The Long View 2011-06-17: Decline, Afterlife, Google, Heidegger

Dipping into John's blog posts six years later from where we are now in the chronological re-posting project reveals some regrets about the course of action he advocated for pretty strongly in 2002-2003. Which is a good thing.

Decline, Afterlife, Google, Heidegger


Over at Financial Times, I see, Alan Beatie has a piece with the alarming title The global order fractures as American power declines. The gist of the article, however, is that major developing countries are not keen on pursuing the global free trade project of the Washington Consensus, and the United States is not pressing the issue. It is not at all clear that the eclipse of 1990s-style globalization is a result of what the Soviets would have called a shift in the correlation of forces, however. The main factor is that the political class in the United States is no longer of one mind on the matter, or has simply lost interest in it.

I might mention, by the way, that I did not quote the article because I read the hilarious Financial Times copyright policy. I read the notice because some Perl-generated text urging me to do so appeared when I cut and pasted a bit of the article from the Financial Times webpage into a Word file. Its not impossible to quote the paper online and still comply with the policy. It's just too ridiculous to bother.

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One online source that is always safe to quote at great length and to varied effect is Mark Steyn. In a piece entitled Too Big to Win, he laments the fact that the wars in which the United States has been involved in recent decades have lacked closure. This he attributes to strategies based on nation-building and to a defense policy conceived in terms of social work rather than of the national interest:

The fact that you have no stake in it justifies your getting into it. The principal rationale is that there's no rationale, and who could object to that? Applied globally, political correctness obliges us to forswear sovereignty. And, once you do that, then, as Country Joe and the Fish famously enquired, it's one-two-three, what are we fighting for? When you're responsible for half the planet's military spending, and 80 percent of its military R&D, certain things can be said with confidence...

One of those things, it seems to me, is that you're not just another international actor, and that you are have a unique interest in maintaining international norms you have created. George W. Bush at least realized that some metahistorical explanation of what you're fighting for was in order. He actually gave one, once, in his Second Inaugural Address, before moving on with his busy schedule. We may not like that formula, but something of the same scale and ambition is required.

President Obama and his circle are not the people to provide it. The president himself is an essentially cautious thinker. This is not a criticism. Certainly he is not an ideologue, though he swims expertly through one of the ponds of received opinion. The problem with that pond is that, though exceptionally American, it has no sense of American exceptionalism. That exceptionalism is not primarily a charism of the Founding Fathers; it's a frozen accident resulting from the way the 20th century turned out. Any policy or politics with that blind spot will be ahistorical.

That ahistoricism is no less a characteristics of the president's principal opponents, of course. In their pond, George Washington's views in 1796 on entangling alliances are the last word in strategic thinking. These views are particularly dangerous in connection with the "America-the-Broke" rhetoric. Whatever else is wrong with federal finances, it isn't the military, which takes up all of 4% of GDP. There is an assumption in some quarters that, if 4% were reduced to 1%, then the world would crystallize into a system of sturdy Westphalian peer powers. This assumption is oddly symmetrical with the view that removing the tyrant of Iraq would occasion the spontaneous formation of a healthy state. Acting on such an assumption globally would have equally rapid and unhappy results.

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Fans of Ursula LeGuin will recall the Land of the Dead in her Earthsea Trilogy, a place of blank serenity where nothing could go wrong or right. I was greatly struck by the parallel to Ms. LeGuin's afterlife that we find in David Goldman's description of the American economy in the piece Zombinomics and volatility:

We aren't going to have another financial crash. In fact, nothing at all is going to happen. Forecasting the United States economy is about as exciting as predicting next quarter's gross domestic product in 1957 Poland. You want to know what's going to happen, comrade? Read the Five Year Plan. With 40% of US personal income coming from transfer payments, it's almost nostalgic to call it capitalism.

The so-called American economic recovery won't die, because it's undead. It was a zombie to begin with. Equity investors during the past six weeks came to the collective conclusion that the US is not in the early phase of an economic recovery, but in the endless middle of a structural slump, in the term of Nobel Prize winner Edmund Phelps.

This is a slander of command economies. They are quite capable of growing, if you command them to do so. What they don't do well is facilitate market growth.

