Fear of the Future: Rehabilitating the “Temporal Cold War”

The film First Contact marks a decisive turning point in the Star Trek franchise’s approach to time travel. Previously, the emphasis was always on preserving the past, which had led to a glorious future. Even at great cost — as in the classic episode “City on the Edge of Forever” — the timeline that had produced the optimistic semi-utopia of Star Trek had to be restored. That emphasis on future greatness continues even in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, whose somewhat contrived plot centers on the hard lesson that present short-sightedness (such as letting whales go extinct) can affect the future in ways that might not even make sense to us now (such as an alien force that had befriended the whales laying waste to earth when they can’t find them). Even if Voyage Home marks a shift, it’s still within the same basic frame of rehabilitating our own accidental behavior in the past.

The new element in First Contact is the malevolent intention of the Borg in disrupting our timeline. A completely unpredictable force, which at that point in history humanity had had no dealings with, blasts out of the future and takes over — and while Captain Picard et al. are able to set things back on the utopian path, humanity’s great hero, warp-drive inventor Zefrem Cochrane, knows that his discovery and fateful voyage were part of a conflict between two mysterious powers from the future.

Read the rest of this entry »

“Skin in the game”: The market for high-stakes services

It is a commonplace in public policy that exposing citizens to more price signals for important services is an important part of bringing down costs. In the health care arena, for example, it’s often said that the reason medical costs are so high is that customers by and large are not paying their own bills and don’t even know the costs of the various procedures — if they were the ones who had to pay the difference in price between a brand-name or generic drug, they would be more likely to make the sensible, cost-effective decision.

This theory is completely, 180-degrees wrong. Even if we assume that consumers are rational utility-maximizers, “saving money” is not the relevant utility to maximize in the medical situation — preserving one’s health and, ultimately, one’s life is the priority that overrides all others. Even total financial ruin is preferable to death. Further, in the absence of specialized medical knowledge, it is understandable and even rational to use price as a proxy for effectiveness. Even if there is a point of diminishing returns, that extra little bit of effectiveness may be the decisive factor.

We can see a similar dynamic in other high-stakes scenarios. Higher education is an economic good, but it is an economic good of a very particular type: it permanently affects your long-term economic prospects, and you only get one shot at it. Here again, it is reasonable to use price as a proxy for quality in the absence of other information — and it is likely that the elaborate attempts to generate hard data about learning effectiveness will lead to the unsurprising conclusion that schools with better resources deliver better outcomes! Again, even if there is a point of diminishing returns on the price vs. quality graph, people will want to maximize the quality to the extent possible, in their one chance to go to college. In the choice between thwarted life prospects and unmanageable debt, unmanageable debt surely seems preferable. The analogy with legal services is easy to draw as well — when one’s freedom is at stake, no price is too high.

Once we acknowledge that there is a qualitative difference between high-stakes, life-or-death outcomes and financial outcomes, we should expect people in a private market to drive up costs for high-stakes services at every opportunity — which is in fact what we witness in practice. The only way to control prices is to control prices, i.e., to limit what can be charged for the relevant services either through government regulation, through negotiation on behalf of large groups of customers, or through the creation of a “public option” for the service in question (like public universities in the postwar era).

The Romance of the Job

Is it possible to tell a compelling love story any longer? Romantic love is of course fascinating to the couple involved, but from the outside it seems difficult to portray without recourse to stale clichés and contrived conflicts — all the more so given the excessive overgrown of romantic stories in Western culture from the late middle ages into modernity. Romantic plotlines are increasingly called upon to do work they cannot do: to lend emotional credibility and investment to action films, for instance, or to introduce a level of humanity into television shows that are fundamentally about “the job” (the many variations on police procedurals, including medical and defense attorney procedurals).

In part, this evacuation of romantic love stems from the fact that contemporary characters love the job above all and have no emotional room for anything else. Read the rest of this entry »

What the “sharing economy” shows us about the social bond under neoliberalism

[Editor's note: It turns out that I'm almost completely wrong about this -- check out the comments!]

Hitchhiking used to be commonplace. Now we think of it as dangerous, but studies have shown that one was no more likely to be a victim of a crime while hitchhiking than in any other situation. And it makes sense — when you do a favor for someone, are you usually looking for a way to exploit or harm them? Do you open the door for someone hoping they’ll let their guard down and you can pick their pocket? For at least a brief window in American history, that baseline expectation of human decency was enough to make hitchhiking an attractive option.

Nowadays, most of us wouldn’t imagine getting into a stranger’s car. The very fact that they were willing to pick us up would make their motive suspect — unless, of course, we know that their motive was to make money. Give us a smartphone app and a financial intermediary (as with Uber), and we’ll happily jump into some random person’s car.

