Posts filed under “Philosophy”

Pleasure Principles

“What will fill the vacuum formerly occupied by religion?”

The most thoughtful, as well as the most memorable wedding gift my spouse and I received in 1993, the year of my first (and only) marriage, was neither the most expensive, nor an object. Rather it was a “Brunch” – that uniquely American invention deplored by Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential as a reliable though odious route for restaurants to recycle anything and everything left over in their refrigerator and pantry. I learned other useful pointers from Boudrain, (who since parlayed that success into a TV Celebrity status that sufficiently provides for his habits), such as never eat restaurant fish on a Monday, and if you’re a foodie and looking for best execution, avoid Fri and Sat evenings like the plague., etc. But I digress. This ‘Brunch‘ was a simple but special affair in that it included the company of [the late] acclaimed author, Chaim Potok, and his lovely wife Adena.

Who is Chaim Potok, you might ask? I’d read several of his novels, independently, following on the heels of those by Nobelists Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer, though before I’d been introduced to works of Philip Roth. All their voices rang true. All chewed upon the clash of the traditional with the modern. All seemingly lamented the loss(es) of what was, even when (reluctantly) accepting the victory of modernity’s “progress”. And they all struck some chord within me, each ruminating in their own perspectives and style upon issues still-raw-and-contentious (in my own family), growing up as I did on the generational cusp, and witnessing my parents wrestling with theirs over the same.

I think Potok stands out as his breadth of thought was more encompassing. He was first a Rabbi, then a writer, also a theological academic and philosopher (PhD Penn, Philosophy) as well as a graphic artist, and playwrite, though the arts were his first love and a source of conflict with his own (traditional) parents. His timeline reflected this same struggle: from indoctrination and orthodox study sliding towards the increasingly secular graphical artist and thinker. He may not have been the superior novelist of the genre shared by the four eminent writers, but he probably was the most eclectic and adept thinker. His experiences were varied: an army Chaplain, a rabbi, a teacher, an editor, writer, an artist). Bellow’s and Roth’s characters and dialogue might have been more realistic, Potok stretched the boundaries of thought further than the others. Like the great Jewish minds (unlike those of current-day Likud), Potok ruminated thoroughly and saw things not categorically, but nuanced – context within context within context.

Beyond these spartan observations, there is little I can add. We drank coffee, and chatted about our experiences, and about faith. I made no effort to hide my lack thereof, though I couched it in the agnosticism of the empiricist versus certitude of the militant aetheist, which was more useful for friendly discussion than Dawkin’s axe-wielding approach. More coffee and cakes, and the conversation drifted from the first to third person, and modernity’s impacts upon religion. I noted that religion was useful historically as a means control. Fear of God, his wrath (for the Jews) or Hell (for Christians) were powerful tools. And whether a tool for purposes of control, or more recently as panaceas for the spirit, there is in modernity, I suggested, a gaping hole in the psyche and in one’s preoccupation that was previously occupied by religion. “What”, I continued, did he “think might or will replace it???!!?”

He pulled on his whiskers for a long time, looked upwards towards the heavens, and then stared deep into the depths of his half-filled cup before meeting my eyes and saying more categorically than he had about anything to that moment ……”Hedonism”. “Hedonism will fill the void…”, and for the first time, I saw resignation on the face of this otherwise thoughtful optimist. It is the same resignation floor traders must have felt as transactions went “upstairs”, or that which strikes value-oriented reversion traders horse-whipped by seemingly less-than-explicable momentum, or an allocator feels when assessing the new normal of what used to be the risk-free rate. It is a distinct feeling that the sense one previously made of the world has been palpably altered, leaving it a less-hospitable place as a result.

Conversation rebounded from the after-effects of this pronouncement, for it was clear he knew that however depressing the prognostication, there was nothing he could do. He could analyse this wave, indeed, he could explain it. But he knew it will be as it inevitably will be. Efforts to change the direction of such a tide would be futile. I understood he was not whining. Nor was he living in the past. As was the case with his literature, he sought first and foremost to understand what was going on around him, and make sense of it, rather than tell us how it should be.

In 2012, it seems ironic, that mired in debt with unemployment rife, that our Grasshopper-like spirits’ gaze is, as Potok forecast nearly two decades ago, firmly fixed (and growing) upon hedonism. Not spiritualism or New Age-ism, but full, unbridled “Whatever!” I see it manifested in demagogues pandering “7-Minute Abs” solutions, to problems of marathon proportions. I see it in my eldest’s seeming addiction to fatuous social networking, or under the spell of inane traditional media at the cost of reading or doing. I see it in the increasingly stylized beach or ski holidays. I see it in the untempered expectations still being conjured and polished by companies and their Madison Ave agents. I see it in the politicians’ promises to restore what Americans’ believe is owed to them.

