Friday, December 30, 2011

Casinos, capitalists and class struggle

The rush of Massachusetts to build casinos and other gambling dens makes me crazy.  The casinos are sold to us as a jobs program - this is almost a pure scam.  It is as if the 1% were to hire a small number of the 99% to construct, and then operate, a gigantic vacuum cleaner, the sole purpose of which was to suck money out of the pockets of the 99%, and deposit it in the bank accounts of the 1%.

Compare this with a genuine jobs bill - the Conyers bill, HR 870, which would tax the 1% (through a small financial transactions tax) and use the proceeds to hire some of the 99% to build and repair things (schools, roads, bridges) that belong to the 99%.

In today's political parlance, the second bill – the genuine jobs bill – is considered class warfare.  Casino construction, which employs some people to better exploit others, is not.  Essentially, "class warfare", for the punditry, is a term used to describe anything that acts effectively to the detriment of one specific class - the ruling class.

Even a casual student of Marx knows that the class struggle is not an option - something one chooses to engage in, or not.  It is an inevitable side effect of a class society.  As long as the economy is structured so that one particular class – feudal landowners, slave-owners, or capitalists – derives its income solely and explicitly by the exploitation of others (aka the workers), then you have a class society, one feature of which will be a struggle over the degree of exploitation.

A Keynesian analysis of a capitalist economy suggests there may be some "sweet spot" for the capitalist class, a level of wages that balances off increased demand and economic activity against a reduced profit margin, so as to maximize the capitalists' overall net income.  But there's no magic way to detect this "sweet spot", and the capitalists' greed is such that they will tend to overshoot when it comes to driving down wages.  Also, manipulating the overall wage rate in the economy, so as to manipulate demand, is beyond the power of most individual capitalists, or even cartels. 

At a given level of output and technology, the individual capitalist can only increase his income by increasing the level of exploitation - his profit.  Any such increase in profit comes directly out of the worker's wages.  So struggle is inevitable.  The only question is whether the workers resist low wages individually (in which case the majority of them are bound to lose), or collectively, through labor unions and political action, in which case they have a chance.  It is this latter form of collective struggle that the right wing insists on calling "class warfare".

A genuine jobs bill, like the Conyers bill, would strengthen the working class, lessen inequality, and make the 99% genuinely better off.  The casino alternative plays some in the working class against others, and its overall effect is to further the impoverishment of the 99% with respect to the 1%. 

Some with in the Occupy movement have started saying "They only call it 'class warfare' when we fight back."  I would add that they only call it "class warfare" when we adopt a strategy that might actually win results.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Saoirse Craig Fitzgerald 6/1/2010 – 12/13/2011

My grandniece, Saoirse Craig Fitzgerald, the first of her generation, and the bravest little warrior I have ever known, died yesterday morning, December 13, 2011, only a little more than 18 months old, after battling nearly half her life against a horrible disease called malignant neuroblastoma. 

I spend a lot of my life struggling, in pitiful small ways, against various forms of injustice.  But sometimes the microcosm overwhelms the macrocosm.  This senseless tragedy visited upon my small family will limit, over the next days and weeks, my ability to be focused on and available for the struggle against more global injustices.  This is the nature of the human condition.  My friends and comrades will keep up the fight.  There is so much pain in the world that humans cannot do anything about, no matter how hard we try.  We must continue to battle against the human-created pains that can with courage and struggle, be cured.

I am an adoptive parent.  Before our adoptions, my then wife and I were trying very hard to conceive a child.  At one point, we had a very early miscarriage - so early that many women might not even have fully realized they were pregnant.  Our pain and loss, even at such an early loss, was enormous.  My mother's first child was stillborn; I am first born only by default.  I am also keenly aware of the pain my children’s biological parents must have been in, to have made such a difficult decision as to give up a child.  So much pain in all of our lives, in so many ways.  The thought sometimes comes, would it have been better if Saoirse and her parents had simply been spared theirs?  If her short span of months had simply never been?

