Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Stimulating Thoughts: Sachs v. Krugman

In this corner, Jeff Sachs, Columbia
For someone with a stunning lack of qualifications, I’ve ventured into thinking about a topic of great interest to any modern society: how to manage (or not) an economy that may (or may not) need Keynesian stimulus. As a lightweight, I’ll limit myself to commenting on a fight between two heavyweights. With an audacity not justified by all of 11 credit of hours of economics as an undergraduate, I posted a reply to a tweet by Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia about economic stimulus. 

In this corner, Paul Krugman, Princeton

Sachs has criticized Professor Paul Krugman’s support of stimulus in general and by the Obama Administration in particular. Conversely, Krugman has criticized the Cameron-Osborne austerity policy in Great Britain. Since 2008, according to Krugman, the most of the world has hit a zero-bound limit of interest rates in the latest economic melt-down (2008) that renders monetary policy—the work of the Fed and other central banks—ineffective. Lower interest rates can’t promote growth because the interest rate has effectively hit zero and there remain an insufficient number of takers to boost demand. Krugman argues that when monetary stimulus can no longer work, then it’s time to roll-out the Keynesian fiscal stimulus. To wit, government should spend more, not less (the austerity position).
(And please, I’m interpreting here, so don’t blame Krugman or Sachs for my mistakes.)

Sachs takes a different position. In the dangerously truncated world of Twitter, he wrote:

@SteveGreenleaf Fiscal policy is problematic as counter-cyclical tool in financial panic. Automatic stabilizers good; beyond that, dubious.

In longer (and therefore more trustworthy statements of his thinking), he’s against fiscal stimulus and Krugman’s position on it.  For instance, from this piece in the Huffington Post dated 9 March 2013 that provides a thorough presentation of Sachs’s position, he writes, “the stimulus packages that began in 2009 --which have consisted mainly of temporary tax cuts and transfer payments -- have significantly raised the public debt while doing very little to solve the nation's long-term employment and growth problems.”

I think that the pivotal point in this is Sachs’s reference to “long-term”. Perhaps he chose this instead of “long-run” because it could too easily come up against Keynes’s statement about “the long-run”:

"In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again."

Herein lays the weakness of the Sachs’s position: Yes, the storm will clear and so we don’t need to take any extraordinary measures (beyond “automatic stabilizers”) to right the economic ship. This position has its merits. By way of analogy, when I have lower GI distress (ahem), do I treat it or do I suffer through it? Having been living abroad and traveling since 2012, I’ve had some (but relatively few) incidents, and when I have, I’ve usually let Nature run its course. No Cipro-bombs and only a little of applying the Imodium brakes. This course of benign neglect is one that I think medical authorities agree with. It allows the body to build and use its own defenses and avoids the side effects of any medication. (Any medication is a poison in the wrong dose or taken at the wrong time.) But if I’d gotten sick enough, I have Cipro in my travel kit. The question is one of judgement about when to treat and when to allow the “automatic stabilizers” to do their work without additional aid (not “stimulus” in this case, thank you). I believe that Dr. Keynes would agree to this treatment protocol. However, I believe that Dr. Sachs might be too parsimonious applying any treatment. For instance, in late 2008 and early 2009, we faced much more—at least potentially—than a “financial panic”. Sometimes—albeit rarely—“do something, do anything” has some merit. Thus, I believe that apply “Dr. Keynes’s Patented Fiscal Stimulus Elixir” an appropriate medicine to treat an economy with depressed “animal spirits” (following a manic phase).  

But the medicine of Keynesian fiscal stimulus does include a measure of potential poison. First, it’s subject to abuse. If a drug, it should be a Schedule 1 controlled substance—highly addictive. Politicians love to use it as an excuse the heat up the economy and thereby curry favor with the electorate It acts like a narcotic: a great rush followed by a crash and the desire for more and more. Politicians in an electoral democracy are always attempting to seduce voters (getting voters drunk on an economic high and then . . . well, you get the idea). Thus, we must be very wary about the use of fiscal stimulus. (For a fun look at this way of looking at Keynesian fiscal stimulus, view this video from Russ Roberts of Econ Talk and his buddies.) 

