Sunday, January 2, 2011

la Crise Financière I

    "Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and 
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity."
                              W B Yeats, The Second Coming

Since I want this blog to be about big ideas, large events--the heavy game, trapped in the mad woods, beaten to death by human fists, freshly stuffed in a grimy shed--I don't think it can be complete without saying something about the financial collapse hat punctuated the 00's.  And as Dubya used to say, I'm The Decider.

I work for a very large bank here in the U.S., and I have no desire to rip on my employer.  Furthermore, I don't want to get into the tawdry, petty, or political.  There's plenty of other places people can go for that.  Instead I want to look at a few of the patterns, some of the folklore, and try to outline some of the deeper implications.  Furthermore, this isn't the time for me to get into deep monetary theory, so that'll have to wait as well.

One of the best explanations of the proximate causes is by Dr. Lo of MIT.  I don't have the inclination to break his explanation down when he does it so much better.  Watch the video yourself and see what I mean.  There are all kinds of other explanations:  greed, hubris, lack of common sense, the older generation, the younger generation, deadbeats, the rich, the the United States many of us blamed President Bush while many others blamed the Democrats in Congress, as in other lands where political partisans blasted blame back and forth.  The problem is, this thing was global.  The capitalist societies suffered the same as the communist ones, well-regulated economies weren't spared and neither were the deregulated ones.  Fiscally responsible nations like Spain got pounded as bad as the spendthrifts.  There was no political party, religious entity, or age group whose members were exempt.  Furthermore, these patterns had been around for millenia before the train wreck, and it will be for many more.  The only folks that didn't get the horns (as far as I can tell) were in two groups:
  1. Societies too poor, or too hunter-gatherer, to notice
  2. Australia
The Australians got off easy because they're China's biggest raw-materials dealer.  China's policies had the effect of pumping up the Australians.  More on that shortly.

My second point:  the financial crisis, up to now, has actually catalized very little social change.  David Kotok remarks that investors and workers were scarred by the events, and many others join him.  It's certain that a couple billion people experienced negative impacts, but I've seen no evidence of cultural upheaval.  In fact, most societies responded the same way they always have, usually by doing more of what they were already doing.

We hear it often, at least in the US, that the Financial Crisis changed everything, that 9/11 changed everything, that the AIDS epidemic changed everything.  But really, little has changed.  If anything, these events have caused our preexisting prejudices and habits to become even more entrenched.  I think it's ultimately for this reason that the financial crisis of 2007-20?? is not unique and will be repeated; as Dr Harvey points out, they're endemic to capitalist (and many non-capitalist) systems.

At this point I have to stop part I.  There'll be a part II, if not tomorrow then the next day.  Cheers!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Nouvelle Année

"Therefore if any man [be] in Christ, [he is] a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."
                                                      --2 Corintians 5:17

The earliest I remember hearing about New Years Resolutions was from Ms. Rivera, my second grade teacher.  She's not Ms. Rivera anymore.  She got married, transferred to another school, and everytime I saw her after that she was pregnant.  I think she must've had four or five little ones by the end.  The Resolutions thing I carried on intermittently with mixed results.  From what I can tell of the culture in general, about 90% of 'em either blow up or wither on the vine.  Expensively, sometimes.

If you've never gotten the chance read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, you should take your next opportunity.  Professor Pajares lays out most of the main ideas here.  The entire book is pretty damn insightful, but the most important chapters, IMHO, are five and nine.   Kuhn uses them to describe the landscape of science; how virtually all scientific work is done in support of a handful of overarching ideas.  Those ideas, the paradigms, rarely change.  It takes a Herculean measure of predictive insight or a major crisis of discovery for a paradigm to go away.  They are never erased--one falls from use when it's supplanted by another.

