What a cute couple!

The Cult of Competition

Competition is good for some things, but isn’t the panacea some make it out to be, for example in the idea of school choice. In principle, it seems fine to me that parents and children choose where they go to school. Surely school is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Allowing for choice should allow families to find the most fitting schools for their children.

However, to designate one very basic standard as the criterion for all and then blithely saddle a large chunk of schools with the designation of “failing” seems Manichean. Indeed, we don’t even ask why they’re failing, much less ask if our standards and models are appropriate or meaningful.

Imagine if, instead of insisting on and paying to ensure reasonably high standards in piloting and medicine, we simply used the model of school choice. A high percentage of under-resourced pilots would, predictably, crash, just as a high percentage of patients would die. That’s when accountability comes in: we just fire them and bring in a new batch of half-baked pilots and doctors… on the cheap, of course. Come to think of it, you wouldn’t even have to fire the pilots.

This is what we do with education. You might protest that the children don’t die, but they do go down in flames. I don’t claim to have the answer, but part of it is certainly acknowledging that income inequality is a factor in academic underperformance.

The Right to Rise?

Jeb Bush rants in the Wall Street Journal about “the road we are on, a road where the individual is allowed to succeed only so much before being punished with ruinous taxation.” He exemplifies a distinctive brand of ignorance that stakes out capitalism and morality for itself while claiming its opponents simply support failure. In fact, this is no argument at all but merely slander. One should be able to discuss the merits and pitfalls of what Bush calls capitalism and statism, but Bush only sees the merits of his side and the pitfalls of the other.

It’s tempting to assume that people who support this argument do so out of simple ignorance, however, I think culture has at least as much to do with shaping our views. Even more irksome and unnatural is the conflation of religion and capitalism. Religious Americans should be opposing market revolutionaries in droves as antithetical to their core beliefs, and yet they remain basically faithful, allowing their cultural inclinations to make hypocrites of them. The New Testament is clear: it is easy for the wealthy to give of their abundance, but the poor can only give out of hardship and want:

As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.

Mark, chapter 12

Bush may hold up “the right to rise” as an ideal, but he callously ignores the responsibility attendant upon this “right”: the duty of the many to fail.


Irrational fear of dark people from the south [Gr. νότια - south, μελανό - dark, φοβία]

New US Security Concept

US liberal internationalists look for ways to build connections between countries in order to reduce the incidence of war, among other reasons. Sometimes, the connections fall into our laps, for example when China’s neighbors believe China is becoming more hostile as we have seen in the past two years. Other times, it is only with great difficulty that we are able to build connections, as with China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The conditions for mutual trust are soured in many ways. The PLA and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) broadly see the US as a “black hand” manipulating China’s neighbors to “contain” China in a continuation of the Cold War policy. The various US services might harbor some misgivings about China, but the real difficulty in engaging China is the law which, while providing an opportunity to engage, also lays down many restrictions, ultimately empowering the minority of voices that fear China or any engagement with it. Finally, for some countries, mainly North Korea now, the environment is poisoned. Pyongyang believes we hold a knife to their throats and will wiggle out of any agreement until they see their safety guaranteed.
In this environment, it’s very difficult to build regional level relations: progress is frequently hampered and all too often reversed by mistrust and fear. This tends to bring together ad hoc coalitions of nations for and against China. For the foreseeable future, the pro-China “camp” will be the vastly weaker of the pair. But the real point is that forming “camps” is the exact opposite of what the US should be seeking to accomplish in Asia. We must leverage our “camp” system into a lasting region-wide architecture favorable to our interests.
As the situation stands, the means to ease tensions for one side are generally unacceptable to the other. For example, North Korea might give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons if the US removed most of its forces from the peninsula. However, the US cannot do this because it will cause an outcry at home and will reduce our strategic flexibility. The US goal for China is primarily that it become a “responsible great power,” integrating making itself a pillar of the international system that formed around the US after WWII. Chinese writers often cite this as a veiled attempt to “tie China down” with commitments and thus constrain its development. They also claim the ring of regional alliances is aimed at China. As stated, the current environment makes building trust difficult.
What is needed is for the US to change the outward quality of its alliance and partnerships. The actual content of the alliances, beyond fundamental security claims, should not be particularly controversial. The objections of the US militarist faction not withstanding (which in fact lies mostly outside the US military), the engagement activities we perform with allies and partners are hardly provocative on their own. Indeed, China and other states should be welcome to do the same sorts of activities throughout the region. The real mistrust-inducing aspect of the alliances is that they are silent about the role of other regional powers and do not make any provision for introducing a regional political architecture in the future. To nations outside their scope, they are vaguely threatening, which is actually more frightening than a specific threat.
To correct this, the US and its partners and allies should seek in their treaty agreements to describe and work towards a regional architecture that would gradually incorporate China and ultimately North Korea as full members in a broad, mutual security guarantee. If executed carefully and in good faith, this will do much to ease tensions in the short term and build the long term relations that will lead to peace and prosperity.

