When Breasts and Book Bags seem to be Dangerous Things, a dose of St. Augustine can make them less ominous
One the same day I learned of Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy, I got an e-mail from my daughter’s high school stating that the school had been placed in “lockdown”, whatever the hell that means, because “a man entered the front office area and placed a black book bag on a bench and left the building without notifying the office staff”. The County Sheriff’s bomb disposal unit was promptly dispatched to the school. It’s not clear whether the FBI, ATF, CIA or any other of the alphabet soup of federal agencies was informed. The bag, after all, was black—the known preference of bag color for would be assassins and terrorists. And it didn’t even have any pink or purple or red or yellow decorative ribbons portraying its owner’s identification with various anti-cancer/support the troops/female empowerment, etc., causes. The bag very obviously did not belong to any of the students at my daughter’s upscale suburban high school, or so it seemed. Alas, the bomb unit X-rayed the bag (wouldn’t a clever bomber devise a bomb to explode upon X-ray?) and found it contained—gasp!—books and school supplies. We are a skittish bunch, aren’t we?
That news came after I learned that Angelina Jolie emasculated herself by having both of her breasts removed on the possibility that they might one day turn cancerous. And yes, “emasculate” is the proper word to describe what Jolie did to herself—in addition to meaning “castration”, emasculate also means “to deprive of strength or vigor; weaken” according to The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Whatever else you might think about Ms. Jolie, it can’t be disputed that she derives great power from her physical attributes, including her breasts. She is a remarkably beautiful woman whose fame and fortune depends on her beauty. That’s what being a movie star is about. Without her breasts, even with life-like replacement prosthetics, she is less so, particularly as her audience now knows by her admission that what they will henceforth see on the screen will not be real. While it has been proved that men are about as discriminating as turkeys when it comes to distinguishing the real from the fake in women (in the wild, gobblers will often attempt to mount a hen decoy), very few are attracted in the same way when they know a woman’s breasts to be fake. (But all the prosthetically-enhanced women needn’t worry. When a roll in the hay is at stake, men would never admit to feeling differently about a woman who has undergone surgical enhancement if doing so would impair their chances.)
Perhaps Jolie’s emasculation came with her admission instead of the surgery. There are undoubtedly a great many Hollywood actresses whose physical features have been surgically enhanced in some manner or another. Very few ever admit to the procedures. Jolie weakened herself by admitting that what people would henceforth see of her breasts, attributes comprising a not insubstantial portion of her physical attractiveness, would not be real. Viewed in that light, she was immensely courageous in her admission. And frankly, all things considered, might be even more attractive now. Women are generally such frauds in their physical appearance. They color their hair. They slather their faces and eyes with greasy paint they call makeup. They pad their bras and wear shoes making them appear three and four inches, or more, taller than they really are. They wear suits with padded shoulders to enhance a facade of power. The average woman leaving for work in the morning is nothing more than a well-constructed lie. But we all now know Angelina Jolie has fake breasts, because she told us so. What a breath of fresh air. I can see why Billy Bob Thornton was attracted to her. What I can’t see is why she was attracted to him. Maybe it had something to do with his brilliant performance in Sling Blade. The guy really is an artistic genius. It’s easy to see what she sees in Brad Pitt, and he in her, but less interestingly so.
But the reason for Ms. Jolie having undergone a double mastectomy is troubling, to say the least. It originates from the same impulsive fear that drove my daughter’s school to imagine the worst when a book bag was left unattended at the school. Fear is an oppressive taskmaster. It is the antithesis of freedom. Kris Kristofferson had it exactly correct when he observed that freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, and we have now become so rich and so comfortable that every single day we have everything to lose, or so we imagine. We can no longer be free. At least not so long as we continue wallow in materialism; at least not so long as we continue to focus our love on things that can’t be loved without the fear of losing.
The fear of getting cancer and dying early drove Jolie to disfigure herself. The fear of another Boston Marathon or Sandy Hook Elementary makes every otherwise benign black bag suspect, and especially so in the vicinity of a school. The fear of another 9/11 drove America to irreparably disfigure its Constitution, in the process losing its only value worth protecting, with no hope of prosthetic enhancement to ameliorate the effects. The fear of rather mild economic pain drove the nationalization of vast swaths of the American economy, and the profound debasement of the currency.
What happens if Jolie dies early anyway? What if she develops a complication from the surgeries and dies or is catastrophically impaired for life?
Is it possible to ever feel safe, to ever know peace, if every unattended bag grips the collective soul with fear?
What becomes of the timeless covenant between a government and its people, forged and refined in the crucible of 10,000 years of civilization and embodied in the US Constitution, when its principles are willingly abandoned on the pain of an attack, not on the Constitution, but on a couple of buildings and some unfortunate people, by a few fanatics?
Where does a dollar go to gets its reputation back, after having been leveraged to the hilt as the world’s medium of exchange and store of value in a vain effort to forestall some measure of economic pain?
Actions undertaken to prevent the pain of loss that is feared often do the exact opposite, operating to cause the very loss they are intended to prevent.
I took an informal poll after the Jolie news came out of three middle-aged women, i.e., women who had already borne all the children they wished to bear. All three said they would have done what Jolie did. It was a bit shocking to me. Did these women wake up every day fearing death could overtake them at any moment? This is no sort of way to live; it is closer to death—the thing they most fear—than life.
