Friday, April 24, 2009

The Value of Despair

Here is a reprint of a article I wrote in Nov of 2007, before I had a blog. Parts of it have been reprinted in various places since then. I've been meaning to repost it up here for a while, and someone at The Automatic Earth asked about it, so here it is.


The most optimistic person I have ever encountered admitted yesterday that he is sad and scared. Beth Terry wrote a guest blog today entitled “Caring Without Despairing.” Her solution is to just not think about how big the problems are, but to focus on the little bit she can effect, as she calls it, “selective attention.” Smart people who look at America and our world today feel the emotion of despair, and then have to decide what to do about it.

My position on despair is an odd one. I think that despair is, or at least can be, a good thing. Despair is a virtue, a habit of the correct functioning of the human spirit. Despair is not a meaningless blackness, nor a simple lack of hope, it is a more complex psychological state, and one that has a role to play in the healthy mind, not just in an unhealthy mind. Not all despair is valuable despair, properly functioning despair; just as not all humor, or passion, or resoluteness is valuable. Resoluteness can be a form of courage or stubbornness depending on the situation. In moral talk, we say that resoluteness can be a virtue or a vice depending on the situation. In just the same way, I hold that despair can be a vice, a counter-productive mental or spiritual tendency (as pretty much everyone else holds). But unlike everyone else, I hold that despair can also be a virtue, a productive, helpful, right-functioning mental or spiritual tendency.

Many virtues, called moral virtues, exist as the mean between two extremes, the balancing point between opposite errors. Courage is the classic example. Too much fear of danger and one acts cowardly, and fails to take advantage of manageable risks. Too little fear of danger and one acts foolhardy, and takes risks that ought not to be taken. Fear of danger has a useful role to play in our psyches or spirits, but so does resistance to fear of danger. When these two are in proper balance, and we feel the right amount of fear, and the right amount of resistance to fear, we are experiencing the virtue of courage. Similar things could be said about overeating and undereating, or indeed any appetite, or about anger or many other psychological factors. Anger and fear are not bad things simply; they are proper and healthy adaptations to a world that includes injustice and risk. Injustice ought to make us angry, and risks ought to make us fearful. Just not too angry or fearful. And of course, both emotions would have no useful role left in a world without injustice or risk.

But not every virtue works this way. Physical strength, for example, is a virtue (it helps us to act well in the world), and one that a rational person should want as much of as they could get without giving up some other valuable good. Weightlifting takes time that we could be using for other good things, like community service or enjoying our friendships. But if someone invented a way to become stronger without giving up some other good thing, we should take it. Similar things could be said about intelligence or health or beauty or friendship.

Christian philosophers took this rough position on virtue from the Greeks and Romans, and noted that there was one more category of virtues which they called theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. In the Gnostic Tradition of Valentinius gnosis – that is direct mystical experience or knowledge by acquaintance is also a theological virtue. In the Catholic tradition, the theological virtues are ones which can be developed only by the grace of God, not by any human effort. More importantly they are not the mean between two extremes of vice. You can have insufficient faith, but there is no such thing to the Catholic theologians as having too much faith. Likewise, you can never have too much love. You can love the wrong objects (the sinful act, rather than the sinner who does it), you can have too much passion in your loving, but love itself can never be excessive.

My position is that the opposite of a theological virtue is not a vice, but another competing theological virtue. Love has a valuable role to play in the human psyche, but indifference does too. Indifference is the root of detachment, of accepting the good and the bad alike with equanimity. Indifference is the root of justice, of logic, of many kinds of discursive knowledge. Our science works, in part because we can detach our observations, from what we want to happen. We can observe how things ARE quite apart from how we would LOVE for them to be. Indifference is the heart of accepting reality, just as love is the heart of transforming reality. We are beings of power, but not infinite power, and thus we need love to guide our use of our power, and indifference to tailor our use of power to our limits. I am of the opinion that indifference is the true opposite of love, however some think of hate as the opposite of love. I don’t really know anyway for hate to be a virtue, although closely related ideas like anger, or detesting, can be in the right circumstances.

In a being of infinite knowledge and power, faith, hope, love, and gnosis would be virtues without any opposition. There would be no such thing as too much love, or insufficient indifference. But virtues do not work the same way for humans as they do for unlimited beings. For one thing, a being of infinite power has no virtue of courage at all, because it cannot experience genuine risk. Likewise, it has no virtue of moderation in eating, because it doesn’t need to eat or refrain from eating at all. For humans, courage and moderation in eating are virtues. Likewise, so is indifference, the opposite number of love. The opposite of a theological virtue is, for humans at least, is another virtue in dialectical tension with it. Love and Indifference are both good things, even though they sometimes oppose each other. Heraclitus calls this “opposing coherence.” The two work together in tension to create a more powerful effect like the ends of a bow straining against each other to keep the bowstring taut and propel the arrow more strongly,
or the lawyers arguing against each other to try to produce thoughtful justice.

