Saturday, January 23, 2016
The past is infinitely complicated, composed as it is of events, big and small, beyond computation. To make sense of it, the historian must select and simplify and shape. One way he shapes the past is to divide it into periods. Each period is made more memorable and easy to grasp of it can be labeled by a word the epitomizes its spirit. That is how such terms as "the Renaissance" came into being. Needless to say, it is not those who actually live through the period who coin the term, but later, often much later, writers. The periodization and labeling of history is largely the work of the nineteenth century. The term "Renaissance" was first prominently used by the French historian Jules Michelet in 1858, and it was sent in bronze two years later by Jacob Burckhardt when he published his great book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. The usage stuck because it turned out to be a convenient way of describing the period of transition between the medieval epoch, when Europe was "Christendom," and the beginning of the modern age. It also had some historical justification because, although the Italian elites of the time never used the words "Renaissance" or "Rinascimento," they were conscious that a cultural rebirth of a kind was taking place, and that some of the literary, philosophical and artistic grandeur of ancient Greece and Rome was being re-created. In 1550 the painter Vasari published an ambitious work, The Lives of the Artists, in which he sought to describe how this process had taken place, and was continuing, in painting, sculpture and architecture. In comparing the glories of antiquity with the achievements of the present and recent past in Italy, he referred to the degenerate period in between as the "middle ages." This usage stuck too.
-Paul Johnson, The Renaissance: A Short History
John Cochrane, the Grumpy Economist, in a recent thoughtful essay posits: "The first goal of taxation is to raise needed government revenue with minimum economic damage."
I wish it were so, but from the cheap seats it looks like Congress has purposely lost sight of the first goal. They discovered a long time ago the joys of societal engineering through tax treatment. Want some particular outcome? A tax credit here, a deduction there, and, before you know it, magical things happen. More recently they discovered that vast riches in campaign contributions are available to those willing to tinker around the edges of the Code. A few obscure sentences slipped into some obscure legislation and suddenly some nameless entity reaps a financial windfall via the tax code. Complexity has become their friend and their drug. It is wishful thinking to believe that Congress will surrender it willingly. Just saying.
Friday, January 22, 2016
mocrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth - are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire."
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
-Robert A. Heinlein
Thursday, January 21, 2016
Socrates' great gift to society was that he brought morals from the shifty atmosphere of quasidivine bargains, frauds, and compromises into the blazing daylight of ordinary honorable transactions between men and women striving to be honest. To Socrates, morality was an absolute or it was nothing. If an act was unjust, it was always and everywhere so and must never be done. Whatever the provocation, a man or woman must never act unjustly.
-Paul Johnson, Socrates: A Man For Our Times
.............................. love (well, you don't have to, but it is highly recommended) the mind that creates this thing.
Wednesday, January 20, 2016
"I had grown up abhorring not only segregation but also the oppressive and barbarous acts that grew out of it. I had passed spots where Negroes had been savagely lynched, and had watched the Ku KIux Klan on its rides at night. I had seen police brutality with my own eyes, and watched Negroes receive the most tragic injustice in the courts. All of these things had done something to my growing personality. I had come perilously close to resenting all white people."
-Martin Luther King, Jr., as excerpted from his essay "My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence"
This is truly a remarkable essay. I urge you to
On the other hand, human beings, though not worth adorning, were infinitely worth study. Socrates was fascinated throughout his life by the variety, peculiarities, cussedness, and sheer individualism of human beings....For Socrates, ideas existed to serve and illuminate people, not the other way around. Here was the big distinction between him and Plato. To Socrates, philosophy had no meaning or relevance unless it concerned itself with men and women. It is worth repeating, and emphasizing, Cicero's summary of Socrates' work: "He was the first to call philosophy down from the sky and establish her in towns, and bring her into homes, and force her to investigate the life of men and women, ethical conduct, good and evil."
He knew that as soon as philosophy separated itself from the life of people, it began to lose its vitality and was heading in the wrong direction...The notion of philosophy existing only in academic isolation from the rest of the world would have horrified him and probably would have produced ribald laughter, too.
