Archive for July 2007

Existentialism, or the Missing Ingredient?

July 24, 2007

The other day I read about a popular Harvard professor who was still attached to the existentialists of the recent past, such as Sartre and Camus. Without knowing much about them, I too have thought that something like existentialism must be the life philosophy of the enlightened. Unfortunately, when I then went back and looked a little at what the existentialists had to say, I was not so enamored. What I think I like is the word and the bare bones of thought that go along with it.

I have long realized that rational, enlightenment thinking does not meet all the needs of real human beings. They need some basis on which to answer the larger questions, such as “Why”. Why are we here at all. What comes before and after us as individuals and a race of beings? If the world will someday end as a frozen blob or else a fiery sphere, why do we work so hard for good outcomes for ourselves or others in the short run that we are necessarily confined to?

To me, existentialism is the philosophy that meets these questions head on. The answer, basically, is that these are all unanswerable questions. All we can do is understand as much as we can about our own lives and those around us and make all we contact feel better about what they do and can do. We must all be heroes continuing into uncharted darkness. We must all arbitrarily shorten our grasp of time to what we can comprehend and to some degree affect.

I exist, you exist, our communities exist, and the world and everything in it exists. Let us live with this existence as best we can, and enhance existence according to our own lights.

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Economics 101: A New Look

July 12, 2007

When I was a beginning “soft social scientist” around 1950, it was always assumed that there was only one “hard” social science — economics. The reasoning was simple. Economics dealt with real figures and it used mathematics to manipulate these figures. This had been the road to success of the natural sciences and it was assumed it would soon be that of all science. Psychology, political science, and sociology are still struggling with this assumption.

Meanwhile, over in economics, there seems to be something of a revolt. More and more economists are starting to reject dependence on “hard numbers” and on simplistic mathematical formulae. A long article in the New York Times (July 11) refers to some of these revolutionaries and their arguments. As one says, “Economics is often a triumph of theory over fact.” They are starting to notice that open markets and free trade are not always good, that the level playing field is never level, and the players may have quite different goals. They are noting that government regulation is not always bad, particularly when compared with absence of regulation.

Of course, one alternative to mainstream economics has been “behavioral economics”, which is rather closer to sociology. It has been a round for a good while, but seems to be having a renaissance.

I particularly noted that the conversion of some economists to the new thinking was based on studies of the actual effects of the minimum wage. It has been a basis tenet of standard economics that the minimum drives up costs for everyone and puts many people out of work. However, a recent study in New Jersey showed that an increase in the minimum wage actually resulted in a rise in employment. I was struck by this because when I was at the Hudson Institute in the 1960s, an institute heavily infused with the standard economics, I had occasion to look at studies of what happens when minimum wages were imposed or raised. Unlike what our speakers confidently asserted, I could not find a study that supported their opposition to the minimum wage. The vaunted association of minimum wage and unemployment was a good example of a triumph of theory over fact.

All this is becoming increasingly important as we struggle with the demands of globalization. On the one side are those who will profit from it (large corporations and some poor countries especially) and the economic fraternity that treats opponents like biologists treat the critics of evolution. On the other side are those who will clearly suffer in the short term and those who are not attracted to the vision of a thoroughly homogenized world. The economics of globalization needs at least a long hard look that goes far beyond the attractiveness of shifting production to the country with the greatest comparative advantage.

Comparisons

July 12, 2007

One notices that the enlightenment value given to inter-country comparisons in the consideration of policy is becoming more generally recognized. This is particularly true in regard to medical systems, as many writers have recognized that the United States has lagging infant mortality and longevity rates at the same time that it has by far the most expensive health system in the world.

Taking off from this, a recent NYT Op-Ed (July 5) informally asks friends in Italy to compare the country with the U.S. Of course, health care is first on the list and Italy is far ahead. As to leisure, America ranks last among developed countries in the number of guaranteed days off. Twenty-five percent of Americans have no vacation days. The average American takes 13 days vacation a year; the average Italian 42. We work 100 hours a year more than even the Japanese. The Europeans do pay more taxes, but they do not invert the tax pyramid, as is American practice. As Warren Buffett has pointed out, he paid a 17% tax on his taxable income last year while his receptionist paid 30%.

The author concludes, however, by pointing to one area where he believes America shines. There appears to be more equality of opportunity than in other advanced states and there is certainly less prejudice against ethnic minorities. Italians and advanced peoples are on the surface, at least, much more inclined to put down those who belong to other groups than their own.

Wikipedia and Enlightenment

July 10, 2007

A recent New York Times magazine article on Wikipedia (Magazine, July 1) reminded me just how significant this encyclopedia is. It provides an instant access, free source of knowledge on almost anything (now over 1.8 million articles in the English section alone; it offers articles in 250 languages). Anyone can contribute, adding anything from a misplaced comma to an extensive research article with footnotes. The enterprise is run by a non-profit foundation, controlled by a small board. There are 30 “stewards” and 1200 administrators. The “admins” are the only ones who have the power to check content, remove articles or additions, and even permanently ban certain persons from access. Everyone involved seems to take their responsibilities with the utmost seriousness. The amount of work put in by all contributors, but especially the administrators, is mind boggling — and all for free. (I would think it would not hurt to develop a compensation policy, but this could weaken the monkish self-abnegation that seems to infect all involved.)

In spite of the way in which it is organized, and the lack of “recognized authorities” behind its articles, studies have shown that it is about as accurate per line as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Another study here found that experts rated Wikipedia articles as more accurate that nonexperts unfamiliar with the material. My own experience is that it is often a waste of time to use the Internet for information on a topic. It is much easier to just go to Wikipedia and review their material. The great success of this “democratic” approach to knowledge compilation reminds one of the success of juries in most kinds of trials and of recent studies that have shown that a group of non-experts will come to decisions at least as useful as experts (which is not to say that in manifold ways, the contributors to Wikipedia are not themselves “experts”).

The project is guided by what are called the five pillars.

The first and more general pillar defines the enterprise as an encyclopedia, which is not a place for personal opinions or trivia. It is not a soapbox or a directory etc.

The second pillar sets the objective as “a neutral point of view”. The user or contributor is told that “verifiable, authoritative sources should be used whenever possible, especially on controversial topics. When a conflict arises as to which version is the most neutral, declare a cool-down period and tag the article as disputed; hammer out details on the talk page and follow dispute resolution”.

The third pillar is that it is free and entries can be changed by anyone. All revisions are kept, so that the article can be changed back to an earlier form if necessary. No copyrighted material is allowed.

The fourth pillar emphasizes the importance of good manners by all involved. There should be no editing wars. Good faith should be assumed on the part of all involved.

The fifth pillar is that there are no firm rules. People should be bold in editing and writing. Perfection is not required. They are reminded that all prior versions are kept, so there is no need to fear the destruction of good material.

What seemed truly remarkable to the writer of the NYT piece was the dedication of those involved to these principles. He particularly noted that in an age in which many social scientists and literary critics have concluded that it is naive to believe neutrality is possible or that there is “a truth”, he has found a community in which these values are treasured. Noting that most of those deeply involved in the project (including many admins) are in the 20-35 age group, and many are still in high school, he asks “Where did they learn these values?” What this suggests is that there are thousands of teachers throughout this country who are instilling in the young firmly held educational values in spite of the chaos that surrounds so much of modern life.

The Wikipedia phenomenon is one of the most hopeful signs of the possibility of a new age of enlightenment that I have come across.