Friday, November 27, 2020

Looking beneath 2020 to spot our foundational issues - The diminishing returns of Economic Thinking

As electoral events continue to spiral up towards peak 2020, it seems like an exceptionally good time to step outside of the 2020 timeframe for a moment - not to avoid or evade it - but, as America continues to slide from it's foundations, to face up to the fact that this didn't 'just happen... somehow'. Doing that, requires taking a step or two back from the intensely partisan distractions of the moment, lowering our ideological blinders to notice the plentiful clues around us that some things just don't fit together quite right... some seemingly broken and carelessly glued back together, others being foundational supports which offer no support. If you need an example of such disjointed repairs, here ya go: Have you noticed that whenever discussing the politics of what the govt should and shouldn't do, those discussions are immediately refracted through the lens of economic policies? You know that's just not right, right? Even with non-economic issues like public education, people have developed the habit of justifying their positions on an economic basis. A quick search outside of 2020 finds posts like this one from three years ago:
"Is Schooling a Public Good? A public good, according to the economic definition, must satisfy two conditions
Critics of the proposed policy to expand private school choice in the United States argue that the government must fund and control schooling since it is a “public good.” This may sound accurate..."

2020 didn't just happen, we've been steadily building towards it for years & decades that've made such disjointed views into the norm, so much so that even when addressing broad cultural concerns, they're reduce to economic factors, wrapped about with ribbons of virtue signaling adorning foundations of sand. Here's an example of that from Vox's site last year, where in a discussion with Ben Shapiro about his book "The Right Side of History", Shapiro's concern that "... abandoning our “Judeo-Christian heritage”..." might have something to do with "...record drug overdoses, declining marriage rates, increased rates of depression, high levels of distrust, etc...", the Vox writer felt compelled to reduce that broad sweep of circumstances down to the particular things, conditions and transactions of an economic scenario:
"...What’s astonishing to me is that in noting all of this, you dismiss material conditions as a relevant causal factor. Wages have been stagnant for 40 years, Americans are working longer hours for less pay, the vast majority of wealth being produced is going to ever smaller numbers of people, more people are facing economic precarity due to rapid technological change — you don’t see that as part of the story here?..."
Meaning that, in this person's eyes, all that has come before in Western Civilization, including all of the concepts and principles which led to and guided the development of what is now known as economics, should 'obviously' take a back seat to the immediate quantities, theories and policies of economic thinking. That same impulse extends to medical care, judicial policy, military planning, and... - etc. - it is difficult to find a careful consideration of the issues that isn't shaped by, or even rooted in, economic thinking. Few however bother to consider what, if anything, it is that Economics itself rests upon - it is simply their default perspective for starting to think about our world. Even with populists like Tucker Carlson, while he's railing at the various 'economic realities' that Libertarians, 'Capitalists' and establishment 'Free Traders' expect us all to accept and abide by, Carlson turns to justify his populist opposition to them, on economic grounds! That quirk is very much on display in this, one of his central observations from January of 2019, for why it is that America is in trouble:
"Here’s a big part of the answer: male wages declined"
Which, BTW, is far more amenable to the Vox writer's worldview, than Ben Shapiro's.

That this has become the 'default' setting in our society today - a nation that was the 1st nation in history to be founded upon philosophic principles - is not a mark of progress, and it is something that we should find shocking - but most of us do not. Is it really surprising then, that as we look no deeper than the field of economics to resolve societal problems, problems which we identify and view through economic lenses, and describe in economic terms, that we are then unable to see any deeper into these problems than the various ribbons and bows we've neatly wrapped around the economic and political boxes which we expect to find what we want in? It is a very, shall we say, economical means, of self-deception via selectively fostered ignorance.

That same sort of limited view is what follows from our sending out the 'eye-witness news!' reporters to take our pulse through the proverbial 'man in the street' or student on campus, by asking 'them':
"So, 'Capitalism' or Socialism - which do you prefer?"
, with neither the interviewer, nor the interviewee, nor the viewing audience, showing even a hint of a suspicion that that question frames and presents something significantly less than the full picture which such a question is and should actually be concerned with - not least of which is that such a question cannot comfortably, or safely, be asked in a Socialist nation, nor for that matter even in an American school. In all fairness to the reporters though, I can't imagine them asking something else, can you? How do you suppose the question "So, Moderate Realism, Post-Modernism, Stoicism, Subjectivism, Pragmatism, Existentialism or some other Grab-baggism - which do you prefer?", would go over on an 'Eye Witness News!' spot? Awkward. I do wonder though, if you were to ask:
"So, Liberty or Tyranny - which do you prefer?"
, would that be any less awkward?