Dissatisfied contentment

People are surprising, both insatiable and prone to satisfaction. Once our basic needs for individual survival are met, we are able to live in practically any situation, be it ever so harsh. And indeed, no matter how good our conditions – even for those few who want for nothing and whose contributions are most valued (meeting the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) – there is always some dissatisfaction. Of course, without dissatisfaction we might never improve ourselves – or even see one thing as “better” than another. But in cherishing thoughts of want without a rational hope of fulfillment, we also invite despair. Our bondage to desire was the Buddha’s great message. Therefore we should adopt the 12 Step approach of changing the things we can and accepting the things we cannot. Knowing the difference allows one to balance the quest for improvement with satisfaction, the way of achieving great harmony in our world.

Unstoppable stupidity collides with immovable stupidity

The addled minds of Congressional immovables (aka the Party of No) may finally have met their match. True, rebuffing the President – after he brought his party all the way over to the side of Republicans’ spurious Chicago economics – for the pure hatred of all things Obama (and not a little xenophobic hysteria) was an unprecedented feat of jackassery. But the unstoppables at CNN have truly outdone themselves – and perhaps even their rightist counterparts in Congress – with this polling question:

“Who do you think is more responsible for the debt ceiling agreement? Do you think Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress are more responsible for that agreement, or do you think the Republicans in Congress are more responsible for that agreement?”

What the hell does this mean?! Did the “responsible” person(s) do something good or bad? Do they deserve censure or a medal? Responsible for passing the bill or blocking the bill? Does CNN even care, or is it just trying to generate interest in its confused coverage?
Whatever the answers, this has been a damaging episode in American politics. The polling and the news agree: Republicans have overplayed their mandate of last fall and had best do some compromising for the greater good.

(Re)sources of Conflict?

Some claim that resource scarcity will be an important driver of future conflict. In this model, the growing resource demands of great powers and great power aspirants cause them to vie for resources outside of their recognized sovereign territory, ultimately through conflict. The nation that best manages to secure these resources then experiences the most economic growth and consequently increases its relative power. A prime example of this theory is in the South China Sea, where strife seems to be increasing as multiple nations begin to tap its resources there.

But the resource conflict model has a fatal flaw: the common market. Indeed, any nation willing to abide by international rules can already secure its fair share of the resources by participating in this market, which in fact nearly all do. “Competition” in this light boils down to commodity prices, not military conflict. One might counter that if a nation could occupy certain resource rich ground, it could then secure the resource more cheaply. But this disregards the fact that even if the commodity price were cheaper, the international strife that such moves generate are themselves high cost. A much more satisfactory explanation for the tensions apparently surrounding resource areas is the desire to protect national sovereignty and indeed nationalism.

Without the irritant of political nationalism, “resource conflict” would be nothing more than a “trade dispute” and would be resolved through corporate negotiation and international mediation. Without the pressure to appear strong in front of constituents, governments would likely opt for more practical solutions, relying on the market to price and distribute resources instead of engaging in conflicts the cost of which must be measured over generations, not simply in the transaction itself. Nationalistic sentiment is thus the sine qua non of purported resource conflict.

