Snarky Behavior

Entries tagged as ‘philosophy’

The Power to Change

January 13, 2008 · 6 Comments

With all of the attention being paid to the presidential elections, it is easy to be misled into thinking that big problems can be solved by big institutions.

The reality is that the majority of problems that we face as Americans (an as human beings) are the result of individual decisions played out in the aggregate.  As Kant observes, the fundamental flaw of human nature, from which all other flaws flow, is the tendency of the individual to make exceptions for himself to rules (or norms) he expects others to observe.

We suffer collectively because we recognize that the efforts of a single individual to reform is insignificant if the masses do not also follow suit.  Many times, we become so pessimistic of others that we lower our expectations of ourselves.  We then put our hopes in large, sweeping, institutional efforts.

The game theory behind these rationales justify a status quo that is unacceptable.  It absolves the individual from personal responsibility to do what he or she can to make the world better.

Part of the reason I blog (I think) is that I like to believe that individual actors who are not yet embedded into institutional systems of power still have the capacity to drive progressive change by pushing forward normative arguments.
Our “spheres of influence” may be small, but opinions and attitudes are shaped based on the ties of interpersonal relationships.  The stronger the bond, the more pervasive the idea.  When integrated within established social networks, good ideas can spread like wildfire.

My (re)commitment to this blog, and to myself, is to act as an agent of change.  I want to identify and discuss problems that I can play a part in resolving, in my own small way.  I want to be an optimist of myself, because in the end I’m the only person I have direct influence over.

For me, this is the nuanced definition of “change” that Obama represents.  His soaring rhetoric asks us to raise our expectations of ourselves.  He carries Kennedy’s “Ask Not” torch into the new century.

There are too many people waiting for him to fail, to not be able to deliver on what he promises.

But hope and inspiration in politics are much like consumer confidence in economics.  If the consumer believes there will be a recession, he will stop spending, and there will be a recession.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If the voter believes our country holds the capacity to do better, he will act better.  And we will DO better, collectively, as a result.

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Dropping Knowledge: On Guilty Liberals

December 9, 2007 · Leave a Comment

I found this gem while researching my paper on Globalization.  From “In Defense of Globalization,” by Jagdish Bhagwati:

I also think that an altogether new factor on the scene that
propels the young into anti-capitalist attitudes comes from a different,
technological source in a rather curious fashion. This is the dissonance
that now exists between empathy for others elsewhere for their misery
and the inadequate intellectual grasp of what can be done to ameliorate
that distress. The resulting tension spills over into unhappiness with the
capitalist system (in varying forms) within which they live and hence
anger at it for its apparent callousness.


Today, thanks to television, we have what I call the paradox of inversion
of the philosopher David Hume’s concentric circles of reducing
loyalty and empathy. Each of us feels diminishing empathy as we go from
our nuclear family to the extended family, to our local community, to
our state or county (say, Lancashire or Louisiana), to our nation, to our
geographical region (say, Europe or the Americas), and then to the world.
This idea of concentric circles of empathy can be traced back to the Stoics’
doctrine of oikeiosis—that human affection radiates outward from
oneself, diminishing as distance grows from oneself and increasing as
proximity increases to oneself. In the same vein, Hume famously argued
that “it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole
world to the scratching of my finger” and that “sympathy with persons
remote from us is much fainter than with persons near and contiguous.”

What the Internet and CNN have done is to take Hume’s outermost
circle and turn it into the innermost. No longer can we snore while the
other half of humanity suffers plague and pestilence and the continuing
misery of extreme poverty. Television has disturbed our sleep, perhaps
short of a fitful fever but certainly arousing our finest instincts.  Indeed,
this is what the Stoics, chiefly Hierocles, having observed the concentric
circles of vanishing empathy, had urged by way of morality: that “it is the
task of a well tempered man, in his proper treatment of each group, to
draw circles together somehow towards the centre, and to keep zealously
transferring those from the enclosing circles into the enclosed ones.”

