Archive for September, 2007

Is my education sucking my will to revolt?

September 20, 2007

Over the past week or so, I have grown deeply introspective and somewhat self-critical in the aftermath of my visceral response to the actions and words of one person.  First, some history of my own thought is in order.

After dropping out of college in 2000, I found myself caught in a strange holding pattern of the mind, characterized by a mixture of equally strong parts of intelligence, curiosity, moral certitude, and lack of a formal higher education (which brings with it a lack of critical self-appraisal of one’s own ideas).  Upon this mental state was founded multiple philosophical discourses (which I now consider to be important keepsakes of my intellectual past), a propensity to blame capitalism and corporations for society’s ills, and a general frustration with people in positions of authority.  Not long before my ex-wife and I separated,   I had joined a rather innocuous socialist party, whose intellectual grounding was nevertheless attractive to me.  Its membership was comprised of maybe 20 or so very well-read Marxists; it was so small because the party’s exclusionary membership application process (eight in-depth questions covering everything from party politics to religious sentiments) limited its size and scope.  It was, in the end, a place for intellectuals to register their desire for revolutionary change without feeling pressure to really do anything about it.  That was me, in a nutshell. 

My stint as a Marxist led me to an ironical major and career path:  economics.  It was with the intention of raising holy hell about capitalism that I enrolled in a Principles of Macroeconomics class at my local community college, my first time back at school in three years.  Instead of finding reason to be belligerent, I was impressed by the explanatory power, by the grasp of the enormously complex problems that markets create and solve. 

When I finally returned to Mary Washington College a year later, I was still very much on a rebellious streak inspired by anger at the injustice I perceived around me, yet I found myself weaned off of anti-capitalistic sentiments by economics.  I began to look for still more radical, holistic viewpoints of the world, which I found in a campus group of anarchists.  Still, with time, I began to lose my interest in radical politics all together.  I perceived the solution(s) to society’s injustices to be too complicated to be broached by any one political or economic ideological system.  My association with the anarchist group tapered off more and more as my interest in philosophy and economics increased.  In general, I consider my movement from radicalism to quiet observation and critique (both of my own ideas and the ideas of others’) to be a positive change.  However, there are two tendencies of mine that recent events have brought to my attention, both of which make me wonder if I have strayed too far. 

First, the economic way of thinking (as I have constructed it based on my classes) renders me prone to divorce my notions of justice from my notions of practical possibility.  I see “economic growth” as a phenomenon that is disturbed by legislative attempts to redistribute wealth or power, and I have thereby bought into the notion of “trickle-down” economics, as pundits might call it.  Poverty, racism, classism, increasing inequality of wealth, rampant disaffection with the political system – these things no longer affect me as they once did, and no longer inspire me to revolt against the norm.  Though I started off questioning others’ authority, I was eventually persuaded to question my own authority, and now I find myself defending the activities of the wealthy and powerful in society in the hope that this will somehow see the end to all the world’s problems.  I feel as if I’m stuck choosing the lesser of two evils:  support the powerful, or advocate the redistribution of wealth and all the difficulties that presents.  In the end, I have chosen the former. 

Second, and related to the first, I have stopped questioning out loud.  When I first got into economics, as I said, I was astounded by the explanatory power.  Nonetheless, a lot about the field bothered me:  the implicitly normative nature of homo economicus, the ethnocentrism I discovered in neoclassical and even the more tractable members of the heterodox economics, and the arrogance of economists who seemed to suppose that since policy-makers listened to them, their explanations of phenomena were the best.  I eventually found, however, that constantly arguing these points was exhausting and disruptive of class, and I stopped questioning the subject matter out loud.  I took my problems to professors’ offices, or utilized research projects to look for answers to my objections.  I bought in to the analytical frameworks that my professors were laying out, while simultaneously attempting to remain aloof of the dogmatic traps that devotion to any “way of thinking” laid in my path. 

I think I ultimately failed in this endeavor, or have very nearly failed.  The “shut up and listen” approach I took to the classroom was an attempt to learn how to look at social phenomena through the “objective” lens of economics while still hanging on to the notions of justice, or human nature, or whatever, that I held onto in my head.  In the process, however, I have allowed the practical explanatory power of economics to stretch beyond the purely positivistic, to the point where I now use it in a normative way.  The economic perspective has become my perspective, and in the process I have become as myopic as that of which I was once very critical

It is oh-so-tempting to blame systems for the world’s or even one’s own problems – capitalism, the educational system, government, what have you.  What I have learned in college is a few different methods that I can use to analyze phenomena under the conditions and within the constraints that systems set up.  In the process, however, I seem to have forgotten (or worst of all, ceased to care) about whether the system itself is viable for what its proponents and beneficiaries seek.  “Cui bono?” is a question I have failed to ask more and more often. 

