Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men: Postmodern villains vs. modern heroes

Two of my favorite movies over the last year are The Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men. On the surface these movies are very different. The Dark Knight is set in a fictitious city, Gotham, with a cartoon-based hero. Meanwhile, No Country is set in West Texas in 1980. Dark Knight showcases spectacular special effects and stunts with an implausible plot while No County the feel of an Alfred Hitchcock movie with a deliberate pace and realistic action.

While all of this is true I also believe these two films share two things in common: a postmodern villain and a hero who represents a perplexed moral center. I plan to post more on postmodern relativism but in essence it is the belief that there is no objective truth because our inherent prejudices and conceptual shortcomings prevent us from establishing hard and fast principles. Someone who buys consistently buys into postmodern relativism believes they can do anything they want regardless of consequences. A person who believes this will act as if he is an end in themselves while treating others as means to their ends.

Hence you have someone like the Joker in the Dark Knight who sets up situations in which his victims are mere toys for his entertainment. The Joker wants to show that under the right conditions everyone will devolve to his level and kill each other without second thought. Similarly, Anton Chigurh routinely dispatches anyone who gets in his way and at times uses a coin flip, the ultimate in random decision making, to decide if someone will live or die. (A coin flip is also used in Dark Knight but by Harvey Dent, the hero who does succumb to the Joker’s arguments.)

To be fair, there does appear to be one key difference between the Joker and Chigurh: the Joker doesn’t show much interest in committing crimes in order to obtain money while Chigurh does pursue the $2,000,000 of drug money. If anything, the Joker represents a more “advanced” stage of devolution than Chigurh who still has the ultimate goal of getting the drug money.

Both movies also feature a hero who fights the evil of the villain without fully gasping why his nemesis acts the way he does. They represent the “modern” worldview (i.e., reflecting the Enlightenment) which holds there is objective truth and sound principles including respect for others. As a result they cannot truly grasp what motivates the Joker or Chigurh. Their confusion and dismay is more clearly expressed by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in a couple of conversations where he decries the increasing violence and the deteriorating moral condition of the world. Both films share a similar apprehension over the evolution of villains from the petty criminal who steals or robs for personal gain but still plays within some “rules” to the postmodern villain who merely wants to destroy value for amusement or treats humans as mere nuisances in the way of their goals.

So why do I enjoy these movies given their dark center? Because I think they capture (even if inadvertently) the sign of the times without giving up hope that truth and justice are worth upholding.

Does being objective preclude taking a political side?

During the lead up to the Presidential election I received several comments on some of my posts or I found comments posted elsewhere questioning my objectivity because I obviously sided with the Republican ticket (although with major reservations) and dared to oppose Obama. The implication seemed to be that you couldn’t be objective if you take sides. I hope it’s clear from the context of my posts that objectivity doesn’t entail permanently suspending judgment. It means supporting your conclusions with data and logic.

In any case, I happened to stumble across an interesting site, The Political Compass, that augments the normal economic spectrum of left versus right with a social scale: authoritarian versus libertarian. While the web site doesn’t express it this way their scales measure freedom along two axes. The “normal” horizontal scale of left and right measures economic freedom. The Political Compass model adds a vertical scale of social freedom with authoritarian at the north pole and anarchism at the south. Under this scheme, communism lies at the left end of the spectrum while libertarianism resides at the other end. Incorporating the vertical dimension of social freedom, fascism sits at the north end while anarchism represents the south pole. (I don’t entirely agree with the author’s equation of authoritarianism with fascism. I’d put fascism on the same horizontal scale as communism since both are variations of collectivist economics. I would also argue that the south pole is not anarchism but libertarian.)

Despite these quibbles the result is a quadrant in which the upper left is authoritarian left or state imposed collectivist. Stalin would fall into this quadrant. The lower left quadrant represents voluntary regional collectivism as championed by Gandhi. The authors place Margaret Thatcher in the upper right quadrant of the authoritarian right. I’d say it’s more appropriate to put a representative of the religious right, such as Mike Huckabee, in this quadrant. Finally, we have the lower right quadrant consisting of advocates of both economic and social freedom, such as Ayn Rand and most right libertarians.

As the authors of the web site explain:

despite popular perceptions, the opposite of fascism is not communism but anarchism (ie liberal socialism), and that the opposite of communism ( i.e. an entirely state-planned economy) is neo-liberalism (i.e. extreme deregulated economy).