For Socrates saw and practiced philosophy not as an academic but as a human activity. It was about real men and women facing actual ethical choices between right and wrong, good and evil. Hence a philosophical leader had to be more than a thinker, much more. He had to be a good man, for whom the quest for virtue was not an abstract idea but a practical business of daily living. He had to be brave in facing up to choices and living with their consequences. Philosophy, in the last resort, was a form of heroism, and those who practiced it had to possess the courage to sacrifice everything, including life itself, in pursuing excellence of mind. That is what Socrates did. And that is why we honor him and salute him as philosophy personified.
Paul Johnson, Socrates: A Man For Our Times
As the great Mark Twain (may have) said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” That’s particularly true in the investment world because we know, to a mathematical certainty, that avoiding errors provides more bang for the buck than making correct calls and generating outperformance.
Ten myths right here.
Nate Silver, described herein as relentlessly unbiased (is that true?), points to some horrifically high negative polling numbers for Trump. Full story here. Conclusion here:
"So, if you were reserving hotel space for the Trump inauguration, it might be worthwhile to pause and take a deep breath."
Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Ben S. Bernanke, as extracted from The Courage To Act: A Memoir Of A Crisis And Its Aftermath
Ed. Note: the time period for this excerpt was early fall, 2007.
Socrates' rejection of retaliation was the most important practical event of his philosophical life. It was also one of the most important events in the history of philosophy...What Socrates argued is extraordinarily uncompromising. It is moral absolutism at its most stringent. He is saying in effect: If something you do wrongs somebody else and, a fortiori, large numbers of people, it is so bad in itself, and so bad for you, that nothing good which it achieves can compensate for the evil. It may win a victory or even a war; it may bring you everything you value, joy, comfort, security, and long life; it may arouse the approval of those you love, your family and friends; it may be necessary, as you think, for their self preservation and your own; but if it is wrong, then you must not do it. Even if it would win the whole world, you must not do it. Your life itself would not be worth living if you can preserve it only by wronging others.
-Paul Johnson, as excerpted from Socrates: A Man For Our Times
..................................you read (or hear). Of course our hero in this tale is using statistics and data to backup the following quote, and you know what they say about statistics. But still, the quote:
"The bottom line is to be wary of anecdotes even when (maybe especially when) they’re repeated again and again as conventional wisdom. In this case, some pundits actually scored a rare double bogey. They got the reasoning behind the anecdote wrong."
Full essay, with accompanying data, is here.
"I'd been enthralled by the astronomical growth in the volume of information, but the truly epochal change, it turned out, was the revolution in the relationship between the public and authority in almost every domain of human activity."
-Martin Gurri, The Revolt Of The Public And The Crisis Of Authority In The New Millennium
Monday, January 18, 2016
What is particularly liberating about Socrates and it is just as relevant today as in the fifth century B.C., is his hostility not just to the "right answer" as to the very idea of there being a right answer.
-Paul Johnson, Socrates: A Man For Our Times
So this free copy of Martin Gurri's The Revolt Of The Public: And The Crisis Of Authority In The New Millenium showed up on my Kindle. Free is good. Not sure how long it will stay there, so it jumped to the top of the stack. Here are a few early excerpts:
"The moment tomorrow no longer resembles yesterday, we are startled and confused. The compass cracks, by which we navigate existence. We are lost at sea."
"I also held the belief that information of the sort found in newspapers and televisions was identical to knowledge - so the more information, the better. This was naive of me, but if I say so, understandable. Back when the world and I were young, information was scarce, hence valuable. Anyone who could cast a beam of light on, say, Russia-Cuba relations, was worth his weight in gold. In this context, it made sense to crave for more. A curious thing happens to sources of information under conditions of scarcity. They become authoritative."
"It took time to break out of my education and training, but eventually the thought dawned on me that information wasn't just raw material to exploit for analysis, but had a life and power of its own. Information had effects. And the first significant effect I perceived related to the sources: as the amount of information available to the public increased, the authoritativeness of any one source decreased."
