Thursday, February 19, 2009

Types of Economies

Fernand Braudel (see last post) wrote Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century. It's a three-volume work (The Structures of Everyday Life, The Wheels of Commerce, and The Perspective of the World). There are people who can write about a boring subject like the world's economy and make it sound exciting like a novel: wild sagas full of heroes and villains.

Braudel's view of capitalism is neither laudatory nor positive; of course he was a Frenchman. You get the idea of a parasitic phenomenon, but the parasites are people. To interpret Braudel's conclusions, you might say that capital is detached from the community. Its masters treat the people as a raw material, an opportunity. There is no more love lost on the population than we normally bestow on a clay quarry. Capital, Braudel says, will engage in sectors and ooze out over them—so long as risks are low, profits high. When conditions change, capital will abscond as quickly to do its oozing somewhere else. Braudel documents this process by many examples drawn from different times and geographies. Mining, for example, had capital's attention in Europe in the sixteenth century; then profits began to thin. Away went the masters of the universe. As always in such cases, the state had to pick up the pieces. Why does that sound familiar today?

When small groups gain autonomous stature in society, disintegration is around the corner. There is a naïve simplicity involved in picking one or another mechanism and proclaiming it to be superior, not to say transcendent. It's idiotic, really, to think that Markets allocate resources with unfailing wisdom—and therefore those who dominate them must be exempt from rules that apply to mere mortals. To mistake the tooling for the workman is a sign of stupidity. Of course it's done to favor a group, not because people really believe it—unless they really are quite limited. Alas, lots of people in Congress are. The preachers of the market are either fools or hypocrites.

Throughout my times in the economy, people talked about three kinds of economies—no make that four. The fourth was soviet-style socialism. The other three were American capitalism, Japanese style market share capitalism (which I think of as feudal), and European regulated markets. The feudal era in Europe was one of high integration, with the mutual duties of the so-called estates always on every person's mind. Attempts in the U.S. to replace the shareholder in corporations with the wider concept of the stakeholder represent well-meaning gestures in that direction. Sounds nice. A few people try it. But the spirit isn't there. You can't fake culture. It rises up from the gut. I'm reminded of the New Testament question: "If the salt of the earth has lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?" In the European context, where the shades of kings still hover in the sky, the state has continued to be an integrated element in commercial life. Ditto in Japan. In what begins to look like a tiresome see-saw, Europeans enviously wish to emulate the American market capitalism (e.g. Sarkozy)—only to be brought to their senses by times like these when, symbolically anyway, skyscrapers are crashing and rubble spreads everywhere. I'm really curious how the current turbulence will work itself out. My guess is that order in the traditional sense will return, in a way, only when the artificial wealth oil has bestowed upon humanity actually runs out. Late twenty-first century? Those will be interesting times.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Capital's Slow Suicide

Legend has it that Henry Ford succeeded because he made cars cheap enough so that his workers could afford them. He lifted his product from luxury item to a product for the masses by lowering its price. Notably, earlier, textiles became humanity’s first modern industry when in the eighteenth century cotton became cheap enough so that even the poor could afford them. (This is a genuinely fascinating story best told by Fernand Braudel, The Wheels of Commerce, published in 1979 but still available through I could multiply examples at will, industry after industry, product after product, all showing that genuine collective wealth rests upon the seemingly obvious twin facts that producers are consumers and consumers are producers. When we shatter this pairing, the wealth of nations starts to seep into the ground.

The logic of the matter is certainly obvious. People cost a lot of money. If we can do the work without them, we’ll make greater profits. Should we replace an operator by an answering machine? That’s a no-brainer. The near-term benefits are plain, the long-term suicide is not, can be ignored, can be fended off energetically by saying that “If others do it, I must too.” This is the tragedy of the commons all over again. (If the phrase is new, this will explain it.) The fact is that every position eliminated ultimately shrinks demand for what we sell. The logic is inexorable. If every institution, public and private, attempts to reduce its costs—and each and every one is under pressure to do so—the ultimate result must be universal unemployment and a tiny minority of owners surrounded by armies of deadly robots. At that point, to turn shamelessly apocalyptic, the logic of cost control will powerfully suggest mandatory vasectomy. To expand my insane example in science-fiction manner farther, thus to counter the argument that democracy will counteract such a drastic outcome, we might project that by that time intelligent machines (IMs) will have the right to vote as their owners deem they should, and in times of crisis automated machines will produce the necessary millions of IMs so that the owners' views will always prevail. IMs need not be big. In fact whole colonies of them might be placed on the head of a single pin.

