Thursday, April 25, 2013

Conflicting Visions - how do we have a conversation?

Some time ago Thomas Sowell wrote a book entitled A Conflict of Visions in which he contrasts, in broad strokes, two fundamentally opposed conceptual frameworks for viewing the world – a utopian social engineer’s view in which human nature and the world can be designed and molded to achieve a type of perfection; and a “constrained” view in which we are constrained by our limitations as fallible human beings, doing the best we can to cultivate our social, political and natural environments to achieve, not perfection, but progress and improvement.
I thought of this while perusing this month’s New York Review of Books, my reliable guide to what the left-wing intellectual establishment is thinking. I was struck particularly by two articles. The first, by Robert Kutner, is a Krugmanesque analysis of the public debt (“The Debt We Shouldn’t Pay”).  I reproduce here just one sentence. Reading this was like receiving a slap in the face. Here is an example of how conflicting visions produce perceptions in direct opposition, totally exclusive of one another.
Public debt was not implicated in the collapse of 2008, nor is it retarding the recovery today. Enlarged government deficits were the consequence of the financial crash, not the cause.
This was written by a respected public intellectual. In order to believe what he does, you have to see no connection between central bank interest rate policy, the funding of Barney Frank’s vigorous push to expand home ownership in America, the buildup of the public debt and the final arrival of crisis. You also have to be able to quickly dismiss any concerns about the burden of the debt on future generations – which he does by arguing that to reduce the debt and the deficit would destroy the economy, which would be worse for our children than saddling them with the debt-burden. It is truly mind-boggling.
The second article is by Marcia Angell, on the subject of a good life, from the vantage point of someone, like her and like myself, in our later years (“What Is a Good Life?” ). The final paragraph in the article reads:
Nearly everyone over a certain age observes that time seems to pass much more quickly, and I am no exception. So extreme is the acceleration that I wonder whether it isn’t a result of some physical law, not just a perception. Maybe it’s akin to Einstein’s discovery that as speed increases, time slows. Perhaps this is the reverse—as our bodies slow, time speeds up. In any case, the rush of my days is in stark contrast to the magically endless days of my girlhood. I also find it hard to remember that I’m no longer young, despite the physical signs, since I’m the same person and in many ways have the same feelings. It’s particularly disquieting to recall that many people and places I knew no longer exist, except in my memories. Still, although I dislike the fact that my days are going so quickly, that’s the way it is, and I’ve had a good run.
Exactly. I can relate. She and I are on the same page. Well-written, poignant. Makes me sad and contemplative. Yet, the paragraph immediately preceding this reads:
But even though my microcosm is in pretty good shape, I have become much more pessimistic about the macrocosm—the state of the world. We face unsustainable population growth, potentially disastrous climate change, depletion of natural resources, pollution of the oceans, increasing inequality, both within and across countries, and violent tribalism of all forms, national and religious. Dealing with these problems will take a lot more than marginal reforms, and I don’t see that coming. Particularly in the United States, but also in the rest of the world, big money calls the shots, and it is most concerned with the next quarter’s profits. Although I’ve spent much of my life writing and speaking in opposition to the corrupting influence of money on medicine, I find doing so increasingly pointless because it seems futile. Worrying about the world my daughters and grandsons will inhabit is what I like least about aging.
Reading this made me angry, frustrated. The conflict of visions again. Astounding. Every one of the concerns she so passionately nurses is wrong, is based on a flawed understanding of the world, every one. The world’s population is not unsustainable. That is not what poverty is about. And, in any case, population growth has dramatically slowed, to the point that many societies now face a worrying “fertility crisis.”I wanted to yell, “where the hell have you been?” Our natural resources are not being depleted – quite the opposite, we are, every day, discovering new, cheaper ways to produce energy and other things – that is what humans do in market economies. Increasing inequality is not a problem – lingering poverty is the problem. And there are more people living out of poverty now than ever before, and there are signs that parts of the developing world may finally have turned the corner toward development. Violent tribalism is not new and it is not any more of a problem than it has ever been – she also seems confused when she refers to tribalism as religious and national. At best this is a metaphorical extension of tribalism to non-tribal contexts. Religious and national identities are distinct rivals to tribal identities in important and subtle ways. Not to understand this is not to understand much of the social dynamics of our world. But, to be fair, perhaps she meant by “tribalism” only to point to implacable divisions. And finally, there is that tired, old complaint about money and profits ruling the world - if only we could force people to be less greedy and more compassionate and generous. 
How does someone like me even begin to have a conversation with these people? That is what bothers me in my later years as time speeds up. 