The usual understanding of anarchism as a left wing ideology does not take into account the neo-liberal "anarchism" championed by the likes of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and America's Libertarian Party, which couples social Darwinian right-wing economics with liberal positions on most social issues. Often their libertarian impulses stop short of opposition to strong law and order positions, and are more economic in substance (ie no taxes) so they are not as extremely libertarian as they are extremely right wing. On the other hand, the classical libertarian collectivism of anarcho-syndicalism (libertarian socialism) belongs in the bottom left hand corner.

From Wikipedia about left-libertarianism:

Left-libertarianism is generally regarded as a doctrine that has a strong commitment to personal liberty and has an egalitarian view concerning natural resources, believing that it is illegitimate for anyone to claim private ownership of resources to the detriment of others.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Libertarianism is often thought of as “right-wing” doctrine. This, however, is mistaken for at least two reasons. First, on social—rather than economic—issues, libertarianism tends to be “left-wing”. It opposes laws that restrict consensual and private sexual relationships between adults (e.g., gay sex, non-marital sex, and deviant sex), laws that restrict drug use, laws that impose religious views or practices on individuals, and compulsory military service. Second, in addition to the better-known version of libertarianism—right-libertarianism—there is also a version known as “left-libertarianism”. Both endorse full self-ownership, but they differ with respect to the powers agents have to appropriate unappropriated natural resources (land, air, water, etc.). Right-libertarianism holds that typically such resources may be appropriated by the first person who discovers them, mixes her labor with them, or merely claims them—without the consent of others, and with little or no payment to them. Left-libertarianism, by contrast, holds that unappropriated natural resources belong to everyone in some egalitarian manner. It can, for example, require those who claim rights over natural resources to make a payment to others for the value of those rights. This can provide the basis for a kind of egalitarian redistribution.

So after all of this where do I fall on their scale? According to the test on the web page I fall into the lower right libertarian quadrant, but just barely. If the most extreme score is 10 right and 10 down for the lower most corner of the libertarian my score was 2.75 right and 2.5 down. Assuming their model is valid I’d like to think that my score shows that my libertarian leanings are tempered by my attempts to look at my ideas and positions objectively.

I encourage you to take the test on The Political Compass site.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Conscious Capitalism

During the election we heard a lot about change as it applies to politics. I think it’s likely that the change we’ll see will consist of reverting back to previously tried liberal policies. I suspect that the Obamacrat’s four years are up and things aren’t any better than they are now they will argue that they need another four years to fix the sad state due to the alleged deregulation and rampant capitalism. Since I have addressed these claims in an earlier post I’d like to spend a little time talking about potential change as it applies to business. I recommend an interesting site named Flow Idealism for ideas on how businesses can evolve beyond the current model. (More on this below.) This web site was co-founded by John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market. The title FLOW is described in their About Us section.

The FLOW Vision is based on the principles of economic freedom, voluntary exchange, and individual initiative, combined with social and environmental consciousness, and embodies FLOW Principles, which include commitments to human flourishing, non-violence, and radical tolerance.

The name “FLOW” has two primary roots:

1. An optimal state of human experience in which individuals are fully engaged in creative endeavors, experiencing fulfillment, happiness, and well-being. This state is articulated by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

2. The means by which increases in the free global flow of goods, services, capital, people, and information will accelerate human progress and well-being.

Csikszentmihalyi’s book continues to be one of my favorites. His research found that we achieve a “flow” state when we take on a task that is challenging but not too challenging. It needs to test our talents enough to prevent boredom but not so much that we feel overwhelmed and therefore become anxious.

The Flow Idealism web site also provides a copy of Mackey’s Conscious Capitalism, a 16 page free download that explains Mackey’s ideas on how the current business model needs to be updated to reflect the evolution that has occurred in our cultural in the last 200 hundred years.

Although economic theory has evolved since Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776, many economists continue using industrial and machine metaphors to explain how the economy works. Now that we are well into the post-industrial Information Age, these metaphors have become outdated and mislead our thinking about business.

The world has become much more complex since those simple machine metaphors were first developed. Unfortunately, current business thinking does not easily grasp systems interdependencies.

[H]appiness is a by-product of pursuing those other goals and I think that analogy applies to business as well. In my business experience, profits are best achieved by not making them the primary goal of the business. Rather, long-term profits are the result of having a deeper business purpose, great products, customer satisfaction, employee happiness, excellent suppliers, community and environmental responsibility – these are the keys to maximizing long-term profits. The paradox of profits is that, like happiness, they are best achieved by not aiming directly for them.