In any case, readers will be pleased to learn that zombies can be ministers of justice:

Apart from the nearly trillion-dollar reduction in bank lending to private borrowers, the banks have also reduced their holdings of bonds reflecting private risk (mainly mortgage-backed securities) by about $200 billion. It's the Slaughter of the Guilty. US households that put 10% down on a house during 2000-2006 as home prices rose 10% a year earned 100% a year on their equity. Goldman Sachs' return on equity never broke above the low 30% range. Compared to homeowners, investment banks are on the back of the line at the punch bowl.

It would be simplistic to assert that what is bad for Goldman Sachs is good for America, but not necessarily misleading.

Still, we should grow uneasy at any prediction that nothing at all is going to happen. Remember this from the last chapter of The War of the Worlds:

I followed them to my study, and found lying on my writing-table still, with the selenite paper weight upon it, the sheet of work I had left on the afternoon of the opening of the cylinder. For a space I stood reading over my abandoned arguments. It was a paper on the probable development of Moral Ideas with the development of the civilising process; and the last sentence was the opening of a prophecy: "In about two hundred years," I had written, "we may expect----" The sentence ended abruptly. I remembered my inability to fix my mind that morning, scarcely a month gone by, and how I had broken off to get my Daily Chronicle from the newsboy. I remembered how I went down to the garden gate as he came along, and how I had listened to his odd story of "Men from Mars."

Unprecedented events of a major order do sometimes still occur.

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For instance, I was flummoxed by this:

Imagine if every time you listened to a particular song on your laptop, iPod or stereo system it was different, as if it was being performed for you by a secret orchestra...Bronze uses software that (very basically) takes each component of a song apart and puts them back together according to how it's instructed to. As Gold told me: In a normal recording, all the sounds are bound together in one, but in Bronze you build a compound from every constituent part of every layer of every rhythm or sound. That's how it generates different grooves.

Bronze works with any music that has multiple components, but it's better with music made specifically for the software. At the moment Wild Beasts and The Invisible are interested in writing music for it and I'm sure other high profile musicians are chomping at the bit to get involved...

I'm sorry, this is just stone evil.

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Regular readers of online book reviews are quite likely to have encountered Danny Yee's. It was one of the first book review sites I came across, and in some ways my own site is just a child's copy, a slave's flattery. I was therefore distressed to learn that Google has taken a dislike to his site. Several issues could have aroused Google's suspicions. There could even be so much content there that the search engine decided the site is a content farm. Danny offers these surmises:

Now it's clear, however, that negative selection plays a significant role in Google's algorithm, and that changes the situation for people like me, and not for the better. Google's search results were filling up with spam (also known as "content farms", "Made for Adsense" pages, scrapers and various other names, but I'll stick with "spam"). These are basically automatically generated pages designed to rank highly on Google search results but with no or little actual content.

So Google has added a negative screen on top of their traditional algorithm.

I have had some Google problems, too, over the years. The engine gets these morbid enthusiasms, sort of like purges in Communist countries, but they rarely last.

The deep explanation is that robots are evil.

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How deep is the explanation, you ask? Martin Heidegger deep, if we may believe the anthology Poetry, Thought, Language. Not content with having read his signature work, Being and Time, I persevered to read this collection of later essays, because I understood Heidegger's philosophy had undergone a "relaxation" in the 1930s, so there were substantial differences between the early and late Heidegger.

As advertised, I found differences in tone and doctrine. "Relaxed" is a good word for what happened to Heidegger's tool-based theory of perception (a notion that, in its pure form, I was ready to take to the bank). The relaxation is related to the literally enchanting doctrine that the human world reveals a reality that is fourfold: earth, sky, mortals, divinities. The revealing, the "worlding" (to use a characteristically appalling Heideggerian expression) is done by human works. The essay, "Building Dwelling Thinking," is lyrical on the matter and not merely obscure.

The relaxation is also related to Heidegger's increasing dread of technology. This was not a mere phobia of machines. Rather, even writing in the middle of the 20th century, he meant something very close to what we mean by virtual reality. If I understand the point correctly, technological modernity renders Being inaccessible with a screen of information about it. It destroys the world in a more profound sense than merely blowing up the planet would do, which it may do anyway.

Lawyers have a similar effect, of course.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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