Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Pathologies of Virtues and the Demons of the Mind; Innovation and Autarky

My philosophy has always realized that, hidden in the seeds of every virtue, pathologies are ubiquitous. My mother keeps her house spotlessly clean, but at the cost of personal anguish every time she sees a messy space; what does this suffering accomplish? Friends of mine suffer viscerally when their attempts to help others do not succeed; what does this suffering accomplish? Recently, I had a reflection while discussing in a class of where this applies to myself.

I spend a lot of time trying to discover ways to broaden my rational thought: my education, understanding and skills at debate. Now, I feel this helps me understand the world; it helps me reduce my suffering, as I can see consciously that suffering does nothing for me or anybody or anything I love; it helps me reach out to people using a universal language. But there are many pitfalls when using rational thought to avoid, and one of them is something I realized recently: I have a visceral fear of mu, void, death, nothingness. Others who have constructed less of an intellectual edifice can probably relate to death in a more comfortable way, while my thought processes make me try to seek understanding of everything, not nothing. At some time, I shall have to face being deprived of that rational mind and find peace with it.

This has made me consider the demons hidden behind every angel, and how we can tame and quell that demon, reaching into the darkness and pulling out the gold hidden in the abyss. I seek a golden mean, where the precise combination of two dichotomies creates something qualitatively different and unique.

1) Demon of the glutton: This is a potentially obvious one, but it can occur in people who are cultured, who truly seem to enjoy life: good food, good wine, good cars. There is something positive about enjoying what you have and seeking the best of the world, but the demon rises from this desire overwhelming other considerations and making one suffer when one does not have the best.

2) Demon of the thinker: The demon of the thinker is one that I often deal with because it is so important both to me and to the broader culture. Those who have intellect and rational thought oftentimes use it as a bludgeon against others. It becomes an effective way of shoring up the ego. It can be used to conflate value and factual judgments, bringing everything under the gaze of science and rational thought, even those questions that cannot be answered rationally. All too often, racists and those who simply don't care about injustice in society say, "Let's be rational", and then proceed to not only be irrational (or at least arational) but immoral (or at least amoral). The intellectual mind also suffers when it cannot understand, and is often highly competitive. It has problems with understanding and coping with nothingness.

3) Demon of the martyr: This is actually a source of anorexia nervosa, to some extent. Who doesn't want a perfect world? The problem is that the perfect world is something we must build, not something out there that can be easily fixed back to normality. Those with this demon suffer viscerally when they cannot help or save others; instead of taking the pain of others on their shoulders, they project their own inadequacy. When things do not go their way, they get cranky and irritable, often self-righteous. Those who have anorexia are mostly girls who want things to be perfect and find that they cannot be, so they essentially manifest suicidal urges. Martyrs also have difficulty accepting love: they can spend hours working to help others, but refuse to have assistance in return when they are exhausted. Sometimes, one should simply smile and let someone else do their thing.

4) Demon of the monk: Those who walk the spiritual path face their own challenges. One can, for example, logically conclude that since suffering is caused by attachment and death ends attachment, genocide is appropriate. Self-righteousness, a divorcing from common concerns, a lack of humility and, worse, a renewed ego with even stronger spears and walls are symptoms. Oftentimes, those with this demon also err so much to pacifism and "compassion" that they do not confront the pathologies of others. While a punishment model isn't an appropriate one, it is also not appropriate to simply acquiesce and encourage others' pathologies. "Tough love" is sometimes a good model, and it stems directly from the understanding of the fragmented I.

As more come to my mind, I shall post and comment.


