Yeah. I’m just gonna leave it at that.
Archive for October, 2011
The conspiracy threads on the web often entertain me far more than the bland, rehashed, blockbuster narratives of the broader culture. If we agree that truth is stranger than fiction, and say the most extreme conspiracy/doomsday stories are fiction, then that just makes life even more interesting, as far as I’m concerned. I see it as our modern mythology. Metadata. A conspiracy/doomsday story, true or invented, will only live and grow if it appeals to the kind of anxiety that we are addicted to as a culture.
So, how do we make a break from the chronic stress we feel on a national and global level? What would ease our collective survival anxieties? Perhaps working on a pressure point to release some blocked energy? (Hello, Wall Street.)
Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist from Stanford, studies the deadly effects of chronic stress in humans and other primates. Here he describes a moment in the day of a typical baboon colony hierarchy;
“You’ve got some big male that loses a fight , he chases a sub-adult, who bites an adult female, who slaps a juvenile, who knocks an infant out of a tree; all in 15 seconds. A huge component of stress is a lack of control, lack of predictability. You’re just sitting there watching a zebra, and somebody who is having a bad day comes along and it’s your rear end that’s gonna get slashed. It’s tremendously stressful for the folks further down on the hierarchy.”
A Baboon colony that he had been studying in the wild for a number of years suffered a tragedy that yielded a provocative finding. The colony came across an abandoned camp and rummaged through the rubbish. When meat was discovered, the most aggressive alphas, the source of the stress that trickles down through the colony, took it all for themselves. It so happened that the alphas contacted a fatal illness from the meat and all died. The colony continued, sans abusive alpha class. Health improved, violence went down, prospects of longevity went up. As outsider males entered into this liberated colony, they were adjusted or rejected.
The events of one day dramatically altered the stress level, and well being, of a colony for generations after. They Occupied DoucheBaboon Street in the midst of a self created Alpha Male Meltdown. Having suddenly lost the stress of unpredictable hierarchical abuse, and feeling life without it, the colony of baboons was inspired to perpetuate it through regulation and enforcement.
In my experience, being proactive in civic and social life can serve to cure apocalyptic anxiety. We have an opportunity to have national dialogue beyond the arena of partisan politics. I think most will agree that there must be an intervention in the corporation/lobbyist/politics game. It’s an easy thing to rally around. There are solutions available. That hasn’t been the issue. The issue has been lack of participation in the governance of our nation by the best and brightest members of our society. The Fat Cats have thoroughly dominated our political sandbox with their buried offerings, so that any one who jumps in to earnestly shape solutions runs into shit. What decent person wants to jump into a sandbox full of shit? It’s too big for one personality to handle cleaning out. We all have to get our hands a little dirty on this one.
We need our system of representation gutted and retrofitted before it will have the integrity to effectively reflect the will of the people now clamoring for attention. Mike Gravel’s proposal of a National Referendum should be dusted off. Everyone votes directly, bypassing the house and senate. Initiate the new and improved tamper-proof ballot process nation wide, put a muzzle on Wall Street with a public examination and auditing. Let sanity have a say in the matter.
The etymological roots of the word apocalypse are “revelation, disclosure, uncover”. The modern interpretation, “a cataclysmic event”, I think, applies to those that are invested in a concealment. As the scale of the corruption and collusion becomes more apparent, more and more of the population will have to face their personal responsibility in allowing the scam to have happened, or even their collusion in it. Our economic system has been ravaged. I think a certain level of shame is responsible for our not talking about it much until now; shame for having suffered the brutality, or shame for having profited from it. The people flowing into our streets in New York and elsewhere are an apocalyptic force, in that they are uncovering and revealing the truth of our condition. This is where the helpless are very helpful: coming down and showing up to sustain and support as the reality of the occasion percolates. They may not know why they are there, but they feel why. It would be a shame to remain shameful when the opportunity to reveal and heal comes on this scale.
