Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

Wonderful article from Colin McSwiggen [ht:eb] which I can totally justify posting on this blog too thanks to class politics:

If chairs are such a dumb idea, how did we get stuck with them? Why does our culture demand that we spend most of every day sitting on objects that hurt us? What the hell happened?

It should be no surprise to readers of Jacobin that the answer lies in class politics. Chairs are about status, power, and control. That’s why we like them. Ask any furniture historian about the origins of the chair and they’ll gleefully tell you that it all started with the throne.

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Many criticize the Occupy Movement as having muddled goals and nebulous ideas, and that it therefore will be unable to change anything. But this viewpoint misses the entire point.

The Occupy Movement recognizes a fundamental problem: that it is generous to call our political system a democracy, when so few have so much more influence in Washington than the rest of us. This leads to policies and systems coming out of Washington that do not work for everyone, but rather for those who helped craft them. Remedying this situation is an enormous task, and it is not a goal of the Occupy Movement to come up with a single silver-bullet solution. Rather, the Occupiers realize that the first step to ameliorating the situation is to talk about it. The entire political discourse is already too small. The Occupy Movement is simply creating a space in which these issues can become part of the public discourse. It is a space which can accomodate, for the first time in decades, perspectives that are larger than the Republican/Democrat polarization. Those who are unimpressed, unsettled, or unsympathetic to such an approach lack either thoughtfulness or creativity.

The cable news channels, for one, seem unwilling to comprehend this approach to action. Unable to reduce the Occupy Movement to a bumpersticker-size slogan, cable news networks prefer to dismiss the Occupiers as confused and restless. It really is a shame when dwelling in thoughtfulness, complexity, and creativity receives so little credit.

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When all you have is a hammer

Samuel Bowles’ has an excellent forthcoming book, “Machiavelli’s Mistake: Why good laws are no substitute for good citizens”, which argues that there are not separate conversations between markets and incentives on the one hand and philosophy and ethics on the other.

His story starts with  Aristotle, who wrote in the Ethics that a constitution should “make the citizen good by inculcating habits in them.” There is a long line of political philosophers who similarly argued that essence of good government was the cultivation of civic virtue. However, ethics and government eventually became disassociated, exemplified by Machiavelli who argued that the purpose of laws was to make bad citizens behave. This argument was followed and perfected by Hobbes, Mandeville, Hume, Smith, and Bentham. Essentially, this line of thought argued that a constitution should be written as though citizens were wicked. [N.B. they were not all necessarily saying that humans were in fact wicked, but only that a good constitution should be written as if they were]. This assumes a “separability” between ethics and the material world, that laws have no impact on a person’s preferences or ethics. And it is the basis of all public policy issues when addressed by economics. And this is Machiavelli’s mistake.

The line Bowles takes is that maybe writing a constitution that supposes humans are selfish will make them so. That is, the “separability” assumption between economics and ethics is very false. To use the language of economics, Bowles is essentially arguing that preferences are endogenous. However hard it may be for non-economists to believe, the truth that is that economic analysis depends on preferences being exogenous (given) and stable. There is very, very little economic research that addresses endogenous preferences, that is, asking how preferences change and where they come from.

The reason for this is that the economist’s toolkit is not at all equipped to deal with endogenous preferences. Once endogenous preferences are introduced, one can no longer use the standard economics toolkit. This situation in economics reminds me of the Mark Twain quote: when all you have is a hammer, all problems start to look like nails. It is not hard to believe that people’s preferences change and come from somewhere. Perhaps it is time that economists get a new toolkit that is better equipped for the problems we face in the world today.

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Today in microeconomics, we covered the classic model of the Robinson Crusoe economy. But when it came time for the professor to tell the story, they did not even know the title of the Defoe novel from which our dear friend Robinson emerged. It was a bit embarrassing when a student had to explain that the title  is in fact the character’s name, Robinson Crusoe. Of course, many critiques have been made of this metaphor (what about Friday?); but for me, it reinforced a point made earlier that economists don’t generally read, and reminded me of a wonderful passage in an essay by Philip Mirowski that discusses exactly this issue:

This account can be found in nearly every textbook: it is the story of Robinson Crusoe. In the middle of indoctrination of the tyro into our science, we find this story, this artful narrative, of what it means to be a neoclassical rational actor. The isolated individual, alone confronting scarcity on his island with his scant endowments, deliberates as to the appropriate combination of goods to maximize his well-being, imposing order upon the primaeval chaos of Nature. As I have intimated before, economists generally don’t read, but they think they know this story cold. The English hosier in the eighteenth century and the American academic in the twentieth understand each other perfectly, describing the inherent transcendental logic of their own system as it spreads across the face of the globe.

But economists don’t generally read, and therefore they don’t generally realize that the actual Defoe novel does not underwrite their convictions to any appreciable extent. The man who wrote the following might resist being dragooned into the neoclassical cause:

“The most covetous griping miser in the world would have been cured of the vice of covetousness, if he had been in my case; for I possessed infinitely more than I knew what to do with. I had no room for desire, except it was of things which I had not, and they were but trifles… I learned to look more on the bright side of my condition and less upon the dark side and to consider what I enjoyed rather than what I wanted; and this gave me sometime such secret comforts that I cannot express them; and which I take notice of here, to put those discontented people in mind of it who cannot enjoy comfortably what God has given them because they see and covet something He has not given them.” (Defoe, 1941, pp. 126-7)


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The Joneses comes out today on Blu-Ray and DVD. Buy yours today! 😉 [ht:cr]

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A new book by historian Brian Ladd explores love and hate in the automobile age:

From the Model T to the SUV, Autophobia reveals that our vexed relationship with the automobile is nothing new—in fact, debates over whether cars are forces of good or evil in our world have raged for over a century now, ever since the automobile was invented. According to Brian Ladd, this love and hate relationship we share with our cars is the defining quality of the automotive age.

But what is most impressive to me is how Ladd understands that cultural, political, and economic forces inform one another through history. He does not, as many economists do, simply assume that preferences are given, but instead builds a richer understanding of the role of the car  in our society. From the synopsis: “Eisenhower, Hitler, Jan and Dean, J. G. Ballard, Ralph Nader, OPEC, and, of course, cars, all come into play in this wide-ranging but remarkably wry and pithy book.”

Also from the synopsis, some thoughtful words on the car:

Cars are the scourge of civilization, responsible for everything from suburban sprawl and urban decay to environmental devastation and rampant climate change—not to mention our slavish dependence on foreign oil from dubious sources abroad. Add the astonishing price in human lives that we pay for our automobility—some thirty million people were killed in car accidents during the twentieth century—plus the countless number of hours we waste in gridlock traffic commuting to work, running errands, picking up our kids, and searching for parking, and one can’t help but ask: Haven’t we had enough already? After a century behind the wheel, could we be reaching the end of the automotive age?

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