Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Beautiful Writing From Abroad - Almudena Grandes Hernandez

Here is a link to a beautiful and moving piece of writing in today's New York Times.

Here is the person who wrote it:

Almudena Grandes

{Madrid, 1960}
Retrato de Almudena Grandes © Pep Avila
Almudena Grandes Hernández nació en Madrid en 1960 y estudió Geografía e Historia en la Universidad Complutense de esta ciudad.
Vinculada al mundo editorial como escritora de encargo, adquirió el reconocimiento del gran público con Las edades de Lulú, que recibió el XI premio de narrativa erótica La Sonrisa Vertical en 1989.
Su segunda novela es Te llamaré Viernes y su tercera fue Malena es un nombre de tango. La cuarta, Modelos de mujer, es una recopilación de siete cuentos publicados anteriormente en varias revista y periódicos.
En 1998 publicó Atlas de geografía humana.

I would like to read Almudena Grandes' article in the original language.

It is about dignity.

The Spanish used to know what poor people always understood - no one can steal your dignity; only you can abandon it yourself.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

-- George Orwell

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Life Is Short But Art Is Long

Thomas Jefferson Scott, artist, architect and designer, was fond of quoting Hippocrates' observation that life is short but art is long. Our lives are richer because Tom Scott shared both his life and his art with us.

Tom's friends and family gathered last Sunday at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, to celebrate that life and share reminiscences of a life well lived.

It was a joyful time.

Here is a link to his obituary, printed earlier this year in the Baltimore Sun.

Liz and I were honored to be his friends.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Tea Party Radicalism: Just A Bit More Extreme?

Much current commentary tends to describe the Tea Party phenomenon as just a bit more extreme than mainstream Republicanism, but within the American tradition. Francis Fukuyama recently tied the Tea Party efforts to the parts of the US Constitution that make it hard for anything to get done.

Michael Lind thinks it is more than that. It may have roots going back to Jefferson and Jackson (and to the Anti-Federalists, but Lind doesn't bring that up), but it represents a fundamentally anti-democratic undertaking. Think Downton Abbey.

Here is Lind's article. It is the best analysis I have read lately, putting it in the context of the American Civil War, the failure of reconstruction, and the reaction to the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act.

There are a lot of different ways to look at current American politics. The different angles overlap, and they all seem to involve race to some degree.

I strongly recommend reading Lind's article.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Which Wolf Do You Feed?

There is a story, thought to be of Cherokee origin, quoted in today's New York Times. It goes like this:

A girl is troubled by a recurring dream in which two wolves fight viciously. Seeking an explanation, she goes to her grandfather, highly regarded for his wisdom, who explains that there are two forces within each of us, struggling for supremacy, one embodying peace and the other, war. At this, the girl is even more distressed, and asks her grandfather who wins. His answer: “The one you feed.”

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Adam Smith And Cooperation Among Humans (And Dogs)

Not long ago, economic historian Brad Delong published some snippets of information for students in one of his courses. One snippet was a quote from Adam Smith about dogs and trading:

"Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.... When an animal wants to obtain something either of a man or of another animal, it has no other means of persuasion but to gain the favour of those whose service it requires. A puppy fawns upon its dam, and a spaniel endeavours by a thousand attractions to engage the attention of its master who is at dinner, when it wants to be fed by him. Man sometimes uses the same arts with his brethren, and when he has no other means of engaging them to act according to his inclinations, endeavours by every servile and fawning attention to obtain their good will. He has not time, however, to do this upon every occasion. In civilised society he stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons....

"[M]an has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love...."

Jeff Weintraub observes that this passage from Adam Smith is both clever and deceptive. It sets up a false dichotomy and ignores other forms of cooperation among both dogs and man. Weintraub's essay is very much worth reading and can be found
here. Not everything works through the magic of the marketplace.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Have We Been Derped?

Actually, I'm still a bit unsure as to whether Derp is just a noun, or whether it can be a verb as well.

What is a derp? Economist Noah Smith in his blog Noahpinion gives a complete and somewhat humorous explanation here.

It turns out it is connected with epistemology and also with Bayesian analysis. And posteriors.

It explains why some people aren't interested in evidence.

Paul Krugman has a discussion of derpiness here. Even conservative economists use the term.

As for epistemology, epistemic closure (meaning closed minds) can have real world consequences. Here, for example.

