Monday, May 29, 2006

Everyone for himself, and Freud against us all (comments on the Moscow riots)

When I was younger, I thought that Sigmund Freud was too simplistic to be considered deep, but as I've gotten older I am realizing that he has a pretty deep understanding of what is turning out to be an extremely simple world. For example, the "pleasure principle" -- the idea that the brain is structured with a system of rewards that guide behavior -- seemed unscientific, tautological and worthless. A theory that explains everything and predicts nothing was useless for understanding human behavior. However, as I'm aging, my respect for the pleasure principle has been increasing, as there is a moral component that had completely escaped me. Whenever people mention "lack of character" to explain economic underperfomance, I invoke the pleasure principle, and gently suggest that the intolerant person is also "following their bliss", and this can sometimes clear the path to greater openness. A wise person sees the humanity in every human, and the pleasure principle is a tremendous equalizer, neutralizing reflexive moral superiority with a single application. This is, of course, a roundabout criticism of Hillary's commencement speech from a few weeks ago: her entire life has been dedicated to self-serving hedonism, so it rings false for her to censure others for it.

Which brings us to my second favorite tool in Freud's chest, namely, the concept of "projection" and the idea that people only really hate themselves. If you pay attention to your own angers, you will find that you may be baffled and saddened by things outside of yourself, but rage is always a defense mechanism whereby consciousness externalizes an aspect of itself that is too dissonant to integrate into itself. The quickest route to growth and happiness is to figure out what makes you angry and then stop being that way.

But why are people so public with their hatreds, more than a century after the publication of the Interpretation of Dreams? There is nothing comical about Bush's parapraxis about dismantling Democracy in America, or about his virulent "hatred" for the enemies of freedom. Could he possibly be less obvious? In a lighter note, why is it utterly unsurprising when a gay-bashing politician is photographed, wimpering, wearing a dog-suit and being violated by an obese man dressed as Sargeant Schultz? Or when a male prostitute is given press credentials by an excessively homophobic administration? But Freud tells us that every time you scratch a homophobe, you always find a cocksucker. Reading this article, it seems the "ex-gay" movement consists of homosexuals telling other homosexuals that homophobia can be a satisfying and legitimate expression of their sexuality. And who am I to take sides?

At the beach a few days ago, an obviously gay couple was preening and taking photographs of one another, and I thought to myself, "well, it's certainly nice to live in a city where people don't express their sexuality by knocking out one another's teeth" (see, for example, this). So the problem with homophobic politics is the standard Kantian problem -- it may be a legitimate expression of sexuality, but it does not generalize well, unless the people being beaten up can learn to take pleasure in the relationship. So maybe that's what happened in the last election, with the fight between the Homophilic left and the Homophobic right being an tortured though ultimately satisfying relationship that gave both participants pleasure, while the rest of the Republic suffered. Unless we live in a much queerer nation than is genetically probable, most people really don't care terribly much about gays, either way, so rather than shrilly criticizing Republicans for hypocrisy, and letting the gay wing of the Democratic party vehemently assert gay rights, maybe the people who don't particularly care about the issue should just gently, bemusedly and patiently coax the gay wing of the evangelical movement and Republican party out of the closet, so they could find a quieter way to express their sexuality.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Happiness and Politics

The latest trend in econometrics is to disprove the correlation between material prosperity and personal happiness *. The established spiritual truth that money won't make you happy is "news" to economists, politicians and even judges, many of whom think everyone benefits when a society promotes economic growth. While European socialists have been quick to capitalize on the new field of "Happiness studies", and Bhutan has used it as yet another an excuse to postpone elections, Democrats in America are slow to draw the political implications from this research.

People think that money can buy happiness because money correlates with social status in our civilization, and social status correlates with happiness in every civilization, but social status is relative rather than absolute -- there is only so much to go around, so increasing the amount of money in a society does not increase the amount of social status available to its members. So the DLC's equality of opportunity society is, in fact, happiness-neutral, and might even promote unhappiness as more people are tempted to try and fail at achieving social status. If social status is a variable in social engineering, however, one could maximize happiness in a broader society by decoupling social status and wealth, finding ways to reward people who increase the happiness of the society with more social status.

As the philosophical justifications for the economic policies of the Republican party are crumbling, we are in a unique position to reconceptualize our political goals using the most recent economic and social theory. Who could argue against a political movement that just wants to make people happy?