My answer is an emphatic, No!  On a cosmic scale, the span of each of our lives is ludicrously short.  What, in fact, are any of our lives but a few brief strings of moments, some bright, some dark?  As Rahsaan Roland Kirk used to say, all we really have in life are those bright moments.  Every one is precious.  I would not have robbed Saoirse of a single one of hers.  And, for all the pain I feel now, I would not be free of it if the cost was never to have known her.

There have never been any better parents than my niece, Kezia and her husband Mike.  They devoted themselves, fully, completely, intelligently, proactively to that child, without holding anything back for themselves – even when Kezia was, herself, in treatment.  (Yes, for a while, mother and daughter were simultaneously cancer patients.)  And not only were Saoirse’s parents so devoted, but also my sister, Kristina, my brother-in-law Craig (Saoirse’s grandparents), my niece, Tabitha (Kezia’s sister), and Tabitha’s boyfriend, Scott.

The result of all that love and devotion was that every moment of Saoirse’s short life that could have been a bright moment, was one.  The dark moments in her life were all the inescapable ones, caused by that horrible disease.  Every moment that human love and care could possibly have rendered bright, was a bright moment.

That was the gift that my wonderful family gave to that child.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

That’s not the American Dream...

I’ve had people tell me that the so-called “American Dream” is about the idea, however false, that anybody can get rich.  Therefore, they argue, if your politics tries to clip the wings of the very rich, people feel you are choking off their dreams, and they won’t support you.

I won’t deny that there’s some truth to that, and if the issue of class fairness is presented the wrong way, you might get that reaction.  But I don’t think the American Dream is really about the ability to get filthy rich, and I think if you frame your arguments the right way, you can get around this obstacle.

Now, everybody has occasionally fantasized about what it would be like to be just stinking rich.  But I don’t think Americans feel that helping some people to get rich is a matter of justice.  I had to frame that sentence carefully.  If I had said “allowing some people to get rich”, a lot of people would think that was just.  To arbitrarily prevent some people from getting rich, “just because”, would be seen by many of us as simply mean.  But if you frame the question in terms of what others would have to give up for that person to become rich, then people hear a different story.

The American Dream is really about the idea that anybody, maybe even everybody, can do well.  It is about prosperity, not opulence.  You should be amply rewarded for a lifetime of honest work, and if you’re especially clever, or work especially hard, you should have a proportionate increase in your level of well-being.  That just strikes most of us as fair.  You should be secure in your enjoyment of these things.  You should do well enough that you can enjoy a few hobbies, and leisure time with your family.  When you’ve paid your dues for 40 years or so, you should be entitled to a comfortable retirement.  You should also have the right to feel confident that your children, and your children’s children will have the right and ability to enjoy the same comforts and opportunities that you have.  This is what the American Dream really means, to most of us.

What we need to get people to understand is that some people’s ability to become super rich, if it is realized, chokes off this dream of prosperity for the rest of us.  When 1%, 2%, even 10% of the people receive half of the total income produced by society every year, and lay claim to more than 70% of the total wealth, they do this by squeezing it out of our paychecks, out of our public or common goods (parks, roadways, schools), out of our healthcare, our retirement – lately, out of the equity that could have accumulated in our homes.
The vast wealth of the lucky few has been justified to us on the basis that they are somehow the engines of economic growth, that they are “job creators”, that their enormous wealth is somehow necessary for the rest of us to be prosperous.  We have now had nearly two generations of experience to prove that that is a lie; that policies to benefit the super rich not only don’t help the rest of us, but actually do us harm.

Since the mid-1970’s, when neoliberal talk of “job creators” and “trickle down economics” began to take hold, the richest 10% increased their share of national income from about 1/3, where it had held pretty steady since the early 1950’s (and which already meant they made between 4 & 5 times, on average, as much as the rest of us), to reach 50% about 2007.  Did this make the rest of us better off?  Total employment did grow a little, at the beginning of that period, before it crashed at the end of it, but it had been pretty stagnant for nearly a decade before the crash.  And how much of that “expansion” in jobs represented low wage, no benefits “Macjobs”, replacing the good “middle class” jobs that people had lost?  And our sense of security in a prosperous future for ourselves and our children has virtually disappeared. 