Now, another comment on the balance between autarky and comparative advantage (i.e. between self-sufficient small scale production and between two or more individuals/communities deciding to focus on products and trade or exchange goods somehow to drive down per unit prices and raise quality). There are those who want to eliminate all barriers to trade, citing comparative advantage as the justification. Never mind that comparing Britain and Portugal, as Ricardo did, now leads you to conclude that Britain industrialized and Portugal did much later and now Britain is doing far better. Never mind that opening barriers to trade not only lets existing countries smash fledgling industry elsewhere, and that the rich countries continue to retain tariffs, subsidies, and all sorts of protection. Let me offer some examples to show that these people are just letting theory obfuscate obvious fact:

Situation: A company comes out called the Floss Depot. Yup, all they offer is floss, in millions of varieties, and all they produce is floss.
Problem: Who the hell would buy from a floss store? They can get floss, maybe a little more expensive, at the Rite Aid and get a six pack of beer and some candy too. Too narrow of specialization, particularly in the allocation process, causes bottlenecks. There's also the problem that is covered brilliantly in Calvin and Hobbes: The dad can't buy potato chips or peanut butter because the amount of varieties are totally nonsensical. This is because firms have to essentially throw out as much variety as they can, based on their focus groups, and hope to God that someone will actually buy it. Parecon, on the other hand, prevents this nigh-existential mush: There will be varieties of peanut butter, but not from so many brands and sold at so many stores that one actually has to learn skills to shop. If someone wants a new type of peanut butter, they simply propose it to their consumer council.

Situation: The world decides that, hey, since comparative advantage is hecka good, let's build all bicycles in a huge factory in Calcutta.
Problem: Well, Jesus, I'd like to be able to get bicycles in less than a month. Comparative advantage has diminishing returns from things like transportation: Eventually, it becomes more cost-effective to build more factories and raise the degree of autarky.

Situation: You have competing companies.
Problem: Not comparative advantage, is it? Were these companies to consolidate, they may be able to lower per unit prices... maybe at the cost of innovation, who knows?

I go into this so much because I hear it so often from defenders of capitalism: Comparative advantage is somehow captured by capitalism. No, it's not. Even if comparative advantage were 100% always good and autarky always bad, capitalism's pretense of competition would eliminate that. It comes down to a simple fact: Having some kind of decentralized democratic planning model will always be better than letting an unconscious pseudo-entity called "the market" (which is in fact a lot of very confused humans operating selfishly in adversarial roles in a zero sum game with no incentive to cooperate and no information to do so even if they wanted to) do the job.

Finally, a comment on innovation: Capitalist advocates seem to think that innovation is somehow a province of competition and of capitalism in particular. Let me say some reasonably uncontroversial historical facts:

1) Capitalism has only been around for 200 years, and never in a complete form; hence Ayn Rand talking about it as the unrealized ideal. The amount of information out there isn't nearly large enough to ensure confidence.
2) We see that major inventions in the pre-capitalist era were indeed made, and were made across a variety of societies, some due only to internal structures that were decidedly non-capitalist. All sorts of factors, such as luck, various incentive systems, types of resources locally available, etc. guided these decisions. Moreover, while we do see an increased rate of innovation, there is a good theory to explain this prima facia with no reference to particular economic systems: As more and more data is accumulated, more and more can be made to be useful simply by inter-correlating the data, meaning that the growth of information should follow an exponential and linear path. Isaac Asimov makes this comments a few places.
3) Even in the modern era, capitalism's actual contributions are somewhat minimal. Large companies get touted for achievements that they did not develop; huge amounts of "innovation" are in fact new ways of marketing (i.e. psychic warfare) and of adding onto, say, Microsoft Word even though no one is ever going to use those new features (and, worse, the added complexity making computers open to spyware and viruses and consumers confused and reliant on customer service); university R&D is relied upon extensively, and the capitalists who donate money to their alma mater recognize this (hence the SLAC at Stanford and MIT's math department); some of the areas with the greatest growth, say, math, are in fact done in a variety of institutions; a lot of innovation is also used to precisely mimic other firms' developments and to make many copycat drugs, also reducing comparative advantage; and, most damning, Russian scientists are recognized to be brilliant, having come back from behind and producing nuclear weapons, supercavitating torpedoes, space travel and hypersonic cruise missiles.

There is a good theoretical reason to doubt capitalism's innovation. As Mike Albert points out in Parecon: Life after Capitalism, the assumption is that every person in the market as an incentive to innovate because that way they can use that innovation to make money, and the decentralized nature of the market encourages actors to try to use that new innovation in creative ways. But the two assumptions are diametrically opposed. The incentive for me to innovate also is an incentive for me to keep my information secret, so others cannot profit from it. In a parecon, these insane degrees of competition are kept in check.


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