Similarly, the opposite of faith is doubt, and both are virtues for fallible humans. William James has a great discussion of when and why faith is a virtue, a position that is now called Fideism among epistemologists. Sometimes believing something, despite lack of decisive evidence, makes us more able to act well within the world. Optimism is one of James’s favorite examples, we have little evidence that things are going to be alright, but assuming they are anyway helps some people to cope. But the same point can be made in reverse on skepticism. Sometimes refraining from believing something, when the evidence is undecisive, makes us more able to act well in the world.

Even at the level of theology, faith and doubt are both virtues functioning together. Faith allows us to place trust in an imperfect image of the Divine, say our own faltering picture of what an ideal shepherd or an ideal father would be like. Imperfect images are the best images that humans can conjure up, and our own limitations pervade the image. When I imagine the perfect father, I am likely to frame the image as a human of my own race, rather than of some other race, or say a heron. But my images are flawed. Doubt helps me to see that the Divine is unlikely to be of my race or even human in a normal sense. Perhaps I instead use more glorious images (light, rock of ages, etc), or refrain from images entirely and use conceptions. Still my flaws pervade, and doubt calls on me to refine these images and concepts or to do without image and concept entirely. Faith is the cornerstone of positive theology, of saying flawed but still helpful and beautiful things about the Divine. But doubt is the cornerstone of negative theology, of pointing out the flaws in our formulations, and pushing us to improve our understanding of the Divine. Like my favorite theologian Pseudo-Dionysius, I firmly believe that negative theology and positive theology need to work together, and thus (perhaps unlike him) that faith and doubt are both virtues in dialectical tension, properly working together to push us upward.

In the Gnostic tradition, gnosis or direct experience is a virtue. But the opposite of gnosis is innocence. Not knowing, at least not knowing directly via primary experience, is the root of the possibility of learning or discovery. Innocence allows experience to be a source of wonder, and I know of no better paean to the joint values of innocence and experience than Blake’s famous sets of poems, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

But the hardest of the virtues to understand is despair. I believe that a time of great despair is coming for my people and my generation. That the question of the meaning and value of despair will become more pressing and will not go away soon. And this experience will be hard and bitter, painful even. Further, I think that the research is clear that pain which seems meaningless or counter-productive is experienced as being worse than pain which is perceived as valuable or helpful. If we can find what is good and right about despair, that will simply help us to bear it with far less suffering.

Despair clears the way for the possibility of new hope, of better, more realistic hope. Just as indifferent objectivity clears the way for more realistic love, and doubting skepticism clears the way for more realistic beliefs, (and true Blakean innocence clears the way for more wondrous experiences), so despair clears the way for humbler and more realistic hopes. Despair kills hopes, but only so that other smaller hopes can have a chance to flourish. When we despair properly, we give up an old hope as out of reach of our powers, and we let it go, but we do so, so that we may set our sights on a new hope that is hopefully within the reach of our powers. Proper despair is root of the virtue of humility. It is all about not over-estimating our power in this world. When despair functions properly, its job is to help us let for of a goal that we cannot reach because we have over-estimated our power, even though we badly want to reach this glorious goal.

A despair that left us without anything worth reaching for would be a vice rather than a virtue. And indeed, we may feel like that for a time, while we adjust to the new possibilities that are left over, after we have given up on a long-term goal. But there will always be other, smaller humbler thing that we can reach for instead, after we have despaired of a great hope. No matter how bad things are, or how weak our power is, there are still gradations of better and worse, once we can bear to look carefully. It is always possible to make things a little better, if not for yourself then others. A person dying of a terminal disease, with only a few weeks left to live, who has despaired of survival, can still set lower, smaller goals and work towards them and hope towards them. A society that is addicted to cheap energy and cheap credit which is passing away, and cannot hope to maintain its lifestyle, can still set other humbler goals and try to reach them while watching its lifestyle pass away.

We cannot save our society from the troubles that are coming. It is too late to save the icecaps from melting, the ocean levels from rising. Many of our cities can probably no longer be saved. Our financial system is probably already doomed to collapse soon regardless of what we do. Our way of life cannot be sustained much longer regardless of what we do. In our arrogance, we thought we could spend forever and let the future decide how to pay the bill. We thought that someone later would figure out how to clear up our messes of carbon and methane and debt and oil-dependence. A time of humbling is coming quickly. No one can honestly look at the big picture of where our society and our globe are without feeling despair. Beth Terry can accomplish caring without despairing, only by carefully not-looking, and not-thinking. But “caring without despairing” is the wrong goal! I care, and then I despair. And despair tells me to give up and let go. But despair also tells me to clear a space for new and humbler hopes. I cannot save my society, but perhaps I can save my family, or even my community. And if my strength gives out at that task too, perhaps I can help a few people prepare, or feed themselves, or comfort them in their distress.