At the same time, the technology of the Internet and CNN, as Robert
Putnam has told us, has accelerated our move to “bowling alone,”
gluing us to our TV sets and shifting us steadily out of civic participation,
so that the innermost circle has become the outermost one.
So the young see and are anguished by the poverty and the civil wars
and the famines in remote areas of the world but often have no intellectual
training to cope with their anguish and follow it through rationally
in terms of appropriate action.

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What Do You Do, With a BA in English?

November 27, 2007 · 2 Comments

What do you do, with a BA in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college, and plenty of knowledge…
has earned me this useless degree…

So go the opening lines of “Avenue Q.” A musical that I found extremely relatable two years ago, when I moved to DC with a meager savings account, an over-valued skill-set, and a bohemian apartment on “U” Street.

I’ve heard it said before that “the BA is the new diploma.” The data backs this up. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (my employer, by the way), the total enrollment of students attending two- and four-year degree granting institutions has more than doubled since 1970. During that time, female representation has increased drastically from 40% to 56%.

I’ve written before about the constraints on opportunity that arise as a direct result of inaffordable higher education. Here’s the scary trifecta:

1. Average annual tuition of 4-year private institutions has increased from $9228 in 1986 to $27,317 in 2006 (not adjusted for inflation).

2. The average total amount borrowed by students to finance a 4-year degree (as measured in 2001 constant dollars) increased from $12,100 in 1993 to $19,300 in 2000.

3. The median income for a male graduate (as measured in constant 2004 dollars) has only increased from $46,300 in 1980 to $48,400 in 2005. And incomes are on the decline since 2000. Note that the average income for a high-school grad in 1980 was $38,800.

So… I borrowed $16,000 to finance my undergraduate degree, and will likely require (worst case) a staggering $114,000 to finance my Masters. Which not only begs the question: why the hell did I get a liberal arts degree in History, but why does anyone pursue anything else?

Clearly I’m on the high end of the spectrum for tuition, debt burden, and (please God) should also be on the high-end for income earners. So my case is atypical. But there are students at Columbia who do not face the same financial considerations, because their educations are subsidized by financial aid and awards.

I’m not going to play the reverse-discrimination card here, especially since I turned down a hefty fellowship from the Elliot School at GW to attend SIPA, but as a disinterested observation, it does seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy for white men, who are last in line for financial aid purposes, to pursue careers that inevitably reinforce the over-representation of “old white men” who sit in boardrooms chalk full of white haired or bald guys who look identical to each other (even though most of those guys are legacies who probably never even had debt).

My point is, there is a substitution effect for dedication/effort/expectations for every less dollar of debt burden… the more indebted someone is, the more they will value their job, work for performance bonuses, take less days off, rise the ranks, etc. Debt is a strong motivational factor. Which is why I’m up writing crappy blog posts instead of preparing for my in-class debate tomorrow.

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Video Week: Alec Baldwin!

October 31, 2007 · 1 Comment

You know what makes Jack Donaghy the best leader since the pharaohs? Brass balls.

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League of Dorks Ombudsman Report: Civilization IV

September 2, 2007 · 2 Comments

League of Dorks Ombudsman Report: Where I reveal my inner hidden dorkiness to the rest of the world for the benefit of dork-nondork relations.

The morning after the premiere of Spiderman III, I e-mailed my boss to tell her that I would be coming into the office late because the movie had a run-time much longer than anticipated and as a result, I had not gotten to sleep until well past 3 a.m. She replied with something to the extent of “That’s fine. But don’t forget to wear your League of Dorks underpants!”

For the purposes of maintaining the homeostatic balance of my fragile ego I am willing to concede loose affiliation to the “League of Dorks” (note: the original usage of this term, to my knowledge, was made by Bill Simmons’ wife in reference to his fantasy baseball team). But I don’t consider myself a full-fledge card carrying member, principly because a) I’m not a virgin and b) I don’t live with my parents.