The reality of our condition — as a country, a species, a planet — has been badly photoshopped, and edited far out of context. I don’t believe that the solutions for our collective well-being are as difficult and abstract as we are led to believe. The impotent alphas that need big stacks to compensate for the lack in their souls have the bullhorn and are writing the narrative. In that narrative we are all doomed without them. Without their guiding hand we will start having sex with donkeys and burning the elderly for winter heat (I suspect that that would not come to pass, though I concede that isolated instances could be inspired by the suggestion). We are due for a new narrative. We can pull out the hook and clear the stage of the hacks. The finiteness of the world has never been more apparent, and at the same time, blithely dismissed as an issue devoid of any real importance.The age of sustainability is dawning, casting long shadows of the dark age predators exiting the stage.Rats have chewed their way into the pantry, which isn’t surprising. Not bothering to patch the holes has compounded the misfortune. At this point they almost have us convinced that it is their pantry, and that they are busy working on fixing it up. We get the updates from the cockroaches that scurry under the blocked door. We neglected to notice that the cats we hired to patrol the scene were becoming fat, not with rats, but rat kickbacks from our stash. They stopped bringing us heads and gall bladders some time ago, and we were happy not to have to deal with the little messes.
As this recent movement swells, I believe that the already overstated rhetoric of apocalypse will grow as well. I’ll start: This is an apocalyptic event. The Occupiers are doing the revealing, what gets revealed behind the corporatist veil of Wall Street/Washington will be The End of something. We can be minion victims of the mighty corporate menace, or the producers of the show, willing to pull the plug of a vulgar and abusive segment.
…steering drunks and disturbed people from other parks to Zucotti.
But while officers may be in a no-win situation, at the mercy of orders carried on shifting political winds and locked into conflict with a so-far almost entirely non-violent protest movement eager to frame the force as a symbol of the oppressive system they’re fighting, the NYPD seems to have crossed a line in recent days, as the park has taken on a darker tone with unsteady and unstable types suddenly seeming to emerge from the woodwork. Two different drunks I spoke with last week told me they’d been encouraged to “take it to Zuccotti” by officers who’d found them drinking in other parks, and members of the community affairs working group related several similar stories they’d heard while talking with intoxicated or aggressive new arrivals.
“He’s got a right to express himself, you’ve got a right to express yourself,” I heard three cops repeat in recent days, using nearly identical language, when asked to intervene with troublemakers inside the park, including a clearly disturbed man screaming and singing wildly at 3 a.m. for the second straight night.
As I see it, they’re just helping publicize the dereliction in the 1%’s society of the responsibility for a civilized people in a technologically and economically developed country to provide access to adequate addiction and mental health treatment to every one of its citizens who needs it.
I say contact not-for-profit public health organizations and get them down there to help those people. Show them how civilized people treat people in need.
Link. Today I learned that Keynes was my height (we’re very tall).
In the podcast, the dispute is framed in terms of the Keynesian concern for unemployment versus the Hayekian concern over inflation (stemming from Hayek’s experience of hyperinflation in the late 20s and early 30s).
It’s a bit too polite, but it’s a good primer.
What interested me was the part of their discussion that focused on the retardation of innovation as a consequence of direct government intervention in the economy (via the imposition of a monopoly). As it always is, the iPhone is held up as something that would never have been created by Ma Bell. Happens at about the 18 minute mark or so.
Adam Davidson ventriloquises the supposedly Hayekian side, saying something like “Sure Keynsian, you can spend a trillion dollars building roads or whatever, but there are thousands of Steve Jobses out there, and the degree to which the government is spending money here is the degree to which its somehow messing things up and corrupting the information system those Steve Jobses would need to rely on to realize their innovative genius” (not an exact quote). The mechanism isn’t really explained beyond a statement that “prices are the key to everything” and if they’re set “freely,” they’re the most informationally rich, which, flipped around, suggests that government intervention in the economy, if it has an effect on prices, impoverishes the information environment.
What’s frustrating is that there’s no distinction made in this discussion between different types of economic products — between simple, rivalrous commodities purchased and used individually and from which the consumer has some distance allowing them to be rational in their decision to purchase (e.g., personal devices, cosmetic surgery, etc.), and on the other hand, commodities that, from a market perspective, are only made possible via a much more complex social relationship (mass infrastructure, like roads; non-intrinsically rivalrous goods, like what’s called “intellectual property” within the market paradigm; things like that).