A time of black despair is coming, and if you feel like you are drowning in despair be comforted. Despair is a GOOD thing, when it functions properly. Swim in your despair, master it, use it for what it is good for. Use your despair to let go, and set new humbler goals. You are less rich, and less powerful than you think you are, than you are used to being. But you are not without any wealth; you are not without any power. Each breath is riches; each moment is wealth; each choice is power. All work is using our power. Do what work you can, plan, set new goals, and do what good you can. Despair, but do not drown in it, despair to clear a place for humbler goals. Your despair is in reality a valuable friend, helping you to re-prioritize your life, even when doing so is painful and difficult. Despair hurts, but it is a virtue in disguise. The pain of despair is the pain of healing, and adapting to humbler circumstances. All Americans will soon become acquainted with despair. Be assured, despair is a gloomy ally, but it is not in the end your enemy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Eating Our Children: The Story of Saturn and Moloch

8 years ago I did a fair bit of work on the ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research, and even presented my work in a couple of public forums (like being a panelist on it at Association for Practical and Professional Ethics Conference, in 2002). One thing that interested me was the extent to which thinking about ESCR, was dominated by the metaphors of warfare, that medical science was fighting a war against disease and the embryos sacrificed to save the lives of others were like the soldiers on the frontlines, laying down their lives so that others back home could live better lives. This basic metaphor was as pervasive as it was fundamentally disingenuous. The “war” against disease can never be won, and isn’t very war-like, and the embryo soldiers are hardly willing warriors choosing to take brave and noble risks for the greater good.

But what would be a better metaphor? In the end, I explored 11-13 other metaphors (depending on the version) and none was really adequate, although looking at several helped to correct the mistakes of each. I compared Embryonic Stem Cell Research to medical treatment, scientific research, abortion, to Nazi hypothermia research on unwilling victims, to recycling the waste products of an industrial process, to anthropological research on human remains, to agricultural growing and harvesting of “germ-lines”, to the killing pigs in insulin production, to Aztec practices of human sacrifice, to killing an innocent in the criminal justice system, and to euthanasia. Some metaphors make Embryonic Stem Cell Research look just, even noble, others make it look troubling. But my goal to explore the many moral nuances of the idea of “sacrifice.”
But the metaphor that was most haunting for me was the myth of Saturn eating his own children.

I wrote
“The ancient world has a couple of myths about gods eating children. Moloch, a Canaanite deity of power, is famous for devouring children as a means of maintaining his power. Saturn or Chronos, a Greco-Roman patriarch of the gods devoured his own children lest someone succeed him as the ruler of the divinities, until his wife tired of the death of her children helps Zeus escape this fate and overthrow him. In each myth, the story is of an old and powerful god eliminating the potential to overthrow them by eliminating the threat of their own children, and indeed by drawing strength from the devouring of their own children. In both cases, the moral of the story is that time marches on, things change, and that one should promote your children in their efforts to truly succeed you, rather than holding them back out of jealousy and the struggle against mortality. Likewise, we disapprove of a teacher who holds their students back from becoming greater than themselves. What does this have to do with ESCR? Well one important moral dimension of ESCR is its aspect as an intergenerational struggle. In stem cell research the very young and poor and powerless are destroyed to increase the wealth, power and health of the very old and already wealthy and powerful. Some of the diseases which might be benefited by stem cell research effect young and old alike, but most of them are health problems of the old, often specifically of the very old. Who benefits economically from stem cell research? Bio-medical researchers primarily, although some bio-medical companies as well. Why are we spending money and lives to push the boundaries of mortality and old age back even farther, rather than on universal health care for the young, or say education? As in war, the young pay the brunt of the price and the old get the bulk of the reward. Also notice that although embryos are not that much like children, the relevant feature for this story is a child’s ability to be a potential adult.

Now we should not over work this intergenerational angle. Certainly, our society does spend a lot of attention and money on education and the care of the young. But the elderly have an extremely disproportionate amount of wealth and political power, and we need to be more careful than usual at looking for hidden agendas, perhaps even hidden agendas the researchers do not consciously realize they have. Likewise embryos are extremely powerless, and we need to be more careful than usual at safeguarding the interests of innocents who also lack power to safeguard their own interests. Whatever else is at stake we should be leery of the prospect of ending one life, and a young powerless, poor one at that, for the sake of merely extending the last few years of an older, richer, more powerful life. As a member of a young, poor, powerless generation, I often feel the frustrating wish that natural processes of death should hurry up in clearing the oldest generation aside, so that my generation will not spend its life choked by the past still lingering in a not quite dead yet state. Death has an important social function to play in aiding the young in displacing the entrenched power of the old. In many generations the old step aside voluntarily, or aid the young in taking the reins of power. But for a variety of comprehensible generational dynamics, this generation of elderly refuses to step aside and instead consumes everything in their path burdening the young in ways that previous generations of elderly people would have found unthinkable examples of impiety. Moloch or Saturn eating their children, gobbling up the potentials of the future in a desperate effort to stay in power a little long and to stave off the reaper a little more, is a parable for our time; from the third rail of Social Security to the elderly’s taste for gas-guzzling cars. The funding of the destruction of embryos for the sake of maybe staving off Alzheimer’s a little longer is just one more example of a deeper social problem.