What would happiness friendly proposals look like? Here are a few: Keep school districts under local control, but give public school teachers a military rank, with some tax and consumer benefits, along with increased social status. Encourage bike riding and bike safety not because of traffic congestion, carbon polution, and petroleum shortages, but because people who exercise live longer, happier lives. Find other ways to distribute social status to people who benefit their communities. Recognize community involvement is an ingredient to happiness, so reintroduce a social component into "welfare" programs (i.e., bring back the WPA). A very interesting organization,, is pulling the Democratic Party in the direction of sponsoring happiness-inducing charitable work, but what other Democrats are willing to break away from the tiresome economics and flawed psychology of Republican propaganda?

Jesus tells us that the "poor will always be with us", but Pareto tells us that the rich will always be with us, too. So happiness studies would ask progressives to stop being so obsessed about income parity and opportunities for people to climb class (since that does not increase aggregate happiness, it only displaces other people from the class). Certainly, support progressive income taxes and bigger inheiritance taxes -- if only because the money would be better spent on social programs in the third world -- but if your heart truly believes that money and happiness are correlated, then, as the sixties cliche would have it, you are part of the problem and not part of the solution.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Thoughts after seeing "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" at the Field Museum in Chicago

Two important things about the Egyptians are directly relevant to our current social juncture. Egyptian civilization was quite stable, and they buried a lot of cool stuff in the ground.

These two salient facts are related because Egyptians kept their economy and society in equilibrium by destroying the capital accumulation that almost inevitably follows from human nature. By burying royal surpluses under the desert sand, they prevented the ratios between the different classes from becoming overly imbalanced, and were able to stifle social change for centuries and even millenia.

The curse of wealth in America is that each aristocracy is displaced by the next wave of economic growth. Thus the Astor fur-trapping fortune was rendered insignificant by Carnegy and DuPont, and the DuPonts are penniless Pikers next to Gates. If one of the goals in achieving social status is to pass that social status on to your children, at any given moment, the American aristocracy has a vested interest in stopping the engine of economic growth. Nouveau riches often accuse old money liberals of "trying to kick the ladder away", and this is not without some truth, but it is equally true that the current Government's policies also work towards the same goal (for example, fighting wars and destroying wildlife preserves for cheap oil rather then allowing natural market incentives to encourage innovators to come up with substitutes).

After a bit of tinkering, however, it looks like Bush may have finally found a formula for creating social stability that rivals the ancient Egytpians. Rather than burying money in the Valley of the kings, the new plan is to ship it to the Chinese in the form of interest payments on the national debt, and let the Chinese deal with its socially disruptive effects. If the growth in GDP is stripped away year after year, society will be easier to keep in equilibrium. Of course, the Chinese know almost as much about social stability as the Egyptians, and they are keeping the money here, temporarily foiling an otherwise brilliant plan...

Saturday, May 20, 2006


A researcher decided to run an experiment. He took one hundred chimpanzees and put them in cages. The cages had plenty of food and lots of buttons. In each of the cages, one of the buttons was connected to an ICBM system with enough firepower to destroy the world.

"What a stupid fable!", you interrupt. "What kind of idiot would put the power to destroy the world in the hands of a bunch of chimpanzees?"

But, really, how different is that from what is happening right now?

Jesus and the Pareto Principle

If we accept the inevitability of Pareto-math in human societies, then the only question for a civilization is which arbitrary attributes should be rewarded in selecting the top twenty per cent. In Tibet, the top twenty percent were selected for their holiness and focus; among the Huns, they were chosen for their aggression and loyalty; in the Soviet Union, an odd combination of cynicism and gullibility; in recent times, an ability to avoid thinking about long-range consequences coupled with a certain type of emotional insensitivity. For those interested in social justice, it is chastening to realize that in each of these societies, eighty per cent of the resources were controlled by twenty per cent of the people, and pareto-distributions in "socialist" societies usually have greater inequalities of wealth than pareto-distributions in market-driven economies.

Societies change from within when the legitimational system promulgated by the ruling elites represents an unattainable ideal for those elites or when power becomes so completely centralized that eighty percent of the resources are controlled by less than ten percent of the people. In America, there are fundamental genetic differences in the ways in which hard-core Republicans and liberal Democrats process information, and, insofar as our political struggles are real, they can be seen as two different genetic subgroups trying to promote systems of legitimation that will give their specific subgroup greater control of resources. This is not to say that some people aren't fighting for a better world, and that all types of political activity are a waste of time, but it is an important warning not to take most politics too seriously.

Jesus short-circuited the Pareto-principle. By positing a direct relationship to God -- God is your father -- he offered a vision of society where one could bask in God's love and see control of resources or social status as unimportant goals. In Chimpanzee terms, Christianity allows gamma (or even omega*) members of society to create subgroups in which everyone is an alpha, without disrupting the economic system. In other words, Jesus was one of the pioneers of virtual reality -- he created a space where the economic limitations of class do not hamper the psychological experience of freedom.