In the later cases, by the time any price can be set, it’s already necessarily abstracted simply by the active involvement of soooo many more people in the process of negotiating what counts as a reasonable price (or maybe its better to say, actively involved in holding up the social agreement that makes any kind of price-setting/respecting possible), that the process of negotiation is hardly recognizable as such. The setting of prices for digital music, books, and newspapers seems and has seemed almost totally arbitrary; even when it’s stabilized, remaining widely ignored by a large sector of the population to whom the price doesn’t make sense and who have the technical literacy to find and download a torrent tracker.
Another point to make is that for the Hayekian hypothesis that these prices can tell us more than common sense requires one, in many cases, to play awfully dumb. Sure, there could be innovation in how roads or public infrastructure are built / designed, but the benefits of such innovation are much more palpably understandable at a macro-level at which the market doesn’t really operate coherently in the public interest unguided by government-driven demand. And the idea that government-driven demand can’t generate innovation is comprehensively belied by, for example, Sputnik and the Apollo program (WWII was arguably the biggest catalyst to innovation in history). And as much as Ma Bell would never have invented the iPhone, the market would never have innovated any of the societal-in-scale technologies that underlie the transportation and energy systems. It wouldn’t, I bet, have invented the Internet (early breakthroughs were all in military and university contexts).
And pertaining to education and health, these systems go screwy in a market system simply because what broadly counts as quality education and healthcare is actually quite easily discernable through common sense, while, simultaneously, the details are so impossible to rationally assess without highly specialized training. It’s a perfectly safe assumption that the vast majority of citizens would choose not to have their lives dominated by pain that could be prevented via medicine that could very easily be made universally available; to be able to take for granted that they can have affordable access to health care of a quality that they could have some peace from worries about being forced to make horrible choices between health and crippling debt. It’s also clear that when one’s health or education is on the line, the supply side of any market in which there is no good public alternative has the demand-side over a barrel since it’s clear to all parties that, to health or education “consumers,” good health and education is simultaneously priceless and extremely difficult to comparison-shop for on any intelligent criteria.
This kind of differentiation between goods is something both Hayek and Keynes (and Adam Smith) agreed on. Yglesias dug this passage out of the Road to Serfdom last year:
Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance, where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks, the case for the state helping to organise a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong. There are many points of detail where those wishing to preserve the competitive system and those wishing to supersede it by something different will disagree on the details of such schemes; and it is possible under the name of social insurance to introduce measures which tend to make competition more or less ineffective. But there is no incompatibility in principle between the state providing greater security in this way and the preservation of individual freedom.
And check out the discussion of Hayek’s views of education (and his advocacy for the liberal arts over market-driven technical education) in the Encyclopedia of Education.
Note that it’s extremely difficult to turn up any direct discussion by Hayek of transportation or energy infrastructure (at least via google… anyone got a direction to point me in on this?… I found plenty of pretty ridiculous derivations by contemporary pseudo-Hayekian libertarians applied to the issue, but all the one’s I’ve read make a number of dubious leaps on principle).
Adam Smith, for good measure, on the roles of government (snagged from Mark Thoma):
- the Navigation Acts, blessed by Smith under the assertion that ‘defence, however, is of much more importance than opulence’ (WN464);
- Sterling marks on plate and stamps on linen and woollen cloth (WN138–9);
- enforcement of contracts by a system of justice (WN720);
- wages to be paid in money, not goods;
- regulations of paper money in banking (WN437);
- obligations to build party walls to prevent the spread of fire (WN324);
- rights of farmers to send farm produce to the best market (except ‘only in the most urgent necessity’) (WN539);
- ‘Premiums and other encouragements to advance the linen and woollen industries’ (TMS185);
- ‘Police’, or preservation of the ‘cleanliness of roads, streets, and to prevent the bad effects of corruption and putrifying substances’;
- ensuring the ‘cheapness or plenty [of provisions]’ (LJ6; 331);
- patrols by town guards and fire fighters to watch for hazardous accidents (LJ331–2);
- erecting and maintaining certain public works and public institutions intended to facilitate commerce (roads, bridges, canals and harbours) (WN723);
- coinage and the mint (WN478; 1724);
- post office (WN724);
- regulation of institutions, such as company structures (joint- stock companies, co-partneries, regulated companies and so on) (WN731–58);
- temporary monopolies, including copyright and patents, of fixed duration (WN754);
- education of youth (‘village schools’, curriculum design and so on) (WN758–89);
- education of people of all ages (tythes or land tax) (WN788);
- encouragement of ‘the frequency and gaiety of publick diversions’(WN796);
- the prevention of ‘leprosy or any other loathsome and offensive disease’ from spreading among the population (WN787–88);
- encouragement of martial exercises (WN786);
- registration of mortgages for land, houses and boats over two tons (WN861, 863);
- government restrictions on interest for borrowing (usury laws) to overcome investor ‘stupidity’ (WN356–7);
- laws against banks issuing low-denomination promissory notes (WN324);
- natural liberty may be breached if individuals ‘endanger the security of the whole society’ (WN324);
- limiting ‘free exportation of corn’ only ‘in cases of the most urgent necessity’ (‘dearth’ turning into ‘famine’) (WN539); and
- moderate export taxes on wool exports for government revenue (WN879).