Trickle down economics does not, and never has worked.  Many, if not most, of the people who originally espoused it never really believed it would.  It was a convenient lie to justify their rampant looting of the economy.  It’s time we put an end to it.  We must put an end to it, if we are ever to reclaim the real American Dream.

“I have seen good working people,
Throughout this mighty land.
I’ve prayed we’ll get together,
And together take a stand.

“Then we’ll own those Banks of Marble,
With no guard at any door.
And we’ll share those vaults of silver
That we all have sweated for.”

Friday, November 4, 2011


I'm not sure I believe in metaphysics.  Perhaps I do. Do my speculations about the minimal requirements for a world in which a mind could evolve constitute metaphysics (“A World for Mind” Sept 2009)?  They may mix in too much practical observation to satisfy some philosophers.  But in any case, some classical efforts at metaphysics, in the sense of using pure reason, free of any empirical evidence, to determine necessary truths about the world, seem to turn on a confusion of observations about human cognitive processes with observations about the underlying reality.

I am thinking of Saul Kripke's Naming and Necessity (which I’ve just read) when I write this.  (I realize there’s some hubris in someone like me critiquing a philosopher of the status of Kripke, but hey, that’s what Persistent Wondering is all about...)  Kripke’s ideas on naming and reference make a lot of sense to me.  I don’t find anything to object to in the idea that names, both of particulars and of general terms, are used to fix a reference, and not, at least in most cases, as a shorthand for a definition.  But when he extends this idea, through possible worlds and the idea of a name as a rigid designator, to questions of identity and necessity, he leads where I find myself unable to follow.

Kripke’s first references, in the book, to the idea of possible worlds strike me as very insightful and important.  He says that “possible worlds are stipulated, not discovered by powerful telescopes.”  Thus, to use his example, if we stipulate, in our counterfactual situation (possible world), that Nixon lost the election, we also stipulate that we are talking about Nixon, and we do not need to go to great lengths to prove the “identity” of the two Nixons in our actual and counterfactual worlds.

I think possible worlds are stipulated.  I think further, they are stipulated for some purpose, perhaps rhetorical, perhaps analytical, in the sense of trying to derive general rules about the universe from observations of particulars (in the rest of this essay, I will try to use “model” and “modeling” in place of “analysis” in this sense to avoid any possible confusion with the notion of “analyticity” as used by e.g. Kant or Kripke).  We stipulate those aspects of deviation from our world as are deemed necessary for our purpose.  The default assumption is that things not so stipulated, and not derivable from things so stipulated, are “the same as” in our world, but in fact, if these things are essential to our model, then this sameness also must be stipulated.  So really, aspects of the possible world which are not in some way stipulated are simply unknown – and we don’t care, because they’re not relevant to our model.

The process of reasoning about a possible world is almost exactly like the process we use to try to predict the outcomes of sequences of events in the real world, and I am certain we use the same cognitive faculties to do both tasks.  There is a difference in intention, though.  When we say “What would A have done if B?” our interest is presumably only academic.  But when we say, “What would A do if C?” we may have a direct interest in the answer.  For example, it may help us decide whether or not to act so as to try to bring about condition C.

But, in any case, a possible world is just a mental construct.  It is a modeling tool.  It is not “real”, in the sense that our world is real.   Of course, it is real, in the sense that our thoughts are real, but questions like the “identity” of objects between possible worlds tell us only about how we think or speak.  They do not tell us anything directly about reality.  They are issues of semantics, or epistemology, not, as near as I can tell, about metaphysics.  Modeling via possible worlds tells us something about the world only if  (1) we are using the model explicitly to explore the relationships between things in the real world, (2) we have all the relevant data, and (3) we reason correctly.