But, even in imaginary kingdoms, the temptations of social status are too great, so Catholicism replicated the earthly hierarchy while Protestantism almost inevitably fragments into ever smaller subgroups, with each egalitarian community thinking itself the most special. The liberal denominations, primarily drawn from the top quintile, are disgusted by the fundamentalists, who steadfastly refuse to accept a cosmology with couples existential superiority with economic advantage. The beauty of combining religion with liberal democracy is that eighty percent of the people can enjoy the psychological benefits of believing they are in the top twenty percent. But if the snobbery implicit in the Pareto principle is an obstacle to spiritual growth, democratizing the experience of that snobbery runs against the deeper purpose of religion.

So maybe Francis was right and Luther was wrong: Centralized power puts toxins in a single place where they can easily be avoided, and allows people the freedom to pursue a spiritual life. If the world is less attractive, an other-worldly life is more attractive, and if an other-worldly life is superior to a worldly life, then an unattractive world lead more people to superior and ultimately happier lives.

The problem comes when you tear away the curtains of your civilization's legitimation, and rather than basking in the rays of God's love, you are freezing, naked and alone in a cold and empty universe. Theistic traditions promise that God will find you if you wait long enough in despair; Buddhism says that once you experience the absolute emptiness of selflessness, ideas like freezing, naked, alone, cold and empty become just about as meaningful as ideas like rich, warm, and fulfilled. So the room has two exits, but you have to choose one.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Fermi's Paradox, the Terrorists, and God

Statistically, it is clear that, in a big universe, there is an extremely high likelihood that there is life on other planets.

Let's remember the universe's tender age (13 billion years old), and how nearly infantile the planet earth is (4 billion years old), and how quickly life emerged on our planet (1 billion years ago). Different numbers , say a trillion year old universe, a five hundred billion year old planet, and life only being a couple million years old, might lead to a different conclusion, and it's never a great idea to do statistics on a sample of one, but the fact that terrestrial life has been present for almost 8% 0f the age of the universe is plausible argument that life on earth isn't that special. If we temporarily shelve a theological explanation, it is hard to reconcile a sense that earth is not exceptional with the question of why other aliens haven't shown up yet.

One possibility is that if you live in a universe teeming with life, observing the process of evolution is like watching paint dry. Maybe there is so much life in the universe, and life is so easy to create, that our whole planet is about as interesting as an abandoned petri dish in a corner of lab. However, I accept that curiosity and awe both confer evolutionary advantages -- in fact, curiosity is the motor of intelligence -- so it is safe to assume that whatever intelligent life has evolved elsewhere is also been curious.

If we keep extrapolating from our own experience, there is a better explanation of why intelligent aliens haven't yet visited us. Physics and biology are on a collision course: Biology leads to the evolution of creatures who are duped into promoting their genes through aggression, while physics allows intelligent beings to make relatively simple systems that harness enormous power.

So this is a slightly depressing wrinkle to Carl Sagan's answer to Fermi's question about the aliens. While there is a finite but infinitessimal chance for a world of nationstates to emerge from competitive civilization to cooperation, once the means to destroy a planet are distributed among tens of millions of individual agents, the chance goes from infinitessimal to almost zero. Is that the Zeitgeist animating Bush's hurried desire to create an absolutist totalitarian state? Does the future of the species hinge on America subduing not only its own population but also the rest of the world? If it turns out that the chances of world destruction without a clear American domination of the world are .99999999999999999999 and the chances of America winning the war on terror are .00001, is it still a good bet to fight the war on terror?

Statistically, that bet seems like an even better trade than exchanging all the Gold in Fort Knox for a wilted oak leaf, but if there is a .99999 chance that you will die in the next three years if you enjoy yourself, going down to .9999 if you remain completely celibate, go on a sea-weed and flax diet, and exercise for three hours a day, most people would choose to keep eating cheeseburgers, even if changing their behavior could lead to a tenfold improvement in their prospects.

Both the politics on the left and the right are playing for much higher stakes than the traditional Aristotelian good life. Both are working to prevent plausible scenarios that could make the world uninhabitable for humans, and it is an ironic twist that, in order to build to political consensus to avoid one of the scenarios, each party's solution greatly increases the likelihood of the other party's doomsday scenario.

Apocalypticism is as old as human civilization, and maybe it was a type of extrapolatory prophecy that envisioned the end of the world long before humans had the technology to make it happen. But Jesus' message is as relevant how as it was during the collapse of Jewish hopes for a free and independant state in the first century: Treat others well, worry about your soul, be happy, and let the cosmic drama play out however it ends up playing.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

A Stray Thought

Both Bush and Putin have simultaneously been centralizing power and creating the basis for authoritarian, media-savvy pseudo-democratic states. Who guessed that Bush's putative vibrational understanding with Putin was on such a basic level?