What’s more, I feel… cowed by the relatively comfortable lifestyle promised me by my achievements at this institution and those in the future to come.  Like I’m becoming a support beam for a system I don’t really agree with (at least in terms of the spread between its promises and its fruits).  It’s not a feeling I enjoy.  It’s not that I want to be an anarchist again, or a Christian, or a libertarian, or whatever.  I don’t think the answers to my questions are to be found in an ideology.  But neither are they to be found in tacit collusion with authorities, up to and including – sometimes – the professors whom I respect and admire.  The inner push I have felt to beat my professors at their own game has converted me to their perspective, but not with my conscious approval, and that bothers me. 

So while I stand by the words published in today’s school newspaper, I worry that in doing so I am being hypocritical.  There is something to be said for being a pain in your professor’s ass.  There is something to be said for remaining aloof of dogma not only in your head, but also by speaking out in public, because the public will hold you to your word.  They will expect you to differ, and they will look to you for an alternate explanation, whether they (or you!) buy into it or not.  Even if your classmates seem to think you’re an idiot, speaking out keeps you from settling down, and if done respectfully but insistently it keeps those around you from feeling too comfortable with their personal justification for the world around them.  That can only be a good thing. 

You don’t need to be a revolutionary to think critically about what you hear in class; something is wrong if you experience no cognitive dissonance with respect to what your teachers tell you, because that means you’re not learning anymore – you’re just memorizing.  You should learn how experts think, but you should also expect them to think like beginners, you should insist that they be on their toes.  The classroom should be dynamic, and that dynamism can only derive from the conflict that learners can and incite.  Read, discuss, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate everything that you can.  See if the experts are so diligent.  If they are… that’s a teacher whose class you should never miss.  

Because every personal revelation should start with a relevant quote

September 20, 2007

When one is young, one venerates and despises without that art of nuances which constitutes the best gain of life, and it is only fair that one has to pay dearly for having assaulted men and things in this manner with Yes and No. Everything is arranged so that the worst of tastes, the taste for the unconditional, should be cruelly fooled and abused until a man learns to put a little art into his feelings and rather to risk trying even what is artificial – as the real artists of life do. The wrathful and reverent attitudes characteristic of youth do not seem to permit themselves any rest until they have forged men and things in such a way that these attitudes may be vented on them – after all, youth in itself has something of forgery and deception. Later, the young soul, tortured by all kinds of disappointments, finally turns suspiciously against itself, still hot and wild, even in its suspicion and pangs of conscience.  How wroth it is with itself now! How it tears itself to pieces, impatiently! How it takes revenge for its long self-delusion, just as if it had been a deliberate blindness! In this transition one punishes oneself with mistrust against one’s own feelings; one tortures one’s own enthusiasm with doubts; indeed, one experiences even a good conscience as a danger, as if it were a way of wrapping oneself in veils and the exhaustion of subtler honesty – and above all one takes sides, takes sides on principle, against “youth.” Ten years later one comprehends that all this, too – was still youth.

 -Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 31

Some humility is in order…

September 15, 2007

A few days ago, Steve wrote a post about a difficult student who, on Thursday, published this rather vitriolic letter in The Bullet, my school newspaper. 

Like a car wreck, I’ve been unable to peel my attention away from developments of this story.  After reading the column in the newspaper, my curiosity got the best of me and I began to see what, if anything, I could discover about this individual. 

After a few minutes of toying with search terms (they’re not just for scholarship!), I found a rather curious website:  Semantic Reasoning.  It is a truly strange doppleganger of Aristotelian and Humean ideas.  I can not speak to whether or not it presents qualities of the positivists, and his suggestion that the reader should learn his system (rather than his system answering the problems suggested by the establishment) if one is to debate it with him… well, no thanks.  My friends and I are rather anxious for him to take a class with Craig Vasey, the chair of the philosophy department at Mary Washington.  Not even the most talented philosophy majors (and arguably few of his colleagues, [mostly others in his department]) can go toe-to-toe in wit, knowledge, intellect, or command of his pupils’ respect. 