But is this not natural? Should hedonism be a pejorative? To the extent it plays a part in fueling expectations and pursuit of a lifestyle for the individual that is unsustainable for the group, then yes. To the extent that it prevents sober or pragmatic evaluation of what needs or might be done to pursue even weak-form sustainability, then yes. To the extent it discounts the longer run policy pursuits, for the short-run, then indeed, yes. To the extent it encourages anti-social behaviour to finance parochial hedonism, then yes. To the extent it fuels near-unprecendented greed at the expense charity yielding a coarser way of life for the benefit of parochial pleasure and the privilege of the yet unborn, then yes, it is a pejorative, and we should lament its expansion in filling the vacuum.

Unlike the Apocalyptors and Tin-Foil Hat Brigade, I do not believe 2012 will be the year of the Return of Barter or Oblivion For Mankind, and while it may even surprise to the upside given the hugely bearish expectations of the market and anti-European shills, I do think it will be an interesting year for observing what happens when hedonistic rubber meets the austere reality of the road ahead of us [all].

Category: Philosophy

Socrates’ Advice to Greece Today

This post was originally published at The Financial Philosopher, by Kent Thune. “I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given…Read More

Category: Economy, Philosophy

Is America Becoming More Conservative? Why?

Why has the economic crisis deepened America’s conservative drift? The trend towards the hard right is most pronounced in the least well off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states. Why? It is a fascinating glimpse into the Human (or is it American?) Psyche — and I am very curious about it: >…Read More

Category: Data Analysis, Philosophy, Politics, Psychology

Rapture Ready: The Christians United for Israel Tour

Max Blumenthal’s latest takes us on a shocking and at times bizarre tour of right-wing Pastor John Hagee’s annual Washington-Israel Summit, blowing the cover off the Christian Zionist movement in the process. Starring Joe Lieberman, Tom DeLay, Pastor John Hagee, Ambassador Dore Gold and a host of rapture-ready evangelicals praying for Armaggedon.

Category: Philosophy, Video

Anecdotes Wanted . . .

“The reason capitalism has triumphed in the West and sputtered in the rest of the world is because most of the assets in Western nations have been integrated into one formal representational system . . . By transforming people with real property interests into accountable individuals, formal property created individuals from masses. People no longer…Read More

Category: Philosophy, Real Estate

Most of the World Wants More Bank Regulation

More business regulations. That is what survey after survey around the globe shows that the world’s populations wants. Despite a relentless propaganda campaign of misinformation, fabricated data and false narratives, the public has not been fooled by the 1%. The best efforts of a well funded group of ideologues — Free Market absolutists, anti-Democracy and…Read More

Category: Philosophy, Regulation

New Reality Show: Real Economists of the Ivory Tower

Dan Alpert is a founding Managing Partner of Westwood Capital. He has more than 30 years of international merchant banking and investment banking experience, including a wide variety of work-out and bankruptcy related restructuring experience. Dan’s experience in providing financial advisory services and structured finance execution has extended Westwood’s reach beyond the U.S. domestic corporate finance market to East Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. In addition to his structured finance expertise, Dan has extensive experience advising on mergers, acquisitions and private equity financings. He has additional expertise in evaluating and maximizing the recoveries from failed financing vehicles affiliated with a common borrower/issuer.

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Principal Plot: Inflation Is Not Proceeding from Large Scale Money Growth as Monetarists Would Expect. Keynesians Are Not Providing a Complete Enough Explanation to Laymen as to Why That Is So. Frustration and Name-Calling Ensues.

And a Subplot: Warren Buffett Walks into a Bar . . .

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Over recent months, an intense debate between two opposing schools of economics has reached a crescendo. The relationships—at least in print—among members of the so-called saltwater school of economists (those leaning towards Keynesian fiscalism, and more-managed forms of capitalism) and economists in the freshwater or Chicago school (broadly favoring less-regulated, free-market economies with an emphasis on monetary matters) has never been overly warm. But the degree of name calling and apparent unwillingness to find common ground has come to a head since the beginning of the year—especially following the U.S. economic profession’s annual conference the first weekend after the New Year’s break.

With the World Economic Forum at Davos on tap for this week, providing yet another occasion to read tea leaves and tout theories, it is a good time to consider whether polarization of opinion isn’t as much of a problem as polarization of income and wealth in the developed world. Is the almost complete absence of consensus among mainstream economists yielding drama but paralyzing decision?

