The Numeracy of Thought

For the humanist, the mathematical rubber hits the road of thought when she understands that almost all of her supposedly qualitative thought, particularly as it relates to the economy, involves ranking or statements of magnitude. “Invading Iraq set the country back to the stone age,” for example, is the statement that Iraq now has fewer cars, or dollar bills, or hospitals, or whatever, than it had before. Or consider “a dictatorship is better than an occupation.” In the first case you are counting, even if you don’t realize it. And in the second you are ranking, and any ranking can be represented as a counting of units of preference. So implicitly you are doing math.

The rub is that if you don’t actually write down functions and equations to describe your implicitly mathematical arguments, you end up doing very rudimentary and crude math. You are stuck with general mores versus lesses. Once you add the tools of math to your statements, you can multiply and divide your mores, integrate and differentiate your lesses, optimize them all, and so on. You explore your theories with much greater precision and insight than if you stick to just > and <.  Moreover, you can compare your statements and harmonize them in ways that you cannot do when you lack the compact mathematical notation that allows you to include many complex ideas on a single line of text. And perhaps most beautifully and powerfully, at least for me, you can go out into the world, and get actual numbers that can be input into your mores and lesses, so that you can say, with extraordinary magic, precisely how much more and how much less, precisely how badly Iraq was injured.

The frightening thing for the humanist is that math, far from being an obfuscation and a superficiality, is something one has been doing crudely all along.  It is a humbling that a true humanist should welcome to discover that her humanism is just an ignorance, or perhaps an illiteracy. Indeed, an innumeracy.

Meta World

The Danger of Neutral Principles

Unless you happen to fervently believe in a principle itself, and no one ought to, because principles aren’t real, you should never use one to win an argument, because one day something you love will run counter to the principle, and then you will be forced to watch it die. The argument against the Iraq war was that it was a bad war; it should never have been that military intervention is always wrong as a matter of principle. Now we have a relatively non-interventionist President, and the price is the murder of an entire country.

Civilization Meta World


When other stars were reached, their civilizations were found to be in various stages of partial industrialization, at levels roughly comparable to those enjoyed on earth in the 18th century.  Further examination revealed that this had been brought about in all cases by government fiat. It was for this reason that the stars had failed to respond for so long to our calls.

It is a great provincialism of life in the developed world that we  assume that technological progress is unstoppable. Indeed, it is almost a nightmare, in that we see ourselves soon as either becoming something else, infinite-lived, technologically enhanced, engineered creatures, or dead by environmental disaster. In point of fact, one of the great successes of government in the 20th century was its perfection, proved in the blood of millions, of totalitarian governments capable of eliminating all technological progress, all dissent in favor of technology and growth. However horrible the methods of these governments, one must marvel at their ability to stamp out what in freer places seems a tectonic  motion toward continual development.

These totalitarian governments failed, and continue to fail, only by the intervention of outside elements. If a totalitarian form were ever to seize control of the earth entire, progress might be stamped out forever, and humanity frozen in its present form.

Our goal should be a mindful technological progress, one that we understand to be under our own control, leading us to a place that we actually desire, or nowhere, if we wish nowhere to go.


A Sign of Excess

Raise taxes until philanthropy disappears. Why should the unelected rich decide how your taxes are spent on public projects?


The Upward Surge

The hubris of this age is not that we have dared to be scientists but that we think we had a choice!



You think you have made a discovery and are filled with joy.  Later, you discover that you were wrong, but the mistake eventually leads to a genuine insight, accompanied not so much by euphoria as satisfaction.  Confidence seems to hold these steps together.  Believing you have discovered gives you the mental power for actual discovery.  A species of fake-it-till-you-make-it.


The Confidence of Metaphor

Metaphor lives in film today more than in literature.  Father Berrigan writes that he and his brother

stand like the fences
of abandoned farms.

Like it.  Why didn’t he just write a poem about the fences of abandoned farms?

Because he feared that no one would get it.

It is much easier to imagine a filmmaker showing an old fence. No voice-over, no “like.” Just a juxtaposition, perhaps, with a photo of an old fighter. I think of the rats on the London bridge overlooking Parliament in the original House of Cards.  No one needs to tell you that politicians are like rats.

The culture is educated in the visual, and gets it.  You can speak to it in film in a way ten thousand times more sophisticated than the way you may in poetry.


Flattening is the Point

Akira Kurosawa placed his cameras as far as possible from the action in Ran, using zoom lenses to capture it, creating the illusion of a two dimensional world.

I sometimes thought that perspective and the illusion of three dimensionality make Western painting superior to all other painting.  But that is crass.

Three dimensionality is our everyday! The greatness of painting is its flattening. Chinese painters understood that. Herein the corruption of film in relation to painting, too.




Group Games

Leaders are rarely purely interested in the good of the group.  So leaders do not respond predictably to incentives aimed at groups.  It seems odd, therefore, that Schelling thought that hurting civilians might change the minds of leaders. Worry instead about the incentives of leaders.

Backwardness of law

Outside the Law

This demonstrates for me everything about economists that makes them superior to lawyers. The myopia of the lawyer and the breadth of vision of the economist.

Yes, it is possible for institutions not to follow the law. It is possible for laws to be written to be broken. You might think it would take a poet to realize that; or perhaps a lawyer, that great cross-examiner of witnesses, before an economist. What do technocrats know about the complexities of behavior, about dissembling and treachery?

But in the event it is the economists who present as ten times more humanist than the lawyers and shrewder judges of the soul. And it is the lawyers who present as robotic and shallow in their judgements. But how can this not be the case? The lawyers are invested in the power of the text. And not even a metaphorical text, like priests, but a literal text! They are invested in literalism, shallowness, and superficiality. Without it they have no claim to value and no professional respect.

So they will look at you and say, without the slightest irony, that if you read the text carefully the Fed had the power to bail out Lehman Brothers. As if, as if, as if what the text says has any first order relevance in determining what happens in the world.  As between the devotees of the written rules and the devotees of the unwritten rules, I choose the latter.