Consider some of Kripke’s examples.  He argues that in our world the astronomical entities Hesperus, Phosphorus and the planet Venus are, in fact, one-and-the-same object; therefore Hesperus=Phosphorus is a necessary truth, although, in a sense, contingent.  It is contingent, because we “could have” discovered that the two names represent distinct objects.  But they do not.  When we speak of a possible world, we do so in our own language, not in the language stipulated for the possible world.  In our language “Hesperus” and “Phosphorus” are names for the same object.  If we stipulate a possible world in which “Hesperus” and “Phosphorus” are used to name two different objects, we would say that one, or both of them, is not Hesperus=Phosphorus.  Thus Hesperus=Phosphorus is true, and true in all possible worlds (even those in which the terms are used – in the language of that world – to reference different objects), hence necessarily true.  I don’t really do justice to Kripke’s argument.

Now, if I were reasoning about a possible world in which “Hesperus” or “Phosphorus” referenced different objects, I don’t know if I would say “consider a world in which ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ referenced different objects,” or “consider a world in which Hesperus and Phosphorus were not the same,” but in any case, my manner of speaking certainly doesn’t tell me anything directly about whether Hesperus and Phosphorus really ARE the same.  It seems to me like Kripke is just saying “imagining things to be different doesn’t make them different,” with which I agree.  But a notion of  “necessity”, so defined, doesn’t seem very useful.  Maybe he’s saying something more, about objects and names, something like, “if two (or more names) are used to reference the same object, the object referenced by any of the names is always the same object” – i.e., something is always identical to itself.  This seems at first blush to be trivially true, but I guess I’ve seen some such notion appear in some axiom system often enough that I can accept that maybe it’s not, at least quite.

Kripke’s cats/demons argument (which he attributes, in it’s original form to Hillary Putnam) is another interesting example.  Kripke argues that it could have turned out that cats were not animals, but demons, who chose to look like cats, and to exhibit all the behaviors we associate with cats.  But it did not turn out that way – cats are animals, not demons.  So being an animal is a necessary, or essential, property of cats.  If we stipulated a possible world in which all cats were actually demons, we would say that in that world there were no cats, only demons acting like cats.  Well, I don’t know.  I just stipulated the possible world by saying “all cats [are] demons.”  But, in any case, how we stipulate a possible world doesn’t tell us about anything except how we talk, or, at best, how we think.  So Kripke’s definition of “necessity” as “true in all possible worlds” again seems rather meaningless.  Kripke’s example seems to reduce to “given that cats are not demons, cats are not demons,” which this time really seems to be trivially true.

Kripke’s line of argument becomes more pernicious (potentially, although he refrains from carrying it to a dualist extreme) when he speaks of mental and physical states.  Kripke essentially argues that a mental state cannot be identical with some corresponding physical state, because we can conceive of them separately, and separable.  He contrasts this with heat and molecular motion, which he holds to be identical, because, when we imaging heat separable from molecular motion, what we are really imagining is the sensation of heat, not heat, itself (which is molecular motion), but the sensation of pain, for example, is simply pain, so when we imagine pain separable from the stimulation of nerve fibers, we are really imagining two different things.  Again, I don’t do justice to his argument, I’m sure.

Maybe Kripke and I have different meanings when we talk about “things” being the same or different.  If Kripke means the concept of pain is distinguishable from the concept of a physical state, then I would agree.  These concepts are certainly things or objects (mental objects).  But if we believe these concepts refer to something in the “real” world, then the fact that the concepts are distinct does not prove that the things referenced are.   (I apologize for the scare quotes on “real”.  Language fails me, here.  “Non-mental” world?  Is pain non-mental?)  I do not believe it is actually possible for pain to exist without the corresponding physical state, any more than I believe it is possible for heat to exist without molecules in a state of agitation.  Nor do I believe that it is actually possible for  the physical state corresponding to pain to exist without there being pain (more on this in a moment).  Whether such an state of perfect one-to-one correspondence as I describe should be termed “identity” is a linguistic question.  It has nothing to do with physical reality.  Even if I am wrong, the mere fact that our concepts are separable is information on how we think and speak, but tells us nothing about the world.  It is an epistemological and semantic datum, not a metaphysical one.  Unless metaphysics means something entirely different than I would think.  (Hence my opening doubt, which questions whether metaphysics really means anything not contained in semantics and epistemology.)

