A Co-President?

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and President George W. Bush

At the constitutional convention in summer of 1789 the founding fathers struggled to find an amenable compromise between those desiring a vigorous executive and those concerned about despotic overreach. One proposal to limit the executive was that instead of concentrating power in a single person, create a miniature division of powers by having a triumvirate of co-presidents.

Events of the past few weeks have been instructive. It would appear that the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 delivered us a co-presidency in a sub-constitutional manner. It would appear that they each have their own portfolio: one is commander and diplomat in chief and the other is the captain of the macro-economy. With his 20 year term, substantial independence, control over interest rates, lending capability, 800 billion in capital and a regulatory mandate over the banking system, the Federal Reserve Chairman has a vast array of powers, while not on par with the official executive, impressive nonetheless.

It’s also worth noting that, like the official President, the Federal Reserve Chairman accrues perhaps the better part of his powers through reputation, as a focal point of attention and the judicious use of his own particular bully pulpit.

This has some potentially troubling implications, depending on where you fall on the democratic spectrum. In this regard, Will Wilkinson has some interesting ruminations on what he calls “the structure of the de facto American constitution” (“What’s an Incrementalist Market Liberal to Think?,” 19 September 2008; the previous post, “The Benign Rule of Ben Bernanke and the Ideal of Democratic Equality, 18 September 2008, along the same lines is also good too).

It’s also worth noting — something that has become apparent throughout the Bush years — that many of the constraints on the presidency are not official, but adhered to only out of tradition. When the situation warrants — or ambition allows — the executive is capable of blowing through its traditional restraint, erupting into a ferocious activism. When this happens in the realm of foreign policy everyone loves it. Nothing gets people excited like a little kicking of foreigner ass. When it happens in the domestic or economic realm, people aren’t so enthusiastic, as Congressional telephone lines, recently clogged with populist anti-high finance carping, will attest.

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Patterned Lawlessness

Back in July Will Wilkinson made a point that I thought was interesting at the time, but that has stuck in my grey matter and is gradually working it’s way toward becoming a fundamental component of my worldview (“Note About Rational Scofflaws,” The Fly Bottle, 11 July 2008):

I wonder how many drivers exceed the speed limit basically whenever they judge that it won’t cause anybody any problems. I’d guess, approximately, all of them. Also, there are very clear laws about, say, using turn signals, or using turn signals when parallel parking (do you do this?), or not taking a right hand turn on red lights when it is marked, not double parking, even if you’re just going to be one minute while you fetch your latte. And so on. When’s the last time you jaywalked? Lunch? People are more or less rational and tend to respond to incentives, and therefore the roads are a zone of patterned lawlessness. We all know what infractions the cops care about — how much over the speed limit is too much over, etc. — and we tend to respond accordingly. We even tend to internalize and moralize the rules whose expected cost of violation is relatively high. It’s more efficient that way. And thus our huffing indignation is easily riled by those who face different incentives and so flout different rules than the ones we flout without reflection.

This morning on my ride to work I coasted through a stop sign in front of a police cruiser that was approaching from the road to my right. I gave a little embarrassed smile and a little wave. She made a little disapproving face and waved back. It’s anarchy I tell you. Anarchy! I got to work in four minutes.

I have always thought of anarchism as a proscriptivist political program. It’s never occurred to me to consider anarchism as a positivist description of what’s actually going on behind normal law-conforming behavior.

People have an imagination of the law as somehow an ultimately hard thing. We hear expressions like “the iron law of …” or we use the same word, “law,” in physics as we do in our social imaginings. By linking the law with morality and construing morality as partaking of the metaphysical, the associations flow back the other direction as well.

And reference to the law would serve as a good explanation in most instances. Why does everyone so assiduously follow the lines painted on the roads, or when they drive over them, do so in such a regular fashion? And thus we might explain the vast middle hump of the bell curve of driving behavior. But then someone swerves over the line into oncoming traffic. To account for all driving behavior — the outliers as well as the vast middle of the curve — another theory with more breadth is required.

I also like the way that this theory strips morality of its metaphysical pretensions, paints the metaphysics as mere rhetorical device, or sees the inclination to render our ordering prescripts as fundamental as merely a pragmatic shorthand, or as the ideological reification of particularly strong emotions. Really we just react in a pragmatic way to the incentives that we find around us. It should be noted that some of those incentives are natural and some institutional. This is perhaps part of the basis for distinction, a la Elliot Turiel, between prohibitions of morality and prohibitions of social convention.

Patterned lawlessness is also a description of affairs that comports with the existential account of law-conforming behavior. So entrenched is our notion of the law as somehow inviolable, or so cowed is our thinking by the high wall of consequence erected by the law that we are prone to see dictates of the law as things about which there simply is no other option but to do as we are told. Existentialism was born in part as a reaction to the horrors of amorality and unreason to which people were pushed at the behest of state bureaucracies in the Twentieth Century, namely the Somme, the Holocaust. Existentialism contains the admonition that at every moment we stand free to do otherwise, even where the law is concerned.

The Legitimacy of Argumentum ad Hominem

Will Wilkinson and Crispin Sartwell consider the satisfactions of environmental soothsaying:

As I’ve said, the insane jackup of rhetoric with regard to global warming, “the greatest crisis the species has ever faced,” the death of the planet, etc, is the secular humanist liberal apocalypse. It’s a sheer competition for who’s most dire, most obsessed, and who’s more unanimous than whom. It’s the flood, complete with the reasons: our moral culpability. I predict this: when Obama is elected, liberals will feel better about themselves and the probable verdict of cosmic judgment, and they’ll tone down the eschatology, the ranting cant.