To my view, the answer to the foregoing is a decisive yes. So, I have decided to tackle the issue with a bit of humor, together with my own explanation of the underlying problems and suggestions for how to go about reaching a very elusive meeting of great minds.

The debate as it proceeds each week in what I now title Real Economists of the Ivory Tower provides an often amusing diversion for its wonkish audience—but I am afraid it will never be successful mass entertainment.

Its cast—Paul, John, Robert, Brad, Simon, Scott, Tyler, and others—can fling their credentials and arguments at one another, but if you don’t know who I am referring to in this sentence, I doubt you would DVR the series. (Fortunately, we all have a guy named Mark—who happens to be a new colleague of mine in our work at The Century Foundation—to keep everyone honest, so you can always head over to his invaluable blog if you miss any episodes.)

Economist cat fights, alas, seem never to involve sex. There’s money, but no bling. And the typical insults run the gamut from “you weren’t listening during Econ 101″ to “you are so out of it that you can’t even understand what I am saying.”

That economists don’t understand what each other are saying, of course, comes as no surprise to laymen—as everyone else can’t understand them either.

So, with that in mind, and as technical as the subject matter may be (this is, actually, a serious essay), I’ll do my best to present in plain language the problem that is the source of the foregoing drama. For more advanced readers, I will provide a somewhat unconventional explanation of a possible middle ground that I will call, for now, an Exogenous Supply Incongruity (so named as to make certain no one understands me either until they read on).

The Synopsis to Date

In the major nations of the developed world—first in Japan, over a period of nearly two decades, then in the United States, beginning in 2008, and now (however reluctantly) in Europe—monetary authorities (central banks) have been massively increasing the portion of the money supply over which they have direct influence in an effort to revive their economies. In a conventional cyclical downturn, it is received knowledge that looser money encourages additional economic activity (spending, investment, employment, etc.) by making money cheaper and discouraging saving/hoarding.

Cheap and ample money would also encourage lending, and thereby would be expected to increase broad money supply—and, ultimately, to induce inflation across economic sectors.

In response to economic collapse, central banks have now gone well beyond conventional methods of expanding money supply, including purchasing investment assets (typically government issued or insured) in the open markets and pushing cash out to the sellers of those instruments, in the expectation that they will do something with that that cash to improve economic activity. This action is known as quantitative easing, which is a fancy term for what desperate central banks must resort to when they’ve already dropped short-term interest rates to essentially zero (the so-called zero lower bound, beyond which conventional monetary policy is obviously useless).

A limited amount of re-inflation itself is generally regarded as being a net positive to the recovery of an economy, especially after a debt binge such as we experienced in the 2000’s. The principle concern in this regard, however, is not to induce runaway inflation—something that is bad for a whole host of reasons that I do not need to go into here (especially because a majority of Euro-American economists and politicians appear to be preternaturally so afraid of inflation that one must assume that they all must know exactly why that is—or perhaps not, but I digress).

In any given developed nation, along with inflation, one would expect to see the value of that nation’s currency fall in relation to those of others that are not experiencing similar rates of inflation—thus furthering inflation in imported goods and making the inflating economy more competitive relative to those other countries. One would also then expect interest rates to rise in order to maintain levels of real (inflation adjusted) returns, thus getting things off the zero bound and back to normal.

The problem today is that, not only have conventional and extreme/unprecedented forms of monetary easing failed to restart brisk growth in developed economies, but massive monetary growth has not resulted in sustainable inflation, either. To be sure, there have been spikes in U.S., U.K., and European inflation (and slowing deflation in Japan—which is how you need to measure things over there), but they have arisen from expectations that quantitative easing would surely result in sustained inflation—not the actual thing itself.

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Category: Philosophy, Think Tank

QOTD: Opinions About the Future

I started reading The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor by Howard Marks last weekend. Coincidentally, I come across this great quote yesterday: “I confess, I think about the future.  So do my colleagues.  If someone who’s spent decades investing doesn’t have an opinion about what lies ahead, there’s something wrong.  I believe…Read More

Category: Investing, Philosophy

Hume, Causation & Science

There is a very interesting article in Wired this month, ostensibly about the tribulations of the modern scientific method, big pharma’s drug development approach, etc. But within the article is an excellent digression about the complexities of causation: “Causes are a strange kind of knowledge. This was first pointed out by David Hume, the 18th-century…Read More

Category: Philosophy, Psychology

The Coming Money Trust (1912)

via Mises, we get this awesome critique of the Fed, circa 1912 (The Federal Reserve was created in 1913): > > Thanks, James! Source: U.S. Money versus Corporation Currency (1912) Alfred Owen Crozier

Category: Federal Reserve, Philosophy