Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Social Darwinism

On Interfluidity, there is an argument to the effect that opacity in our financial system is good, or at least functional, because it convinces enough people to be "in" in the markets, which is what enables enough capital to get moving. I am somewhat late in posting my reflections on this, and the comment-storm is now abating (the posts are dated last December and January), but I want to record a few thoughts. Steve Waldman argues there in a series of three separate posts that the critical mass of investment is reached only by virtue of everyone being convinced that in the event of the (inevitable) downturn, it will be someone else, not them, who takes the loss. I have some questions about the differences between institutional opacity vs. the ordinary kind of inability to accurately assess risk and the tendency to devalue the future which just seem to beset human choice-making by nature, but the argument is unsettling and provocative, as evidenced by the numerous comments Waldman received. Waldman followed up his original post with some clarifications and further clarifications about where he himself stands, to wit: opacity has all kinds of deleterious effects, and he is not championing it but describing what he thinks its current function is. I think he gets right the magnitude of the problem, in a way I find something hopeful in its candor, even though it is none too optimisitic:
I became interested in financial systems as a large scale information system. It is with great unhappiness and reluctance that, after devoting years of my life to thinking about finance, I’ve concluded that financial systems are better characterized as large-scale disinformation systems and that disinformation is at the core of how they function.... I think we should try to develop financial systems that are honest and transparent, that do not combine kleptocracy and effectiveness into a bundle that’s both impossible to refuse and debilitating to accept. But that is a larger and very different project from, say, increasing capital and liquidity ratios at status quo banks.... developing such a system is an ambitious and ahistorical project, not a mere matter of “fixing what’s broken”. Under present arrangements, transparency and what we perceive as effectiveness stand in opposition to one another.
Moreover, Waldman points out, there is a historical correlation between this opacity and industrial success:
societies with financial systems that mobilize capital opaquely and at very large scale have completely dominated those that have relied only upon consenting risk assumption by well-informed individuals. Industrialization occurs in societies with corrupt and fragile big banks, or else in societies where the state coerces and obscures risk-bearing and reward-shifting on a large-scale, or (more usually) both.
Now Waldman is not arguing from an "Austrian" economic perspective a la Hayek, but I cannot help but be reminded of Hayek's paradoxical definition of economics' "curious task",
to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. (The Fatal Conceit p 76)
In other words, it may be impossible to design good mechanisms of "transparency," and this might (Waldman argues) not be a wholly bad thing.

What Waldman's argument amounts to is the contention that many, many more people must believe in their chances of succeeding than can realistically expect to succeed, in order for anyone to succeed; but that, over the long term, this relative scarcity of success is compensated for by the scale of the success. This compensation does not mean that Waldman approves, as I think my citations show; he thinks we can and should aspire to a different sort of system, but he wants us to be realistic about what is involved in such aspirations. I have long held that the economy can be justly described as a more or less functional pyramid scheme. I understand, of course, that a classical pyramid scheme is supposed to be inherently unstable and so eventually doomed to implode, and I recognize that the mechanism which theoretically destines that implosion is different in the case of the economy "as a whole," but the working assumption still seems to be that the implosion is coming, boom-and-bust-cycle fashion, and that therefore the economy is a game with inherent winners and losers, a game of musical chairs, albeit one in which you can supposedly reserve your seat ahead of time as well. The whole thing depends upon our believing that we won't be the one stuck with the check at the end of the binge, when we all also acknowledge that the end will surely come. But this "end" is also a function of a collective choice, or at least the congeries of millions of choices--the choice to stop the money from "moving."

There is something about this that seems deeply perverse. No wonder the psychoanalysts and the alchemists link the symbolism of shit and gold, money and waste. Gregory Bateson argued that information asymmetry was an inherent feature of all systems; it was not just a fact, but an important and indispensable fact, that ones left hand might not know what one's right hand did. Bateson's choice illustration of this principle was from Coleridge: when the Ancient Mariner, cursed for his crime of shooting the albatross, finds himself alone on his ship in the south seas, he gazes over the rail and sees below him the writhing and flashing of water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white
And when they moved, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes
Something in their beauty enchants him, and despite his forlorn and lost condition, he cannot help but be glad of and for them:
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
He "blesses" the water-snakes--but, Coleridge writes, he blesses them "unaware," not knowing what he is doing. At that moment the curse is broken and the albatross falls off from around the Mariner's neck where his crew had (most improbably) hung it. But, Bateson pointed out, had the Mariner intended to go to the south seas and track down some water-snakes to bless, the poem would have been a farce. Coleridge's point (and he belabors it, using the adjective "unaware" twice) succeeds only because the Mariner blesses the snakes in his heart without knowing what he is doing, spontaneously.