There are problems with this metaphor, too. Like the image of the medical researchers’ hands being stained with the blood of aborted embryos, the image of Moloch devouring his children is a symbol of our moral intuitions more than a real argument. The motives of the researchers are not as consciously selfish. They hope to benefit many not just themselves, and to help young and old alike. Taken to extremes this argument could turn into a slippery slope opposing all medical research or indeed any attempt to prolong or save life. This argument has a hard time responding to utilitarian arguments about benefits outweighing nonetheless real harms. What it does capture however is the intuition that if human life is valuable, then human death is valuable too. It is the engine of change and renewal and one of the holiest of mysteries. We can fail to do our duty by holding on to life at too great a cost, or with too little attention to intergenerational justice, just as we can fail by spending too little effort in resisting death, especially the death of the innocent or powerless.”

It is hard for me to think of a more obscene and foul image, than that of Saturn devouring his own children. And while this metaphor doesn’t exactly fit Embryonic Stem Cell Research, it is a much closer match for a wide variety of more nakedly over-consumptive policies whereby those currently in power enjoy all they can and try to push the debt burden for this onto future generations. Bush and Paulson, approving the banking bail-outs are Saturn eating their own children, devouring the future to keep the banks alive, in power, and in style for just a little longer. Obama and Geithner are playing exactly the same game – let us have a little more time now, and let the future pay for it. It is not enough to see them as pursuing mistaken policies; they are worse than that. It is not enough to see them as swindlers, enabling con-men allies to rip off the American public; although they are that too. It is not enough to see them as traitors, deliberately undermining the common good of America, for the personal gain of their allies. They are EATING OUR CHILDREN to remain in power a little longer. They are Saturn and Moloch, the great foul child-eaters of antiquity, recast in modern mythologies. They are blasphemies.
And, of course, so are we all a little bit. We know that we are using up the potential of the future, the things that our children will need to survive, much less to live the kind of lives we have lived, or wish for them to live. We know that our society is unsustainable, and we have a variety of intellectual methods for processing this fact. But we need images, and myths, and narrative methods too. We need stories to make sense of what unsustainable really means to us, because we humans are storytelling, storyhearing, storythinking creatures. What are the great old stories about unsustainability? What are the classics of literature that help us to feel the meaning of unsustainability, rather than just intellectualizing it?
We have very few stories like that. Unsustainable societies collapse, and by and large their stories don’t get told or remembered. We have the story of the fall of Troy and the folk who warned against it, but their understanding of the collapse of Troy is much more one of political defeat than of unsustainable society. We have the story of the fall of Jerusalem, and the Babylonian captivity, and the terrible lamentations surrounding that, (including a passage about destroying one’s children at Psalms 137). But again this is cast more in terms of a failed relationship with God, than of the unsustainability of the society.

But in the myth of Saturn eating his own children we catch a glimpse of another narrative of unsustainability. We see the horror and disgust that other societies feel for unsustainable practices. The point of the story of Saturn eating his children is like the point of Orwell’s 1984, it is a dire warning DON’T DO THAT, understand intellectually and emotionally the terrible foulness of doing THAT. It is not a story of an actual unsustainable society, anymore than 1984 is a story of an actual tyrannical dictatorship. But it is a little primal myth, about how people living in fairly stable cultures felt about unsustainable practices, and they felt horror and disgust. Gusto – is of course, the emotion of wanting to joyously consume. Dis-gust is the emotion that makes us not want to consume something. And the thing that it is most important not to consume is our future. The idea of eating our kids should be literally more disgusting than the idea of eating shit, vomit, or old used tampons. It is the most disgusting image that we can conjure with. And disgust is precisely the emotion that advertising wishes most to suppress, the emotion that is most opposed to our current economic system of promoting as high levels of consumption as possible, and the emotion that we need to rediscover and re-awaken. Sometime we can reach dis-gust best by detachment, or self-restraint, or even ethical consideration. But the primal old emotional route of simple raw disgust, must be part of our arsenal too. We need a literature of disgust to help people who want to consume less, to actually succeed emotionally at consuming less. This literature of disgust would be a kind of companion to the literature of the practical guides of how to consume less, which include the dis-gusting strategies of detachment, restraint, ethics, and celebrating a less-is-more lifestyle, but stop short of serious use of raw disgust itself. We need a novel of vomit-stories that disgusts and transcends its disgust to point the way to emotional purging and cleansing, or a movie of transcendent disgust.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Belated April Fool’s Day Post: The Virtue of Silliness

Several years ago I had the opportunity to see a wonderful thoughtful April Fool’s Day sermon by one of my favorite ministers (Rev. Bill Breeden ), on the values of change and surprise and leaving one’s comfortable ruts. In 2007 I was asked to give an April Fool’s day sermon and I imitated several of Rev. Breeden’s playful tricks. Most of that sermon was on a variety of roles that humor plays in religion, and isn’t directly relevant here on this blog. I talked about jokes about religions, and joke religions; about using humors stories in wisdom traditions, like Zen teaching or Mullah Nasruddin jokes, about Buddhist use of humor to deflate egos, of ancient Greek use of humor for social commentary, or Medieval Christmas celebrations of a feast of fools, to help rebalance social relations in the community for the coming year, about Discordeans and Sub-Genii, and Pastafarians. Humor has a lot of important roles in religion, but that isn’t really our topic today. But the end of that sermon was on the transcendent value of silliness in dark times, and that is very relevant to this blog.