So should we turn this over the economists, the experts? That, too, has its limits. Economists, taken as whole, suffer from excessive hubris and limited thinking. Some have thought—and this more true of the Keynesian-oriented crowd than the Hayekian-Austrian crowd—that the economy could be managed. But the economy is a complex, dynamical system that is subject to influence, but only in limited, uncertain, and contingent ways. The economy is a like an organism that’s constantly changing in response to its local environment as well as evolving over the long-run. (Isn’t “organism” the best metaphor of an economy?) For instance, the world economy of the 1930s is different from the economy of 2015. We have learned some things (and ignored a great deal as well). Thus, as a general rule, I’d keep “Dr. Keynes’ Fiscal Stimulus Elixir” locked in a cabinet marked “Open Only in Case of Emergency”. 

In the end, I think that Krugman and the Obama Administration were right in promoting the use of fiscal stimulus. I don’t think that it hurt us (in the long-run), and we could have done much worse. And while I’m inclined to believe that Great Britain and Europe would have been better without austerity (although their social safety nets are probably better than those of the U.S.), things are improving (at last in Britain) despite any unnecessary pain. Sooner or later, the storm passes. 

Krugman and Sachs as economists have many greater points of significant agreement than significant differences. Both are important voices of progressivism. And while I think it was time in the wake of 2008 to break out the fiscal stimulus medicine, it’s now time to back off of it as a primary concern and focus instead on a long-term plan along that lines that Sachs has outlined. We in the U.S. need significant work on infrastructure and effective social programs. We need to “live within our means” and keep deficits in check. On the issues of climate change and world poverty Sachs has provided a leading voice in addressing these challenges. These issues, , along with limiting the legalized bribery of campaign finance and reducing the crippling economic inequality that can poison our society and politics, should become the focus of our public policy debate. Both of these heavyweights, whom I admire and from whom I’ve learned a great deal, play an important role in framing and forwarding these concerns. So let the debates continue.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

Published 1973

In the introduction to my Vintage edition of The Honorary Consul, Nicholas Shakespeare reports that in conversation he held with Graham Greene, Greene identified The Honorary Consul as his favorite work. (He identified The Heart of the Matter as his best.) After having read the The Honorary Consul, I can understand his selection. Greene set it in early 1970s Argentina and Paraguay, and it’s populated with discrete, well-developed characters caught in the swirl of revolutionary-reactionary politics, low-level diplomacy, and personal issues of faith, betrayal, love, and redemption. 

The central characters are Dr. Eduardo Plarr, a physician and the son of a British national and Paraguayan mother, and Charley Fortnum, the “honorary consul” of the title. A small band of rebels kidnap Fortnum, having mistaken him for the intended target, the American ambassador. Dr. Plarr, a sometime friend and later rival to Fortnum, becomes drawn into the affair through his past in Paraguay. A friend from his youth, who is a priest turned rebel, embroils Plarr in the ill-fated scheme. The events unfold in the world of Latin American politics that often mixes repressive reaction, doomed rebellion, and dumb inertia. Greene, as usual, captures this stew of persons, motives, and events. He ranges from the conversations of the rather hapless gang of rebels to the apathy of the diplomats who discuss Fortnum’s fate. In places, Greene’s dialogues would have made an excellent play (as his stories often converted easily to screenplays).

Graham Greene (1904-1991)
But with Greene, unlike, for instance, Ambler or Le Carre, there’s something more. The seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza was dubbed the “God-intoxicated man” by later generations. If Spinoza deserves that appellation, then we should dub Greene “the God-intoxicated author”, for once again, issues of God, faith, betrayal, love, and justice come to the forefront in the dialogues of his characters. As in The Power and the Glory (another among Greene’s best works), a wayward priest is near the center of the action and acts as a foil to his friend Dr. Plarr. Sometimes Greene’s dialogues seem almost too much, so weighty, yet he makes them work with his characters and their plight. Even the cynical feel compelled to offer justifications that draw them into dialogues about issues of good and evil. I won’t go into the content of these dialogues (which provide a stark contrast to those of the higher-ups), but they bear the burden of their weight and yet still allow the plot to advance to its stunning conclusion.

