Archive for February 22nd, 2012
I just started watching it and I feel I’m in excellent hands. A train movie, plot very economically set forth and pushed into motion with opposed forces seeking the same goal, who has ideas of his own, etc. At any rate, it’s wonderful at how neatly the whole intricate structure emerges, in motion, as it were.
UPDATE: Haven’t finished, but only opening on the train—misleading but okay. Maybe I’m just in the mood for a train movie, a fairly distinct genre. At any rate, it’s become obvious that this must be the movie of which The Tourist is a remake.
Interesting column in the NY Times by Barry Schwartz:
CRITICS of Mitt Romney’s activities at Bain Capital have been described, somewhat hysterically, as critics of capitalism. They’re not. But they are attacking something. And understanding that something can have enormous implications for the shape of our economic institutions and activities going forward.
What Bain Capital, and firms like it, do is try to increase the efficiency of the companies they buy. They try to get more with less — to eliminate waste. They are not interested either in creating jobs or in destroying them. Nor are they interested in improving the lives of consumers by making products and services better and cheaper. They are interested in profit — for themselves and their shareholders. Sometimes a Bain success will lead to more jobs and better products. Sometimes it will not.
It may seem heartless to worship efficiency at any cost, including lost jobs and decimated communities, but it is important to understand that increased efficiency is the only way a society’s standard of living will improve. If your company raises your pay without becoming more efficient, it will have to raise its prices in order to pay you. This is true of all companies. And if all companies raise their prices to allow for higher wages, you will end up just running in place, with your higher wages exactly matched by the higher prices of the things you buy. It is only if your company and others find a way to pay you more without charging more that your living standard goes up.
So if we want to make material progress, we must become more efficient. In addition, as markets have become ever more globalized, increased efficiency of American companies has become a condition for their very survival.
So firms compete to become more efficient, and we as consumers, along with Bain Capital and its like, benefit from this competition.
What stands in the way of efficiency is friction. When automobile manufacturers struggle to squeeze as many miles per gallon as possible out of their car designs, friction is the enemy. Their aim is to design a vehicle that uses every ounce of fuel to move the car forward.
And so it is in the world of finance. As the historian Niall Ferguson reminds us in his book “The Ascent of Money,” hard as it is to imagine, people didn’t always have money. The invention of money went a long way toward reducing the friction, the inefficiency, in financial transactions. No longer did the farmer have to bring sacks of potatoes to the marketplace to trade for eggs and milk. Money was a medium of exchange that greatly reduced what some have called the financial coefficient of drag.
Arguably, much that has happened in the financial world over the last 200 years can be seen as a continuation of the revolution in efficiency begun by money. Credit, for example, meant that the farmer could go shopping for eggs and milk without even having the money. He could promise to pay it at a later date, after the potato harvest. Nor did the farmer need to save up the surplus from many years of bumper crops before buying more land. It was possible to get the land now with credit, and pay for it over time, in part with the proceeds from newly cultivated acres.
Much more recently, financial markets have been all about efficiency. This is one way to . . .
Friction-free (or even very-low-friction) economics is what I have called “hypercapitalism”: when measurements are so precise and far-reaching and accurate and timely (thanks to networking and computers), and management is so removed from the lives involved in their enterprise (thanks to outsourcing and distancing of management staff in various ways), we enter the current era of laissez faire capitalism with enormous human costs quite visible—and with no accountability.
In my view, it’s the role of government to add sufficient friction (in terms of regulation requirements) to ensure the public welfare beyond simply keeping tainted meat out of the system (in which the current system shows frequent and conspicuous failures): in ensuring the health and prosperity of our communities. Businesses would like to be free of all obligations and to operate as bandit kings, but if controlled businesses can be an engine of energy—sort of like fire. But fire always wants to be free, to consume everything. And business will never cooperate in its control.
Intriguing column in the NY Times by Samuel J. Rascoff:
TWO years ago, John O. Brennan, President Obama’s top adviser on counterterrorism, spoke to members of a Muslim student group in a packed auditorium at the law school where I teach, offering his audience the White House’s position about what jihad does and does not mean.
Later that year, on a panel with me in that same auditorium, a commentator, Haroon Moghul, drew attention to efforts by American officials to build global networks of “acceptable” Muslim leaders.
There are other examples like these around the country. The Ohio Department of Public Safety has produced and distributed literature that declares, “When extremists attack and kill in the name of jihad, mainstream Muslims consider such acts as a total deviation from the true religion of Islam.”
Homeland Security officials were signed up for a 2010 conference in which one topic was “Seeking a Counter-Reformation in Islam.” In 2004, an inspector general criticized the Bureau of Prisons because it failed to “examine the doctrinal beliefs of applicants for religious service positions to determine whether those beliefs are inconsistent with B.O.P. security policies.”
In each of these cases, counterterrorism has put officials on a collision course with Islamic thought and practice — and, perhaps more dangerously, with the Constitution. The First Amendment prohibits government action “respecting an establishment of religion.”
From a national security point of view, challenging ideas that underpin radical Islam makes sense. Counterterrorism is ultimately about ideas; why shouldn’t officials try to marginalize the theological teachings cited by violent terrorists?
The problem is that when American officials intervene in Islamic teachings — interpreting them to believers in a national-security context and saying which are or are not acceptable — they create tensions, both legal and strategic.
The strategic problem is easier to see: . . .
Regular readers know that I have a bee in my bonnet regarding memes: their rapid evolution, their influence on human evolution, their growing autonomy (in a weird way) and their control over us. The collection of all memes of all time is coextensive, I would say, with human culture: culture consists of memes and their connections, development, and influence: the memeverse.