There is no more humbling experience I can think of than walking with a philosophy professor to edge of the chasm of your own ignorance.      

There is a response letter to our semantic reasoner’s Op-Ed piece in the works, which I will post here on Thursday, next week. 

Enjoying Economics (and Nevermind the Anthropology)

September 12, 2007

A couple weeks ago, more as a note to myself than to any reader, I wrote an entry describing my course schedule for this, my final semester as an undergrad.  In a twist that really suprises me given my initial expectations for this final semester, I have made several moves that sacrifice diversity of interest for depth in the field I most enjoy: economics.

I dropped Existentialism:  Fascinating but far too time-consuming this semester.

I dropped Symbolic Anthropology:  My interest in the field begins with discussion with my anthro major friends over coffee…. and apparently ends when I actually have to read and discuss the impenetrable stuff that is ethnography.

To keep me (and my financial aid status) full-time, Professor Greenlaw was gracious enough to take me on today in what is technically the third individual study I will be completing this semester.  Informally titled “Readings in Advanced Macroeconomics,” I’m actually looking forward to both readings and discussions a great deal. 

The switch means that I have three economics courses and an upper-level stats course, which is a far narrower educational agenda than I initially planned.  Why the switch?

I think the predominant part of the decision has to do with my realization that I enjoy nearly all aspects of the study of economics.  It is a field that contains several diverse and comparably powerful frameworks that allow you to elucidate whole swaths of human phenomena.  All you need to start out is curiosity and a good teacher, and I happen to have lucked upon several of the latter at the University of Mary Washington.

But I think the best part about studying economics is that I get it.  And I mean I really get it – as if it came natural to me.  Even better, my professors know that I get it, and I think it excites them that I desire, under their guidance, to dig ever-deeper.  I think it becomes a feedback loop, where the lights keep switching on in my head and, encouraged, my teachers start trying to flip even more switches.

Experiencing such vibrance in one’s mind is addictive.  This, I think, is what many college kids miss out on, and it is precisely what I would have missed out on if I had returned to school any sooner than I did.

Structural Unemployment and Job Training

September 11, 2007

Today’s Wall Street Journal contained a page one article about the uses to which ex-auto workers are putting their buyout money from the Big Three auto makers.  Workers cite the exciting atmostphere of healthcare and the earning potential as reasons to move into healthcare.  Says the article “[Detroit automakers GM, Chrysler, and Ford] are holding up [worker buyouts of $100k or more and education grants] as an example of socially responsible cost-cutting…”

This is an intereseting phenomenon, and if it really works, I hope it motivates other corporations and the federal government to take similar approaches to sources of structural unemployment.  For every surplus of labor in one sector in America, there is always a shortage in some other sector.  Healthcare in general and nursing in particular are examples of the latter; other areas include IT, CIS, biotechnology, etc. etc. etc., and the shortages are not necessarily the result of lack of interest – people, I think, are genuinely aware of the possibilities of employment, but they are unable to take advantage of the opportunities because they can not afford the requisite education. 

I would like to see the government take a similar approach to farming.  The recent (bad) decision by Congress to spend millions on subsidies for developing the ethanol industry rather than importing it from (for instance) Brazil is a perfect example of money that would be better spent offering individual farmers the option of placing themselves or their children in an education program of their choice, instead.  Higher prices on everything from corn to cucumbers at the grocery store evidences that that massive ethanol subsidies could have a profound, negative effect on consumer spending, and such a shift would ripple throughout the economy.  Instead of keeping farmers artificially afloat, why not offer up education grants to farming households?  Though farming may be an honorable trade, that does not mean that farmers should not be offered the opportunity to exit the industry.  This would reduce supply, increasing prices, while reducing the need for government subsidies.  It is certaily political suicide for any midwest farmer to suggest removing these subsidies without any sort of fallback; it remains to be seen if a billion dollars shifted away from farming subsidies to technical and higher education grants would attract the ire or admiration of voting farmers.  Certainly the ex-auto workers seem happier.   

Proposal Accepted

September 10, 2007

Today, Becca and I had our first meeting with my thesis committee:  Humphrey, Greenlaw, and Hansen.  I admit feeling a bit worried about how it would turn out because I have never had a class with Hansen before, and I had a feeling he would be the person that needed the most convincing.