I should note that Kripke’s (circa 1972) notion of “physical state” seems to me probably inadequate, which may partially explain his resistance to equating physical and mental states.  I’m reading between the lines, here, but I think he conceives of such physical states much too locally, on the order of stimulation of a few nerve fibers.  I think the equation of mental and physical states requires a much more wholistic notion of physical state.  Thus a dead man, or an anaesthetized one might have certain fibers stimulated, and not feel pain – the rest of his physical state is not arranged conducively.   I also sometimes think there may be a useful (i.e., meaningful) distinction between feeling pain and being consciously aware of feeling pain (may apply, for example, to a person in a coma), but I’m not really sure this distinction turns out to have explanatory value.

All of this makes me want to go back and reread some of Quine’s critiques of the concepts of necessity and analyticity, to see if I now get more out of them, now.  I freely admit that as an amateur philosopher, I’m a pretty good structural engineer.  I may be missing more than a few subtleties.  Still, I can’t keep from wondering...

Friday, May 27, 2011

Two Roads

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
Took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
- Robert Frost

Something's lost, but something's gained in living every day.
- Joni Mitchell

For some reason, in recent weeks, I've been driven to compare and contrast the above two quotations. They have a certain similarity in meaning, do they not? And yet they are subtly different. The more I reflect, the more I find in favor of Joni Mitchell.

Not stylistically, certainly. For all her colossal talent, the quintessential songstress of a certain moment of California hippie-dom's sparkling sunlight (and dreary underbelly) is no match as a crafter in words to the doughty mender of New Hampshire's walls. But content is a different thing.

Both fragments are about life choices, and the opportunities that are lost, as well as the satisfactions found, in making them. Frost's poem focuses on one big choice, and claims that has made all the difference. There is a certain smug self-satisfaction lurking behind the words. In the body of the poem (before the quoted lines), he plays at regret, but really he is confident that his choice was right (as well as being the one most people would not have made), and he is quite proud of this.

Mitchell's lines, on the other hand, recognize that we make a thousand choices, large and small, every single day of our lives, and every one of them "makes the difference" in the sense that while certain opportunities are opened up, others are irrevocably closed. The lines evoke a certain optimistic fatalism. Unlike in Frost's perception, we are not so much the authors of our decisions as we are the playthings of fortune. We can hardly guess the implications of every little choice, and most of them we may not even be conscious of making. You win a few, you lose a few. There is a keen awareness of the loss, but, on consideration, the gains make up for them, after all.

Both poets have observed something crucial about our lives, and either vision may seem more apt in some particular time and place. But for me, at least, the older I grow, the less I feel like a person who's made one big choice, or even a number of big choices, that consciously structured my life according to some master plan, and the more I feel like the willy nilly plaything of the gods.

Yet some things have been gained, for all that.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Truth in politics

I recently had an extended Facebook dialog with a comrade which ranged over the possibilities (or lack thereof) for a genuinely democratic politics, the usefulness (or otherwise) of lessons from history, and many related points. If I had an overall theme for my part of the discussion, it was that a genuinely democratic politics is, at least theoretically possible; that it involves a socialized decision making process based on dialog and debate, which, in contrast to capitalist economic theory, privileges reasoned, considered conclusions, arrived at after due deliberation, over the snap judgments which seem to arise from our instincts or first impulses; that to truly achieve such a decision making process would require a vastly more participatory form of democracy than our modern version, in which participation is largely limited to passively watching the news, then pulling a lever, every 2-4 years, for some candidate; and that classical Athenian democracy, for all its evident faults, had things to teach us about how to structure such a participative democracy.  (Some of these themes will be familiar to anyone who has followed this blog; others I do intend to develop, someday...)