The fear of death is not a rational fear. Fear is a defense mechanism against the possibility of suffering pain. Death is a certainty. It is the absence of pain. Life is painful. Death is not. There should be no reason to fear death, except that our uniquely capable (among living creatures of which we are aware) higher order reasoning has discovered that we exist and therefore we must one day cease to exist. The reasoning mind employs its ability to see through layers of space and time to view its ultimate destiny, and twists and contorts the impulse to fear, which we all have as a necessary accoutrement to the survival impulse, into an irrational fear of death. Of course we must one day die, but there is no reason to fear it in the here and now, every moment of our lives. The fear of death, though prompted by our capacity for higher order reasoning, is irrational.
It seems that what is really sought through the obsession to eliminate the risk of death is the continuation of denial. No one wants to acknowledge their own mortality, and be thereby forced to abandon their own irrational fears. Keeping a close hold on irrational fears is infantile and Romantic (in the post-feudal European sense of the notion), an indulgence only available to those living in relative ease and comfort, who don’t regularly face existential struggles in their day-to-day lives.
I learned not to fear death through my son’s experiences struggling to survive leukemia and two bone marrow transplants. I knew his struggle might, and with the second transplant, most likely would, be in vain. I learned not to focus my love on the continuation of his material being. St. Augustine taught me how and why, from On Free Choice of the Will:
All wicked people, just like good people, desire to live without fear. The difference is that the good, in desiring this, turn their love away from things that cannot be possessed without the fear of losing them. The wicked, on the other hand, try to get rid of anything that prevents them from enjoying such things securely. Thus they lead a wicked and criminal life, which would better be called death.
Fear is an oppressive master. Freedom, the very premise upon which America is founded, and the loftiest aspiration one can have for life, can only come through refusing to love things which can’t be enjoyed without the fear of losing. When all one’s treasures are eternal, there is nothing that can be lost. There is nothing to fear. There is freedom, at last.
A book titled Gravity could be about anything, because, it could be argued, gravity is in, of and about everything. Thankfully, Clegg mainly limits his focus to the history of the metaphysical understanding we have of gravity (in the sense of gravity as it exists throughout the universe), otherwise, the subject would require an encyclopedia to cover it all.
For the average layman not actively pondering how it is that an apple heads toward the ground and not the sky when its stem loosens and breaks, the concept of gravity seems to occupy roughly the same place in the shadows of their understandings as does the concept of love. Both are attractive forces. Both are powerfully determinative of the course their lives will take. Both have something of a mystical quality. And not much of anyone understands either one, which is as true about the layman as it is about those who actually have pondered how it is that apples fall towards the earth and not toward the sky.
We know almost nothing of gravity, except that it exists. We have quantified a few of its effects, most usefully through Newton. We know nothing of its causes. To his credit, Clegg doesn’t try to pretend otherwise.
Gravity is not a physics book of the celebrity physicist genre (Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku, et al), written to an audience already awed by the vast capabilities of our very big brains to resolve, in due time and with massive particle-smashing toys generously provided by taxpayers, all the mysteries of the universe. It seems rather more directed to the average guy who has reached a stage of life where he seeks to resolve some of life’s mysteries, which is to say, it seems like it’s written for a guy like me. As a primer on the history of how we arrived at our present understanding of gravity, the book is excellent. Clegg writes in clear, concise, jargon-free prose. He does not shy away from explanations which involve some mathematics, but understands how to translate mathematical equations to linguistically resolvable relationships. And he demonstrates a clear mastery of the subject, so far as such a thing is possible, capably relating what we know and what we don’t know about gravity. He is not afraid to step on some celebrity physicist toes in explaining the latter, as the following passage, concerning whether general relativity can predict the big bang, illustrates:
Take the big bang. Go far enough back in time, close enough to the big bang itself, and you are dealing with a purely quantum phenomenon. Yet it’s one where gravity is an essential component. Without being able to combine the two [quantum and relativity theory, as Clegg previously explained were incompatible] it is impossible to say anything meaningful about the big bang itself.
Just think about that statement. Next time you see a TV special on which a celebrity scientist is pontificating about the big bang as if it were solid fact, you will know better. The big bang is an idea that emerges from a theory that doesn’t work at that scale. Without quantum gravity, we can’t say what happened at the big bang or even if it existed at all. The only certainty is that our current scientific models fail. Entirely. The same goes for the singularities at the heart of black holes, not to mention some of the more exotic concepts of cosmology like negative energy and wormholes.
What a breath of fresh air. The celebrity physicists, all devotees of Einstein, the original celebrity physicist of the modern, mass-communications age, would shriek in horror, rail in derision at the simple idea that without an understanding of the quantum effects of gravity, we don’t have a clue as to what happened at the big bang, or even if it happened. This is good and powerful stuff. Too good and powerful, no doubt for the glad-hearted physicists who try to sell the world on how effectively their big brains have resolved the mysteries of the universe, but quite the right perspective for one who is unwashed in the Einstein catechism who simply wants to understand what we know and what we don’t.