(“Ranting Cant,” The Fly Bottle, 2 August 2008; untitled, Eye of the Storm, 2 August 2008; respectively)

For my part, I imagine there is something to this argument. Every faction has its share of less than completely rational members. But if it is the contention of Messrs. Wilkinson and Sartwell that the behavior of some of the advocates of anthropogenic climate change bears one iota of relevance on the soundness of the theory itself, then this is a picture perfect instance of the falicy of argumentum ad hominem. The emotional satisfaction that someone takes in holding a particular position would seem irrelevant to the ultimate adjudication of said position.

Some time ago when I originally made the formal cognition post (1 January 2008) K.S. said that he didn’t see the point. What was my advocacy of formal cognition meant to achieve? I couldn’t quite answer him at the time, but Mr. Wilkinson’s post really clarifies the matter for me. I’m an advocate of formal cognition against rhetoric generally, but most especially against some of its more pernitious tactics of Freudianism broadly construed as an interpretive style, sociobiology in its normative aspect (an epistemological relative of Freudianism), and secularization thesis.

For every purportedly empirical statement out there, there is built up a detritus of extraneous belief. There is the psychological baggage of the proposition: the advocacy or denial of an opinion is motivated. Cui bono? Or advocacy or denial becomes a part of one’s identity. People build an emotional complex around certain beliefs. Certain propositions become tropes mapping us into desired cultural categories. A proposition becomes cornerstone to an elaborate worldview into which their constructors invest vast amounts of intellectual energy. These people tend to become conservative about such propositions all out of proportion to the weight that the casual observer might assign to such beliefs.

It’s really easy to succumb to the desire to set aside the mater per se and argue the detritus. It’s certainly more emotionally satisfying. The purpose of a catalogue of validated logic and methodologies is to determine the soundness of a proposition and cast out the irrelevant considerations in a systematic way.

So, for example, the scientific veracity of anthropogenic climate change is within range of rational risk assessment. The systems concepts of a tipping point and self-reinforcing, accelerating change are legitimate and the potential implications of these concepts applied here are alarming. The perennial libertarian Alfred E. Neuman “What, me worry?” worldview has its own short fallings, namely that disasters are plausible and occasionally systemic.

On the other hand, there is no proposition beyond the proposing hominid. I’m not so sure that the distinction between rhetoric and formal decidability is tenable, especially once one admits the scientific method into the corpus of formal cognition. Given that induction is logically and experientially unsound, the scientific method becomes merely a highly stylized rhetoric, a rhetoric whose admissible tactics are more narrowly circumscribed. It is most certainly a rhetoric that is more reliable than others, but it nonetheless exists with other rhetorics along a continuum of variably reliable tactics, rather than being cordoned off in a privileged category all its own.

If nothing else, the absolute prohibition against argumentum ad hominem seems incompatible with Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Is it even possible for the behavior, psychology, constellation of attendant beliefs and rhetorical strategies of the advocates for a proposition to be irrelevant to the acceptance or rejection of the proposition? I think that once one dispenses with the notion of truth or falsity of a proposition in any strong sense in favor mere acceptance or rejection (the sociology of knowledge), then these previously considered extraneous factors become relevant. They are real channels by which information and belief are transmitted throughout society. They are part of the practice of acceptance and rejection as they actually happen. Argumentum ad hominem seeks to make explicit and disrupt these channels. It reduces their efficacy through ridicule.

(This is not to deny the truth or falsity of out beliefs in some ultimate sense. The truth is out there — it just doesn’t intervene in our deliberations in any radical way. Prima facie, incomplete beliefs about the world can be made workable.)

Carbon Offsets

Ezra Klein — a meat eater and a foodie, mind you — has had a lot to say about meat consumption as of late. Back in May he went so far as to say, “If I had more will power I’d be a vegetarian” (“View From a Herbivore,” TAPPED, The American Prospect, 8 May 2008). Today (“Why It’s Worth Talking About Meat,” ibid., 21 July 2008) he links to The PB&J Campaign that has the following grouping of factoids:

Each time you have a plant-based lunch like a PB&J you’ll reduce your carbon footprint by the equivalent of 2.5 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions over an average animal-based lunch like a hamburger, a tuna sandwich, grilled cheese, or chicken nuggets. For dinner you save 2.8 pounds and for breakfast 2.0 pounds of emissions.

Those 2.5 pounds of emissions at lunch are about forty percent of the greenhouse gas emissions you’d save driving around for the day in a hybrid instead of a standard sedan.

Hey, that’s pretty cool! Forget about planting a tree: I think I’m going to start positioning myself as a carbon offset! Wanna eat a Big Mack but feel kinda bad about it? Give me five dollars — PayPal button up in the corner — and count on me eating a block of tofu or an undressed salad to make up for your extra 2.5 pounds of carbon. And if you commuted to work and know you’re part of the problem, send ten and rest assured that I rode my bike to work in your stead. But if you play too many video games, I’m not tuning off my computer for you at any pricelevel.

On a related note I have been chuckling to myself and brandishing Will Wilkinson’s comment on why he bikes to work for some days now (“Bikes vs. Cars,” The Fly Bottle, 9 July 2008):

I honestly don’t give a fig about my carbon footprint (and anyway, since I’m not a breeder, I really should get carbon carte blanche).

So while I’m at it, if you have made more of us miserable ecosystem-trammelers and know it was just a guilty pleasure (what, a mirror not good enough for you?), then send money and I will refrain from procreative sex as a carbon offset for your brood.