Changing hats from sci-fi author to historian, another scenario opens behind my eyes. The inexorable loathing of humans so plainly manifested by modern institutions must inevitably produce a violent reaction. And it will sweep away the capitalist system as if it had never been. Tempted to say “Praise the day!”? Unfortunately it won’t be happy. Such things never are. Those likely to be reading such writings as this are (knowingly or not) members of the very nobility that will be marched to the guillotine (guilty or not).

What’s producing my strident hysterics?

Ah, friends! Simple things. We bought a new refrigerator to be delivered on Monday, February 16. This morning came a call confirming that delivery. Last night I more or less fell asleep as Republicans were agonizing about the so-called stimulus or bailout package.

The phone call was automated. “If you are Darnay Arsen Julius,” it said, “please press 1.” (That, by the way, is my name back to front.) I pressed 1. “Terrific!” said the male voice in phony jollity. And it went on from there. — Now the logical thing is to ask the delivery man to call ahead on the cell-phone before setting out to our address. Why not just do that? Why this phony rigmarole? That early in the morning my rage rises easily. And in that rage rose memories of the politicians ranting and raving about tax cuts.

They’re committing suicide, I thought. It's happening in slow-motion—seen from a human time frame—but it's deliberate self-destruction nonetheless, wrought in the name of survival no less. That must be insanity. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad [Euripides].

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Messing With Material Gods

Adam Smith’s Hidden Hand, Darwin’s Natural Selection, and today’s Public Opinion are instances of forces ancient people called gods or demigods. What they actually felt about these forces, I’m guessing, was similar to our feelings about, say, being laid off because the Market frowns. Gods give and take away, but we generally endow them with positive values. The invisible hand dispenses the wealth of nations, selection bestows survival, and public opinion, if only we obey it, guarantees collective happiness. Our view simply echoes the Roman saying: Vox populi, vox dei.

Smith’s hand really means that various kinds of feedback loops control human greed so that, if you let people freely trade optimal results will come about. See his own words, along with an early definition of GDP, here. Darwin’s natural selection really means that whatever species survive survive and those that don’t weren’t fit. Extending that concept from biology to social life we get social Darwinism. The rigorous practice of that doctrine suggests a glad embrace of the free markets and manly acceptance of what some call creative destruction. Public opinion is feared and courted not because it’s right in any absolute sense but because, having developed instruments to tap and to decant it, we can use it to do or to prevent what we wish or dread. If we get it wrong, never fear: popular opinion will rapidly change to correct us.

Smith, however, didn’t preach the hidden hand because he saw it everywhere at work. No. He preached it because monopolistic practices were choking off and impeding efficient trade. The eighteenth century was doing its utmost to shake off centralized controls everywhere. The French version, Laissez faire, laisser passer, dates from the same time and was the coinage of François Quesnay. To whom was that saying directed? To governments dominated by hereditary nobilities: Let it be, let it pass—let the people be heard! Well, it happened. In the French Revolution, the people were heard at last, and those displaced from rule departed saying, “Après nous le déluge.” The saying is attributed variously to the Marquise de Pompadour or to Madame de Pompadour, but happens to be an old French proverb, strongly suggesting that what comes around goes around.

Darwin’s core doctrine did not arise because he wished to counter human interference with the gods. Instead, looking for an agency of some sort sufficient to explain changes in the biosphere, he got a hint from human interference. His theory of evolution owes a great deal to studying how people, in raising livestock, fostered the development of varieties pleasing to people by keeping and breeding specific individuals that met the human criterion and simply eating those that didn’t. It then struck him that nature itself did the same—with a single objective guiding the process: survival. The agency, however, was simply anything and everything that happens. A modern phrase comes to mind here…

When the ancients spoke of Fate, they meant something rather absolute, unbendable, beyond human influence. The gods, however, could be cajoled by flattery, sacrifices, and other acts of real or pretended submission. So it is with those who’d use public opinion. It can and must be swayed—hence the prominence of politics and advertising in our times.

* * *

What emerges from all this, as I ponder it, is a dualism or a pairing obscured by our wish to influence that reluctant element, the collective inertia of all and everything beyond but around us. Two forces are at work here: the free action of the human will and the resistant force of nature. Public opinion illustrates this paradoxically. One opinion expresses an individual will. When wills are added they take on a more and more material form.

When I worked at Midwest Research Institute long ago, we once had a project intended to discover ideal highway configurations for various levels of traffic over a 24-hour period. One of our investigators chanced on the bright idea that a model of the roads, made of grooves, could simulate the highway system. That model, lilted up into a slant and covered with glass, could be tested by pouring kernels of rice into the system and observing which particular designs got clogged and which permitted the rice to fall through to the bottom faster. In the collective, tiny objects without any intentionality could easily model masses of people in cars.