From these two paragraphs expressing Clegg’s flawless logic and command of the subject matter, it should be clear that what we know about gravity is vastly less than what we don’t know, no matter how much speculation disguised as knowledge we’ve been fed by physicists whose celebrity is made possible through the medium of mass communications. If gravity can’t be explained at its most fundamental level, do we really know much of anything about it? (Aside perhaps from Newton’s conclusion drawn from observing large, slow planetary objects, that gravity, at least for them, varies in direct proportion to mass and in inverse proportion to distance–the more mass, the more gravitational pull; the further apart are two objects, the less gravitational pull). Newton’s conclusions, never mind Einstein’s, don’t work at the quantum level, the most basic level of reality.
Perhaps the gravity of massive objects is an emergent quality, not predictable by simply adding up its effects at the quantum level. Perhaps there is a synergy to massiveness. Or perhaps, as is the case in our understanding of living processes, there are so many forces of so many varying magnitudes acting on such various amounts of matter and energy that predicting what might happen at the aggregate level from what is observed of the quantum is beyond the pale of human comprehension. Gravity is mystical, but not because it is magical, instead because it is so complex.
Physicists do not like the idea of action at a distance, part of what gives gravity its apparently mystical quality. Baruch Spinoza, a metaphysical philosopher of the 17th century, and therefore a rough contemporary of Newton (though it is not clear that the two were much aware of each other), though more concerned with the ethical nature of humanity than the intricacies of the physical world, believed that nothing moved except that it was propelled to motion by another body, a view echoing his immediate Rationalist predecessor, Descartes’, sentiments. Gravity seemed to reach across distances and move without touching—action at a distance—a revolting idea for those attempting to show, as were Spinoza and Descartes, that mysticism, particularly of the religious variety, could not be used to explain the operation of the universe.
Newton was less concerned with the nature of gravity than with its effects, and by careful observation was able to quantify its effects so capably that NASA still employs Newtonian physics to calculate the trajectory of its space craft. For Newton, whether or not the effects constituted action at a distance was less important than what the effects were. He simply assumed there was something physical transmitting the force across the heavens. Eventually the assumption that gravity must be transmitted through some physical medium gave rise to the notion of an ether, a medium filling space through which gravity, light and everything else propagated, like sound waves.
Einstein did not like the notion of an ether grown up around Newtonian physics, so set about to destroy it, and did so, first with his Special Theory of Relativity, which proposed, among other things, that the imagined ether did not affect the speed of light, which was proved correct. Next by his General Theory of Relativity, which incorporated gravity (accelerated motion) into the framework of a universe where light speed is the absolute upper limit of velocity. But the General Theory fashioned the universe into a fabric Einstein called space-time, which gravity bent to cause the effects seen of it. And when empirical evidence later showed the universe to be expanding at an expanding rate, the effect could only be explained by assuming the existence of an ethereal-like entity, dark energy, driving its expansion.
By my reckoning, Newton explained the effects of gravity as precisely and usefully as was humanly possible, which is amazing when it is considered that he did so by crude observations with only rudimentary tools. Einstein tried to extend the understanding of gravity by eliminating the need for an ether, or for the eerie action-at-a-distance mysticism that gravity seemed to imply without it, by making light the yardstick of the universe, combining time with the three dimensions of space to comprise an entity that gravity bends. (But how can space-time get bent? To bend something requires that along some plane it is otherwise straight, and both concepts (bent or straight) imply there is a shape, but having a shape requires a formlessness (a background akin to an ether) from which it might arise, and if the formlessness is comprised of the very space-time that gets bent, what is left then to compare and tell that space-time is bent or straight?)
Einstein’s attempt to explain everything (which he anyway didn’t, as General Relativity does not work at the quantum level) by using light speed as a universal speed limit instead created more questions than answers, even if, theoretical physicists haven’t minded drawing conclusions on the history of the universe, and the very nature of reality, based on his General Theory of Relativity, even where the theory fails, rendering nonsensical answers. Though Einstein was hardly such a devotee of the physics academy when he devised General Relativity, the physics academy is now devoted to him. Einstein became the face of the new age of physical awareness and understanding, of the notion that mankind could figure out anything about the world around him by just thinking hard enough about it, which was precisely the method he used in devising the theory. He had no empirical science upon which to peg his imaginings. Yet his theory so simply and elegantly (if quite complicatedly mathematically) seemed to explain everything above the quantum layer, and seemed to be proved by dint of some photographic plates of star images taken on a cloudy day during a solar eclipse, that his mad scientist visage soon enough came to represent all that could be accomplished by the simple application of human genius.
Clegg points out that the most fruitful explanation for gravity may one day arise through investigations at the quantum level, which seems about right. Quantum-level discoveries have done far more practical good for humanity than anything derived from General Relativity. Nothing of modern chemistry, biology, electronics, metallurgy, hydrography, geology etc., would be possible without the understanding quantum theory has provided of the very small. General Relativity helps keep our navigation satellites from losing accuracy too quickly, and that’s about it. Relativity theory could be abandoned tomorrow and the human experience would not appreciably change, except perhaps in a philosophical sense, as for some of a more materialistic theological bent, it provides an explanation of mankind’s place and purpose in the universe of space and time.
