Somebody has to do it

A man in a puffy tan jacket stops in front of the memorial commemorating the night the wall fell. It is difficult to determine his age under his white knit hat, but bits of gray hair and a roughness to his cold-chapped skin mark him as old enough to remember the night the barricades had opened and people had streamed across the bridge.

He takes a rag from his pocket and carefully wipes the last day’s accumulation of snow from the plaque. The old parking lot nearby, and even the parts of the sidewalk that haven’t been shoveled are covered in inches of snow. But the memorial has barely any, even before he begins his work. He has been here every day, making sure these words can be read, though he knows that no one else will read them today. Everyone passes with their shoulders tense against the cold and their eyes scanning the sidewalk for treacherous bits of ice. That doesn’t matter to him.

When he goes, the flakes immediately begin re-whitening the brass surface. An hour later the letters have vanished; but he will be back tomorrow.

Libertarian paternalism, or: Gov’t out of my idiocy!

Here in this article is the future of political conflict. “Libertarian paternalism” against a theory of human existence based on the supremacy of reason and rational choice. Choose your sides now.

A bit of background:

In the economics world, behavioral economics is aimed at looking at how people actually make choices, instead of assuming that everybody has excellent information about the given state of markets and the future consequences of their options, and will choose what’s best for them, given their preferences.

In most experiments (and in anybody’s experience of real life) it turns out that people don’t always act to maximize their interests. We make stupid choices. We discount future gains too heavily. We smoke, drink, do drugs, party, don’t exercise, watch porn, drop out of school, quit our jobs and move to Europe to be writers in dying mediums. Null point pour les neoclassicism. Continue reading →

Thinking like a novelist, not a theorist

From the Chronicle of Higher Education, in an article well worth reading start to finish on the legacy of cultural studies. A plea for treating your ideological opponents in a non-condescending way, and trying thusly to understand why they think what they think. I would say this is thinking like a novelist (and thus holistically) about people, rather than as a theorist.

In an especially rich essay, “The Toad in the Garden: Thatcherism Among the Theorists”—in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (1988), edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg—Hall wrote: “The first thing to ask about an ‘organic’ ideology that, however unexpectedly, succeeds in organizing substantial sections of the masses and mobilizing them for political action, is not what is false about it but what is true.” What, in other words, actively makes sense to people whose beliefs you do not share? Hall proposed that leftist intellectuals should not answer that question by assuming that working-class conservatives have succumbed to false consciousness: “It is a highly unstable theory about the world which has to assume that vast numbers of ordinary people, mentally equipped in much the same way as you or I, can simply be thoroughly and systematically duped into misrecognizing entirely where their real interests lie. Even less acceptable is the position that, whereas ‘they’—the masses—are the dupes of history, ‘we’—the privileged—are somehow without a trace of illusion and can see, transitively, right through into the truth, the essence, of a situation.”

Wanted: A new political left

After four years of uncomfortable Grand Coalition, Germany’s center-right party — or more exactly, Angela Merkel, the only really popular politician here — is finally getting to lead more or less the way it wants.

This has fairly widely been dubbed the most boring election in history. Which — aren’t we in the middle of the biggest recession since the Great Depression? Wasn’t there a gigantic financial crises this time last year, technically on Merkel’s watch? Shouldn’t there be a revolution or something (and come on, 12 percent for the Linke, the former East German state party, now a left opposition, doesn’t count)?

It’s astonishing how badly the left has come out of this crisis. It’s not that the right has fantastic ideas; certainly not in the States, where they’ve collapsed into sputtering brain-fevered monosyllables. But there is no coherent alternative to centrism today. Everyone is spending like mad, in a Keynesian approach to the post-Friedman global economy. Angie’s social market economy is not radically different from what Obama wants to do the States; and here, because she’s staked out that centrist ground, she wins.

Her new partners, the liberals, want tax cuts. Maybe they’ll get some, but Germany is awash in debt, at least by its standards, and if George W. Bush has shown anything, it is that shotgun-targeted tax cuts don’t produce anything but pain and messes that have to be cleaned up later. Not much room to maneuver in that respect.

So where is the coherent left? Certainly not in Germany. Or in France. Even socialist Sweden has a center-right government. There are good ideas coming from the left, like New Deal-type spending on green technology; but this can be adopted just as well by the center-right, and will, by Merkel.

We need a new labor movement; something that reflects the realities of today’s economy. Something that represents, or is grounded in, the interests of deliberately mobile, flexible workers. Freelancers and contractors, programmers and writers and service types. Based on an economics that understands that people aren’t rational, that the free market fails miserably in many areas (but actually does work pretty well in others), and doesn’t let finance types assure the world that they’re getting hugely rich because what they’re doing is really, really good for everybody.

Wasn’t supposed to happen

From an anonymous student, in the NYT:

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Until last week, Mr. Moussavi was a nondescript, if competent, politician — as one of his campaign advisers put it to me, he was meant only to be an instrument for making Iran a tiny bit better, nothing more. Iranians knew that’s what they were getting when they cast their votes for him. Now, like us, Mr. Mousavi finds himself caught up in events that were unimaginable, each day’s march and protest more unthinkable than the one that came before.

Is this the hallmark of a revolution? That events sweep away intentions, that actions inspired by old models have unexpected consequences (and become new models themselves), that the people involved are thrust into roles that seem only afterward to have been cut for them like gloves? Continue reading →