Memes lead us toward generalities: language is an early, highly successful, highly influential, and highly developed meme, and language consists of little other than generalizations: horse, tree, run, deduce: all denote “things” of a general nature and yet, as I was posting earlier today, reality is always of extreme particularity: the general does not exist in reality as we experience it in our lives, only in our experience in using/doing memes: the memesphere of current activity.
And yet, though not “real” in the usual sense, memes are fascinating to us and to a great extent are us: much of what we view as ourselves comprises memes. So participating in the memesphere, inhabiting the memeverse, is deeply appealing at our most basic levels.
And yet: it is not reality, and it draws our attention away from reality.
What it is, I suddenly realize, is the Faerie Kingdom: the enchanted realm of non-reality (magic, rather) in which things are not as they seem and time runs at a different rate, and we linger beguiled. (Perhaps also the land of the lotus-eaters?) The memes are the magic that attract us and keep us from the actual daily reality.
So Edmund Spenser was writing an allegory on more than one level… hmm. I wonder how many legends, myths, fantasies, fairy tales, and the like can be profitably read in the light of the enchanted kingdom being the memeverse…
UPDATE: So, it occurs to me, one reason for the enduring appeal of the story of a dangerous magical land, unlike daily reality, could be that the pre-meme part of our mind—the part of the unconscious that corresponds to the mental state and workings of animal minds such as other primates and mammalian predators: by no means an unsophisticated mental apparatus, but rather one quite adaptable to managing complex lives in a changing environment with unpredictable challenges. Quite a good sort of mind, though not having a conscious aspect. And then along comes the Johnny-come-lately conscious mind and its creation of (and by) the memeverse where it wants to spend all its time, ignoring (and leaving to the unconscious self) the management and navigation of the real world, for the most part (estimates vary but run as high as half of activities done via the adaptive unconscious, as I recall). So the arrangement works, and those fantasies and fairy tales might be taken as one interpretation of it, with the appeal of the story coming in part from the unconscious recognition of what the story’s about.
UPDATE 2: It occurs to me that the Garden of Eden myths sort of fit this model: a golden era before moral judgments came into consideration (knowledge of good & evil: memes), a time when man and woman and all life lived and coexisted on the same level. But once memes entered the picture, moral judgments were possible, generalities were born, and the result schism within the mind separated us forever from the (internal) Eden we once enjoyed. It was never out there: it was always inside. But with consciousness and a sense of self derived from and to a great extent residing in the memeverse, spending all its time in the memesphere, the old ways of knowing and being were discarded/lost. A familiar story and one can understand its appeal in this reading: a major part of ourselves understands clearly the meaning of the story.
UPDATE 3: That the Garden of Eden story (and similar stories) present the change from the magical kingdom to daily life (and the memesphere) as a “fall” shows from which POV the story is told: that of the pre-meme unconscious, who would view the change as a loss. And the story continues to have resonance because it’s not just something that happened to the human race long ago, as we moved toward more meme-involvement. It’s replayed in the life of each of us as we continue from birth to develop both our adaptive unconscious self and its knowledge of the world and also the conscious self, with its every greater participation in the memesphere.
Still, some occupations are deeply involved in a meme-free encounter with the particularities of reality. Physical skills pulls us into non-meme encounters, which generally trigger the “flow” state: I’m thinking of things like rock-climbing, woodcarving, gardening, and the like. Human touch is important to mental health, as any number of experiments have shown. Because of that, I speculate that occupations that involve much touching of another person—occupations such as beautician, therapeutic masseur/masseuse, physical therapist, and so on—provide some mental health benefits in that connection that, say, an accountant would not find in his/her job. If I’m right (speculation piled upon speculation), I would be interested to know the mental-health effects of occupations that involve lengthy and detailed meme-free interactions with the particularities of reality.
Stephanie Mencimer writes in Mother Jones:
For months, Catholic religious leaders have waged a PR campaign criticizing the Obama administration for allegedly infringing on their religious liberties. They’ve blasted, among other things, an administration requirement (since rescinded) that institutions affiliated with religious organizations offer contraceptive coverage in their health insurance plans. Religious conservatives are also fuming that the administration declined to renew a contract with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to provide services for human trafficking victims because the group refused to provide referrals for contraception and abortion to sexual assault victims.
Gary Marx, the executive director of Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, sent out a fundraising letter this month urging people to sign a petition fighting Obama’s “war on religion,” writing: “The Obama Administration’s actions are evidence of a pattern of hostility towards religious institutions and an antipathy to uphold and protect the nation’s most fundamental founding principles.”
Republican members of Congress have joined the chorus, accusing the Obama administration of trampling religious freedoms. On Thursday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, will hold a hearing on precisely this topic. Among those testifying will be Rev. William Lori, chairman of the USCCB ad hoc committee on religious liberty, the group leading the charge against Obama’s contraceptive mandate.
But all the outrage about religious freedom has overshadowed a basic truth about the Obama administration: When it comes to religious organizations and their treatment by the federal government, the Obama administration has been extremely generous. Religious groups have benefited handsomely from Obama’s stimulus package, budgets, and other policies. Under Obama, Catholic religious charities alone have received more than $650 million, according to a spokeswoman from the US Department of Health and Human Services, where much of the funding comes from. The USCCB, which has been such a vocal critic of the Obama administration, has seen its share of federal grants from HHS jump from $71.8 million in the last three years of the Bush administration to $81.2 million during the first three years of Obama. In fiscal 2011 alone, the group received a record $31.4 million from the administration it believes is virulently anti-Catholic, according to HHS data.