The standard example used to explain how gravity acts under General Relativity is to liken space to a trampoline, with a large bowling ball at its center, representing a massive object like a star, and then to observe the action of a small object, like a BB, placed on the trampoline’s surface. Obviously, the BB will roll towards the bowling ball. The curvature in the trampoline’s surface caused by the bowling ball is something how space-time is supposed to bend in the presence of a massive object. But there is no analogous surface to a trampoline, flat and bounded all around, in space-time. Massive objects in the universe are nearly always spherical, and according to Newton’s observations, emanate a gravitational pull in direct proportion to their size, which rapidly fades with distance. How does all the space-time around them get curved? If one particular massive object is curving space-time around itself, how does that affect the curvature of space-time around other objects? How does the fabric of the universe not end up a jumbled mess, like a pile of dirty towels in a heap on the floor?
Imagining that time is intricately related to space is not, however, all that hard, though Clegg claims some difficulty with the notion on his first exposure to the concept. Simply put, variations in space define time; without them, there would be no time, there would be just eternity, which is not infinite time, but the absence of time altogether. Every single moment is different from the next because every single moment the entire universe of spatial configuration changes, if only just a little bit. As I type this sentence, the earth is spinning on its axis, the moon is circling the earth, the earth is traversing its orbit, the sun is spinning and also orbiting the Milky Way, and etc. Nothing about the spatial arrangements of matter and energy that obtained in the moments I just spent typing can ever be completely and identically recreated. Some aspect will be different—everything is in constant flux—spatial relationships are inherently transitory, giving rise to time.
Consider one of those working models of the solar system you see in high school science classes, where turning a crank makes the planets, through mechanical linkages, orbit the sun, a more or less proper representation of how things actually happen. Except that “time” in the model continually cycles back to the same place. Start rotating the crank, and don’t stop until the planets are back in the place where you started, and that particular spatial configuration will appear to be identical to the original configuration from where you started. To someone who observed the arrangement before and after the crank was turned, but unwittingly dozed off during the turning, time for the miniature solar system stood still. They could imagine there had been no passage of time, or an eternity of it, because nothing of the spatial relationships changed. But the real solar system doesn’t operate quite like that. There is no time when the real solar system isn’t itself traveling through space. There is no time when the planets of the real solar system travel in exactly the same orbits at exactly the same speed with exactly the same rotational velocity around their axes as a time before. The real solar system never recreates the exact spatial arrangements. Every spatial arrangement of every single moment, is different. Time is a product of spatial relationships. We could time travel if we could identically recreate spatial relationships, but we can’t, and the impossibility has nothing to do with the speed of light. Every point in time is unique because every point in space is only ever visited once.
(It seems therefore that time is an analog concept. But that may not be the case at is tiniest scales. Planck’s constant, the smallest divisible space of which we are aware, is perhaps the foundational unit of a fully digitized time that only appears analog from our perspective, a matter for another day. )
It is clear that gravity affects time, as time is a by-product of ever-fluctuating spatial relationships, and gravity, understood as a force, shapes those spatial relationships. But that’s about all I am willing to admit is conclusively known of the relationship.
It seems to me, though Clegg does not specifically articulate as much, that the main impediment to furthering our understanding of gravity, and by implication, the entire universe, is General Relativity. It has been proved true in some limited domains, but we know that it is not capable of explaining things at their most fundamental level. And it is possible that some other “hidden variable” captured by General Relativity explains its ability to correctly predict some outcomes. Even so, the premises upon which it is founded are considered sacrosanct.
For instance, there can be no questioning of whether light truly is the fastest thing in the universe, traveling at the same speed for all observers all the time, though nothing about the premise is conclusively provable, not even if nothing can be shown to have exceeded it. In a universe of infinite possibilities, proving that something does not exist is impossible. Gravity might not “travel” at all, being in all places at all times, knowing all things about the massiveness of every bit of matter and energy at once. But as we know its effects to decline according to the inverse square rule, there is no way to test the speed of gravity—its effects would decline so quickly with distance as to be too negligible to detect. You can’t simply place a massive object somewhere to study how long it took for its gravitational pull to arrive at another location.
Ironically, it will take someone who has the same brilliance of insight and disregard for the academy as Einstein to usurp Einstein and bring forth a keener human understanding of gravity. Newton was an empiricist in his science and a mystic in his theology. Einstein was a mystic in his science and an empiricist in his theology. Whoever finally extends the understanding of gravity in a way that can account for its apparent action at a distance, and its apparent immediacy and constancy in the manner with which it shapes space and therefore time, will need to be both an empiricist and mystic in their science, which will by extension make of them the greatest of natural philosophers and theologians the world has ever seen.
There is a raging debate among economic policy thinkers taking place online about now. Is it about the proper role and size of government in an economic system? No. Is it about whether Keynes’ prescriptions of domestic fiscal deficits and easy money are still effective for a 21st century highly integrated global economic system? No. Is it about whether uncoordinated economic initiatives among world governments might possibly do more collective harm than good? No.
The debate is over whether Paul Krugman is mean to people who disagree with him. Which is not just a little bit silly. Of course, he is. That’s his frigging job, as an economist turn political shill. He just does his partisan econo-politicizing a bit nastier than others.
