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All models are wrong. Some models are useful.

Spent part of the afternoon reading this paper on finance: When Fragile becomes Friable: Endemic Control Fraud as a Cause of Economic Stagnation and Collapse, by William Black. This guy is the authoritative scholar on the S&L scandal of the 1980's, and this 12 pager is a distillation on his thinking on the interplay between economic policy and white collar crime. (Naturlich, he's been having a field day every day for the last two years over the collapse of the housing market.)

His point is that classical economists have failed to predict the waves of white collar crime that the financial sector experienced both recently and in the 1980's, even though at the same time white collar criminologists did predict them, and that therefore economists have no choice (well, no honest choice) but to take a hard look at the literature in criminology and integrate it into their own theories on economic policy, and that neo-classical economic policy prescriptions are what lays the ground work for major white collar crime.

I put the quote above to indicate that no, I do not believe neo-classical economists are the spawn of Satan.
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Reading the news about how this country (and to varying degrees, many other countries) is descending into a quagmire of madness and stupidity, I was wondering whether I should just take up heavier drinking or to try to read up enough about the forces that are pushing this hand basket to its destination. Then I realized, most wonderfully, that I could do both. But I also re-read Susan Jacoby's The Age Of American Unreason. I recommend you all do the same, and if you live near Boston you can borrow my copy.

It starts from the very beginning, i.e. the colonization of the East Coast, and goes to explain the trends in religious movements in the US from the Revolution onwards. Lots of explanations on why the North, founded by religious fanatics, produced the Unitarian and Universalist movements, in the heady aftermath of the Revolution, while the South, a secular minded enterprise of the Crown, became the center for fundamentalist religion: because the social order in the South was untenable and could only be maintained if people believed in a literal interpretation of Scripture, one that legitimized slavery. And that goes a long way towards explaining how Boston became the epicenter for scholarship in America, and how the first intellectual refugees to arrive here were Southerners, including the founder of MIT. That same period was also when the oligarchs running in the show in the South established the region's malign neglect of education, purposely, to maintain a paternalistic relationship between the plantation owners and their workers, both white and black.

At the same time, Ms. Jacoby is kind enough to cover the tide of stupid that overcame the secular side of the United States starting shortly after the Civil War: social darwinism. She has a whole chapter. And it's not pretty. The nation's academic elite, with the noble exception of William James, swallowed a particularly ugly ideology justifying the unjust state of affairs in the US during the Gilded Age, and gave the religious side ample justification for regarding secular intellectuals with suspicion from then on.

Then come several chapters about, in short, the Culture Wars. That is, about the actions of intellectuals from William James (the last intellectual not to disgrace himself, it seems) onwards through the 20th Century, their involvement in the Cold War, and how it continues to provide both the National Review and The Nation with fodder for their readers about the long track record of wickedness/foolishness of the other side and why it continues to be important for the rank and file to vote Republican/Democrat to keep the other party at bay. And I'm guilty of falling into the same trap. I have a copy of the Closing of the American Mind on my bookshelf, with a bookmark at about page 80, as far as I got last time I opened it, but really, as Ms. Jacoby ably points out: the 60s should matter this much. That Allan Bloom had an uncivil encounter with some self righteous student activists in 1967 is no reason for an undergrad today to want to join the Campus Republicans. All that pointless drama is pointless.

Jacoby covers the other side of what developed in the 60's: the Moral Majority and the Republican machine that brought Ronald Reagan into office and continues to run the GOP today, and along with all the historical exposition, goes her take on the title of the book: American Un-Reason. Time for a little blockquote action. Page 216:

What can be said with a fair degree of certainty is that anti-rational junk thought has gained social respectability in the United States during the past half century, that it interacts toxically with the most credulous elements in both secular and religious ideologies, and that it has proved resistant to the vast expansion of scientific knowledge that has taken place during the same period. Since the late Sixties, there has been a growing acceptance of social and psychological theories in which great weight is accorded the passionate emotional convictions of believers. In this realm of emotion, absolute value is placed on personal testimony based on personal experience.