One might dispute this by saying that the resources are also an important component, perhaps coequal. This may be true, but we should be clear that this is distinct from resource scarcity. The market deals with scarcity in its own way: market competition, not conflict.

My concern is that, as we in the public analyze this theory, our propensity to fear the worst will distort our perceptions to see resource scarcity as a “looming threat” that makes conflict inevitable. Emotionally speaking, such a threat – ultimately a fear of dispossession and penury – will distract us from the preferable and more likely course of events in which the tension relieving effects of the market resolve potential conflicts. If we allow such fear to gain a foothold in public discourse, it has the potential to make us fix our eyes on conflict we believe is inevitable, a self fulfilling prophecy.

I should point out that fear is already a part of the conversation, but that still doesn’t mean conflict is inevitable. When fear asserts itself above and beyond the facts which under gird it, it makes itself susceptible to logic (e.g. the argument above). Logic can’t defeat it entirely, but it can mitigate it. To deal with the fear decisively, you must embrace and react to it in the most rational way possible, as if you yourself had this fear and were taking steps to respond to it. This response must be tempered by the need to keep the way of peace wide open. In other words, the fear must be acknowledged, accepted (at some level), and responded to; but it must never be allowed to impede the path to resolution. Simply disavowing the fear is unacceptable, if it is great enough, because this will cause it to fester.

For the US, Congress has on balance been a good outlet for such fears. Admittedly, the measures Congress takes, such as the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000, may look like overreactions. That said, they do indeed address popular fear while leaving the way open for resolution. The executive branch seems to be the most capable “good cop,” able to seize the opportunities for cooperation as they arise and perhaps even steer the Congress in a more positive direction, should the time and circumstance be right. Ultimately, it will be the logic of hope that tilts the argument in favor of ensuring the way for peace remains open. And that is what will allay fear in the end.

Spirits of the Ages

Hannah Arendt, in her book The Human Condition, offers an expansive theory of the human world through history. Her primary concept centers on human activities, which she claims can be divided into four sorts: (1) labor activities are those with the sole purpose of human survival whose produce is transitory, used up in completing its purpose, and therefore cyclical; (2) work to create a lasting, material human world, the products of which remain even after use but are themselves simply a means to some other end; (3) action, the causing of others to carry out one’s own plans, the organizing of great things which invariable have unintended ramifications; and (4) contemplation (cf wuwei or inaction in Chinese philosophy), a mystical condition variously described by different thinkers, but certainly not like the other three conditions.

Ms Arendt claims that the logic behind each of these activities dominated Western history at various times. For the ancients, action was the true purpose (even meaning) of life. A person would be judged by the quality of what they did, how they publicly led others in achieving greatness. Each public man of course required the support of a private home: slaves, a wife, and chattel to support him. Women, children, and servants may have been human, but they assuredly not people. Indeed, their very privacy debarred them from public action. The problem with action, however, is that you can never predict the result. A person’s life might very well have been meaningless viewed in retrospect.

The advent of Christianity brought a solution to the problem of action: the power of promise and forgiveness. A promise could grant a degree of surety about the result of an action and forgiveness could wipe the slate clean of the unintended consequences. Indeed, all people – not just householders – could now look to escape the curses of this world. The effect was to shift the focus from this world to the next, which Arendt associates with contemplation.

This state of affairs worked well enough as long as all the power centers held a similar view, but the Galilean revolution consummated a series of shifts that placed man’s attention squarely on the nature of the world itself. Of course, to observe the world, one cannot be a part of it. It Galileo’s ability to conceive of the universe from outside the universe itself that pointed the way for a new age: the unprecedented and progressively more ingenious discovery and use of nature and nature’s law. Man had always made tools, of course, but now the universe became his tool. The logic of the age was that of work. Indeed, that which once limited the work of man’s hands was cast aside forever. Now truly man was like God, aspiring to omniscience and omnipotence.