The NSA telephone database shows the future difficulties for democracy in China and its continued fragility here. Even with database like that -- without speech recognition summaries of call content -- you can easily identify types of low-level subterfuge (patterns that are highly correlated with adultery) or even interesting gossip (a call that immediately leads to more calls and so on, throughout a social network, but excludes its center). The economic drain of using so many resources on surveilance helped bring the collapse of the Soviet Union -- warehouses of files, and hundreds of thousands of low-level bureaucrats to evaluate information, translated into a lower standard of living in contrast to the West. The NSA's database prototypes the future of electronic surveilance, with an executive spy simply able to generate a list of people to blackmail when he wants the last detail of information, without needing a huge army of worker-drones to collate and gather information.

But then, to keep returning to the Apocolypse, will the obstacles to secrecy in the future force everyone to be righteous? Will a massive totalitarian database of everyone's peccadillos increase the general level of virtue? I've heard that google searches got a bit tamer once it was learned that that every search was archived along with IP address in a database that could ultimately show up in divorce and custody proceedings, or even potential employment and insurance decisions.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


From a Pareto-math perspective, the destruction of the middle class decreases the stability of a political-economic system. One factor in the destruction of the middle class has been the decline of Franchises in favor of corporate-owned operations. A Dairy Queen Franchisee might have extra money to hire somebody to mow their lawn, but a Walmart manager might also work at a lawn-service company to help pay their bills. Not only is there less multiplier effect in a local economy of money that flows into the financial economy, but it also has the added negative effect of removing opportunities to become middle class from a whole layer of potential management, who, rather than borrowing money from their families & friends in order to make the leap into a Franchise, are stuck at a certain level of economic development. And everyone from Aristotle forward believes that a shrinking middle class leads to a declining democracy.

So what's one answer? Avoiding Starbucks is a start, but only a start.

But the real issue behind this post is that I recently bought some Folger's coffee for my home (rather than buying specially roasted and locally owned Intellegentsia coffee, storing it in the deep freeze, grinding my beans, and making it in a press-pot with freshly filtered boiling water). Though I can certainly taste a difference between Folger's and delicately roasted organic coffees, I no longer perceive the extreme disparity in quality that originally motivated me to consume specialty coffees when I switched twenty years ago. I don't think that Folger's has gotten better, and I don't think that organic coffees have gotten worse: I am the only thing that has changed.

Taste buds become less sensitive as people age, and I'm wondering if my unwillingness to militate against the undrinkable swill of mass market coffee is part of the aging process. People much older than I are still insisting on gourmet coffees, however. Are they pretending to be younger? Does a large part of the economy exploit those who are unwilling to admit that the degeneration of perception that is an inevitable part of aging? Is the world full of naked serfs, paying people to pretend as though they were fully clothed emperors?

For my part, I'm looking forward to saving $120 a year on coffee.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

All Your Base Are Belong To Us

This was last month's internet fad, but there is a very profound subtext that I only saw today, after watching the original sequence from "Zero Wing".

The video is compelling because, like all art of the first order, it deals with broader social changes. It is about nothing less than the triumph of virtual reality over the traditional world. "All your base" stands for the fabric of the viewer's universe, and "are belong to us" asserts that it is now under the control of people skilled in the manipulation of images.

The apocalyptic subtext, "You are on the way to destruction" prepares the viewer for the experience of having their traditional understanding of the universe exploded. The fact that the laughter ("ha ha ha") is less perfunctory in the original is also telling (i.e., the "cats" are emotionless in the remix). It is also interesting that the original ends with "For Great Justice", but the battle for justice is an interlude in the remix, which ends with "You have no chance to survive, make your time".

Ending the video with "GAME OVER" underscores this.

Needless to say, it is a very important cultural artifact, and it may as revelatory of our culture as gothic cathedrals are of the late middle ages. If you're wondering how people got the patience to do pixel by pixel manipulation of the images, just take a look at the arches on the Cologne Cathedral: With Zeitgeist filling your sails, all things are possible.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Sarbanes-Oxley (2)

Just to work a little further on the "all that is concealed shall be revealed" shtick, Sabanes-Oxley is, in fact, a sign of the apocalypse. And the internet, as a mechanism by which it has become very difficult to keep secrets, is another great revealer.

But the key question in Pareto-math is what happens when 1% control 90% of the resources? Would that be such such an unstable system that it collapses once the distribution reaches 20-85? Some German once pointed out that the basic mathematics of social participation had to be rewritten after the invention of the submachine gun -- but he failed miserably at putting his beliefs into practice..