Something similar is going on with Airbnb. Obviously their system allows people to make arrangements that would have been difficult if not impossible to make without an intermediary of some kind before the internet as well. Yet we have a kind of “natural experiment” insofar as Craigslist allows people to post and respond to ads for free and make further arrangements without anyone taking a cut. Lo and behold, it turns out that Craigslist seems “shady” and disreputable compared to Airbnb. (This result is of course overdetermined insofar as Craiglist’s total lack of filters has made it a hotbed for scammers and criminal activities — and yet.)

This is the strange thing about the “sharing economy.” In theory, we could always “share” things with each other at any time, but we generally don’t — unless some kind of combined financial/technological intermediary legitimates the transaction by giving us a fancy website and taking a cut (as the Craigslist example shows, the technological intermediary alone is insufficient). We don’t trust each other directly, don’t trust basic human decency. Instead, we trust money’s power to make people behave in the ways we expect. We only let down our guard when we know there’s a third party who’s skimming a little money off the top in exchange for making us feel like there’s someone to sue if things go wrong.

Against free choice

Common sense tells us that we’re morally accountable because we have free will. In reality, the opposite is the case — a free will is attributed to us so that we can be viewed as morally accountable. Put more briefly: we don’t blame people because they have free will, we say they have free will so we can blame them.

I know that some readers are already objecting, thinking in terms of the intellectually fruitless debate between free will and determinism. I am far from viewing human beings as machine-like — indeed, the only people who seem to believe human beings are machine-like are economists, who assume that the right “inputs” (incentives, information, etc.) will always necessarily lead to the right “outputs.” Humans consistently respond to situations in surprising and unpredictable ways, which do not conform to any algorithm we’re likely to find.

Even if we decide that humans are “free” in the sense of not being fully determined by a saturated field of knowable causal laws, however, it’s still an additional step to claim that “freedom” in that sense carries with it moral responsibility — that I can be justly shamed or punished precisely because I can do something called “making a choice.” The one does not follow from the other. Indeed, we often shame or punish people when nothing like an informed free choice is in play, as when we punish someone for breaking a law they do not know (and virtually none of us knows even a significant percentage of the laws in our jurisdiction). We punish or shame children not because we believe that they have the same ability to “make choices” as adults, but so that they will begin to experience themselves as having free choice.

The concept of free will was most insistently developed in medieval scholasticism, and the really puzzling thing in retrospect was that essentially none of the scholastics doubted that each individual’s fate was completely predestined by God’s eternal inscrutable will. Here above all we can see that free will works as an apparatus to justify punishment, most especially in the various narratives of the fall of the devil. Aquinas settles on the position that the devil cannot be evil from the first moment of his existence, because then God would be to blame for his evil nature — rather, God gives the devil a good will in the first instant, and then in the second instant the devil falls away through an excessive willing that implied the sin of pride. The needle has been threaded: God has been absolved of responsibility, but the devil is also as thoroughly evil as possible. Anselm works similar magic on original sin, making it a heritable defect in the will — yet because it is a matter of will, it is a punishable sin just as much as what we more usually think of as willful sins.

The apparatus of free will in medieval theology allowed for a world not unlike our own. Free choice condemned the vast majority of human beings to a hopeless fate, while a privileged elite gained rewards — in both cases, despite the fact that God had predetermined everything, theologians were confident that everyone had gotten what they deserved. God’s justice was vindicated, and his glory assured. Our version is less grandiose. We want to vindicate something called “the market,” which always makes the right choices if only we allow it to, and in place of the glory of God we have the shifting numbers in various market indices and economic indicators. We are also content to let people waste the one life they have in this world, rather than imagine them suffering beyond death through all eternity.

Yet this deflated vision makes our attachment to the value of freedom all the more puzzling. I can see living and dying for God — but why would anyone devote their lives to making certain numbers go higher? Why would we sacrifice everything — the very livability of this finite world itself — so that the rate of change in those numbers would not decrease?

Here the medieval worldview might be helpful as well, because part of the pleasure of being among the heaven-bound elect was the prospect of watching, with great satisfaction, the punishment of the damned. Human decency leads us to assume that the suffering of the poor, the thwarted hopes of the young, the pending mass death of countless millions through the disasters of climate change are “bugs” in the system — but what if they’re features? What if part of the pleasure of being among the elite is to gaze upon the deserved fate of all those pathetic losers, knowing that the same market justice that redeemed you is vindicated when it punishes them? What if the unprecedented spectacle of global suffering is not an unfortunate side-effect, but the goal?