Everyone who has read more than a column or two of his in the New York Times fully well knows he is acerbic, churlish, rude and ridiculing when it comes to those who disagree with him. Paul Krugman believes he has never been wrong about the proper economic policy that the whole of these United States (and for that matter, the rest of the world) should follow. Krugman’s legions of acolytes are as certain of Krugman’s inerrancy as is Krugman, and they love it when he belittles people who oppose his ideas, referring to them as fools, knaves and lunatics, or lately, sociopaths (all Krugman’s words). End the debate there. Paul Krugman is mean to people who disagree with him. Get over it.
Paul Krugman’s basic economic prescription for anything that ails an economic system is a) fiscal deficits, and b) easier money. To my knowledge, Paul Krugman has never counseled that US fiscal deficits should be reduced (except indirectly). To my knowledge, he has never counseled that the US should tighten up its monetary policy. Except, and this is an important exception that proves the bias in his analysis, he opposed letting the Bush tax cuts lapse so that the Republicans wouldn’t be awarded a political victory over the Democrats. Ending the tax cuts (a tax increase) would have lowered the fiscal deficits a bit, but he thought doing so was worth it in order to deliver a political victory to the enlightened progressives of his Democratic party. Most Republicans disagree with Krugman’s ideas, so they are the fools, knaves, lunatics and sociopaths he derides and demonizes. He claims he is not always right, but it is they who are so constantly intent on being wrong. And a political victory over those fools, knaves, lunatics and sociopaths would have more long-term economic value than opposing them on analytical economic grounds, or so he sold it. Paul Krugman never lets his economic analyses get in the way of his political impulses.
Clive Crook of Bloomberg is now openly debating Brad Delong, a Krugman acolyte who also happens to be an economics professor. The debate looks something like children in a playground arguing over whose dad is the best. It is a personal tit for tat that is simply a bit too much to stomach. Read the linked article, if you must, but before lunch. Meanwhile, Caroline Baum at Bloomberg debates Keynes’ ideas, but not his person. She offers a reductio ad absurdum argument that if spending were the problem, why not just print money and give it to everyone to spend (which is too close to the truth of what’s actually happening to be comfortable). John Maynard Keynes is the source of Krugman’s ideas, so debating Keynes is tantamount to debating Krugman, but without, one presumes, feeling so covered in partisan ickiness afterwards.
The role that government should play in an economic system is not, however, a question that can be answered by economics. It is a normative, not a positive, question. It concerns what should be, not what is. The role of government in an economic system depends on the purpose of the system. Even if the received purpose for the system is to enhance the welfare of the individuals within it, that begs the question of what, exactly, enhances individual welfare? Is it freedom, including the freedom to fail? Is it security, i.e, freedom from failure? Is it to have one’s needs met? Is it to serve the society in which the individual exists? Assuming that an economic system exists to enhance individual welfare, each of the myriad ways of defining individual welfare would yield a different answer for the proper level of government involvement. If freedom is the ultimate metric through which individual welfare is measured, the role of government would be quite small, limited perhaps to just providing law and order. If service to the state defines individual welfare, the government would be all-encompassing, running the economic system something like an antebellum plantation. Either of these models at the extremes of government involvement, and a litany of others in between, could make for a viable economic system. The question of which one is correct is more a matter of faith and belief than of economics.
Economists are often accused of suffering from physics envy, of trying to quantify relationships that aren’t really amenable to quantification. But economists should follow the physicist’s general explicatory strategy in defining the proper role of government in an economic system. Physics does not attempt to answer the question ”why”, and economics shouldn’t either. Take the economic system as it is, ask what sort of system is desired, and figure out the best way to get there. This is where Krugman fails. He tries to explain how to achieve a certain type of economic system, falsely assuming (intentionally, no doubt) that the question of which sort of system is desired has been resolved. It hasn’t. The question of what most enhances individual welfare is one of political philosophy, not answerable by economics.
Krugman has used his quite robust understanding of positive economics as a megaphone to support his normative views, i.e., his political philosophies, in the process developing something of a cult following, so much so that prominent econo-journalists spend vast energies debating his character and not his economics. Krugman recently bemoaned the low inflation rate as holding back the potential for expanding the employment rolls. Which is to say, he almost slipped, and revealed the true strategy behind his call for fiscal and monetary stimulus–to engineer inflation sufficient to bring wages down to a market-clearing level. The Krugman cult didn’t take too kindly to his calls for more inflation, believing that there was enough already, not understanding that inflation is the implicit mechanism through which fiscal and monetary policy is expected to decrease unemployment. The Krugman cult fancies itself an intelligent opposition to big business conservatives; it doesn’t get that Keynes, and his most vocal proponent today, Krugman, sought to save capitalism and capitalists, not destroy it or them. In other words, the cult doesn’t get that for all his bluster in the service of advancing the anti-Republican cause, Krugman advocates pursuit of exactly the same strategy that the Republican and Ayn Rand proselyte Alan Greenspan, and his successor, Ben Bernanke, pursue. If the economic question is to get more people to work, they all believe that the economic answer is to lower the wage rate through inflating the price of everything else but labor. Krugman is thereby disingenuous, even fraudulent, in the sense that he has set things up as a liberal/conservative battle over this or that particular amount of stimulus. Stimulus may or may not help “jumpstart” the economy, depending on one’s view of the multiplier. But it is the lowering of wages through inflation that keeps it humming, as Krugman fully well knows.