I suppose that it takes a certain type of reader to enjoy Graham Greene, and I’m not sure why I find his work so intriguing. Perhaps it’s because his works often deal with those on the edge, such as Brits in far-flung lands, remnants of a once mighty empire which now, by Greene’s time, has mostly fallen apart, often mirroring the disarray in the lives of his characters. And his novels are set in places marked by terrible economic and political injustices, such as Paraguay and Argentine, Haiti, West Africa, and Viet Nam. Persons in these places often can’t lead quiet, unburdened lives. Choices are real and the sins that may seem inconsequential elsewhere take on more serious repercussions in these liminal worlds. To venture into a Greene novel, such as this one, is to venture into a world where good and evil do not hide from sight, but instead parade through life in a confusing array of lives and acts.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Kinds of Power: An Intelligent Guide to Its Uses by James Hillman

James Hillman's Kinds of Power: A Guide to Its Intelligent Uses was first published in 1995. I read it some years ago, probably closer to the time of publication, but I re-read it just in the last couple of days. I was prompted to do so after looking at some books on leadership recommend. In addition to popular books that I pulled from a couple of lists, I added Kinds of Power to Garry Wills's Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership and Leadership & Self-Deception. None of these three books were on the couple of lists that I reviewed, but each is a significant omission, which is not to diss the books that did make the popular lists, such as Delores Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals and Daniel Goleman's work on emotional intelligence in leadership. 

Hillman's book has a chapter of "leadership", but it places the issue within the context of power. Hillman was (d. 2011) a prominent voice in the tradition of Jungian psychology, and to my mind, a brilliant and engaging writer. His references range from Greek and Roman myths and etymologies to Michael Jackson & Bill Clinton. Easy to read but deeply thought. In his knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman culture, Hillman matches Wills in this mastery of these cultures, and the ability to apply those insights to the contemporary world. 

Hillman's work are always thought-provoking, and readers, I'm confident readers will find recognizable examples in his many discussions. By the way, Kinds of Power was published by Doubleday/Currency, which is (or was--who can keep up with changes in publishers?) a business imprint that published some unique and worthwhile books. And while Hillman's erudition is staggering, he wrote this as for a business audience, making it accessible to a most readers .

Some samplers:

As in a garden or a marriage, deepening brings ugly twisted things out of the soil. It’s a work in the dirt.

Hillman, James, Kinds of Power (Kindle Locations 596-597)

We become artists only when we enjoy the practicing as much as the performing. Until then we are caught by the limelight rather than the art. . . .  Over and over again, not to get it finally right, not for the sake of perfection, but simply doing it as if for its own sake, freed from having to do it. The work working by itself, mechanically, repetitiously, impersonally. Could this idea of disinterested repetitiveness— one of the highest aims of Zen, mystical contemplation and religious practice, as well as the practice of the arts and sports— transfer to administration, sales, production, accounting?

Hillman, James, Kinds of Power (Kindle Locations 675-681)

Even more curious: why are the conflicts about power so ruthless— less so in business and politics [and I'd add sports--sng], where they are an everyday matter, than in the idealist professions of clergy, medicine, the arts, teaching and nursing. Those embattled in academic struggles and in museum and hospital fights deceive, backbite, threaten and maneuver shamelessly. They will not speak with friends of their enemies. Cabals form. Hatchet men appointed. Revenge plotted. Yet in business and politics [and I'd add the practice of law--sng] competitors for much larger stakes still go off to the golf course, eat and drink together. In business and politics, it seems, there is less idealism and more sense of shadow. Power is not repressed but lived with as a daily companion; moreover, it is not declared to be the enemy of love.