I encourage you to check out Mackey’s ideas.

On a different but somewhat related subject, I have concluded after having worked within the corporate world for 35 years that the bureaucracy and pecking order we see in the business (and in other hierarchical organizations like government) represent remnants of the feudal era (and probably earlier). Instead of obeying kings and princes we obey managers. Communication typically flows from the top down while the minions dutifully carry out their marching orders. I’m exaggerating a bit to make a point. I’m not arguing against hierarchical organizations. Some form of hierarchy is probably needed to organize human activity. However there are unhealthy (or obsolete) forms of hierarchies that stifle creativity and upward communication of the workers/participants and there are healthy forms of hierarchies that honor the worth of each member. I think Mackey’s ideas give us a glimpse of an evolving model that is healthier than the one it will eventually replace.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Day After

No, I’m not referring to the post-apocalyptic ABC miniseries from 1983. I’m referring to another disaster, also man-made: the McCain campaign. The American Thinker has a good analysis titled Why McCain Lost (posted November 5, 2008) of why the McCain campaign imploded. The key point is that McCain is a Reagan Democrat who wanted to play the nice moderate. However he hamstrung himself by not choosing not to challenge Obama on a number of issues. And he lacks as much understanding of economics as Obama so McCain was unable to question Obama’s economic “plan” (which essentially is a collection of spending programs).

You can't bring moderation to an ideology fight. An honorable, sincere moderate who is behind really hasn't a chance against a cynical ideologue who is ahead. Obama simply dissembled at the debates, while McCain's tongue-tied references to Ayers, ACORN, Khalidi, "most liberal senator," etc., sounded unfairly abrupt, even desperate. Maybe they were? To the bitter end, McCain refrained from "bringing Jeremiah Wright into the campaign," even though Hillary had...Why not?

It wouldn't have looked moderate enough.

It’s tough to position yourself a fundamentally different from your opponent, especially on economics, when you’re really not. National security was the major difference that McCain could have tried to capitalize on but the recent economic troubles pushed security off the electorate’s radar of concerns.

Speaking of the economy here is a prediction. If the economy is still in the doldrums (or, more likely, it’s in even worse shape) at the end of his first term the Obamacrats (Obama + the Democrats) will argue that they need another term to fix all of the abuses of Bush’s eight years. In a way they’d be right but for the wrong reasons. Bush was far from an advocate of the free market. One of my earlier posts describes the work of the Fraser Institute which has devised a measure of economic freedom. This index dropped during the Bush era, thus indicating that Bush didn’t drastically deregulate the economy. Of course, that won’t matter to the Obamacrats. To borrow the phrase of one of their heroes, the facts about Bush’s economic legacy are an inconvenient truth.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Some (nearly) final thoughts on the election

I posted this on Michael Prescott's blog under the post titled "So who is going to win this thing?" Prescott has some interesting thoughts on the election.

I too have no idea how the election is going to turn out. I’m not convinced the constant mantra of the polls about an inevitable Obama victory is necessarily true. If McCain does win it will be a testament to his dogged determination to have overcome the mainstream media’s unabashed lack of objectivity, their obvious favoritism for Obama and palpable hatred of Palin. I agree that Obama has done a wonderful job of sounding centrist while in reality he is fairly leftist, if you look at his voting record and his plan for what he would do if elected. I also believe the media harps on the polls to convince potential voters of the near hopelessness of the McCain campaign and the inevitability of an Obama election so that the polls become a self-fulfilling prophecy. While I haven’t studied the methodology of all of the polls I’ve noticed that the fine print on some CNN polls admits that they contacted, say, 40% Democrats and only 30% Republicans, thus building in an almost automatic bias for Obama.

What I think is interesting about all of this is the heavy influence of postmodernism, particularly on the Left and in the media. By that I mean the idea that there is no objective truth and therefore it’s acceptable to not strive for objectivity because it is a hopeless venture. Therefore it is OK to omit inconvenient facts, to heavily favor Obama over McCain in your reporting, and to claim the election is a fiat accompli thanks to the polls.

Plus the Left is wedded to egalitarianism, not in terms of political egalitarianism in which all of us have equal rights but in terms of economic egalitarianism in terms of equal economic outcome regardless of one’s merits and work ethic. I believe this is the fundamental premise behind Obama’s “spreading the wealth” comment when talking to Joe the plumber. There are a lot of problems philosophically and morally with economic egalitarianism which I can’t/won’t get into here.