This problem has been around for a long time in human affairs. Ecclesiastes had something to say about it:

"...wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness...." Ecclesiastes 2:13-14.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Who Are The Tyrants?

Churchill saw Tyranny as the foe.

So who were the tyrants?

Economic historian Brad DeLong has a very interesting blog post today on the history of Tyrants, especially twentieth century tyrants.

His essay is worth reading. Just as worthy of attention are the many well-argued comments others have posted taking exception to or modifying many of the points DeLong makes.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Does The US Need A Different Layout Of States?

Today's New York Times web site posted a very interesting analysis of the electoral college by Nate Silver on his blog, Five Thirty-Eight. The article's headline, "Did Democrats Get Lucky In The Electoral College?" doesn't convey the depth and innovation of the analysis.

The most interesting component of the analysis is a map of the United States redrawn into fifty states, each with equal population. The point of the map is to illustrate the effect such redrawn boundaries would have on the outcome of the electoral college.

Nate Silver's discussion  of the electoral college and the associated issues of reapportionment and redistricting is among the best I have ever read. I like the map, but also like a table in the article showing the distribution of population within each state into urban, suburban and rural. Not unsurprisingly, Wyoming is the most rural state in the union. Vermont is the least urban, followed by Mississippi with only 4% urban population.

As I looked at the map, I was also struck by its resemblance to a concept put forth by George Kennan in his 1993 book "Around The Cragged Hill." In short, Kennan believed the United States was so big as to be ungovernable. He proposed that a better scheme would be to split the country apart into what amounted to city-states.

Years later, others picked up on Kennan's idea and began pushing a movement to promote the idea of states seceding from the Union. Then again, maybe they didn't even know about Kennan's ideas.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Persistent, Patient Courage

Courage comes in many guises. Here, in a story from Today's New York Times, is one of the most powerful forms of courage.

I don't know General Borling. On the basis of this story, I would follow him anywhere.

Borling doesn't claim to be heroic. That reflects the self effacing but effective courage of an older generation - a very much older generation.

Borling's view of what's important: do the best you can with what you have, right where you are.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Too Many Choices?

My wife is from Texas. When I was stationed in a distant location, she would write home and ask for a "care package" of essentials, including Ro-Tel tomatoes, an essential ingredient in chili con queso. There was never any confusion. Go to the store, find the canned tomato section and pick out one or more cans of Ro-Tel tomatoes.

No more. Now we have choices. There are at least four recipes of Ro-Tel tomatoes. Plus Ro-Tel tomato sauces. I have to read the labels. Before, if we wanted to spice up the con queso, we could add stuff to the tomatoes: a bit of lime juice, some chopped up cilantro, maybe some more jalapenos.

What if none of the four recipes is exactly what I want? Then I can add spices, just like I used to.

Am I happier? Not necessarily. Has life improved now that the various recipes are canned by Nebraska food conglomerate ConAgra instead of some small outfit in Texas?

Is it possible to have too many choices?

Take a look at the rest of the cans in the tomato section. Several different brands. All offer canned, peeled, whole tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes (with and without peppers), reduced sodium tomatoes, tomatoes with and without basil, plum tomatoes, round tomatoes. More labels to read.

How many years has it been since the US Supreme Court decided I need more choices in my telephone service? I stubbornly stayed with AT&T. I can't have them for land line, but my wireless and e-mail service are with AT&T.

I know people who change their wireless service at the slightest whiff of a possibly better deal. I prefer stability. I still get occasional e-mails from people I haven't heard from in decades.

Works for me.

The problem is, I feel afflicted, not freed, by the multiplicity of choices I have to make. All these choices appear to have been inflicted upon us by the children of Tom Brokaw's "greatest generation." I have a hard time accepting that characterization. I think the baby boomers are arguably the worst generation. Self-centered. Not all of them. Some of our children fall in that cohort. They aren't self centered. But many are and they have dominated markets and dominated intellectual and political discourse for too long.

We hear a lot of assertion of rights. Currently it's about "our second amendment rights." We hear very little discussion about obligations.

Society is the poorer for the absence of such discourse.

All is not lost. At least one author has undertaken a thoughtful examination of choices and markets. He is a Canadian scientist, and I just came across a link to the first chapter of his new book, No One Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart. Check it out.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Specter Of Greed

There is a specter haunting America. Like many apparitions, it is also sometimes an object of religious devotion.