Kuhonga said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kuhonga said...

Mr. Lewin you thoroughly mis-characterize the content of the article in question. The main thrust of the argument in the cited article, and one of the themes of the book is that people should make rational as opposed to moral decisions about debt repayment (just a businesses do when they step into chapter eleven bankruptcy in order to shed unsustainable debt.)

Similarly we as a society should make decision about debt as instrumental and not as moral. The authors point is that we should consider debt relief as an option rather than the monetary policy tools you vehemently oppose.

I suspect you would argue that most policy tools are bad, including debt relief because they represent the sort of "social engineering" that you so dislike. But your criticism of what you term "utopian" visions is misguided. You assume that any attempt to shape or govern society is an attempt "socially engineer" a world. You also assume that social engineering is the cause of many problems and that constraining attempts at social engineering is therefore the only logical solution. You fail to offer any empirical or even a priori proof of your claim. You simply group all policies that you disagree with as "social engineering" and consign them to the dustbin. I too have a hard time understanding your viewpoints. I see that you accept some policies and assume that we are really arguing about how best to achieve progress and improvement.

Kuhonga said...

What's more, the people you apparently disagree so fundamentally actually mostly agree that some form of market based capitalism is the only appropriate system. David Graeber, the author of the book being reviewed in the New York Review piece cited in your post, is for his part a committed anarchist. But you appear to endorse the secondary dogma that improvement and progress has only one source, private individuals, working on private concerns. I disagree and have evidence to back up my argument(the internet that we are using to communicate for instance).
But I digress. You are correct that our current debt burden is unsustainable. Given the amount of debt we have accumulated small fluctuations in the rates at which we are able to borrow could caused big problems. Government debt has caused problems in the past (much of the worst national debt problems arising out of punitive war debts). I would simply point out that cycles of private debt booming and busting also cause misery.
You seem most concerned with the consequences of public action when the results of a public action are uncertain. Perhaps you limit this concern with public action to monetary policy and control of the money supply. But if that is the case then you are not standing by a principle, you are standing by the interests of creditors.

But if you don't, if you believe that constraint and evidence-based thinking are fundamental in all areas then I commend you. I'll even give you an example of how right I think you are. Public policy did take some fundamentally wrong steps that led to the financial crisis, but they weren't in 1913, when we created the Federal Reserve System as a lender of last resort. The changes that we made that created uncertainty and wholesale financial-ization are much more recent. The privatization of the FNMA and commensurate reduction in lending standards is one such departure from tradition. The passage of the 1982 alternative mortgages parity act (which might have been okay if applied only to commercial loans) and the creation of the Resolution Trust Company (which along with high interest rates created the mortgage backed securities marketplace.) These public changes, made at the behest of lenders, did lead to unintended consequences. But these changes removed existing rules, that is they removed the social engineering you are so worried will lead inexorably to ruination. Maybe you have a point, and maybe we should get rid of government entirely. But unless you are willing to commit to that proposal maybe things aren't quite as simple as you posit. Maybe there aren't just delusional social engineers and bravely constrained individuals such as yourself. Maybe there are myriad difficult to balance competing and valid interests and maybe the system that we have is designed to create balanced policies that account for those interests.
As a final thought I would suggest that you objectively consider whether allowing elected officials to use traditional monetary policy, and other policy tools such as debt forgiveness (tools that are older than the bible)is radical social engineering, or if your belief in "constraint" is actually less a fundamental belief in "constraint" than it is a manifestation of your own interests; just as my belief that private debt should be constrained is partly shaped by my own interest.