I see my affiliation with the LoD more in the role of an ombudsman: I’m not smooth with women but I can hold a conversation; I don’t have disgusting amounts of dandruff but I cut my own hair; I don’t have a “second life” but I write a blog; and I don’t exploit polygons, but I have taken to drinking Mountain Dew for caffeine purposes, since Red Bull is so god damned expensive.

So without further ado I would like to invite you into the realm of dorks to discuss something of greater relevance…I will attempt to make this as accessible as possible:

Civilization IV by Sid Meier is the only computer or video game I play besides the occassional match of Wii bowling. The premise of the game is very similar to the popular SimCity series only Civilization is turn based while SimCity develops in “real” time. And while SimCity is limited to the growth and development of a single city, Civilization charts the path of entire societies.

The reason that I like Civilization so much is because it really drives home the point of economic determinism, or the idea of WHERE a society establishes itself in terms of latitude, access to resources and trade routes, and natural barriers, REALLY make a huge impact in terms of predicting the relative success and failure of a societies’ development. (I.E. Living in the mountains or deserts of Sub-Saharan Africa is really, really, really hard to do).

You see, you start the game as a nomadic tribe of settlers and warriors (YES, I GET IT, I’M A DORK), with only the simple tools and technologies of the stone age to guide your growth. As the game progresses and you allocate your resources, you discover new technologies which foster growth, new societies which encourage trade, and new lands which expand your borders.

The point of the game is competing with neighboring civilizations for discovery and management of land and resources, for the relative benefit of your own societies’ peoples. As continents are explored, lands claimed, and resources snatched up, border conflicts (unsurprisingly) arise over control of these resources.

All in all, the game does an excellent job of helping make real the painful demands that growth and development make on competing cultures and societies. But here’s where this gets interesting:

The objective of the game is clearly defined and easy to pursue early in the game: you start with no knowledge of the world map… so you explore. You start with a small capital city with limited access to resources…. so you expand and trade. Your countrymen are overpopulated or starving or unemployed… so you war for more space or cause a revolution in your system of government.

By the end of the game, when the globe is filled up, and the nature of the weaponry is massive destruction (nuclear missles… which effectively eliminate the possibility of war), and all of the systems of government are liberal democracies and all of the global economies are inter-connected by infrastructure and trade barriers are eliminated, and all of the space exploration programs have been explored… the game ends.

According to the structure of the game, sometime around the middle of this century, the “game” of our civilization ends. We arrive at Nietzche’s Last Man , “an apathetic creature, who has no great passion or commitment, who is unable to dream, who merely earns his living and keeps warm.” More than anything, this plateau of progress embodies the “End of History” that Francis Fukuyama speaks to.

If we already have arrived at the End of History, or at least are at its footsteps, is it true that we no longer dare to dream? Or do we evolve to a higher level of consciousness, above the fray of the base-level competition of a global economy that determines who gets what, but no longer why?

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Commodifiying Our Existence

July 27, 2007 · 2 Comments

Brother Carlo absolutely hates it when I wax philosophical, because I am so fast and loose with my shaky understandings of the foundations of his craft. But Carlo is also on the path to permanent head damage, and we all know PhD’s Can’t Communicate.

Moreover, Carlo is part philosopher, part physicist– and whereas hard sciences require building blocks of knowledge to reach the upper echelons, Bullshit Mountain has a mono-rail (thank you, Jon Stewart).

Of course, the value of studying epistemology is that you avoid redundancy of thought. But, by the time you’ve performed an extensive survey of previous literature and start exploring original, independent ideas about the nature of knowledge, you’ve drilled down so deep that you’re a termite missing the forest for a decomposing stump.

So, I do see value in my (and others’) haphazard applications of philosophy and political theory.

Over the last week or so, I’ve written about the following:

The overarching theme here seems to be a vague concern with the commodification of our lives. The necessities of our global society are such that, to align our humanist desires of leading a meaningful existence, we must first commodify ourselves in some fashion as to provide value to the rest of the world.