It is the specter of greed.

This specter is said by some to be in our own self interest. The reason why we are in the best of all possible worlds. It is why, we are told, we must exalt the "makers" (and facilitate their greed) and demean the "takers."

More than a century ago, the wealthy justified their greed by the authority of Darwinian evolution - the survival of the fittest. Now it is often justified by the revelations of Ayn Rand and her acolytes. But always there is a genuflection in the direction of Adam Smith and the "invisible hand," where "self interest" results in the greatest good for the greatest number.

What could be better than that?

But that isn't what Smith means, at all. What he really means is that the bargains that put dinner on the table, clothes on our backs and roofs over our heads, must be in the interest of everyone involved. Not a one-way bargain, "red in tooth and claw," but mutual bargains. Smith explains: “Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer, and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of” (WN I.ii.2: p 26)

Gavin Kennedy provides a fuller explanation here.

Bottom line: cooperation works better than compulsion.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Ways To Learn

"There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves."

Will Rogers

I put the climate change deniers in the third category. And also the sea level rise deniers. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Reflections On The New Year

“The past is never dead. It's not even past.”  

 William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

“For I have known them all already, known them all—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”

T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Others  

Reflections on the past and on the future.  What are the chances of a clean break with the past?

Not high. Mark Twain put the matter in perspective:

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Navy Way

For years I have reflected that many of our institutions would work better if they were run like the Navy.

I don't mean by that to have a dictator at the top giving orders that are carried out with unquestioning obedience (the Navy doesn't actually work like that), but to follow the precepts of leadership attributed to John Paul Jones.

I recently came across an interesting post on the United States Naval Institute blog making reference to the John Paul Jones precepts and explaining how they might apply to political discourse. I recommend reading the post here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

John Maynard Keynes

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Ideas Of Government

"There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it."

William Jennings Bryan, 1896

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


I had a conversation last evening with a Korean War veteran. The veteran shared a thought from an earlier time: "If Fascism comes here, it will arrive wrapped in the American flag."

A thought worth pondering.

I think it will also wear the armor of hate.

The conversation also calls to mind an earlier comment I posted about democracy.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Middle Class

Both recent political conventions had a lot to say about the "middle class."  As I listened to the speeches, I realized I don't know what the term means.
I tried to develop my thinking in the course of a recent facebook exchange with a friend who called attention to an editorial by David Brooks. The friend challenged her friends to comment:
The article:

  • Facebook  Comments:

    RT: He's not a liberal, but he's a fan of President Obama. Hard to square those two. ... I do agree with Governor Romney that there is a dependent class... they work hard, they want better lives for their kids, all that is true. But they are becoming dependent on government more and more. And with that dependence comes control. ... As to President Obama, I believe his understanding of America is much less realistic than his opponent's.

  • KK: Do you buy Romney's number of the middle class being those who make ~250K?

  • RT: I must confess I'm not an expert on Romney's statements about what constitutes the middle class. There isn't an official definiition after all... Cf Obama's promises about never raising taxes on people earning under $250k a year (a promise he broke in April 2009). I understand if you may not want to give Romney credit for any intelligence... but let's be realistic. He has been governor of a state... he campaigns every day to real Americans... his campaign team no doubt makes sure he knows the price of a gallon of milk.

  • RT: I find most people think "rich" is some number, say 10% more than they make.
  • DC: For what it's worth - 2% of American households have income above $250,000. Is that the middle?

  • RT: What would you call the middle class Mr. Cox?

  • David Cox That's a really good question, and I don't have a succinct answer.  I'm not sure that income is a useful dividing line. It is possible to divide the population into income by quintiles (20% units). Any household with income above 250K is way up in the top 10% of the top quintile. Working class doesn't work because of the historic association of that term with blue collar, factory workers, tradesmen and craftsmen. What is lacking is a term that collects people with common economic interests in the present world, namely everyone who works for salary or wages. It seems clear to me that wealthy individuals look down on anyone who lives on a paycheck. How about "Polloi?"

  • RT: I dispute the premise that "wealthy individuals look down..." If you were saying something like that about blacks or women or whatever, we would be calling you a racist, sexist, etc. And if you cannot define "middle class" then surely you don't quarrel with someone else's definition, whatever it might be, right ;-) ?