Hillman, James,  Kinds of Power (Kindle Locations 1181-1187)

This last quote really struck home, not just because of its reference to academics and and its contrast to politics, law, and sports (in my opinion), but it reminds me that one of the nastiest employment situations I dealt with as a lawyer involved a humane society! It became apparent to me that all of the kindness was used up on the animals and none left for the members & workers. It was weird in a way. In this situation and others like it (education providing many other examples for me), the magnitude of the stakes were inversely proportional to the intensity of the emotions. The common denominator was that these were not powerful people (or at least they did not perceive themselves as powerful).

What I've written done justice to  Hillman's greater project of "psychologyzing" how we view ourselves and our world. To him, we humans and our world have a soul, this is, a way of experiencing the world that is symbolic, feeling, changing, and elusive. We must look at a phenomenon like power through this lens to appreciate its many manifestations and changing character. And this is what Hillman does brilliantly, avoiding definition and instead providing stories and observations, from the world of the Greek and Roman gods to Mick Jagger and Abe Lincoln, for examples. It's a wild ride sometimes, but when I reflected upon it, I realized the deep insights that he as culled from this complex word and phenomena.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Allen Mandelbaum

How does one review The Divine Comedy, which has been subject to consideration for centuries by some of the greatest minds of Western culture? I won't try. It's a brilliant and imaginative work of the first order, perhaps the greatest single work in the Western literary canon. If handled with care, one doesn't read it, one experiences it.

Mandelbaum's translation works very well, holding a poetic sensibility without attempting to replicate Dante's terza rima. The result reads (silently or aloud--this isn't modern prose, it's poetry) in a way that takes you into Dante's world. I'm not enough of an expert to compare translations authoritatively, but I don't know that other translations that I've read match this one. His notes are    a quite thorough and elucidating.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

It is the way and the Waygoer. It is the eternal road along which walk all beings, but no being made it, for itself is being. It is everything and nothing. From it all things spring, all things conform to it, and to it at last all things return. It is a square without angles, a sound which ears cannot hear, and an image without form. It is a vast net and though its meshes are as wide as the sea it lets nothing through. It is the sanctuary where all things find refuge. It is nowhere, but without looking out of the window you may see it. Desire not to desire, it teaches, and leave all things to take their course. He that humbles himself shall be preserved entire. He that bends shall be made straight. Failure is the foundation of success and success is the lurking-place of failure; but who can tell when the turning point will come? Who strives after tenderness can become even as a little child. Gentleness brings victory to him who attacks and safety to him who defends. Mighty is he who conquers himself.

I finally realized the long-held intention to read a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. The Painted Veil proved an excellent introduction. It is a novel about a vain young British woman in the 1920s, Kitty, who whimsically marries an intense, introverted physician, Walter. She follows him to Hong Kong, where she becomes embroiled in an affair. After discovering the affair, Walter takes Kitty to the interior of China where he works to defeat a cholera epidemic. The novel focuses on the education of Kitty through her relationships and through her observations of alien worlds.

Maugham is an older contemporary of Graham Greene, with whom he may be compared. Maugham began his writing career before the advent of the First World War and published his most acclaimed work, Of Human Bondage, in 1915. He continued publish well past the Second World War. Thus, The Painted Veil is a mid-career work for him. Like Greene and many British writers of their time, Maugham traveled a great deal and used his travels as settings for his novels (as well as writing travel books). In this work, set in Hong Kong and the Chinese interior, China becomes more of a stage prop than I would hope or expect, at least if written today. No Chinese characters receive any depth of portraiture. But since the story centers on Kitty and placement of her in the Chinese interior serves to isolate and alienate her from the much more Anglicized setting of Hong Kong. Indeed, the significant others for Kitty when she travels to the interior are Walter, a fellow Englishman, Waddington, and a group of French nuns, of whom the Mother Superior becomes an important figure for Kitty.

The novel grabbed my attention because it focused on Kitty, a vain young woman, who undergoes a variety of trials. It amazed me how well Maugham portrayed Kitty in her vanity and her struggles to come to terms with herself and her world. The men in this novel are enigmatic, as is the aloof and challenging Mother Superior of the local convent. But this allows us to share the perspective of Kitty, who must deal with these complicated Others.