But there are, naturally, limits to what people think, feel, believe mankind ought to do. The old modes of living were marginalized as knowledge brought about greater population, specialization, and urbanization. The few accumulated great knowledge, power, and fortune, but the newly enlarged masses suffered grievously. Out of this grievance, Marx called on common them to cast off the shackles of oppression. This was the rise of labor and ultimately led to our present jobholder society. The material needs of society having been met, attention was thus returned to the need of each person for meaning in life. While a small minority basically provided for every material need, the rest were freed to produce other goods, hence the service sector of the economy. The support of a person, once strictly the private business of the home, now became the domain of the a disembodied state.

What Arendt missed was the reaction of power to labor. The mode of work retained much of the power it had gained during the scientific revolution. Its end, after all, is mastery of this world, whereas as modern labor merely seeks an improved lot for the many. This struggle – knowledge against labor – continues today throughout the world. Thus our task today is balance the blessings of science against the need to care for society.

Marx’s historical epochs seem to align well with Arendt’s: slave society is the age of action; feudal society is that of contemplation; capitalist society is work; and labor corresponds to socialism and eventually communism. We might also see Marx’s aboriginal and developed communisms as bookending Arendt’s four phases.

Just as interestingly, these epochs seem to match the four personality archetypes as well (see previous post). The age of action is suited to the Dionysian doer; the age of contemplation fits the Apollonian quest for feeling and meaning, the age of work (or reason) best matches the Promethean quest for knowledge; and the labor society embodies the Epimethean ideal of providing for all.

Finally, it is also tempting to apply the archetypes to our living history. We might call Generation Y romantic and emotional, and therefore choleric Apollonians. Gen Xers are stereotypically caustic and blase, just the opposite of “Y,” and therefore phlegmatic Promethians. The Boomers had their cause in their day, but perhaps in the end seemed to care more about rebelling – acting – than about the righteousness of the cause. They are therefore best labeled sanguinary Dionysians. Could the Greatest Generation then be called melancholic Epimethians? Are they the responsible traditionalists that label implies? Maybe. Does this mean that those who proceed from Y will be as well?

All of this last is rather shaky; impressions and overly broad generalizations, mostly. Worse, these stereotypes may become self fulfilling prophecies. As with individuals, societies (across generations) must be able to come together in some agreement to embrace the qualities of each archetype at appropriate times. Failure to do so means imbalance, disharmony, and in the end disaster.

On Personality

A few thoughts on reading Keirsey’s and Bates’ Please Understand Me:

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) tests a person’s preference on four distinct scales: (1) being alone or with others; (2) seeing what is (“sensing,” S) or what could be (intuiting, N); (3) considering one’s own thoughts (“thinking,” T) or those of others (“feeling,” F); and (4) reaching conclusions (“judging,” J) or not doing so (“perceiving,” P). Because this is a preference and not simply a choice, the tendency toward one characteristic in no ways precludes an appreciation of or indeed the embrace of its “opposite.”

MBTI would appear to have little claim to a complete description of one’s personality. For example, traits like being neurotic or antisocial aren’t really covered. The question is whether the MBTI’s scope of traits provides an adequate and useful way of generalizing complex individual personalities. Comparing four binary preferences yields sixteen possible distinct types. Keirsey and Bates further generalize these types into four “archetypes” (my own word), with each archetype defined by only two of the four preferences. The archetypes are as follows:

Ἀπόλλων (Apollonian), those who see what could be and prioritize others’ feelings. Feeling and meaningfulness are primary.

Προμηθεύς (Promethean), those who see what could be and prefer to keep to their own thoughts. Knowing and being able are primary.

Επιμηθέας (Epimethean), those who prefer to see the world as it is and come to some judgment. Belong to the group and social position are primary.

Διόνυσος (Dionysian), those who see the world as it is and prefer not to have the finality of a single judgment. Doing – acting for the sheer pleasure of acting – is best.

That we should have a preference for one trait or another is hardly surprising, but it seems clear that in order to be complete people, we should be able to assume the traits counterpart contrary to those we prefer. By practicing to make each of the eight traits integral to our person and bringing them out at appropriate times, we gain a special form of completeness. Of course, we still maintain our preferences, our “self,” but are otherwise better suited for every situation.