Our humanity is submerged by our very numbers in the vast societies in which we live. When Emerson said that “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind,” he was simply putting this fact in a short phrase. The very weight of this dimension, its massive materiality, submerges an element that is of a radically different character. It is our own conscious reality. Its action, of course, also screws up the machine. Without it no one would ever bite or constrain the invisible hand, interfere with natural selection by genetically modified crops, creative destruction would rage on without cries of woe, and no one would have to court vox populi.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Natural Selection

In anticipation of tomorrow’s anniversary, here a few reflections on that interesting concept in biology, natural selection. It is quite clear from Darwin’s own words that this concept central to his doctrine merely means that, in nature, a selection takes places analogous to that which humanity exercises in nurturing and shaping animal and plant varieties by husbandry. If variations occur naturally—and we know that they occur by human intervention—

Can it, then, be thought improbable … that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should occur in the course of many successive generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) the individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others,would have the best chance of surviving and procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favorable individual differences and variations, and the destruction of those which are injurious, I have called Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest. [Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 49, p. 40.]

Shortened and sharpened, the gist of this is that preservation and destruction take place in nature, favoring good and eliminating bad variations that come about somehow. That he means nothing else Darwin himself emphasizes by speaking of natural selection as a metaphorical expression. He does not intend to personify nature except as a way of speaking concisely of complex matters. “I mean by Nature, only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us.”

What strikes me here is that this so-called cornerstone of modern biology is just a common-sense observation.

Darwin offered natural selection as his general explanation for biological change. But it amounts to saying that some species survive while others go extinct—and if we look for better explanations, we shall discover that those that passed away had a worse environment (internal, external, or some combination) than those that have stayed around.

If we introduce genetic changes taking place at random—changes natural selection can work upon—we don’t improve the theory. Change is change. An internal modifications is equivalent to one outside if both take place by chance. If the creature could modify itself at will in order to adapt, then we’d have something to discuss.

To be sure—a difficult subject. To say that things are tough, bad things happen, creatures cope as best they can, and what you get is that which happens (explain it as you will)—this formulation is not a theory so much as a description of the way things are. Natural selection as a mechanism is nothing more than saying that in an unruly and chaotic world some are lucky, some are not.

Something in the nineteenth century European soul favored Darwin’s theory. Another time might have shrugged it off as naïve or self-evident. The elites of that time had wearied of the older theory. It was based on a similar projection of an agency, God, another all-purpose arranger of reality. What happened here is that Darwin substituted another concept, nature. He was careful to point out that he meant everything that happens, all the laws of nature working on species. But the public understood him to have switched one universal concept for another. Within the stream of modern history, natural selection rose to an exalted principle. Part of the change arose, I’m fairly sure, by cultural embrace of secularism. The old theory had a large, to the public costly, and well-established institutional presence with demanding teachings inconvenient to many. The new one, science, was just beginning to emerge.

It amuses me to note that Lucretius (96-55 BC) wrote as follows 1,800 years or so before the birth of Darwin. Lucretius was trying to explain the dying off of what he called monstrous breeds: “Nature set a ban on their increase and they could not reach the coveted flower of age nor find food nor be united in marriage… And many races of living things must then have died out and been unable to beget and continue their breed.” Surviving breeds, according to Lucretius, had characteristics that “protected and preserved each particular race.” [Quoted in the essay “Evolution” in The Great Ideas, written by Mortimer J. Adler, Vol. 1, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., p. 451]

Lucretius was the last notable Epicurean, the last ancient atomist, convinced atheist, who, like Darwin’s followers, needed something equivalent to God, Nature in Lucretius’ case too, to act as an agent able to set bans and such.

In the context of tomorrow’s anniversary, it is worth noting that evolution as “development from simple to complex” appears in the thought of Anaximander (611-547 BC), Empedocles (5th c. BC), Aristotle (384-322 BC), Augustine (354-430), Aquinas (1225-1274), Locke (1632-1704), Buffon (1707-1788), Kant (1724-1804), Lamarck (1744-1829), and, not least, Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus. Here’s his take in verse:

Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs'd in ocean's pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.
Erasmus Darwin. The Temple of Nature. 1802.

Looking at the organic order we cannot escape the intuition of continuity, relatedness, and increasing complexity. No names on the list above appear from periods when cultures were deeply religious—for the simple reason that in those times the eyes of the elites were directed inward and science was dormant then.