The point is that what’s too often missed in the whole elevation of the Keynes/Hayek opposition is that it’s a misleading frame through which to consider debates over things like the government’s role in health care, social security, defense, education, energy and transportation infrastructure. Since Smith, almost all major economic thinkers (even Hayek, implicitly on some points, and explicitly on others) have recognized that these are areas in which markets fall short of what could be provided far more effectively by a central, democratically legitimated authority.
We can only conclude that the pervasive (and highly abstracted) questions over whether the provision of education, healthcare, and safety/security, and transporation and energy infrastructure should be public or private is a massive distraction from the important question that should be central in the public debate, but which has been pushed completely to the side by the pseudo-democractic cacophony over non-issues generated by the money of what amount to saboteur robber barons (more abstract, this time, than Carnegies orRockafellers — those people aggregated under and set to profit from the growth of those corporate people we know as financial, defense, health, energy and educational institutions). That question is simply this: How could the government best be providing these services? As long as we’re distracted from scrutinizing these services’ provision in terms of that question, their quality will continue to erode, and right along with it, the legitimacy in its own eyes of the democratic system.
Not a pretty picture, but one we’ve seen before.
In a lazy but sincere effort to raise the spirits (HA!) of anyone who might have been adversely affected by the 10-20 inches of heavy, shrubbery-assassinating snow that fell in many parts of the east coast this weekend, please enjoy Brutish&Short’s first annual Joke-o-lantern Jamboree, which we will be adding to throughout the day as inspiration strikes…US DEAD!!! Trust me, these jokes…ARE KILLERS!!! Seriously though…ANOTHER PUN!!! Forthwith, three gruesome gems to start your morning off right. (Or is that, “Start your morning OF FRIGHT!!!)
Q: What is the protest favored by banshees called?
A: Occupy Wail Street.
Q: Why is the Grim Reaper so grim?
A: Because he can read.
Q: Why did the cat get pulled over on Halloween?
A: Because it was black.
Q: Why did the ice get pulled over on Halloween?
A: Because it was black. (East Coast Halloween blizzard slam!)
Q: Why do ghosts scare people?
A: To be fair, it’s not the ghosts’ fault. They’re simply unconsciously projecting their own terror about the fragile nature of the psycho-existential universe around them while trying to find a reliable way to control their own internal chaos.
Q: Why did the witch go out on Halloween dressed like a prostitute?
A: Because she was also a prostitute.
(P.S. Got a bone groan of your own? Email us at email@example.com. If your pumpkin pun passes muster — and really, how could it not? — we’ll throw it up and toss you a byline. Or not. But still email us, mmmkay?)
I discovered the following minor injury a week ago and have no idea how I got it. What I do know, however, is that it’s not healing as well as I’d like, and it looks suspiciously like a fang bite.
If I start craving white carrots, I think we can safely conclude that Bunnicula is on the loose again.
Car frozen shut this morning, I spent fifteen minutes looking for the ice scraper before I realized I could just walk to work. And so walk I did. And when I got there I got into the bus with John and we ferreted back and forth between my office and my book bins, gathering thousands and thousands of novels and memoirs and VHS tapes and cassettes and records and magazines and encyclopedias and dictionaries, the vast majority of which will be sent off to be destroyed and turned into pulp and recycled into different consumer goods in our post-industrial economy, placed on shelves in big-box stores where you, the discerning consumer, will either purchase or not purchase them, depending on your fancy. As for the rest, I will try to sell them to people who might actually have a use for them. I am the middleman, the discern-er of trash and treasure. But as any seasoned trash-picker will tell you, you have to wade through a lot of shit before you find gold.
