The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Friday, December 24, 2004

The Race for Power

Today, as Samizdata notes, the British government passed a measure requiring national ID cards:

I do not expect a truly repressive state to be implemented for many years yet (hopefully), but the infrastructure of tyranny is now well and truly in place...

Certainly this represents a substantial strengthening of the government. But the balance of tyranny is not determined by the government alone, but also by the strength of the people to resist oppression. National ID cards strengthen the government; gun control laws weaken the people.

Let's split the problem again. Libertarians should support the weakening of government and resist its strengthening; so far, so good. Also, they should resist the weakening of individuals and, crucially, support their strengthening in every way. This last point seems often to be missing from their plans.

This strengthening can be proactive, involving anything from armament to encryption. Governments and corporations will grow in strength; can individuals keep pace?

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Tragedy and Disgrace

Powerline discusses the current furore surrounding Secretary Rumsfeld, and looks for a unifying theme. They touch on the unacceptability of bad news, the idea that error can always be prevented by having a plan. In their discussion, they brush against one of the central problems of our society, the denial of tragedy.

A powerful example is provided by medical malpractice liability, especially in obstetrics. We expect that babies should be born without dying in the process; death or permanent damage is a great tragedy, to be avoided at almost any cost. But when tragedy comes to us, it is natural to seek someone to blame; there is a powerful individual inclination to deny tragedy, replacing it with intentional harm. [See also C. S. Lewis's insights on "misfortune perceived as injury".] Those who believe too strongly in the perfectibility of society add a social impulse to this. [I do not claim that this is the sole impulse behind our lawsuit-addicted society, or even the most important; at the least, the substitution of legal vindication for both moral righteousness and social approval is more important.]

Rumsfeld is something of a lightning rod for those who would deny tragedy. As Secretary of Defense during a war, he deals in tragedy and often in error, and reports both; yet he persistently does not apologize. This is another infuriating feature, to his detractors -- they seek his disgrace as well as his removal, and would like nothing better than to damn him in his own words. The reader will be reminded of Bush's similar "failure to apologize."

All but one of the arguments against Rumsfeld are based on the postulate that the Iraq war is going badly for the U.S., and on the additional postulate that it could reasonably be expected to have been much better. These arguments appear to carry no weight with the President, and they should not.

The remaining problem, as the estimable Greg Djerejian has repeatedly pointed out, is the torture. This is more than a mistake, and if Rumsfeld's actions have really contributed to it, he should go. The rest of the case against him [e.g., some Senators don't like him] is of no consequence, and I wish Greg wouldn't weaken his argument by mixing it in.

Update: Victor Davis Hanson defends Rumsfeld in better detail than I could, but does not mention torture. Once again the two sides are talking past each other.

The Life of the Mind

In describing "The Genius for War", Clausewitz says:
War is the province of physical exertion and suffering. In order not to be completely overcome by them, a certain strength of body and mind is required, which, either natural or acquired, produces indifference to them.
[p. 42 of the Wordsworth Classics abridged version of On War.]

This passage, and in particular the penultimate word 'indifference', led me to reconsider the purpose of the hardship inflicted in basic training. I had supposed -- like most civilians, I imagine -- that the rigors of this training were intended to strengthen the body alone, while the commonality of suffering fostered teamwork and respect for one's comrades. That is, I had supposed that basic training was designed to inculcate fortitude.

It is clear to Clausewitz that the mind must be strengthened as well: the desired state is not fortitude but indifference. The good soldier is like Socrates walking barefoot in the snow; his mind is not enslaved to the comforts of the flesh. In this, he is far above the average professor or office worker, whose thoughts may be abstruse in the extreme but who can't think without his cup of coffee.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Too Cool for Words

[Contains spoilers for the fiction of David Foster Wallace, especially "Mister Squishy".]

Wallace is the only major writer who is, apparently, too young to remember anything before the information age. The idea of a world before The Third Wave is utterly absent from his fiction. In this, he is the most "modern" writer I know. [Yes, we all know "modern" in literature means something else.] Wallace is obviously keenly aware of the cliches of linear narrative, and additionally of the newer cliches of the revolt against it, and the whole conflict seems to make him a bit desperate (see several pieces from the convoluted middle of Brief Encounters with Hideous Men).

Wallace's apparently "natural" voice, best evidenced in Infinite Jest and the later essays of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, is engaging and conversational -- the way your friendly kid brother would talk to you in idle conversation if he happened to have an I.Q. of 300.

The point of all this is that Wallace is presumably intelligent enough to choose a form which best fits the story he wants to tell, even to the extent of choosing traditional forms if they really work better. Yet there is one recurring pattern to his stories: they almost invariably break off short. [Perhaps "The Father on His Deathbed" is an exception.] But why? Is it plausible that this is the most effective way to tell every one of Wallace's stories?