Darwin coined a concept to describe that species that survive survive. That notion itself is not remarkable, and in that form would not have spawned a branch of science. His concept as he used it is ordinary enough. The rhetorical flourish that he gave it caught on in a time not given to rigorous philosophical analysis—and elites were suddenly entranced. Yes, perhaps tea leaves can tell the future; and, yes, perhaps clouds actually do at times show faces, horses. But such discoveries are better explained by looking at the viewer—or his times—than at the clouds or at the bottom of his cup.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Memories of Summer '01

I have memories of times that form the
Future memories of Max, but he'll
Remember scenes I can't recall.
And vice versa. But we were both there—
He, racing round the block on a quest
For grails only his cells and racing thoughts
Could understand—arriving, in a rush,
Not slowing, rushing on. "I'm going
Round the block," he yells, and he is gone again.

Meanwhile I stand, my back against the car,
Watching his swift arrivals and departs.
My cells are weary with the strain of days
Spent in commutes at eighty miles an hour,
But he pedals faster than I ever can,
My thoughts an ocean, slowly heaving,
His voice so bright and clear—he comes again—
Like a swift white gull that over-flies
An old, tired, roaring surf.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Coded Meaning

To represent anything at all in language, we need only the two symbols of binary math, the Zero and the One.

In this language zero is properly represented by 0, one by 1, but to say two we have to render it as 10, three as 11, and four already expands to three columns: 100. Such notations are tedious for humans, simple for machines. By arbitrary coding (as in the ASCII system), the A is rendered as 1000001, a number that, in decimal notation, is 65. This paragraph, rendered in binary code, would take up far more room than a single page; for us it would spell nonsense.

A single symbol communicates nothing. Two suffice to encompass the world. We like to say that 26 letters suffice us (in English at least), but the truth is that we routinely use many more. We use 28 common symbols, another 26 for lower case, and ten symbols for numbers. That’s 90 symbols for starters and still excludes such things as ¥, £, ©, ®; the Greek letters commonly reproduced; accented letters in upper and in lower case; and special symbols such as ±, ≠, ≤, ≥, and many others.

What set me off on this little meditation is thinking about the coding system, thus the language, in our bodies. It is a base-4 notation system with the symbols A, T, G, and C; they stand for the names of nucleotides that make up every strand of DNA—adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine. When thymine is used for coding, another base called uracil is substituted for it; beyond the DNA itself, thus outside the cellular library, the code thus consists of A, U, G, and C. Nothing’s simple.

Consider next the wondrous parsimony of nature’s bio-engineering. The proteins of the body are built up out of 20 amino acids. Each one of these is a combination of three, note three, of the bases A-U-G-C. The letters in this schema can repeat. UUU is one such acid; so is AGU; but sequence also matters; thus GUA differs in functionality from AGU or UGA.

If we calculate the possible combinations and permutations of the four letters, minding the sequence of occurrence as well, we get 64 combinations in total—no more, no fewer. Now the wondrous part of this is that 20 amino acids account for 60 of these clusters, leaving four without protein-building function. But hold on! It turns out that precisely four of these serve special purposes. One of them, AUG, always signals the beginning of a coding chain on the DNA itself. Thus the enzymes reading in the library—getting ready to build a new protein—always know where to start reading. The three other acids not actually used in protein, UAA, UAG, and UGA all serve as STOP codes (codons in the language of biology). They occur when the sequence stops coding for a protein. The enzymes, again, thus know when they’ve read far enough.

In this case the object of the game is obviously the building of proteins from 20 components, each made of three distinct parts. Four symbols are enough to render the structure necessary for this—along with what might be called the necessary punctuation marks.

A coded language, needless to say, requires an adequate reader, some entity able to recognize where to start and where to end. Our standard explanation for this is hopelessly muddled. Pure chance is assigned the agency for this intricate system—of which I’ve barely sketched an outline here. I’ve neglected mentioning ribonucleic acids (RNA) in their three forms as messenger, transfer, and ribosomal RNA. Never mind that now—or the mind-blowing complexity by means of which DNA strands are read, interpreted, and translated into proteins. But it is contemplations like this that have led to my hypothesis that deep beneath all bodies lives a chemical civilization. This will surely not be the last mention of that.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The New Saints

O Lord, I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in.
Our age is fond of demystifying our traditions. It’s a movement, in part conscious, in part collectively unconscious, ultimately culture-driven. The leaders of this movement, seconded by a cynical press, view this activity as progress. But, alas, it is just part of a cycle of change. In wave after wave of revelations we’ve been told that we are first cousins to the apes. Later our prophets have issued a correction: No, we are mere carriers of selfish genes. Our heroes were cruel and greedy exploiters, our old saints certifiably schizophrenic.