Before I get to an excerpt of my writing on silliness, I need to explain a little about Krazy Kat. Krazy Kat was the greatest comic strip of all time, or at least the greatest comic strip in English. I was written and drawn by George Harriman in the US from 1913 to 1944. Its hard to understand for someone from my generation who grew up with the dying leftovers of the comic strip genre, but newspaper comic strips were full on literary art at one point, cutting edge venues of populism and artistic exploration, and genuine cultural commentary. And Harriman was the best of the best. Dali latter admitting that many of the key ideas of Surrealism came from Harriman’s comics, and that the European painters felt that they were hustling to keep up. The best writers and poets of the day swooned over Harriman’s work, we’ll read a bit of E.E. Cummings commentary in a minute. The style of Krazy Kat is a proto-surrealism, with a constantly changing background, numerous use of unconventional page layouts, and lots of whimsy. The dialogue is often in a very thick argot ("A fowl konspirissy — is it pussible?"), but is also often is poetry or near poetry. (“Agathla, centuries aslumber, shivers in its sleep with splenetic splendor, and spreads abroad a seismic spasm with the supreme suavity of a vagabond volcano.”) The “plot” is achingly simple yet bizarre. There are 3 characters, Krazy Kat, whose gender is kept carefully undeclared, Ignatz the Mouse, who is constantly throwing bricks at Krazy or otherwise acting up and disrupting things, and Officer Pupp (a dog) who is constantly trying to arrest Ignatz for law-breaking. But here is the Krazy thing. Krazy Kat is full-on head over heels in love with Ignatz, and refuses to accept the brick throwing as violence. Krazy just thinks that the bricks are Ignatz’s way of showing Krazy that Ignatz loves Krazy right back. So he/she just accepts the bricks, interpreting them as an expression of love. This uhm, love triangle, plays out over and over again in Sunday comics for 30 years, set against the painted desert of Coconino, county Arizona, where the 3 live. Ignatz and Pupp constantly re-enact the cops and robbers struggle, but Krazy just turns every act of violence into an act of love by the alchemy of silliness. And in this bit of silliness is a profound philosophy. E.E. Cummings puts it like this

“The Sensical law of this world is might makes right, the nonsensical law of our heroine [Krazy Kat] is that love conquers all. … But if our hero and our villain don’t and can’t understand our heroine, each of them can and each of them does misunderstand her differently. To our softheaded altruist she is the adorably helpless incarnation of saintliness. To our hardheaded egoist, she is the puzzlingly indestructible embodiment of idiocy. The benevolent overdog sees her as an inspired weakling. The malevolent undermouse views her as born target. Meanwhile Krazy Kat, through this double misunderstanding fulfills her joyous destiny. ”
E.E. Cummings “A Forward to Krazy” in Krazy Kat, 1946.

Alright with that introduction, we are ready for my comments on silliness.

* * *

… So religions have used silliness all across the world, for a variety of legitimate religious and spiritual purposes; as comedy relief, to helping us to be wise, or humble, or remain in right relation with our neighbors. But silliness has never been very popular with religions. Look through lists of religious virtues, and you may find obedience, justice, generosity, compassion, courage, and so on. But you will not find silliness. The Protestant Reformers of the 17th century were pretty staunchly opposed to silliness, for example. The British Puritans banned "games, sports, plays [and] comedies" because they didn't agree with "Christian silence, gravity and sobriety." That is they weren’t serious enough. In Buddhism, lay people are allowed to be silly, but one of the vows of monks and nuns is to give up frivolous talk, ie anything that isn’t aimed at bringing people to enlightenment. Even religions that tolerate silliness well rarely consider it a virtue. Our own hymnal contains beautiful songs and words in praise of peace, and justice, and freedom, and reason, and compassion, and work, of learning, of valuing cultures around the world, of respecting nature, of awe and the spirit of worship. But it contains no praise for silliness. Here we are not an anomaly but, are clearly in the norm.

This is a mistake. The most important spiritual use of silliness is one I haven’t mentioned yet, and one that has become clearer during the 20th century. Silliness is a virtue, and virtue whose time has come.

The 20th century revaluing of silliness has a lot to do with the literary tradition of Absurdism. Absurdism has roots in Kierkegaard’s religious thought, and the brilliance of Krazy Kat, and some other Existentialists, but really comes into its own in the hands of Humanist writers reacting to the horrors of WWII. Here is a story I read somewhere, I can’t find it now, but I think it was in the writing of Polish Nobel Prize Winner Czeslaw Milosz, somewhere. There was a joke shop prior to WWII. It was the kind of place that sold whoopee cushions, and electric handbuzzers. Dribble glasses, fake tits, and bawdy postcards. A sort of Polish Spencer’s gifts. One of their “novelty” products was a pink plastic artificial foreskin, so that Jews could pretend to be gentiles in sex play. And yet WWII was such a bizarre, absurd, silly-yet-deadly-serious conflict, that possession of pink plastic artificial foreskin became all at once a matter of life and death, instead of a casual joke. How do we humans, us survivors, cope with the kind of silly world where artificial pink plastic foreskins are a matter of life and death? We laugh. The world is broken, it is crazy, it is terrible and yet it is silly beyond belief. Silliness is the key to coping with an insane world. This is a theme explored again and again by the Absurdists. It is the heart of Joseph Keller’s Catch-22. It is the heart of Vonnegut’s made-up religion Bokonism, in the novel Cat’s Cradle. It is the recurring theme of the fiction of Douglas Adams.