Throughout the FB dialog, my comrade several times in passing raised the question as to exactly what is meant by “truth”.  At the time, I ignored it, because it seemed irrelevant to the current discussion, and because I rather thought, without reflecting, that the “conventional” view of truth sufficed for a political (rather than a philosophical) discussion.  If I say I fell down the stairs when I really got beat up by my spouse, the statement is untrue.  If I really fell down the stairs (and wasn’t pushed, or tripped, etc.), then the statement is true.  This definition seemed to suffice for most practical political purposes.

But I realized on reflection that that is not true, and that thinking about why it is not  makes for an excellent demonstration of my ideas about democracy.

Take a concept like the “value” of a person’s labor.  Marx’s labor theory of value, although useful on an abstract level, cannot, in my opinion, be made concrete enough to objectively yield a precise “dollar” value in specific cases.  The capitalist (aka classical or neo-classical) economic model, which defines value in terms of market price, nothing more or less, always yields a precise, objective value.  (At least it does in cases where it “matters” – where there is an immediate need to come up with a wage rate, here-and-now.  It has more of a problem with hypotheticals.)  But there are so many broad social and political factors that go into determining real-world supply and demand that to take the market price as in any way representing a just price is problematic, at best.

And yet, each of us does have his own opinion, in every specific case we encounter, as to whether a given wage is just, or not.  More importantly, these opinions are not just inexplicable “gut reactions”.  We can adduce reasons for our opinions.  “Capital is giving up present consumption, and deserves a reward.”  “The worker’s children need food, a house, books for their education.  The capitalist’s children already have all these things, and more.”  Some such opinions will be hardened beyond possibility of change, but others will be amenable to counter-argument. This makes the determination of value perfectly suited to democratic decision making – to “government by discussion” – providing unencumbered fora exist where broad and open debate can actually occur (which is not generally true in our own malformed democracies).  In this view, what is “true” (i.e., the true value of a person’s work) is not a simple matter of observation, nor is it arbitrarily determined by objective, impersonal forces, but neither is it just a relativistic matter of individual judgment.  It is a social truth, determined, for a particular time and place, by a participatory, deliberative process.

Devotees of capitalist economics will cry that to set values (i.e., prices) by fiat, even that of a democratic public, will lead to horrible economic “inefficiencies”.  “Efficiency” is an interesting word.  It is usually presented in economics discussion as if it were in-and-of-itself a positive good.  Yet efficiency draws its value from the thing that is being done.  To efficiently murder a large number of people is very different from a moral standpoint than to efficiently save a large number of lives.  And, self-serving capitalist theory to the contrary, efficiency in generating private profits is not necessarily (in fact, not often) the same as efficiently building a more just and prosperous society.

But, although this will be apostasy to many of my socialist comrades, it may not be necessary to do away with market mechanisms in determining the actual price in order to benefit from a democratic social discussion as to what is a just value.  If we can successfully debunk the capitalist theory that says the market price is by necessity a just price, and if we can get most people to see that the actual, market-determined prices at some given time are not just, this paves the way for a social examination of the question, “Why not?”  It is an opening to a discussion of exactly what political and social factors influence supply and demand such that market prices are not just.  “Goods” which could come out of this discussion could include:  increases in the progressivity of the tax code, support for cooperative enterprises and small business vis-à-vis corporate big business, introducing some level of direct social control over big business (e.g., public or union representation on boards of directors), support for universal unionization of the work force, decisions to remove more social goods (e.g., healthcare) from private markets and to better support public goods ranging from roads and education to parks and the arts, radical curtailment of commercial advertising...  Please! Extend the list, yourself.

About all of such goods, I would say to my comrades on the left:  It may not be socialism, but it ain’t hay.

While we can certainly strive to educate people within our present social structures, in order for something like the results described above to really happen, we would need a much more robust democracy than our own; one with real, broad based and open social debates, and mechanisms for such debates to feed into actual political decision making.  How we get from here to there, it is hard, at this time, to envision, although I have some thoughts on what sort of structures the end might entail.  But all I’ll say, right now, is that there are strong reasons why capitalism, oligarchy and plutocracy prefer their formal democracies to be crippled.