Paul Krugman won the Nobel prize for economics. Too bad there isn’t one for Machiavellian politics. By trumpeting the economic need for more stimulus, i.e., for a more expansive and intrusive government, he has turned an economic non-debate into a political maelstrom in the service of advancing his party’s cause–the one to which all political parties ascribe–gaining more power. As an economist, he really should be ashamed. He is rapidly destroying what little reputation for objectivity the academy may ever have had.
As for everyone else, we should be ashamed for allowing someone who is trenchantly biased to frame the debate, even allowing him to be its subject. Argue all day long about how large a stimulus package should be. But ignore economic arguments and authority when doing so. The argument about the size of fiscal deficits is an argument over political philosophy, not resolvable through resorting to economic theory or analysis.
Here’s an excerpt of what Obama said during his press conference today (May 7, 2013), held jointly with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, quoted from Yahoo!:
Understandably, there’s a desire for easy answers. That’s not the situation there,” he said. “And my job is to constantly measure our very real and legitimate humanitarian and national security interests in Syria, but measuring those against my bottom line, which is what’s in the best interests of America’s security and making sure that I’m making decisions not based on a hope and a prayer but on hard-headed analysis in terms of what will actually make us safer and stabilize the region.
That seems about right. Measurements against the “bottom line” based on “hard-headed analysis” are exactly what Obama should be doing, sort of like my previous post, An economic analysis of the case for intervention in Syria, provided.
Take away the stupid crossing a “red-line” comment, which this anyway operates to clarify, and Obama is doing well managing the Syrian conflict.
Rare kudos for Obama on this one. Good job.
What might happen if the economy starts growing at a powerful clip…say above 3.5% (real, annualized) for several consecutive quarters? Surely sustained growth of the sort would reinvigorate those quelled animal spirits that seem to decline a bit more with each infusion of Federal Reserve cash these days. The reason there is little or no inflation in the economy is because each time the Fed pushes more cash into the system, the velocity of the system declines to accommodate it (i.e., monetary velocity–the measure of how often a dollar changes hands–declines; it is now at an all-time low). You can bring a mortgage banker to money; but you apparently can’t make him spend or lend it.
If money velocity starts ticking upward, as surely it would with robust growth, a by-product will be an increase in the rate of inflation. What then would the Federal Reserve do? First, it would be forced to quit pouring more gasoline on the fire by ceasing its mortgage-backed asset purchases. Then it would be forced to yank some cash from the system, either through increasing the interest rates it controls, or through selling off some of its $3 trillion portfolio of assets.
Though strong economic growth would seem to auger well for the stock and bond markets (and traditionally has), it would instead tend to crush them. Why? Because the stock and bond markets are floating on a sea of dollars poured into the economic system by the Fed. The Fed has done all it could for the last four years to engineer some inflation so that it could solve its unemployment quandary by reducing the real value of wages. Once it succeeds in pushing real wages down (through the mechanism of inflating everything else) to a market-clearing price (as strong growth would imply it had), it will be faced with the daunting task of mopping up liquidity in a system where the effect of its actions will be muted by the increasing velocity of money. Just as the Fed is trying to mop things up, the excess dollars are making things wetter by becoming more inflationary. Financial markets will suffer tremendously if there is economic growth strong enough to cause inflation.
But financial markets will also suffer if there is economic contraction. Why? Because keeping the markets afloat on a vessel made of paper depends on relatively calm weather. Stormy economic or political weather, domestic or international in origin, and the S.S. Federal Reserve would be revealed as the creaky, poorly constructed vessel upon which to stock and bond markets that it is, particularly when it’s run out of fuel.
About the only chance of avoiding a precipitous decline from here would be stasis, which in a way is exactly what the Federal Reserve has been seeking with its ZIRP and QE’s I, II and III. It has sought to return things to the way they were before the crash, when there was incessant white noise about the Fed having created a “Goldilocks” economy. And it has now, finally succeeded in returning things more or less to the way they were, but likely not for long. Stasis is not an attribute of financial and economic systems. Like the crowds of humans comprising them, financial markets trend to either lively or despondent, according to the prevailing psychosis. Any appearance of stability is either a temporary way station on the road to disequilibrium, or a delusion. Life, and markets, are never stable for long. Each must be constantly shifting from dissonance to harmony to dissonance again. There is no other way.
Viewed from every possible angle, the financial markets are poised for a fall. It is only a matter of time. But it won’t be today, or tomorrow.
I am an average white guy, and especially so regarding physical talent and ability. They could have made that movie about white guys not being able to jump about me. I live in Alabama, a bastion of average whiteness, particularly as skills on the basketball court go (Sir Charles and Gerald Wallace and Robert Horrey [sp?], and a few others, are the Alabama exceptions proving the rule).