The story of the 20th century is a story of humanity triumphing over nature, or at least warring with it, and cutting itself more and more away from constant contact with nature. American life is a life of culture, of daily interaction with humanly made things far more than it is a life of constant interaction with nature. The natural order and the divine order recede each year further and further from our daily lives, and the cultural order, the political order, the economic order replace them more and more. And this is NOT healthy, not sane, as WWII and the environmental crises since have clearly shown. The world itself has gone insane, and we have the task of daily coping with the insane world we live in. Silliness is most importantly, a method of coping with an insane world.

This is why religions both conservative and progressive have always been very leery of silliness. It is a spiritual competitor to their programs. The conservative spirituality bids us to be in the world but not of it, and to focus our hopes on the more perfect world that is to come. The progressive spirituality asks us to seriously and earnestly work to heal the world to fix its problems and bring it back to sanity. But silly spirituality bids us to laugh at the insanity of the world and try to enjoy the world despite its manifest brokenness.

Is a deep spiritual silliness then opposed to the social justice values that Unitarian-Univeralists hold dear? Well, yes it is in an important sense, but I want to be very clear about the issue. Pure silliness without any admixture of seriousness, is an uncaring frivolity that is blind to the world around it, and unconcerned with its problems. But not all silliness needs to be pure. Pure seriousness is just as bad, it is a lead weight dragging us down into an abyss of darkness.

The Indigo Girls in their song “Closer to Fine” sing that “Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable, and lightness has a call that’s hard to hear.” If your spirituality is based around trying to heal our insane world, you will be dragged down into the darkness with its insatiable hunger! No amount of serious work or serious progress will even be enough. No matter how good you are you will never be good enough. The man who seriously hungers for riches will never be rich enough. The earnest progressive do-gooder will never do enough good. No matter how many of the world’s problems you succeed in solving there will be more. Gandhi died believing himself a miserable failure, because he had been unable to prevent the partition of India and Pakistan; we see his many amazing successes, he saw his terrible failures.

The only viable spirituality for the 21st century, is a mixture of seriousness and silliness which values and respects both. It is Ok to work to mend the world, as long as one also takes silly delight in the many humorous bizarre facets of its brokenness. Work cannot be healthy with out play, and this is as true of religious or spiritual work as any other kind. Silliness is a lightness of spirit, a call that is hard to hear, especially in times of serious trouble. Our serious side bids us to work earnestly at mending the troubles of the world, our silly side opposes just this impulse and tells us instead to delight in this world despite its troubles. Serious Offissa Pupp tries to stop Ignatz Mouse from throwing his brick at Krazy Kat. Silly Krazy Kat tries to take delight in having Ignatz the Mouse throwing a brick at her. Serious Offissa Pupp tries to use his might, in the best way he can. Silly Krazy Kat tries to use her love to transform the situation. Progressive Seriousness says might, used rightly, makes right, Progressive Silliness says love conquers all. Seriousness calls us to our power; Silliness calls us to our joy.

We live in an insane, broken world, in a time of great spiritual darkness. The traditional spiritual remedy for spiritual darkness has been enlightenment. But the language of light and dark suggest another natural remedy for spiritual darkness. We can treat it instead with de-light. I wear a lot of black, and have been known to listen to my fair share of goth music. And in many ways this is the heart of the goth message. Dwell in the dark places, and do you best to find beauty there, to find delight. Silliness expresses the same basic spiritual message, in a quite different artistic style. Do you best to take delight, and keep your spirit light, despite the gathering darkness around you. And that is my April Fool’s day message to you, in all its earnest pompousness, repeating the jokes of others instead of making my own. Value silliness as a virtue. It helps us to be wise, and humble, and in right relation with each other, and most importantly helps us to keep out spirits light in a dark world, despite the many bricks that the world throws at us.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Inequality and Underconsumption

Here's a nice quote from Palagummi Sainaith's lecture "The Age of Inequality"

"For two decades now the United Nations Development Program, and other organs of the United Nations have been telling us that an additional expenditure of 60 to 80 billion dollars a year will help the human race sort out all the basic problems of hunger, health, sanitation, education, literacy, and issues like that... and it has never happened, because governments have told us "There's no money. There's just no money. We can't do it. Where's the money going to come from?" But when crisis struck The Suits in Wall Street, governments figured out that they could raise one and a half trillion dollars in seven days."
"Every great Depression, every economic catastrophe, every major economic collapse in history has been preceded by years of absolutely unsustainable levels of inequality."