Bateson's point was that in many circumstances it is salutary to have an unequal distribution of information. For Bateson this "communication gap" was a fundamental principle, and he applied it widely. Across anthropological settings, there is frequently a cultural pressure to demarcate the everyday world from the sacred, a category Bateson treated as knowledge pertaining to the whole. This gives a clue as to what the gap meant to Bateson: it had to do with his application of the Russell-Whitehead Theory of Logical Types; cross-communication was a category mistake. Prohibitions on continuity of communication can be compared to one another in different sorts of context. Bateson cites myths concerning communication across gender lines (e.g. the story of Tiresias' blinding, according to which Tiresias, who having been magically transformed into a woman for seven years was in a position to know, declared (in settling a bet between Hera and Zeus) that women had "ten times" the pleasure men had during sex; the disgruntled Hera blinded Tiresias and Zeus tried to make it up to him by granting him the gift of prophecy (seeing the future, another ambiguous case boundary-crossing information). Bateson also applied this to the case of our inability to accurately introspect on our own mechanisms of perception, even though we may understand these in a third-person way.

One of Bateson's central exhibits in his case was Darwinism. Darwinism was superior to Lamarckianism, Bateson contended, not just as a description of evolution, but as an actual state of affairs, precisely on these grounds. A symmetrical flow of information from genotype to phenotype, as Lamarck posited, is not only supported by no apparent mechanism; if it had such a mechanism, Bateson contended, it would stymie evolution, because offspring would be overdetermined by the input from parents. Species would either change too rapidly or become locked into rigid forms.

But there is also a perverse or a vicious non-communication, which Bateson also analyzed famously in his consideration of the double-bind. This is a situation in which meta-communication contradicts communication. One of Bateson's examples is the unkind parents "assuring" the child of their love verbally but maintaining a rigid over-controlling hostility to all self-expression, a state of affairs Bateson linked to the genesis of some instances of schizophrenia. The salient detail here is that comment upon the meta-communication is disallowed. This is what leads to the elephant-in-the-room feeling of family therapy sessions, in which no one can mention Dad's drinking or kid' brother's chronic incapacity to live within his means. On a large scale, this is summed up in Marx's telling definition, in Capital, of ideology a la false consciousness: "Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es". "They do not know it, but they are doing it."

All of this is what I thought of as I read through Waldman's argument and the comments. There is a widespread understanding that no economic arrangement will benefit all; that our economy is a zero-sum game with winners and losers, and far more of the latter. With one side of our mind, we accept this. But we also (says Waldman) deny it, because the game's occurring depends upon the illusion that winning is a plausible and even likely eventuality. Which is why I consider the pyramid-scheme of our economy, and our continual denial that it is a pyramid-scheme, a kind of perverse apotheosis of Marxian ideology. As is well known, Žižek (in The Sublime Object of Ideology) takes a page from Peter Sloterdijk's Critique of Cynical Reason to re-cast marx's definition for our era: "They know very well what they are doing, and yet they do it." I am reconfirmed in this conclusion every time I get a reaction of righteous condescension to my use the words "pyramid scheme" or "Ponzi scheme" for the economy in general. But I do not know what else to call a system in which money is created by banks in a kind of sanctioned forgery, in which money is nothing but an agreement to respect certain electronic entries in computer ledgers, in which we endure "cycles" of musical chairs in which it is known from the outset that the number of seats is dwarfed by the number of tickets sold, and in which, somehow, huh!, there's this chasm between the super-rich and everyone else, including the merely rich.

It is interesting that some reaction to Waldman's pieces included the feeling that he had himself broken a kind of taboo, communicating about what was best left unsaid; that he was providing an excuse for unethical non-disclosure of risks to investors in the name of providing a lubricating "belief in the system". Waldman responded , in his third article:
It is worth trying to understand the mechanics of real-world capital mobilization, and its role in underwriting prosperity (or perhaps militarism). I don’t think we have to fear talking about this stuff. The proposition that looting and misdeployment of capital serve the public good is easy to debunk. The proposition that there are arrangements which serve useful purposes but also create space for corruption is not controversial. We need to understand how institutions actually function and how they are abused if we are to have any hope of minimizing their pathologies while preserving their benefits. And we have to understand the purposes our institutions actually serve if we are to have any hope of replacing very problematic arrangements with something better.
It seems to me that in the absence of the full-scale world meltdown of industrial capitalism which some expect, what this "something better" would look like is a little Social Lamarckianism. When I think this, I am haunted by Hayek's warning that this could just be hankering after a category mistake. And then, I hear Žižek's dark chuckle.


