

BAILOUT, they said. BAILOUT OF CORRUPT FINANCIERS WITH WASHINGTON CONNECTIONS, they said. WE LIKE THAT EVEN LESS.

Well, I said, how about pushing off taxes into the future, bringing forward infrastructure spending we know that we will want to do, and financing it by issuing more government debt? The spending should put some people to work, and the extra government bonds we print up will increase the supply of safe assets, decrease the excess demand, and so remove some of the downward pressure that is inducing people to spend less than they earn/

DEFICIT, they said. DEFICIT BAD. MUST REDUCE THE DEFICIT. GOVERNMENT MUST LIVE WITHIN ITS MEANS.

But, I said, the U.S. government now can borrow at unbelievable terms. If you could borrow at such terms, you would bust out the top of your house and add a second story immediately.

GOVERNMENT MUST LIVE WITHIN ITS MEANS.

OK, I said. How about having the federal government aid the states. We want to keep our police and our fire and our road maintenance and our schools running at their efficient levels, don’t we? It’s stupid to cut back on the long-term foundations of our economy and its growth because of recession, isn’t it. How about a large program of federal aid to the states so that teachers, sewer workers, police officers, and firefighters can keep their jobs, keep protecting us—and keep spending and so provide employment for the rest of us?

ARE YOU KIDDING? THEY HAVE KEPT THEIR UNIONS. WE HAVE LOST OUR UNIONS. WE HAVE LOST OUR JOBS. THEY HAVE GONE TO CHINA. THEY HAVE VANISHED. WE ARE UNEMPLOYED. IF WE ARE EMPLOYED WE HAVE NO BARGAINING POWER WITH OUR BOSSES. IT IS NOT FAIR FOR STATE WORKERS TO NOT ONLY HAVE UNIONS, BARGAINING POWER, AND PENSIONS, BUT FOR THEM TO HAVE THEIR JOBS TOO. SINCE WE ARE LOSING OUR JOBS THEY SHOULD LOSE THEIR JOBS TOO. IT IS NOT FAIR.

Oh.

EVERYTHING YOU PROPOSE TAKES OUR HARD-EARNED MONEY, TAXES IT AWAY FROM US, AND GIVES IT TO SOMEBODY ELSE.

Oh.

BERKELEY SOCIALIST.

So what do you think we should do?

GET US JOBS!

But you have just rejected every idea I have for boosting employment—short of nationalizing the means of production and employing everybody by the government, that is. What are your ideas?

CUT TAXES. ABOLISH THE EPA. REPEAL HEALTH CARE REFORM. KEEP GOVERNMENT’S HANDS OFF OF MEDICARE. RAISE SOCIAL SECURITY PAYMENTS. CUT THE DEFICIT.

To call this incoherent doesn’t quite capture the utter diabolical 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

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Overselling Experimental Philosophy March 3, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Science.
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11 comments

This article on Experimental Philosophy (X-Phi) is overselling its capacity for innovation. Experimental Philosophy uses the techniques of empirical psychology (MRI scans, subject interviews and questionnaires, observations of behavior, etc.) to determine how ordinary people respond to philosophically interesting situations.

The authors rave about its revolutionary potential:

A dynamic new school of thought is emerging that wants to kick down the walls of recent philosophy and place experimentation back at its centre. It has a name to delight an advertising executive: x-phi. It has blogs and books devoted to it, and boasts an expanding body of researchers in elite universities. It even has an icon: an armchair in flames.

They proclaim that it has the potential to settle philosophical debates and is taking philosophy back to its roots in empirical research

…for the x-phi fan, empirical research is not a mere prop to philosophy, it is philosophy.

But this hype is mostly nonsense. X-phi is interesting because it might help philosophers do one part of their job. But it cannot solve philosophical problems.

Philosophers have always been concerned to describe our “untutored” beliefs about the world, the reasons or lack thereof for holding those beliefs, and to suggest how those untutored beliefs can be made more intelligible, coherent, or in touch with reality. That first task—to describe our “intuitions”—can be controversial. Too often, when philosophers describe what “we” believe, they are describing their own allegedly “untutored” intuitions. But there is no reason to think that philosophers’ “untutored” intuitions are shared by ordinary people. (not to mention the cultural biases that might come into play)

Experimental philosophy may help us determine what people believe and how they respond to various situations. Thus, it can act as a check against unreflectively assuming our intuitions are shared. But brain scans can’t tell us much about why people think as they do, and tracking blood flow or electrical activity is not going to reveal very much about patterns of reasoning. Furthermore, questionnaires and observations of behavior are notoriously unreliable in explaining the motives behind our actions, and are hardly revolutionary.

Most importantly, X-phi could not begin to tell us how we ought to think about reality. It is rooted in what is, not what should be. It can be critical of philosopher’s pretensions but not of the beliefs it purports to describe. It will not be making philosophical discoveries.

The real problem with some contemporary philosophy is not the absence of scientific data but the use of odd and fanciful scenarios like the Trolley Problem to unearth how we reason. Most people are not trained or accustomed to  thinking philosophically about wild, hypothetical scenarios that they have never encountered. I’m not at all sure that discovering what their brains do when confronted with such hypotheses is revealing.

To invoke Nietzsche (or Aristotle for that matter) in such an enterprise is a bit rich. Although both were interested in psychology, they were interested in how people responded to the realities of life—not the daydreams of professors.