Kuhn notes that a new paradigm, even when it's got obvious value, usually takes a generation to be accepted by normal science.  Even when one proves to be less effective than its predecessor, it's still incredibly stubborn to uproot. It's not hard to see in historical and popular culture that this doesn't just happen in the realm of science.  Every generation defines itself, and to do so it must reject at least part of the identity of the one before it.  Politically speaking (for example), the Greatest Generation embraced the ideas of Roosevelt and the New Deal, The Silent Generation and Early-Wave Baby Boomers became hipsters and hippies, and the Late Boomers embraced the ideals of Rand and Coolidge, as resurrected by Ronald Reagan.  As Eisenhower and Johnson presided under the shadow of Roosevelt, the Bushes and Obama preside under the shadow of Reagan.  In the next decade we will see the ideals of the Late Boomers replaced by those of their Millennial children.

This phenomenon often takes the form of the grizzled veteran vs the young upstart--in Da Vinci's bitter displacement by the the younger Michaelangelo, and Darius III's downfall at the hands of Alexander the Great.  Are these so different from the conflict in physics between Niels Bohr and Richard Feynman?  In these great collisions, winning and losing are beside the point.  What an incredible moment, just to be in the fight, just to be in the room.

Some extend far beyond the generational limit: it was 300 years before Newton's laws of gravitation were supplanted by Einstein's relativistic model.  Even more durable has been Paul's Christianity.  Regardless of what has been added or taken away, it's Paul's work that defines the doctrine and practice of Christianity.  The cannonical and non-cannonical Gospel writers purported to tell their stories, but they were judged on the ideas of Paul.  For at least 1800 years now, many have worked around the edges (the Popes, Gnostics, Reformers, and Restorationists), but it's all been under the framework of Paul's theology.

Kuhn doesn't speculate about the reasons for this ordinarily generational phenomenon, the paradigm.  My explanation is that paradigms strut the stage of human analysis and imagination.  They seem larger-than-life and spectacular beyond man, but beneath this maya, they are only us, comprised of fats and proteins in organic neurons.  This is what makes them simultaneously fragile and durable.  From Howard Bloom in The Lucifer Principle:
"The worldview you build from childhood is carried in billions of cells whose connecting threads are precisely adjusted to give you your picture of the world.  The late Dr. Donald Hebb...called those networks 'cell assemblies'.  He described these circuits through which stimuli flow like waters through the delta of the Mississippi....[it] helps us comprehend why, though we're hit with thousands of random perceptions, very few stick to us.
If we believe that life is a battle between Satan and God, some small event can seem proof positive that Satan is out to snare us.  If we believe, as the Chinese and Romans did, that the heavens are filled with messages about our fate, the sight of a shooting star may trigger a sense of imminent calamity....We hunt, over the next days or weeks, for the event it forecasts.
A neural network like this takes a lifetime to build....It's easy to see why humans are willing to fight to the death to defend...their belief systems.  To allow a faith or ideology to be overthrown would be to abandon a massive neural fabric into which you've invested an entire life, a network that cannot be easily replaced, perhaps that cannot be replaced at all."
 This is one of the theme's of that small-time self-help hit, What the Bleep Do We Know.  Very often the emotions and reactions we experience as adults are really to events that happened during childhood.  Obliterating them means some innocent part of ourselves must be made to suffer.  The shortcomings of the paradigm are intimately related to the shortcomings of the neural network, and are the reason so many New Year Resolutions fail.  To rail against those failures is to rail against fifteen or so billion years of molecular thermodynamics.

Six years ago, I had a conversation about cartoon watching with one of my old friends.  He was describing how it took him until the tenth grade to quit watching after school cartoons.  I had a similar experience when I was twelve.  I thought that upon entering Junior High I would lose the desire.  My magical thinking was not reflective of reality.  Instead, the habit was broken when I transferred to a different foster home.  The reception on the black and white tv I was given was just too poor to make the cartoon-watching experience enjoyable.  As 12-steppers, Priests, and Drill Sergeants know, change of environment and change of habit are fast lovers.

Barring that, we often have to be content to nip around the edges.  I think this is what Paul was getting at in 2nd Corinthians and Martin Luther was getting at it in the 95 Theses.  Changing ourselves is a struggle that can and should take all our lives.  Seeking deep understanding of the world, contributing to our global culture, and working for justice should all take at least that long.

So Cheers to you on this amazing New Year
May your resolutions be fruitful
And your paradigms grand