In a strange twist, Hansen effectively talked us into doing precisely what we proposed to do:  develop a methodology.  Not to say he and the other professors did not help us narrow down the topic a bit more, rendering it more manageable; rather, the qualitative difference between what was proposed and what was decided would be a worthy thesis topic was not very significant. 

The thesis proposal, in its nearly final form, did not spend a great deal of time developing a model because that was never the intended focus of my thesis on political corruption.  The intention was to develop a schematism for translating the heavily descriptive work of anthropologists into the language of, at the very least, political economy, for the purposes of working out the ways in which social networks come into conflict with the state.  Humphrey, my main advisor for the thesis, seemed to think that the basis for desiring to develop this methodology needed more clarity, and so suggested that I spend more time formally developing and critiquing the model that characterizes the mainstream literature. 

It would appear, however, that this distracted unnecesarily from the main point: an alternative model is useless if it can not be tested, and since alternative models of corrution based on social networks appeared to lack an associated methodology, to even talk about testing  is premature.  We were proposing to develop that methodology, but with half the pages of the proposal devoted to developing models, the focus of the thesis was rendered unclear.  It struck Becca and I both as funny that in the end, Greenlaw, and Hansen especially, cared a lot less about models and a lot more about methods, and effectively talked us into focusing on the latter (our original plan), rather than the former.    

I have been warned, as mentioned before, that developing methodology does not provide the fame and fortune that an ambitious economist might seek.  Certainly my economics education these past four years has not explored alternative approaches (not so much a complaint – methods are rightly secondary to concepts in undergraduate work, methinks, and traditional methods are more than adequate for most of the problems that undergrads will take up).  Still, there is something to spending a class period or two to demonstrate that great strides are not always made in the synthesis of new concepts, but also in new approaches to familiar problems.  Stagnation of or dogmatic commitment to either concepts OR methods will doom any quest for knowledge.     

Musings on Anthropology/Economics Crossbreeding

September 2, 2007

I have taken the (I believe risky) step of going ahead with my decision to attempt an interdisciplinary thesis project with a friend of mine in the anthropology department.  She is a highly intelligent woman for whom I have an enormous amount of respect.  Yet having spent but a single week in an anthropology class with her, I am becoming painfully aware of just how different our two fields are.

Economics, for reasons I will speculate on in just a moment, is a social science whose practitioners are able to actively seek to implement their discoveries in the form of policy.  The field itself retains a highly priveleged position amongst the rich and powerful.  Some economists would argue that this is due to its explanatory power, but I would argue that, in addition and by no means inconsequentially, the undergirding assumptions of mainstream economics tend to paint the powerful in a most beautifying light.  Surely, regardless of their wisdom, the king’s advisors would think twice about commenting on the transparency of the emperor’s new clothes?  More coarsely, economics gets as much sway with the politicians for kissing ass as it does for making sense of social phenomena. 

Cultural anthropologists on the other hand, lepers of the social sciences, seem to have long accepted (or at least long convinced themselves of) the fact that politicians will never listen to them.  Contrary to the economist, the anthropologists I know are, it seems, fierce defenders of the irreducibilty of social actions and/or cultures to a set of general principles.  This is, of course, highly impractical stuff if you are a politician facing a deadline:  you need straight answers, predictions, forecasts, a means of translating the ideas to your constituents.  The muck of anthropology, a field that seems unable to pick and settle even on a method of analysis, is characterized by a paralyzing fear of ethnocentricity.

Clearly, economists and cultural anthropologists judge success in their fields by very different standards.  By no means do economists celebrate Milton Friedman for his searing insight into homo economicus.  He didn’t care whether or not humans ACTUALLY made decisions in a certain way, so long as they acted “as if” they made decisions in a certain way.  Contrarily, the pure cultural anthropologist, it seems, could not be more opposed to reducing their subjects’ activities to a set of certain principles; that would require an imposition of ethnocentric values of the mos egregious sort.

My thesis advisor, Shawn Humphrey, suggested that I take what I find in the anthropological literature and fit it into a mold that will work with my economics tool kit.  I would rather not do that.  I would like this to be a meeting of the minds.  I would like her to say “Ok I’m wiling to give here if you’re willing to give there.” 

I worry that this will not, perhaps even can not, happen.