I enjoyed this novel a good deal. While I would've liked to of seeing more of the China drawn into the story, that was not Maugham's primary intent, nor was it necessary to tell Kitty's story.

Above, I've included a quote delivered by Kitty's friend, Waddington, about the Tao. I find it an interesting quote, but this is about as deeply as Maugham ventures into Chinese culture.

Maugham once described himself as among the front row of second-tier writers. He's not among the avant-garde of the 20th century, and I think that Graham Greene has a greater, richer body of work. However, Maugham’s work, at least based on this sample, deserves recognition. Based on The Painted Veil, I look forward to reading other works by Maugham.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Words of Insight from Montaigne

The author & his essays
Others form man; I describe him, and portray a particular, very ill-made one, who, if I had to fashion him anew, should indeed be very different from what he is. But now it is done. Now the features of my painting do not err, although they change and vary. The world is but a perennial see-saw. All things in it are incessantly on the swing, the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the Egyptian pyramids, both with the common movement and their own particular movement. Even fixedness is nothing but a more sluggish motion. I cannot fix my object; it is befogged, and reels with a natural intoxication. I seize it at this point, as it is at the moment when I beguile myself with it. I do not portray the thing in itself. I portray the passage; not a passing from one age to another, or, as the people put it, from seven years to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. I must adapt my history to the moment. I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention. It is a record of diverse and changeable events, of undecided, and, when the occasion arises, contradictory ideas ; whether it be that I am another self, or that I grasp a subject in different circumstances and see it from a different point of view. So it may be that I contradict myself, but, as Demades said, the truth I never contradict. If my mind could find a firm footing, I should not speak tentatively, I should decide; it is always in a state of apprenticeship, and on trial. 

I am holding up to view a humble and lustreless life; that is all one. Moral philosophy, in any degree, may apply to an ordinary and secluded life as well as to one of richer stuff; every man carries within him the entire form of the human constitution. Authors communicate themselves to the world by some special and extrinsic mark; I am the first to do so by my general being, as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian or a poet or a lawyer. If the world finds fault with me for speaking too much of myself, I find fault with the world for not even thinking of itself. But is it reasonable that I, who am so retired in actual life, should aspire to make myself known to the public? And is it reasonable that I should show up to the world, where artifice and ceremony enjoy so much credit and authority, the crude and simple results of nature, and of a nature besides very feeble? Is it not like making a wall without stone or a similar material, thus to build a book without learning or art? The ideas of music are guided by art, mine by chance. This I have at least in conformity with rules, that no man ever treated of a subject that he knew and understood better than I do this that I have taken up; and that in this I am the most learned man alive. Secondly, that no man ever penetrated more deeply into his matter, nor more minutely analyzed its parts and consequences, nor more fully and exactly reached the goal he had made it his business to set up. To accomplish it I need only bring fidelity to it; and that is here, as pure and sincere as may be found. I speak the truth, not enough to satisfy myself, but as much as I dare to speak. And I become a little more daring as I grow older; for it would seem that custom allows this age more freedom to prate, and more indiscretion in speaking of oneself. It cannot be the case here, as I often see elsewhere, that the craftsman and his work contradict each other. … A learned man is not learned in all things; but the accomplished man is accomplished in all things, even in ignorance. Here, my book and I go hand in hand together, and keep one pace. In other cases we may commend or censure the work apart from the workman; not so here. Who touches the one touches the other.