Now the question of what causes Depressions is a complex and thorny one. Keynesians have several possible theories (Goodwin's profit-wage oscillation model, Minski's credit-interest rate oscillation cycle, etc.) The "real business cycle" model of Kynland and Prescott imagines fluctuations mostly resulting from after effects of technological changes. Older economists often blamed "external" influences like changes in legal frameworks, warfare, labor union activity, etc. Kalecki even argues for a political business cycle theory, that political interference in the business world has a cyclic effect. The Austrian school of economics still holds that all business cycle effects are results of government interference in money supply and interest rates, and Friedman certainly made that line popular among American and British economists too. Marx thought that periodic depressions were a natural part of capitalism, caused by the nature of capitalism itself, but if you ask him exactly why, he gets cagey and has 3 main theories each of which he explores a little but he never really decides which if any are the underlying cause of depressions, or if perhaps all three are: the underconsumption problem, the full employment profit squeeze, and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Now I'm a big fan of Strauss-Howe theory, which sees generational dynamics causing 80-100 year cycles in politics and culture. This in turn could easily be an underlying cause of the business cycle of periodic major depressions, ala real business cycles, or other externalist accounts. Or then again, the Strauss-Howe cycles could simply be correlative rather than causative. Or perhaps changes in generational attitude lead to changes in governmental attitudes towards interest rates, money supply and interventionism, which leads to the depressions via the Austrian picture. Even if Strauss and Howe are right, it doesn't really answer this particular question. And of course, I strongly oppose single etiology theories so probably different depressions are caused in different ways and most depressions have many different causal factors.

But today I want to explore the "underconsumption" hypothesis a little more. Marx toys with it, but he is neither the first nor the last to do so, Malthus had already discussed the issue back in 1820, and Foster and Catchings had fairly non-Marxian interpretations of it in the 1920s pre-saging some of Keynes' ideas. The basic "underconsumption" argument goes like this. Suppose that the capitalists are successful in pushing the wages of labor down and the productivity of labor up. This will increase the rate of surplus value and lead to wealthier capitalists. However, eventually the workers dependent on wages will not be able to afford to buy as much, and the aggregate demand (demand in the sense of what can actually be afforded) will go down, leading to a recession or depression. If the upper class are capitalists, and are too successful at impoverishing the rest, then everyone else won't be able to afford to buy the things the capitalist's companies produce, and slowdowns will occur. Too much economic inequality is itself bad for a capitalist economy.

Now this line of thought gets a lot of criticism. Keynes, famously points out that consumer demand is not the only factor in aggregate demand and that it is possible that even though consumer demand is declining, you can prevent a recession by increasing some other part of aggregate demand enough to counter balance it (the 3 main other parts being fixed investment, government spending, and exports net of imports). That's part of the whole rationale for government "stimulus" spending when a recession is looming. But, there are 2 problems with applying this reply to today's situation. First, unless you can permanently increase government spending (as FDR did), or fixed investment, or the export-import balance, that is a temporary solution, you STILL need to get consumer spending back up, and that often requires increasing real wages, and actually clawing some of the wealth back from the wealthiest to the put it in the hands of the consumers. Consider the advice of Simon Johnson, who worked for years at the IMF, and wrote "The Quiet Coup" in the May 2009 issue of the Atlantic. He argues that emerging economies get into trouble because they borrow too much, and then there are deep allainces between the elites of the political class, and elites of the economic class. As things get bad, you get "public-private partnerships" become "crony capitalism" and things get worse until the only way out is to "squeeze the Oligarchs."

The government, in its race to stop the bleeding, will typically need to wipe out some of the national champions—now hemorrhaging cash—and usually restructure a banking system that’s gone badly out of balance. It will, in other words, need to squeeze at least some of its oligarchs.

Squeezing the oligarchs, though, is seldom the strategy of choice among emerging-market governments. Quite the contrary: at the outset of the crisis, the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government, such as preferential access to foreign currency, or maybe a nice tax break, or—here’s a classic Kremlin bailout technique—the assumption of private debt obligations by the government. Under duress, generosity toward old friends takes many innovative forms. Meanwhile, needing to squeeze someone, most emerging-market governments look first to ordinary working folk—at least until the riots grow too large.

So even for a Keynesian, stimulus can't lead to real recovery from a severe recession or a depression, unless you can find the political will to squeeze the oligarchs enough to reverse the economic inequality that led to the collapse in consumer demand in the first place. But, second notice that to even soften the blow of the recession/depression, for a Keynesian, you have to have increases in trade balance, government spending or fixed investment that are enough to counter-balance the decrease in consumer spending. But right now, fixed investment sure isn't increasing much, and the US isn't repairing its trade balance issues much (nor are most other places in the world) and government spending increases are real, but nothing on the order of magnitude of the decreases in consumer wealth or consumer spending. Keynesianism isn't getting us out of the underconsumption problem this time, if indeed it ever really works.

What about Marxian critiques of underconsumption? Marx has 2 main objections. First, the underconsumption problem is often put in ways that make it a pure redundancy, an analytic truth rather than an empirical fact about economies. If we say the economy is declining because people are buying less; the danger is we may have said the same thing twice in 2 different ways, rather than saying one thing which explained another thing. Fair enough, so we need to phrase things in ways that make the inequality issue clearer. The economy is going down, because non-ultra-wealthy people are so much poorer than ultra-wealthy people that they no longer feel they can afford to buy as much, and are cutting back. If we respond to this situation by replying "well then get banks lending again so that non-ultra-wealthy people will trick themselves into feeling wealthy than they really are and buy things they can't really afford some more" we are either evil bastards, or have missed the point of the underconsumption problem. Even if we could get the banks lending again, it would only delay the issue a little. What the underconsumption problem really hypothesizes is that excessive economic inequality is decreasing aggregate demand.