"Uncertainty is an acid, corrosive to authority. Once the monopoly on information is lost, so too is our trust. Every presidential statement, every CIA assessment, every investigative report by a great newspaper, suddenly acquired an arbitrary aspect, and seemed grounded in moral predilection rather than intellectual rigor. When proof for and against approaches infinity, a cloud of suspicion about cherry-picking data will hang over every authoritative judgment."
"The docile mass audience, so easily persuaded by advertisers and politicians, had been a monopolist's fantasy which disintegrated at first contact with alternatives. When digital magic transformed information consumers into producers, and established order - grand hierarchies of power and money and learning - went into crisis."
"even the simplest human events constitute complex systems ruled by nonlinearities. Within such systems, teasing out a single episode and proclaiming it the prime mover makes as much sense as to pick a grain of sand and calling it "the beach."
More to come.
Ed. Note: My spell check and I both know that there are two "n"s in Millennium. So does the author. But for some reason the book's cover opted for the one "n" spelling.
You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
-The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as excerpted from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
Full text of the letter is here.
Socrates spent much of his time pondering the Good Life and how to attain it. For he believed, and it was the core of his belief, that only by striving to lead good lives did humans attain a degree of content in their existence and happiness in eternity. He had a simple view of the body and soul and their relationship. The body was the active, physical, earthly aspect of a person and was mortal. The soul was the spiritual aspect and was immortal. The body was greedy for pleasure and material satisfactions, was selfish, and if not kept under control, became a seat of vice. The soul was the intellectual and moral side of the person, which had a natural propensity to do right and to improve itself. It could be, with proper training, the seat of virtue. The most important occupation of a human being was to subdue his bodily instincts and train himself to respond to the teachings of the soul. This training took the form of recognizing, understanding, and learning about virtues and applying this knowledge to everyday situations. Such, to Socrates, was the essence of wisdom. Knowledge, virtue, and wisdom were thus intimately related, and exploring these connections was the object of his "examinations" of himself and others.
-Paul Johnson, Socrates: A Man For Our Times
Sunday, January 17, 2016
..................I'd stake a lot on this position:
God may ultimately be less interested in how people line up on the theological battleground than on how they work, in an atmosphere of contention and conflict, to follow the way of the Cross with an honest conscience and an open heart.
As excerpted from Walter Russell Mead's post on the "yellow card" given to the U. S. Episcopal Church (Disclaimer: I'm a dues paying member) by the Anglican Communion.
The onset and ravages of the plague, the death of Pericles, the decline of his regime and the suspension of his cultural program, the prosecution of his leading followers, and the general malaise in Athens, had a personal effect on Socrates. They forced him to ponder seriously his function in life. He had always been a thinker and enjoyed talking and debating with fellow Athenians. But he had never had a job. Now he began to feel he had a mission. The age of Pericles had been admirable in many ways: It had encouraged architecture and building, painting and pottery, music and the theater, as well as manufacturing and commerce and the useful arts. But there was something missing. It was all very well to reiterate its slogan, "Man is the measure of all things," and to insist that human beings were not helpless playthings of the gods but masters of their fate. But what sort of person was man? The Pericleans were eager to improve art and technology in all their aspects, and had to a great extent succeeded in doing so. But what about improving man? Was it possible? And if so, how? It seemed to Socrates that these questions were never asked and ought to be asked?
-Paul Johnson, Socrates: A Man For Our Times
.....................................that lays the golden eggs:
Arnold "But I find the whole notion of how the tax system should and should not work to give me a headache" Kling points to a different notion about the deductability of mortgage interest.
Faithful readers may have forgotten, but this blog (that ostensibly should have something to do with real estate) has parted ways with the National Association of Realtors over their supposed sanctity of "mortgage interest deduction." This blog posits that if every trade organization and interest group defends to the death their special treatment under the tax code, then no real reformation or simplification of the Code will ever be possible - which looks like a bad thing from here. Have to ponder this one for a while.
...................the blog of the Not-So-Simple Village Undertaker yesterday, and this stanza from my favorite Robert Frost poem popped into mind:
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.
Hey, we just report. You decide.