I think I may be the only over-fifty white guy in Alabama who loves NBA basketball as much as SEC football. If there are others, I haven’t found them. The local watering holes I frequent (i.e., old, average white guy hang-outs) turn the TV channels to baseball after March Madness ends. The only thing I can imagine as more boring than watching baseball on TV is watching baseball on a barroom TV with no sound. Unless you have some idea of what is going on, it looks like seven guys standing around scratching their crotch, or spitting, or adjusting their ball cap while watching two guys play pitch and catch with another two observers in different attire standing so close by the path of the ball they run the risk of getting hit. In all my years as an American, I have never learned to love the American pasttime. Which is too bad, really, because baseball is inordinately well-suited for its purpose of whiling away long summertime afternoons. And because I have no love for the sport, just when I need a time-wasting device the most, during those long and miserably hot July and August days, I’ve got nothing to do inside under the air conditioner.
I root for the Tide during football season, but frankly, college football has gotten a bit boring. Especially Alabama football. Relentless winning doesn’t inspire interest like healthy competition. I root for Alabama football in the fall, but I love the Celtics winter and spring. The Celtics are the only team with which I have an emotional bond. And I don’t even know from where the bond arises. Perhaps because I know football so much better than basketball, I am more analytical than emotional when it comes to football. Basketball seems something like magic to me sometimes. Whatever it is, I can say that my attitude toward the Tide would make me at best a luke-warm fan among the faithful. If I am a fanatic for any team, it is for the Boston Celtics.
I love Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and everyone else. I especially love Rajon Rondo, even when he can’t do anything but watch and cheer and coach from the sidelines. Rajon Rondo has more basketball sense than anyone in the game right now. And Doc Rivers is the best in the coaching business, bar none.
I knew the Celtics faced a daunting task. Without their All-Star point guard, Rajon Rondo, winning even one game against the NY Knicks in their first round playoff series would be difficult. As much as I hate to admit it, because I really hate the Knicks, the Knicks are pretty good this year. I started playing real close attention when the series went 3-0 in favor of the Knicks, figuring game four might be my last chance to see these Celtics on the floor. But they delivered a miracle in overtime. And a game five. Which they dominated so far as such a thing was possible with their depleted roster and aging legs. I don’t hold it against them that game six proved too much. Like a Shaquille O’Neal Buick commercial, that was way more than I expected. They slapped the Knicks upside the head when the Knicks showed up in black in game five as if they were going to the Celtic’s funeral. Like Charles Barkley said, it was a bit much to make that big a deal out of winning a first round series, especially when you’re the second seed and expected to win. The Celtics humbled the Knicks, and that was enough for me.
I don’t know where things go from here for the Celtics, but if KG and Pierce want to come back, they should be welcomed with open arms. And I might point out, the only weakness in the Celtics right now is in the front office. If the Celtics had kept Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson and Big Baby Davis, they might be advancing to face the Pacers right now. All three are big contributors on the teams for which they play (Thunder, Bulls and Magic, respectively). It is time now for the Celtics to rebuild, but doing so doesn’t necessitate ditching the heart and soul of the team. Rebuild a team around the one basketball genius on the roster (Rondo) with his best years left, and use the legacy (Garnett and Pierce) to show the young’uns how things are done in Celtic green.
All I can say to KG and Pierce and Rondo and Rivers and all the rest is thanks. Like you’ve always done, you delivered to the limits of your ability. You showed respect for the Green. KG, as always, you practiced your craft with a fierce, but humble competitiveness rarely matched on or off the court. Pierce, you have ice in your veins. You guys, and Terry and Green and all the rest this season, represented the Celtics like the winners that the Celtic legacy deserves. This average white guy in Alabama took great joy in watching you play. Thanks for the memories. Go Celtics!
It has baffled economists for decades. How can the US continuously run massive trade deficits, year in and year out, without suffering the ordinarily expected adjustments such imbalances imply? Countries running trade deficits should see the foreign exchange value of their currency decline; domestic inflation thereby increase, along with unemployment, and real domestic wages decline. But none, or very little of that, has happened to the US, and it has been running trade deficits for over twenty years. What gives?
The economics academia, possessed of physics envy so severe it seeks to quantitatively model every human relationship, considers dollars (or other currency) as something like the physicists’ electron or photon, imagining dollars as the economic entities doing the work of the economic system the same as photons and electrons in particle physics, leaping from one quantum state to the next depending on the energy applied or lost. But the attempt to quantize all human relations through the metric of currency leaves a gaping blind spot in economic analysis, particularly when it comes to America’s trade imbalances. The quantization fetish fails to capture America’s most valuable export—the one against which all those trade deficits are balanced–because it is nigh well impossible to put a dollar figure on the value of the security America exports around the world. Since the end of the Cold War, America has been the lone power capable of imposing its will by force in every corner of the globe. And it was about the end of the Cold War (roughly, 1990) when America began running continuous trade deficits, as the following graph from FRED, the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank’s data base, illustrates:
Now, it must be cautioned that correlation is not causation, and America’s trade deficits also epically grew during the eighties (at a time when America’s power waxed as the Soviet Union’s waned). And that none of this could be modeled in a scientifically acceptable manner. But sometimes in causation analysis, doubts inherent to any claim of causation must be set aside in order that reasonable, and well-reasoned, deductions can be made. Ascertaining causation in the social sciences is more art than science, which is why they are so hard. Trade deficits as large as indicated should have resulted in a decline in the value of dollars internationally, particularly against major US trading partners. Such has not, generally, been the case, as the following graph, also from FRED, indicates:
The value of the dollar was stable or rising all through the nineties, when trade deficits really exploded. The peace dividend for the world, and the dividend to America for its status as lone superpower, was apparently quite robust. That the dollar has declined internationally roughly since the terrorist attacks of 9-11, with an uptick during the recession, indicates that America’s world hegemony may be waning. But the fact it can still run massive trade deficits indicates that perhaps it has not waned by much.