Marx's second criticism is also interesting
When people attempt to give this redundancy an appearance of some deeper meaning by saying that the working class does not receive enough of its own product and that the evil would be dispelled immediately if it received a greater share,i.e., if its wages were increased, all one can say is that crises are invariably preceded by periods in which wages in general rise and the working class receives a relatively greater share of the annual product intended for consumption. From the standpoint of these valiant upholders of 'plain common sense,' such periods should prevent the coming of crises. It would appear, therefore, that capitalist production includes conditions which are independent of good will or bad will. . . " [in Das Kapital vol II, quoted by Franz Mehring in his biography of Karl Marx, p. 404 of the 1935 Covici, Friede edition, tr. Edward Fitzgerald]

Now I don't know if Marx is right "that crises are invariably preceded by periods in which wages in general rise and the working class receives a relatively greater share of the annual product intended for consumption" at the time when he wrote Das Kapital in 1893 (although I doubt it). But that sure isn't true of 20th century financial crises, and it sure isn't true of THIS ONE. Quite to the contrary, real wages have been stagnating, and inequality has been increasing, for decades. And the effect is much clearer when we look at the global picture of inequality, even though it also hold for looking at the recent history of 1st world workers and capitalists. Marx is just wrong.

Another insight that the underconsumption hypothesis can give us on depressions/recessions, is that over-production is the flip side of the underconsumption problem. In a sense, the current global problem is that Germany, China, and Japan all want to keep producing the things they are producing, even though the market signals are telling them to switch to different products. An easier way to see this is to look at Iceland's story. There was a really insightful article on what happened to Iceland in surprising mainstream women's magazine last month, and I can't remember the reference. But the journalist kept digging and eventually suggested that the root of the problem lay in the success of the reforms of Icelands fishing market in the 70s. For centuries Iceland had focused on fishing, and fishing has long been a very non-lucrative field. Then in the 70's Iceland tried a novel new way of regulating fishing, that was well designed to increase profits. And it worked, Iceland became fairly wealthy. And they invested the wealth largely in education. People sent their kids to school, and there was an explosion of highly educated Icelanders. And these Icelanders by and large didn't want to go into fishing, and their parent's agreed don't become a fisherman if you can go on to bigger and better things. But there were all these highly educated Icelanders without many bigger and better things to do or produce. Some turned to the arts, and we got Bjork. But eventually they discovered that high finance was another good way for educated people to spend their time. Iceland had all this excess productive capacity, and it didn't really want to go into more fishing, so it wound up producing complex and ultimately risky and poorly understood financial products. But in a sense, China and Germany have the same problem. All this excess productive capacity looking for something to do that will be worth doing. What is China going to say? Sorry we have enough factories to fulfill world demand go back to your villages and farm some more? It could. But there'd be grumbling, and it doesn't really want to. The American consumer doesn't really want to cut back consumption, even though they know they are over-extended and probably ought to, but equally the German or Chinese producer doesn't really want to cut back production (and thus switch to a crappier job) even though they also know that they ought to. One function of economic crisis is to force changes in consumption and production, despite our resistance to them. But this is true both directions.

I'm not saying that unsustainable levels of economic inequality are a key factor in all recessions and depressions (although Sainaith does), or that unsustainable levels of inequality are the only important factor in this one (it's not). But I do think that along with many other unsustainable practices, our economy has led to unsustainable levels of economic inequality, and these have led to decreases in aggregate demand that Keynesian strategies have not been able to compensate for. I doubt we'll ever get back to a real growth economy, but I also hold that we will not be able to stabilize or move forward until inequality drops to managable levels via a process of "squeezing the oligarchs." If this can be done via the current political system, so be it, if the current crop of politicians cannot find the courage to squeeze the oligarchs (who many of them also depend on and are friends with) in ways that genuinely lead to decreases in economic inequality, then eventually anger will boil over into extra-legal forms of squeezing the oligarchs and things will get even uglier. And economic inequality has 2 faces, the oligarchs are a lot richer than you and I, but you and I are a lot richer than most 3rd worlders. Part of the solution is going to have to be toppling financial racketeers who pretend to be titans (see Max Keiser's brilliant article "Let Them Have Stained carpets, Obama's Marie Antoinette Moment"), but part of the solution is also going to have to be regular 1st worlders living a lot more like 3rd worlders than we do now. And if the 3rd worlders cannot squeeze the 1st worlders any other way, then they will squeeze us with their dying bodies. You can only shoot so many starving desperate people before you start to question the virtue of your own leaders, and the justice of your own priveleges. I don't forsee a world of equality emerging, but given my poor understanding of economics, it looks to me as if there will have to emerge more equality than there is today, like it or not, and that for most of my readers that will feel like being squeezed down.