Without commodifying ourselves, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to engage in creative, exploratory, meaningful, sustaining, and leisurely activities. Without first investing in the social-norms of education, technology, career, we can’t take time to discover our intrinsic values.

Of course, once we fully incorporate ourselves, putting our applied value to use in a global market, the trade-off is almost always leisure and self-exploration. The external demands and stress of a competitive system shift our values in such a way that nearly all of our life decisions are based on how to best maximize ourselves as a commodity in such a market. And lacking genuine time to decompress and develop meaningful relationships, we abuse drugs and alcohol for quick spurts of relief and meaningless sex.

And those are the realities of the modern state.

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The Sexy Appeal of Libertarianism

July 17, 2007 · Leave a Comment

The blue-blood/hipster divide in Washington really got me thinking: just what exactly is it about this city that attracts young, pretentious, unattractive kids to come here straight out of college?

[Imagine me, in a world without laziness, creating a venn-diagram with the overlapping categories of "young"," pretentious," and "unattractive." Thanks.]

And yes, I have considered that I may very well exist in that tri-overlap (along with most hipsters and blue-bloods), or at least very close to it. But I’ve already explained my reasons for coming to DC , which provide us with little insight when we’re attempting to extrapolate to the aggregate.

Strictly on the basis of presumptive-subjective analysis (my favorite brand of social science), I would venture to guess that these people (who, let’s be clear, are the Young Republican/Model UN/Mock Trial kids in college) feel the need to justify their Political Science BA (or more appropriately, BS) degree by finding employment directly in the field. They are freshly branded ideologues armed with the philosophical absolutes of Kant, Rawls, Hume, Dewey and Struess to inform their politics.

When the bambinos actually get to DC, they find the city full of wonks who have long since ditched most political philosophy, or at least boiled all concepts down to simple practicums that can be defended with a casual understanding of Adam Smith, Milton Friedman and (surprisingly) Woodrow Wilson on the right, and John Maynard Keynes and JS Mills on the left. Commitment to moral absolutes is traded in for commitment to party, a crash course of real-politik and pragmatism ensues, and after two years, every headstrong idealist who hasn’t already defected to law school is a humorless, pessimistic, cynical (pretentious, ugly, still young) wreck.

But why the hipster/blue-blood divide? Once the passionate idealists recognize that passionate idealism is summarily and universally mocked/scorned by all parties, they are desperate to self-congregate in circles of like-minded people and hone the skills of sarcasm, feigned outrage, ironic humor, etc., etc. that passes for indignation or passion amongst DC’s bourgeoisie class. That, and the drinking/casual sex. That’s important too.

But you know who never abandon their roots? Libertarians. Those bow-tie freaks.

You may or may not have heard that the Libertarian candidate for President (Ron Paul) recently surpassed the former Republican front-runner (John McCain) in both quarterly fund-raising and cash-on-hand.

Now, the rational part of my brain recognizes Paul as a traditional muck-racker, redefining his party’s philosophical base (which had been wrenched away by neo-conservatives). The irrational part honestly believes that Paul is more than an idea broker— he really thinks he can win, and he really would enact all of the restrictions on government which he espouses. (Note: this would leave me FUCKED. Paul wants to abolish the Department of Education, which I indirectly work for currently… and he wants to end all financial aid, which will be putting food on my table over the next two years).

Most libertarians fall in one of two camps: the John Wayne or the Ayn Rand. Paul is a John Wayne libertarian. He just wants the gahbermant to git’ff is back. Taxes? Too much. War abroad? It’s a sandbox, we don’t need any. Pretty simple stuff.

The Ayn Rand Objectivists are a different breed, although they arrive at nearly identical conclusions. They are equally suspicious of government regulation, which stifles the entrepreneurial spirit. All difficult policy decisions can and should be made on the basis of the self-interested individual. Greed is good. Etc., etc.