It's the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer mentality. And I challenge you to find an appearance on C-Span where a politician speaks for a half hour or more and doesn't pander to it. It's pretty telling that the politician who least embodies the UFL brand of junk thought is Barack Obama, and that's because his Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer schtick is all about how he believes deep down that he needs to find a middle ground in how he seets policy, and try to deal with actual issues. It's a sweet head fake from a man who clearly disdains political theater (and I do admire him for that), but it's a crying shame that a man has to play this ridiculous game to get elected president.

The closing end of the book is what I found most depressing of all. Susan Jacoby picks up where Neal Postman left off. He decided not to write at all about the Internet, retired, and passed away, having written well thought arguments about where the ubiquity of television is taking us, and leaving his readers to hope that the Internet would be a force in the reverse direction. Jacboy takes that hope and crushes it. And, unfortunately, she's right. As things stand right now the Internet has only moved us deeper into the Age of Unreason. I need a drink.

(*) So nice I can console myself by walking down with Emily to the Ebisuya Japanese market. O tempura. O more. Origato.
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I live in Boston. I need to be able to get from A to B.

To do that, many years ago I sat down and took a government run class on how to drive, and then a government run written test, and then a government run practical test to make sure that I can handle controlling a fast moving 2 ton machine without killing anyone. (Which I can, [livejournal.com profile] zenala's protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.) Having done those, and having paid the government some fees along the way, I was issued this card with my picture on it, and nowadays other biometrics, that I can show to people to prove that i am allowed to drive. Which I have too renew every 10 years.

Then comes getting a car. I can only get one of a make and model deemed street legal by the government. I then have to submit paperwork involving the vehicle's certificate of title to get the damn thing put in my name, and get the car inspected regularly to show that it can be driven safely. The car is marked with a number ont he front and back just in case I misbehave with it, and makes it easier for the government to track my whereabouts should they feel the need to.

I have to carry insurance, which has to be from one of the companies the government allows to offer me insurance. Or, I can put up money in escrow, in a bank authorized by the government to fill that role.

And that card I carry? Since I carry it, all these people are accustomed to make me show it for various things. So I need it to board a plain or an Amtrak train, or to get a hotel room, which makes this thing an effective internal passport for travel within the United States.

All in all, a big, hefty, expensive package of bureaucratic entanglement. What's worse, is that it's full of subsidies. The fees I paid to get my license are not even enough to pay the salaries of the examiners who looked at all this paperwork. The gas tax I pay to fuel the car is not enough to answer for the wear and tear on the roads I drive on. All the rest comes from other taxes that I have to pay whether I drive or not. And, even though I have to carry $25K in insurance, I know that if I injure anyone with my car, he will run up way more than that in hospital bills, which he cannot pay, and I cannot pay, and sooner or later the government will pay when the hospital comes cap in hand asking for a bailout.

So all this costs me time, and money, and aggravation, and yet is heavily subsidized.

My other options are to ride the MBTA, where I charge up cash on a card that is not linked to my name and then get going. Or I can bike.

So which of these options is most supported by the libertarian Cato Institute? Why, driving, of course, Because it's emblematic of American freedom.

What gives?


Feb. 2nd, 2006 09:43 pm
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Another in the "Why you shouldn't wonder why the American left is powerless and completely in the wilderness" file:

The chair of the Committee on Nuclear Disarmament wrote a letter to the Guardian protesting the move to refer enforcement of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty to the UN, in the case of a theocratic country whose leader is an overt antisemite and who has openly spoken of wiping a nearby country off the map.

Normally, irony is something Americans are supposed to produce for the British to observe. This lady decided to reverse it for a day.

Moving on: so apparently, it's wrong to draw a cartoon that mocks Mahomet. Unless, of course, you're a Muslim and you're doing it to fan the flames further. I'm sure the people of Denmark are elated to know one of the immigrants in their midst is blaspheming against his own religion and blaming them for it.


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