The price of an aircraft carrier battle group poised off the coast of Asia, making sure international shipments get through unmolested, is easy enough to calculate. The economic value of the peace of mind arising from the security that it provides is beyond the ken of modeling. Security is of utmost importance and value to all economic systems. Without security, the respect and enforcement of property and contract rights upon which economic transactions depend is problematic and uncertain, and without enforceable property and contract rights, there is nothing to trade. America is able to ceaselessly run apparently massive trade deficits without untoward consequences because America exports a commodity easily as valuable as the trinkets and baubles from China, or oil from international markets, etc., it imports.
America’s security export is the lynch pin of the global economic system. It is the reason the dollar remains the world’s reserve currency and safe haven during economic turmoil. It is the main reason the American government can borrow on outrageously cheap terms, even in the face of massive fiscal deficits. The world depends on America to police its lanes of commerce. In tribute, the world allows (if mainly unwittingly) the American economy to do get away with doing things that would otherwise be heavily penalized were it not so critically positioned.
Which brings us to Syria. The world depends on American military might to give meaning to commercial obligations. It does not depend on the US to manage each nation’s internal affairs, except as a nation’s internal turmoil might threaten the security of international transactions. Syria is a tiny country. Were it to vanish tomorrow, the world economic system would barely notice the loss. Intervention in Syria is economically warranted only if its sectarian turmoil seems likely to spill over its borders and affect the security of international transactions. Proclaiming a determination to intervene depends, as President Obama did, upon which type of weapon Syrians use to inflict death and destruction, misses the point, unless the security of international transactions is deleteriously affected by the particular choice of weaponry.
It seems clear that Obama did not think before he spoke when he warned Syria that using chemical weapons would cross a “red line”, forcing US intervention. For one, there is no good reason to pick out chemical weapons as the weapon of mass destruction that would cross the line. Chemical weapons are profoundly ineffective and inefficient at achieving battlefield ends. They, like all weapons of mass destruction, kill indiscriminately, but controlling the size and duration of the kill zone is notoriously difficult. A chemical weapon is apt to kill, or at least inconvenience, the troops of the side that deployed it as much or more as it kills or inconveniences its targets. For that reason, though chemical weapons have been around in their modern configuration since at least World War One, they have been only rarely utilized on the battlefield. And even if they have been deployed in the Syrian civil war (it’s not clear for sure whether they have, or even which side might have used them), their use would not necessarily pose a threat to the security of international commerce. Japan lost several of its citizens to a ricin (a nasty form of nerve agent alleged to maybe have been used in Syria) attack on a subway, but its economy, and the international economic system, chugged right along. The US is expected to ensure the overall security of international commerce, not to prevent every ne’er do well who is so inclined from exploding a bomb, a task which would be impossible even for the most powerful human force the world has ever known.
But simply by Obama tying intervention to the type of weapons used in the conflict, he may have indirectly impaired the security it is the function of the US to protect. Deciding to intervene or not based upon the type of weapons lacks a reasonable basis. Just because it now appears that chemical weapons may have been used, the case for intervention or not hasn’t changed, but an economically costly intervention may be forced upon the US in order to prove that it means what it says when it issues international ultimatums and bluffs. If it ever appears that a schoolyard bully is only bluffing with his threat of violence, he must either initiate violence to prove his bluster, or slink away to bluff no more. If America has to intervene solely to protect the tough reputation it requires in order to be an effective guarantor of international security, i.e., if intervention is not otherwise directly necessary to achieve international security, then it will be an economically wasteful intervention, spilling blood and treasure with the only hope of gain being the prevention of loss. Too many such interventions, and the economic losses could add up to enough that America’s role as guarantor of international security might be substantially weakened.
It might be argued that human lives are at stake in Syria, and they are owed more than a cold economic calculus in considering whether to intervene; that it is immoral to consider human lives so callously. But the US only has the option to intervene because it is strong enough economically and militarily to do so, and if it embarks too frequently on costly interventions with little or no prospect of gain (e.g., Iraq and Afghanistan), it will indelibly impair its ability to do the task—ensuring the security of international transactions—upon which the world depends. The US is to the world what it was once considered GM was to the US—what is good for the US is good for the world. The US does the greatest good for the greatest number of people by keeping its power dry, intervening in the internal affairs of other nations only when events unfold that present a direct threat to the US, or to the international security regime it provides.
As of right now, the case for intervention is unclear. Nobody really knows for sure whether or not chemical weapons have been used, or if they have, by which side, so Obama’s bluff hasn’t yet been called. Syria does not pose a threat to international security, or at least the threat it poses as a result of the civil war is no worse than the threat, as something of a rogue nation, it has always posed. The best thing to do in the case of such ambiguity, particularly in the context of a civil war, is nothing. Be prepared to act if the war spills over the borders and starts affecting the smooth conduct of international trade. Other than, it’s just wait and see. And keep piling up those trade deficits for so long as the world will allow.