That doesn’t happen at this esteemed Internet website, of course, where bitcoins and bullion are the only currencies we allow our posts to be backed by — where everything is treasure, in other words. Nevertheless I present to you this week’s highlights, as some of you might be too… simple… to find them for yourselves.
- If personhood begins at conception can I buy a beer when I’m 20 (aka, “The New 21″)?
- What the shit?
- Happy Halloween!
- An afternoon with Occupy Boston.
- Noam Chomsky occupies Boston with two mics.
- Maybe doctors give better medical advice than the Huffington Post?
- The War on Drugs is much more severe than Prohibition ever was. Maybe we should talk about that?
- We’ve got the biggest / balls of them all.
Feist’s new album is her best one. Review next week. Pinky swear.
See this woman holding the sign?
She just got shit-canned for holding it. Here’s her account of what happened after the picture went viral:
I thought all of this could be fodder for an interesting segment on The Takeaway—a morning news program co-produced by WNYC Radio and Public Radio International—for which I had been working as a freelance web producer roughly 20 hours per week for the past seven months. I pitched the idea to producers on the show, in an e-mail.
The next day, The Takeaway’s director fired me over the phone, effective immediately. He was inconsolably angry, and said that I had violated every ethic of journalism, and that this should be a “teaching moment” for me in my career as a journalist. The segment I had pitched, of course, would not happen. Ironically, the following day Marketplace did pretty much the exact segment I thought would have been great on The Takeaway, with Kai Ryssdal discussing the sign and the Goldman Sachs deal it alluded to in terms that were far from neutral.
It’s unclear to me how our participation, on our personal time, in a non-partisan movement warrants termination from our jobs. If the protest is so lacking, in terms of message and focus, then how can my involvement with it go against The Takeaway’s ethical policies? In other words, if I’m associated with a party-less movement (and barely associated, since that was only the second time I’ve attended an Occupy Wall Street event), and have never exercised bias in editing The Takeaway’s website, what’s the harm?
The harm is to journalists’ sense of themselves as arbiters of unvarnished truth, when much of what they actually do is just polishing talking-point-turds for corrupt politicians. But, hey, a job’s a job, right?
So EM-EYE-ESS-ESS-EYE-ESS-ESS-EYE-PEE-PEE-EYE wants to call fertilized human eggs (aka, Denny’s Cannibal Slam Breakfast®) “people.”
From yesterday’s NYT editorial:
A ballot measure going before voters in Mississippi on Nov. 8 would define the term “person” in the State Constitution to include fertilized human eggs and grant to fertilized eggs the legal rights and protections that apply to people.
The rest of the piece goes into detail about why this is a terrible, ridiculous idea –convenient, since I don’t have any desire to delve into the more highfalutin ethical and legal ramifications anyway. However, I worry about some of the lesser absurdities that such a ruling might lead to.
For example, if life truly begins at conception, then age must also logically begin at conception, which means that someone’s day of birth (what some people call a “birth day”) is no longer a valid indicator of how old he or she is. Furthermore, since life is life no matter how far along in it you already are, presumably any such ruling would have to apply retroactively. Which means that, if Missippians really believe in the new law, they’ll have to start giving 17-and-three-month-year-olds (give or take) the right to vote and 14-and-whatever-year-olds the ability to earn their learner’s permit and on and on and on. Because age is merely a reflection of how long someone has been a person, right? And if personhood is applied at conception to a gloopy dribble of non-sentient cells, then that’s when the clock starts ticking. To argue otherwise would be to deprive your citizens of their sperm-given humanity.
(And yeah, I know that, as a nation, we’ve already complicitly — if tacitly — agreed to compromise on the birthday convention for purposes of convenience, but we’re talking about a single state here, so if this law passes, they better be prepared to put their
penis where their vagina money where their mouth is.)
[Editor's note: I'm not sure if the parodic title of this post makes any sense, but I'm a little punch drunk this week. My thinking was: it's almost Halloween, "Flying Purple People Eater" is one of the few well-known Halloween-type songs, babies don't fly but they cry, they're a little purplish looking in the womb, this story is about the legal definition of "people," and classifying them as such at conception is cheating. So we cool?]