  1. Using Darwinism to describe the markets, even with that highly charged "social" modifier, is IMO spot on. The study of life itself is the best way to approach something as ridiculously complicated as the economy, because, like the economy, life is a pyramid scheme. To use that phrase pejoratively is telling. Would we imagine that we could somehow create a better system if we told the krill where the whales are? Is plankton in need of a march on Washington? Why is it after every boom and bust cycle in nature systems reemerge that pretty much follow the rules of the previous scheme? Now obviously we expect something “more” from a human system that we make than something “accidental” like the ecosystem. In this we presume to be greater than god. A presumption that is in some respects well founded. We can after all greatly increase productivity of the environment through careful management. But we can’t invent a better scheme than what we have found. Grass will be eaten, some animals will die to feed others, these seem to be the laws we have been given. I think it a human perversity to try to transcend these laws. And perversity has its place. Job is a hero of mine but in the end he didn’t get to tell god how to run the world.
    Fantasies of a global collapse of capitalism need to be taken seriously because they inspire great mischief. Leninism is the obvious example of someone who decided to engineer a system that he didn’t, despite the massive amount of scribbling in Das Capital, understand. It is certain that we will continue to see booms and busts but imagining that something will emerge from that process fundamentally different than what created it is….aspirational. The modern American market fundamentalism is just the other side Leninism. You might say it is a type of “Organic farming”. Instead of managing the economy they worship it. When a little regulation might be in order they object because they “know” that human intervention is never a good thing.
    Accepting that there will be winners and losers is hard. It would be as nice as it would be meaningless if all the kids were above average. Does that mean we are doomed to let bankers enslave us? Of course not! The game of the economy is always rigged for one interest or another, that will never change, but we can manage it to make it as fair as possible and that is where our creative energies should be focused. At the moment those of us who think more or less gradual evolution of our institutions is the best course are beset from both sides by fundamentalisms. I hope they exhaust themselves before they can gain unchallenged control.
    I also object to the description of the economy as a zero sum game. On the contrary, once again like life itself, the normal function of the economy is to accumulate wealth and develop ever more complex and diverse ecosystems. That wealth has been misappropriated and unfairly distributed should be seen as flaws that need to be improved rather than an indictment of the whole. We can and should develop an economy that meets the real basic human needs of everyone. But first we will have to agree this is possible and desirable. That we have not yet come to that agreement is our biggest obstacle. Those who think it is impossible are sanguine to the suffering of the poor and self-righteous about their own “election”. Then there are those who think there is spiritual value in poverty and suffering. They do not want to see the odious complacency of a fat happy world. I don’t think we will ever change these attitudes. At best a coalition of moderates will finesse around the ideologues and continue down the slow steady progress we have seen since the enlightenment.

  2. d~~
    I hoped you would find something to say on this one.

    I am subject to correction, but I think I was using the term zero-sum in a correct but also most open sense of meaning some win, some lose. I agree w/ Waldman (as I understand him) that there is a strong case to be made that the disproportions in terms of both transparency and of outcome of the boom/bust are, on the whole, advantageous in a certain relevant sense. It is to this, I think, that he attributes the 'rise of the West', if I am reading him right. While I think that particular story can be told in many ways, I'm sure this is at least one of them.

    'Pyramid scheme' need not, as you point out, be pejorative. But I frequently meet with mere incomprehension when I use the term, perhaps because people can't shake the 'bad' connotations, or perhaps because they suspect me of something like, well, social Darwinism. Really, all I mean here is that the economy is "founded" upon certain practices and de facto agreements, that is upon choices; and thus it is possible for us to choose otherwise. Not without constraints; but the notion that there is something bedrock-solid, "scientific" and unquestionable about the way money and markets function now strikes me as either ostrichesque (or some other kind of bad faith) or, yes, idolatrous (which I guess is the very defoliation of "bad faith," now that I think of it.

    Now doubtless, I am at least mildly perverse in the sense you name, since I cannot help but at least critique, if not the "laws" (of economy, of ecology) themselves, then the rhetorical uses into which I often find them pressed. Whatever "solution" I have to the problems I think I see is inescapably piecemeal and local. (Is vegetarianism perverse? Certainly in some lights. And I cannot claim the supposed spiritual acumen or far-sight that would justify it in terms of kalpas and myriad worlds, a la Buddhism.) Your invocation of Job is interesting, since as you know the great cosmological vision which features in the theophanic climax is not part of Job's complaint, but part of the "answer"... and yet as many commentators have suggested, it really does not do much to answer the question, and in some ways aggravates it. And yet, mysteriously, Job is satisfied.

  3. more on the isomorphism between econo- and ecolo- evolution here.

  4. The vast majority of market interactions are positive sum relations. That is, after all, why we voluntarily enter into these relationships. Zero sum relationships are relatively rare unless one party is under duress or coerced. The accretion of this positive sum is capital and in healthy systems should grow over time much as ecosystems become richer and more diverse. I don’t think it idolatrous or in bad faith to think there are natural laws at work here which we are wise to observe. I wonder now how much the debate about evolution is fueled by those who do believe it to be idolatrous. That would certainly explain why the resistance is so entrenched. But that is just a disturbing tangent.

    I follow Francis Fukuyama's new book on the origins of political order in thinking that the advantage the west has had in its rise has been the strong rule of law that protected private property even from the rapacious elites. I do not see a global collapse for capitalism in the cards. Cheering on such a collapse would certainly be psychopathic as it would entail untold suffering and chaos. I do however expect the coming decades of turmoil to be a great "opportunity" for us to rewrite the rules of engagement and perhaps make them more sustainable and humane. When we do so we would be wise to remember that not everything should be put on the table and we should not just discard the lessons we have learned for some utopian experiment. Those never seem to work out well.
    I would never challenge your reading of scripture and mention Job only loosely. Like Blake I read the bible in its diabolical sense. I only refer to his outrage at the human condition and the truth that we cannot escape it. I never take seriously the idea that he actually had a dialog with god.

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