The simplicity and unambiguity of the political philosophy is astounding. And, as the post title says, it has great “sex appeal.” Especially for me, being from the OC and all.

The reason I am NOT a Libertarian? It’s an incomplete philosophy. It doesn’t account for market failures that bedevil the capitalistic system. It doesn’t provide for a safety net. And it unwisely assumes that everyone acts in their own rational self-interest.

But, I will admit, the political philosophy of “soft paternalism” seems right up my alley. As it turns out, Libertarian Paternalism Is Not An Oxymoron.

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Great Success!

July 16, 2007 · 2 Comments

In my previous post I mentioned that I’m taking remedial math and economics so that I’ll be up to snuff by next month when I start graduate studies in a functional concentration grounded in… math and economics.

Clearly quantitative analysis does not come as easily to me as it does others, and it is not what I would consider “one of my strengths” (a short list of activities including: growing body-hair, eating until engorgement, gambling compulsively, sweating profusely and skim-reading). But, if I’m ever to realize my dreams of managing my own business, I’m going to need to be fundamentally solid in financial management and analysis. It’s just the way it is.

They say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I think the assumption behind the axiom is that the formative parts of the brain seal off as you age, limiting your capacity for retention. But, I think the expression is more than just a physiological observation. It’s a question of desire: old dogs don’t learn new tricks… not due to a physical incapacitation, but a mental one.

You see, old dogs reach a point in their lives– when their hip grates out of alignment, and cataracts fog their eyes– whereupon the pat on the head, or bone in the mouth, simply isn’t worth thee measured effort required to even attempt to learn a new trick.

The old dog can never perform something as well as he could in his prime. And he certainly can’t run the obstacle course as fast as a young turk. So what’s the point in trying?

Now, I’m not necessarily painting myself as an “old dog.” In reverse dog years, I’m just over 3 years… pouncing through the undergrowth and humping Tickle-me-Elmo, all day everyday. But I do understand that the greatest stumbling block in learning (or in my case, relearning) a “trick” is finding and overcoming the starting inertia of the initial motivating desire.

Staying in the dog vein, my desire to acquire and hone analytical skills is akin to a Labrador training for a Greyhound race: his limitations and inferior relative abilities are painfully obvious from the get-go. But by training with Greyhounds, the Lab can still become a very fast dog.

The great UCLA coach John Wooden defines success as:

Peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best that you are capable of becoming.

[Aside: This philosophy used to be encapsulated by the US Army's recruiting motto "Be All That You Can Be." As it turns out, when you're targeting under-privileged minority youth, the implications of that motto are fairly... um, outrageous. "An Army of One" is much more egalitarian, even in an organization based on chain-of-command.]

Rohit is oft to point out that nobody is a snowflake; that we all wander through this clusterfuck [word of the month] of existence assigning meaning where we deem necessary to assuage the hollow angst of being and nothingness. So to some degree, the notion of “becoming the best that you are capable” is, at best, a quaint delusion.

But post-modern existentialism also implies that, in the absence of moral absolutes, stand-by relatives can act as serviceable guides to maximize the exhilaration of mind, body and soul, even without understanding why such exhilaration is truly a desirable end. The self-satisfaction Wooden describes is akin to Maslow’s self-actualization, the pinnacle of human existence, the transcendence of the soul to its purest and freest expression.

And yes… there is still a part in me (and in all of us, I suppose) that is still scared to approach the precipice of my own potential, to put forth the entirety of my effort in the pursuit of achievement. If it the totality of my efforts were to amount to nothing, I imagine, it could be devastating to the ego. Which I suppose, is why I (and we all) sometimes engage in self-defeatist tendencies of distraction and procrastination.

But I also suspect that the potential fall-out of a starkly conducted self-appraisal could never be as depressing, no matter the realities revealed, as the old dog that gets put down, never knowing which new tricks he could’ve picked up had he simply put forth the effort.

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