The Essays of Montaigne. Translated by E. J. Trechmann, Oxford University Press, 1927, cited in Auerbach, Erich, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton Classics) (pp. 286-288). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Secret History of Consciousness by Gary Lachman

Gary Lachman: rocker turned serious author

I enjoy reading Gary Lachman. There are several reasons that I think explain this. First, were born only a few years apart so we grew up in the same general cultural milieu of the United States in the 60’s and 70’s, although he grew up in New Jersey as opposed my more culturally conservative small-town Iowa. He was brought up as a Catholic, although he walked away from the Church as a teenager. Finally, despite a very successful career as a Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame member of the band Blondie, he became interested in spiritual, esoteric, and metaphysical writings. Finally, after a lucky browse at a used bookstore in Berkley when I had some extra time there after a deposition, I, too, discovered Colin Wilson (Religion & the Rebel), whom Lachman admires. Since developing his interest in these topics, Lachman has transformed himself from a rocker into a formidable author on the subject of human consciousness and culture. I believe that he wears the mantel of successor to Colin Wilson, with whom he developed a friendship and from whom he received a forward to his book, A Secret History of Consciousness.

In this work, Lachman details the history of mystical, esoteric, and occult thought from the beginning of the 20th-century up to the near present. Not all of it the figures he discusses are by any means fringe. Early in the book, he addresses the works of Henri Bergson and William James, to name the most prominent philosophers in France and the US respectively at the beginning of the 20th century. In addition, Alfred North Whitehead, although not receiving a full separate treatment, receives consideration.

But he mostly addresses those persons who remain on the fringe of accepted intellectual discourse and that provide the most interesting and perplexing examples. Among these characters are Gurdjieff, Ouspensky,  Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield, and Jean Gebser, to name the most prominent. In addition, Lachman examines the work of various psychologists and lesser-known philosophers who delve into the farther reaches of the human mind and the more speculative aspects of reality. The common thread running through Lachman's work is his concern with consciousness. What is it? And how does it relate to matter? Perhaps the biggest distinction between those thinkers that Lachman discusses and those who are considered more mainstream is that Lachman's group maintains that consciousness receives primacy over matter.

One of the challenges in addressing a topic of this sort is to distinguish what appears to be delusional, fantastic, or absurd and what is deeply insightful. For instance, Gurdjieff (whom I've read a bit of and about) can at times seem deeply insightful. On the other hand, he has a theory of planetary influences that leaves me and many others baffled, if not disdainful. Similarly, Rudolf Steiner was, among other things, a Goethe scholar and a scientist, but he, too, promoted a theory of planetary influences and the existence of spiritual beings and records. Whether to consider these reports as the rantings of a madman or the symbols of the deeply creative artist, is hard to discern. But throughout the book, Lachman displays a wonderfully practical common sense and open-mindedness. In this work, Lachman serves as an accurate guide and reporter, and he sets aside some of these perplexing issues to report on what is most vital in these thinkers.

In addition to those I've already mentioned, Lachman reports at length on the work of Owen Barfield and Jean Gebser. I'm currently reading and thinking a lot about Barfield's work in and how it relates to (somewhat) more mainstream thinkers like philosopher R.G. Colllingwood and historian John Lukacs. I therefore appreciate Lachman’s concise and lucid exposition of Barfield’s main ideas. Gebser is a future project, but I know already that he has received accolades from the likes of William Irwin Thompson and Ken Wilber (as Lachman mentions). Both of these thinkers  have incorporated Gebser’s insights into their groundbreaking works. Again, Lachman serves as a reliable reporter on what is to be mined and valued in these works.

Lachman explores these thinkers as a man on a mission, attempting to develop his intuition that human consciousness is of the greatest importance in the universe and that we need to better understand it and use it for the benefit of all creation. Again, I keep coming back how impressed I am with his down-to-earth attitude in addressing these often ethereal topics. He doesn't go easily of for trendiness. For instance, I found myself in a complete agreement in his rather dim view of much of contemporary visual art. He also recognizes where people are likely to get hung up when delving into these thinkers.

I mentioned earlier, he is probably the rightful successor to the late Colin Wilson. Lachman devotes a couple of chapters in his book to Wilson's intellectual projects. Wilson was a chronicler of the fringe of acceptable thought and of bizarre (and often evil) human behavior, but he also formed theories and a philosophy that gave shape to these fringe ideas and events, which Lachman appreciates. In many ways,  Lachman's works further that enterprise.