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Wednesday, October 16, 2002
About these posts
I started writing the content back in August, twiddling with the blogskin in my spare time. No, I didn't read all this stuff in a day. After I finally realized I was never going to be happy with the look of the free weblog, I decided to back up the truck and kick the whole load off the tailgate. Maybe I'll fix it later. MaƱana, inshallah, whatever.

Oh no, it's gone! Oh, wait, there it is again!
Arts & Letters Daily has shut down. The website was the property of Lingua Franca, another keenly regretted loss. The editors of the site, Denis Dutton and Tran Huu Dung, immediately started a new weblog called Philosophy and Literature. Marvelous to relate, it looks and reads a lot like the old site. If anything, the design is cleaner. Whatever mental illness or defect causes these two to persist in their behavior, I hope no one finds a cure for it. Thanks, guys, and welcome back!

Currently reading
I just finished the second volume of The Open Society and its Enemies. Popper gave a good brisk beating to Plato in volume 1, then severely punished Hegel in the opening of volume 2. Hegel, as Popper tells it, justified the Prussian militarized autocracy as the "highest" freedom and the acme of the realization of the collective spirit of the nation. This should sound sadly familiar. Hegel, in effect, was a hack and a toady.
Imagine my surprise when he let Marx off lightly. Marx's big problem, to Popper's mind, was historicism, the idea that there are immutable laws in history that can be discovered. Marx did not allow for the possibility that we can learn and change things. Capitalism did not fail - it was reformed by moral suasion and democratic intervention. Child labor laws, unemployment insurance, collective bargaining and other innovations have kept the machine running without overheating, and were accomplished without civil insurrection. The genius of democracy is its ability to detect and correct systematic failures. The capitalism of Marx's day is long gone and unlamented, but what replaced it was nothing Marx envisioned. Since Marx founded his system on its historic laws and their inexorable operation, it stands or falls based on his predictions. They are consistently wrong. So why does Marx escape a well-deserved drubbing? The usual reason: his good intentions. I was a little disappointed that Popper spared him a flogging, but since the hideous results of his system were not clear until after his time, and we already have seen that he was not good at prophecy, it would not be fair to hold him strictly accountable for the whole sanguinary failure.

Thinking deep thoughts
What if the Hokey Pokey really is what it's all about?

Currently reading
Mr. Majestyk, by Elmore Leonard. I didn't think I had to explain this author, but a friend who reads mysteries had never heard of him. She caught on quickly when I mentioned Raymond Chandler. Writers love this guy. His style is spare, not a word wasted, and you can hear the characters speak. Think about J.J. Cale or Steve Cropper playing guitar and you get the idea.

Enron and WorldCom for dummies
First, a little Accounting 101. Debit and credit don't mean bad or good. All they really mean is left and right. Assets (the stuff in a business) go on the left. Debts and owner's equity (the ones who own the stuff) go on the right. Revenues are left, expenses are right. When you record a transaction, you have to put something on the left and something on the right, and they have to come to the same amount on each side to balance.

WorldCom had a very simple way of doing things: if they had to record a "left," they picked an asset instead of an expense.

Suppose the accountant should have done this:

(Debit)Expense $3.8 billion
(Credit)Cash paid $3.8 billion
Memo: Miscellaneous expenses

Instead, they just did this:

(Debit)Imaginary asset $3.8 billion
(Credit)Cash paid $3.8 billion
Memo: Don't spend a lot of time looking for this asset

Voila, you just made $3.8 billion.

Enron was a little more complicated. It had to be complicated to work at all, but the theme was this: eat tomorrow's supper tonight. Enron would enter into a contract to deliver something (maybe natural gas) over a period of years. That would usually mean that they would have to take in the income several years as they got paid. What they did instead was set up partnerships that were sort of, kind of, but not really separate from Enron. So now they "sell" this contract to the partnership at a profit. Ta-dah! Instant profits! The partnership has nothing else but this contract, so they "pay" for it with borrowed money. Enron is a co-signer on the debt, but since it was borrowed by the partnership, they can just forget about putting it on their books.

As they say on the television show, these people are professionals, so don't try this at home.

Currently reading
The Open Society and its Enemies, vol. 1, by Karl Popper.
Popper was the philosopher who made clear one of the main principles of scientific investigation. In his famous example, a good scientist is one who, having hypothesized that all swans are white, looks for a black swan to invalidate his rule. The number of white swans observed is not enough. A theory can be considered valid if there are no meaningful exceptions. (By the way, there are black swans native to Australia.)

You have to admire the man's audacity in this book. He sees in Plato's works the beginnings of 20th century totalitarianism. Plato's Republic is meant to be an ideal city-state. The rulers rule, and the workers work. The caste system is immutable. The rulers should apply the same principles of breeding humans as they do in breeding horses. The state is everything, the individual is nothing. Justice is what tends to serve the state's interest. Having come as close to the Ideal as possible, all change should cease, since change would be deterioration.

It's not hard to see the connection, once it's pointed out. The "leading party," eugenics, racism, revolutionary justice, Marx's true communism, the thousand-year Reich. Popper cites Plato's call to drive everyone over the age of ten out of the city, in order to start afresh. This to me was a chilling foreshadowing of Pol Pot's "Year Zero" program some thirty years after this book was written.

Popper sees the idea of historicism at the base of utopianism. The idea that "scientific" laws can be squeezed out of history is probably related to the patterns people see in winning lottery numbers. There is a quirk in human intelligence that sees more patterns than really exist, and then makes predictions based on the patterns. What claim to certainty can historicism make? Not deductive certainty — none of the systems stand up without begging the question. Not inductive certainty, either - why did socialism maintain and extend its reach in the last century despite an unblemished record of failure? And whatever happened to the alienation and pauperization of labor that Marx said was inevitable? Did I miss something? If you want to claim the scientific method, you rely on small-scale experiments, accurate recording and publication of the results, comparison of the results to the prediction, reproducibility, challenge and defense of the method, and ruling out other explanations. Instead, utopians simply explain away their disasters and start a fresh one.

I have long been a skeptic of Utopianism. The idea of "investing" in current human misery — even death — for a golden future is a sucker's game. The future keeps receding as the corpses pile up in the present.

Popper's notes are indispensable. Don't skip them - use two bookmarks. They contain a sharp answer to utilitarianism: human happiness and human suffering are two different things. One does not offset the other, and they are certainly not transferable. We are obliged to relieve or avoid causing suffering, but each of us is best able to know and look after our own happiness. If we want to contribute to our neighbor's happiness, very good, but let's not force it on him.
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