It's almost as if they have no idea that the Economics which they unquestioningly do their thinking about society with, is, at best, only one small feature, of a subset, of a third level branch, of that philosophy which the field had been developed out of. If you don't see what I'm talking about - and there is no way you're going to understand what is happening to us here in the year 2020 without it - there is a hierarchical structure to our concepts and their grounding in reality, which, through its order, or disorder, shapes everything you understand and are aware of (or not).

This is not open to dispute (well, didn't used to be), but it is simply ignored or miscast today. But ignored or not, the reality is that Economics is preceded by, defined through, and is entirely dependent upon, that Western philosophy of which it was, and is, but one small expression of. Economics can only be properly understood through, can only come to be, after developing the more fundamental philosophical structures and suppositions of:
  1. Metaphysics (What IS, is),
  2. Epistemology (How do we know what we know, and what of it is or isn't it true),
  3. Ethics (How we ought to respond to what is)
, and from there it's necessary to drill further down through the layers of Ethics, in order to reach its major subset of,
  • Political Philosophy (How a society should justly organize itself)
, and it's only here, at this point, finally, that we come to find nestled all snugly within what has developed from the hierarchy of all of those previous layers of ideas, boundaries and principle branches of the philosophical tree that lead up to its development, that we then find in its modernized form, that upstart babe in the philosophic woods:
  • Economics (how to manage scarce resources that have alternate uses in society).
Economics derives all of its concepts, methods and assumptions, through those preceding branches of philosophy, which in turn shape the form of its economic policies, and when economists are respectful of that - assuming that their underlying philosophy is respectful of reality - all is well - the health of that economy can be evaluated, threats to it can be identified, and reasonable forecasts about it can be made.

But if that structure isn't clearly known, or at least generally acknowledged, it will be unwittingly assumed with that ignorance as a part of its foundation. Most modern economists, Left, Right and Center, when making their own pronouncements, do so without reference to, or regard for, those preceding limbs of the philosophic tree of knowledge which had to be climbed up and over in order to first comprehend the necessity and value of that 3rd level subset of philosophy which economics is but an offshoot of, which they then presume to lecture to us from, about everything else in our lives - and what's worse, if the economy goes wrong, they use that spindly position as a basis for warping even further, the much larger branch which it grows out of, in order to force the limb to conform to the twig.

And still they use the words and concepts of those preceding limbs & branches branches, of course, as they can't avoid dealing with Substance, Identity, Logic, Causality, Justice (though they do so through the more narrowly filtered terms of Wealth, Dollar, Profit & Loss, Production & Consumption, Property), but they do so with little or no regard for what their deeper and more extended meaning is, or for what was required for their development and continuance, they simply repurpose and redefine them to suit their own purposes, and they do so without a reasonable regard for that chaos which could - should - be expected to follow from that.

This is both "the tail wagging the dog" on steroids, and of foundations built on sand, instead of stone.

Now, you might well ask
'Van? Why does that matter - At All? I mean, it's not as if they don't use the same words of Identity, Logic and Right & Wrong, and we are all affected by economic issues - What in the hell's your problem?'
Well. Sure the same words are being used, but if those words aren't understood to begin from the same roots, or are maybe even unconcerned with having any roots at all, then those words that they're using to think with, become vague floaters in their own minds, with no real thoughtful significance for them, or for you, or for any of those who're doing their thinking with them, and if that's the case, then those words which you and they are using are not serving to connect your thinking to reality, but are instead actively facilitating your disconnection from it.

That's a problem. And there's more.

When the misuse of words are given such free reign in these boring 'policy choices', they implicitly pivot us away from one familiar mindset, into an entirely new and alien philosophy, implicitly undermining and subverting the philosophic world which the American Dream sprang from, and they do so in plain sight and with a great deal of mis-directional fanfare. And while they typically begin with associations to a worldview of people at liberty to live their own lives, as they stride boldly 'forward!' on the legs of unexamined assumptions, they easily carry you with them into a darker and more oppressive world where 'those who know best', are empowered to 'choose' how to live your life for you.

That's a problem. And it's a problem that's not limited to the Left ('equal distribution of wealth!'), but is easily found in the policies of Conservatives ('strengthening the family' through a 'Family Leave Act'), Libertarians ('Net Neutrality', 'Universal Basic Income', 'Eliminate Intellectual Property') and so-called Centrists ("govt must cool the economy"), all of which introduce numerous societal consequences which Economic thinking is powerless to resolve and unavoidably exacerbates, with each new solution leading to still more problems, and especially so for those trying to solve the problems which we as a society 'mysteriously' persist in making, and still further affecting the experiences of every one of our lives.

Seeing the problem isn't difficult to do, once you know where to look and what to listen for. I think that this can be conveyed in just a few examples, some obvious, some not so much until you've looked differently at what seems obvious, to reveal the very real philosophical threats that lurk behind and beneath the economic thinking that is commonly found in the Left, Right and Center - and that is what I'll spend the next several posts digging further into.

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