I will focus here on "Mister Squishy", recently reprinted in the collection Oblivion. The story is quite good, building multiple layers of paranoia as we gradually move outward from the central character (mid-level marketing functionary Terry Schmidt) whose at-work machinations are seen against those of his coworkers and bosses, and their coworkers and bosses. We also gradually move inward to Schmidt's private plans to take a shortcut to fame by poisoning the sweet cakes sold by the title company; and throughout, a Mister Squishy figure climbs the outside of the building toward the windows of the conference room (where, we presume, his appearance is not expected). Being a Wallace story, of course it ends here -- Mister Squishy (seen from the sidewalk) is one or two floors below the conference room, the poison is ready in Schmidt's darkroom, the boss knows a few things his sneaky subordinate doesn't.

Wallace has set the scene beautifully, and his characters are precisely and believably drawn. "Mister Squishy" is the story of how their quotidian lives are about to be vastly changed. And confronted with these extreme new conditions, what did they do then? On this subject Wallace is silent.

Obviously the study of ordinary people in trying circumstances is one of the mainstays of fiction. In particular, consider Faulkner's Collected Stories, which tell of little else: from "That Will Be Fine" to "The Brooch" to the overwhelming "Wash". Faulkner has something to say about the characters in their normal life, and then he has something to say about how they grow or change or break under extraordinary pressure.

Finally, I have decided that Wallace simply does not know what happens when the shit hits the fan. He knows about the details of everyday life, and can describe them with brutal precision and brilliant style. But there is bad news: we, the readers, already have a very good idea of what everyday life is like in white-collar America. We want a picture which is consistent with this yet reaches beyond it -- what did they do then? And can you tell us, Dave? What did they do then?

Friday, December 17, 2004

Control and the Definition of Randomness

Over fifty years ago, the leading statistician Maurice Kendall analyzed price movements in Chicago wheat futures(at the time, the world standard for a deep and liquid market). Finally, he wrote:

The series looks like a 'wandering' one, almost as if once a week the Demon of Chance drew a random number from a symmetrical population of fixed dispersion and added it to the current price to determine the next week's price. And this, we recall, is not the behavior of some back water market. The data derive from the Chicago wheat market over a period of fifty years.

It may be that the motion is genuinely random and that what looks like a purposive movement over a long period is merely a kind of economic Brownian motion. But economists -- and I cannot help sympathizing with them -- will doubtless resist any such conclusion very strongly.

Maurice Kendall, in Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (1953), p. 13.

We are interested not so much in Kendall's finding as in his reaction to it. The study of economics has changed greatly over the intervening half century, to the point that the existence of the 'Demon of Chance' has become an axiom and the study of that demon's properties is a [roughly forty] billion-dollar industry. The change, however, has not been in our understanding of how prices are constructed -- we share Kendall's beliefs about price discovery almost to the letter -- but in our definition of 'genuinely random'.

Kendall's words show a deep belief in the power of rational analysis, even in a case where the underlying dynamics are known to be highly resistant to such analysis. [Predictable market patterns, if they are discovered, tend to be obliterated by the attempts of traders to profit from them.] His faith can only have been based on a belief that he could overcome the market's resistance -- that the rational power of statisticians and economists was somehow qualitatively superior to that of mere traders.

This belief, baldly stated, seems indefensible, but it is a prevalent undercurrent below a wide swath of recent thought. Isaac Asimov's tremendously influential Foundation Trilogy, for example, was published from 1950 to 1953 (though the first Foundation stories were written in the early 1940s). [In Foundation, Asimov posits a science of 'psychohistory' which can predict the future history of a sufficiently large group.]

Kendall's difficulty is not so different from that confronting a planner in a controlled economy. To believe in the efficacy of such control, it is necessary to believe, as Asimov did and Kendall seems to have, in the superiority of the planners. Friedrich Hayek had written on this point still earlier:

The peculiar character of the problem of rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrate or integrated form, but solely as disbursed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus a problem of the utilization of knowledge not given to anyone in its totality.

The most significant fact about the price system is the economy of knowledge with which it operates, or how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action.

Friedrich Hayek, in American Economic Review (1945), p. 526.

Hayek's thrust here is that the information whose discovery drives price changes is not discovered, but created. Command economies are doomed to inferiority because they cannot operate with this 'economy of knowledge'; and no scientific priesthood can save the day, because the information they are seeking to unearth does not in fact exist.

This is what we mean today by random motion in prices. The idea that price changes are completely random -- 'efficient markets' -- has been so successful that it is now the starting point for any study, or any attempt at proprietary trading. [Assuming that markets are not quite efficient, where can I find inefficiencies large enough to profit from?] But the greatest measure of its success is that the word 'random' carries a different meaning to us than to Kendall -- and that we are, in the main, unaware that it was ever different.

(Hat tip: Mark Rubinstein)