Updates from the Exciting New Grad School

The Global Center for Advanced Studies is offering a one-credit course on contemporary philosophy of religion. It will consist of four class sessions team-taught by John Caputo, Clayton Crockett, and Creston Davis, with special guest lectures by Thomas Altizer, Jeff Robbins, and Pete Rollins — a rare case of having more professors than class sessions. Despite this surplus of instructors, however, it appears that they were unable to find room for a single woman or person of color for either the teaching docket or the reading list.

In a blow against neoliberal hegemony, the class will consist of video lectures supplemented by online discussion sessions — i.e., it is distinguished from a MOOC only by the fact that they’re charging. In a bold stand against corporate domination of the university, those discussion sessions will be held on Facebook and Google+, and the textbooks (which mainly consist of the writings of the professors themselves) are made available through links to Amazon.

Under the section on credit, the syllabus specifies that “This course is designed to be as rigorous academically as any graduate (upper level under-graduate) course.” And it shows — students are expected to write a five-page research paper that cites at least two sources. Those of us who suspected that GCAS would amount to little more than an American version of the European Grad School can feel a certain vindication, given that this section also reveals that the GCAS will be piggy-backing on the EGS’s European accreditation for the time being.

This course may very well prove to be informative and helpful for the participants on some level, but I don’t think any but the most blinkered advocates can claim it adds up to anything revolutionary or paradigm-shifting. People have suggested various theories for why I’m so skeptical of this venture, including personal animus toward the school’s founders or jealousy at not being invited to participate. I think that a careful reading of this syllabus can lay those speculations to rest. I’m skeptical of this venture because the gap between the insane hype and the lackluster reality is a yawning, nigh-unfathomable abyss.

First as tragedy, then as farce: Communism and neoliberalism

The twentieth century saw the advent of two heavily state-driven strategies for capital-intensive economic development: communism and neoliberalism. The difference is that communism focused on the development of fixed capital (above all, “heavy industry”), whereas neoliberalism focuses on fictitious capital. Both demand extraordinary amounts of effort and sacrifice on the part of the majority of the population — but where communism held out an ostensible goal of very rapidly creating the conditions for a vastly improved quality of life, in neoliberalism there is no promised end to the sacrifice. The pile-up of fictitious capital in the hands of a few cannot conceivably benefit the masses in the way that improved industrial capacity could. It serves only to increase the power of the elites over the masses, which brings me to another distinctive trait of both movements: the creation of a “zone of indistinction” between the economic and the political. Particularly under Stalinism, the “economic forces” at play were literal forces of violence, and the rise of neoliberalism has been accompanied by a dramatic reemergence of violent repression as a key form of political control — most emblematically in Pinochet’s Chile, where neoliberal reform was achieved by means of a horrifying campaign of state terror.

There are fine-grained similarities, too. Take the much-lauded idea of “disruptive innovation.” Surely if there was ever a disruptive innovation, it was the communist project of collectivizing agriculture! They took a system that, though it was certainly not operating up to the highest possible productivity, basically worked most of the time in the sense of keeping the population fed, and they very rapidly replaced it with a radically new and different system that they believed would produce better results. We can see a similar logic at work with the disruptive innovation afoot in the education system. For all its faults, the U.S. education system does provide a certain baseline education for those who complete it — the literacy rate, for example, is very nearly 100%, and the vast majority of people can do the basic math necessary for everyday life — but the thought-leaders (a term that’s always struck me as somewhat Maoist) have decided it’s inadequate and needs to be replaced with a radically different one. In both cases, the short-term results proved to be devestating. Collectivization of agriculture led to famine and starvation, while de-collectivization of public schools has led to an active degradation of the quality of education. In both cases, the short-term damage caused by the rapid change is deployed as evidence that we need to move all the more quickly.

I’ve already written on the striking similarity between Stalinism and neoliberal corporate governance, so I won’t belabor that here. Suffice it to say that the same bizarre cocktail of lock-step historical necessity and voluntarism are at work in both systems. In communism, there was an attempt to immanentize the eschaton, to force their way through the necessary steps of historical progress in order to reach the promised land as quickly as possible. All that’s different is that in neoliberalism, there is no historical telos, no equivalent to the dream of “full communism.” We must continue cutting costs and disruptively innovating and giving 110% — forever, for its own sake. It is our ineluctable fate, and our only space of freedom consists in preemptively imposing our fate on ourselves. We must cut the budget, or else circumstances will arise that force us to cut the budget — this is how we express our amor fati.

The historical failure of Soviet Communism and the ambiguous status of Chinese Communism may have made all the sacrifices endured under communism seem pointless — but neoliberalism is inherently pointless, forthrightly and avowedly nihilistic. Perhaps this is our world-historical punishment for the failure of communism. Perhaps we missed our chance to cash out of capitalism and turn its amazing productive forces toward constructive human ends. Now all we can do is watch as the machine destroys itself, and us along with it.

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