  • David Cox Why must I define "middle class?" It isn't a term I use, because I'm not sure it has any clear or useful meaning. I know what "quintile" and "quartile" mean and am comfortable using them to convey information about income. "Class" itself is a word that also fails to convey precise meaning. It once meant something reasonably useful, though not precise. "Upper class" conveyed a set of attitudes, education and speech as well as a certain degree of wealth. "Lower class" also conveyed something about the people thought to be included. In some circles, it was a synonym for "trailer trash." "Middle Class" was presumably somewhere in between, ordinary people as it were. In my experience that set of terms never fit southern society very well. Oh, yes, people also spoke of "Southern Aristocrats." There was a certain manner of speaking - at least among the women. A kind of soft Southern drawl with genteel accents. They had been to finishing school and knew how to prepare tea. To be in this category when I was growing up in Mississippi usually meant that sometime in the distant past, an ancestor had owned a plantation. Southern aristocrats didn't come from business. Faulkner captured the distinction perfectly in his stories of the Compsons (aristocrats increasingly down on their luck) and the despised but up and coming Snopeses. Oh, yes, there were also "yeoman farmers." Those were the ones who had never had slaves. Out of all that melange, I fail to see the usefulness of "middle class" as a category. If you find it useful, by all means use it.

    As for "looking down on" that may not have precisely conveyed my point. I read postings from right wing sources talking about the "lucky duckies" who pay no income taxes. I watched the Republican convention. The message I keep hearing is one of disdain for people who work for salary or wages, rather than living on earnings from stocks and bonds. I don't think that is true of all wealthy people. I don't think it is only wealthy people who think along those lines. But it seems to me there exists a rentier class (bad word - how about "category") that does not esteem mechanics, plumbers, schoolteachers, engineers, or other folks who make and do stuff in the service of others. What to call them? I'm open to suggestions.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Democracy In America

Last May I came across a blog titled Middle Class Political Economist.  The post that caught my eye was an examination of over representation of rural areas in the US Congress. I thought it was a good discussion of an issue I had long pondered.

So I offered the following comments:

Some of the ills of congress are built into our constitution. The US Senate, for example, which likes to characterize itself as "the world's greatest deliberative body" is arguably the "free world's" least democratic body. That is, first of all, a consequence of the constitutional arrangement that each state, regardless of size or economic output, have an equal number of senators. This is compounded by the increasingly inexplicable commitment of the senate to the requirement of a supermajority of senators to pass any legislation at all. My solution to that: get rid of paper filibusters imposed by the cloture rule. Let's go back to "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" style of filibuster. Filibusters would become more rare because voters could see what was happening and better understand what it was about.

Some republicans want to fix the senate by repealing the seventeenth amendment providing direct popular election of senators. What, we have too much democracy?

A common complaint about the House of Representatives is "My representative doesn't listen to people like me."

Some advocate term limits to fix this. I say, we already have term limits. Elections. What we don't have is enough representatives.

We are going through redistricting right now. This is the process after every decenniel census (except for the 1920 census - there was not a reapportionment after that census). First congress reapportions seats in the House of Representatives to the states according to population. District boundaries are then redrawn by state legislatures and in some cases by courts.

Contrary to popular opinion, the number of seats in the House of Representatives is not in the constitution. But the number has not changed since it was set at 435 in 1911. At that time, each member of the House represented about 216,000 citizens. Since then, our population has more than tripled, but the number remains the same. Now each member represents about 708,000 constituents.

My suggestion: enlarge the House so that each member represents about 216,000 citizens. With modern communications systems, that would allow the members closer communication with constituents. It would also lower the financial and organizational barriers to running for office. It might reduce the influence of money in politics and even create opportunities for more political parties to become competitive.

How many representatives would we have? About 1,426. Admittedly, that might make the body even more unwieldy, but it might force more cooperation. It would certainly induce representatives to be more responsive to constituents.

How could we accommodate so many representatives? Replace the desks on the floor of the House with benches. Reduce representatives' personal staffs. Currently, members are allowed to hire as many as eighteen personal staffers. Reduce that to five per member. Representatives might have to study bills themselves, possibly answer phones and write some of their own correspondence. But they wouldn't have to raise so much money.

Originally Posted May 29, 2012