Amidst this rising chorus of progress, it’s easy to overlook that another process has been taking place alongside the debunking. It is the glorification of science and the exaltation of its leading figures. Some have been elevated straight to Olympus (Einstein, Darwin) while others have only been sainted. Among these are the Big Bang’s father, Hubble, and the holy pair of DNA, Watson and Crick. Heisenberg (Uncertainty), Schrödinger (his cat), and Freud (his Id) are other saints of note.

I’m putting this vividly to make a point. The past is by no means innocent, and science is full of merit. But what interests me in the current context is the way in which powerful cultural contents have come to use the substrate of mundane science as a carrier of values.
The process of mystification is neatly on display in a series of popular books on physics that appeared during my years of maturity. I read them all with a great deal of attention. Some reveal their interesting take in their titles, like The Dance of the Wu Li Masters, The Tao of Physics, The Looking Glass Universe. Others are simply intriguing or praise our happy times: In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, The Symbiotic Universe, Coming of Age in the Milky Way. These samples are largely concerned with Quantum Mechanics, but there is a similar literature centered on our Holy Father Einstein and his twin theories of relativity, General and Special. The pop literature on string theory is thinner—perhaps because the theory is rather obscure and thus far lacks achievements. To this literature we must add the Augustinian “confessions” of actual practitioners, of whom Stephen Haw­king (A Brief History of Time) has been spectacularly successful, perhaps because, severely handicapped and wheel-chair bound, he touches our neo-medi­aeval intuitions of what it takes to be a saint.

In addition to the two halves of physics (classical and quantum), biology (as evolutionary theory) and cosmology (as the theology of the Big Bang) have developed similar haloes of tendentious literature. This would not be a counter-movement to the debunking of tradition if we left it at that. There are endless variants and combinations. We have new popular theories of consciousness based on quantum uncertainty. We have adherents of the Anthropic Principle who see the laws of nature designed to produce humans. We have the Many Worlds interpretation according to which every choice made spawns another full-fledged cosmos with copies of ourselves. We have vast clouds of complexity rising out of Chaos in some mysterious way that only expert manipulators of quadratic equations and fractal graphics can hope to understand—and much more along these lines. Thus far I have stuck to subjects considered to be genuine science and have left such words as “synchronicity” and “paranormal” out of this paragraph. Words like that, to be sure, are wormholes by means of which we can escape from the new faith of scientific righteousness, tunnels back out to the old time religion.

Truly, we live in a religious age.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Orienting Ourselves in Time

In my childhood a three-fold structure dominated history. It divided into ancient, medieval, and modern. Prehistory formed a shadowy fourth but wasn't really history at all, just background. It was left to anthropologists. I was nineteen or thereabouts (1955) when I discovered that some people saw a different pattern. Three scholars had emerged in the early 1930s in Europe; they offered a cyclical view of history. History was not, repeat not, a progression from the primitive to the enlightened, a latter-day fellow-traveller of Darwin's. It was rather the story of closely-knit social groups. They formed cultures and, for a time, gave meaning to the meaningless succession of social change.

The three scholars were Arnold J. Toynbee (A Study of History), Oswald Spengler (The Decline of the West), and Pitirim Sorokin (Social and Cultural Dynamics and, in a shorter version, The Crisis of Our Age).

These men did not always agree. They gave variable interpretations to what they saw. Nevertheless they saw the same pattern. Spengler saw cultures as living entities, no more intelligible than living individuals: they're born, mature, and die. Toynbee saw elites meeting challenges until they failed. Sorokin saw a succession of cultural forms always in the same sequence—inward, mixed, and outward in orientation, corresponding to periods of religious faith, "renaissances," and secular-materialist eras. The last stage, according to Sorokin, always falls into chaos. From the chaos then rises another religious culture.

The pattern common to all three? A denial of linear development. The assertion of a cyclical process in which either fate itself (Spengler) or human failure (Toynbee and Sorokin) lead to the termination of a vast collective enterprise.

Does it matter who is right? The linear historians who, since my youth, have augmented the classification by introducing yet another era, the Post-Modern? Their cyclical opponents? They were never warmly embraced in their own time and are today largely forgotten. Human life is very short. Most people don't feel a strong urge to be oriented in the vast ocean of time. Having at least two ways of assessing what transpired during my life was very helpful. And, looking around, I'm inclined to side with the cyclical historians.