On Bullshit

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis.

Scholarly approach to the sociology and psychology of bullshit, it’s significance in American culture. Rather longish essay – and especially useful, I feel, in an election year.

Angus Deaton and the Nobel Prize

Angus Deaton has won the Nobel, which is wonderful — dogged, careful empirical work at the micro level, tracking and making sense of individual households, their choices, and why they matter…

Deaton is also a fine writer with important things to say about political economy. Cardiff Garcia excerpts a passage in which he explains why we should care about the concentration of wealth at the top:

There is a danger that the rapid growth of top incomes can become self-reinforcing through the political access that money can bring. Rules are set not in the public interest but in the interest of the rich, who use those rules to become yet richer and more influential…

To worry about these consequences of extreme inequality has nothing to do with being envious of the rich and everything to do with the fear that rapidly growing top incomes are a threat to the wellbeing of everyone else.

As if to illustrate his point…Confessore, Cohen, and Yourish documents the remarkable fact that campaign finance this election cycle is dominated by a tiny number of extremely wealthy people — more than half the total from just 158 families. This money is overwhelmingly flowing to Republicans.

…The biggest piece of the super-rich-super-donor story is money from the financial sector…Basically, we’re looking at the people who brought you the financial crisis trying to buy the chance to do it all over again.

While this process continues, expands, we remain trapped within the confines of a Supreme Court dedicated to the worst ethics of capitalism and corporate greed. The old saw may still be true – we need capital to run an economy, not necessarily capitalists – but, the political establishment of the United States is lined up together to assure that premise is never tested.

The checks and balances built into our Constitution in an attempt to give ordinary working families an opportunity to fight for a better life continue to be compromised by each of the tripartite powers. If there’s anything agreed upon wholeheartedly at the top – it is don’t give ordinary folks a chance to fight back.

Deaton does a great job looking at the economic result of such practices.

The US is an oligarchy — not a democracy

Citizen-United-Corp-Lobbyist

Oligarchy is a form of government in which power is vested in a dominant class and a small group exercises control over the general population.

A new study from Princeton and Northwestern Universities concluded that the U.S. government represents not the interests of the majority of citizens but those of the rich and powerful.

“Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” analyzed extensive data, comparing nearly 1,800 U.S. policies enacted between 1981 and 2002 with the expressed preferences of average and affluent Americans as well as special interest groups.

The resulting data empirically verifies that U.S. policies are determined by the economic elite…

What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens.

In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

The report consoles that “Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association” but goes on to warn that “we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

“You think you’re so clever and classless and free –
“but you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see!” — John Lennon, 1970

You can read the whole study over here.

How Medicare Is misrepresented

A common phrase in the current debate over the so-called fiscal cliff is “Medicare needs to be restructured.” The term serves as code for policies unlikely to be appealing to voters, a term that can mean everything and, thus, nothing.

The question is what problem restructuring is to solve in traditional Medicare, which remains one of the most popular health insurance programs in this country. People who use this vague term should always be challenged to explain exactly why and how Medicare should be changed.

Critics of traditional Medicare – even those who should know better – often accuse it of being “fee for service.” It is a strange accusation. After all, fee-for-service remains the dominant method of paying the providers of health care under private insurance, including Medicare Advantage, the option of private coverage open to all Medicare beneficiaries.

Describing Medicare as fee-for-service insurance is about as thoughtful as describing a horse as “an animal that has four legs,” a characteristic shared by many other animals. The practice is particularly odd, given that traditional Medicare as early as the 1970s was the first program to develop so-called “bundled payments” for hospital inpatient care – the diagnostically related groupings, known as D.R.G. – in place of fee-for-service payment of hospitals, an innovation that has since been copied around the globe.

A more descriptive term for traditional Medicare would be “free choice of providers” or “unmanaged care” insurance. These features, of course, would hardly be viewed as shortcomings among people covered by traditional Medicare or their families. Neither term would be a good marketing tool among voters for proposals to abandon traditional Medicare…

A case can be made, on theoretical and sometimes empirical grounds, that properly managed or coordinated care can on average yield superior medical treatments, at lower cost, than completely unmanaged care under classical indemnity insurance.

The problem has been and continues to be that this is not the folklore among patients or doctors. The latter, as noted, generally believe they can manage their patients’ care properly without outside interference into their clinical decisions. Among patients and doctors, the term managed care is still not quite respectable.

This can explain why critics of traditional Medicare delicately but nonsensically prefer to decry it as being fee for service rather than as free-choice-of-providers insurance or unmanaged-care insurance.

I hadn’t seen Uwe Reinhardt on television in a spell when he popped up on Tom Keene’s SURVEILLANCE yesterday morning on Bloomberg TV. I had forgotten his dry wit and political economist’s accurate simplicity of definitions. The folks I can understand the easiest also often make the most sense.

This blog post is one the earliest of his current series on Medicare.

Meanwhile, click the link and RTFA. Education, it’s wonderful.

U.S. professor wins Nobel Prize for economics

Paul Krugman, the Princeton University scholar and New York Times columnist, won the Nobel economic prize Monday for his analysis of how economies of scale can affect trade patterns and the location of economic activity.

The 55-year-old American economist was the lone winner of the 10 million kronor ($1.4 million) award and the latest in a string of American researchers to be honored. It was only the second time since 2000 that a single laureate won the prize, which is typically shared by two or three researchers…

Besides his work as an economist at Princeton University in New Jersey, where he has been since 2000, Krugman also writes about politics and inequality in the U.S. and other topics for The New York Times. He has also written for Foreign Affairs, the Harvard Business Review and Scientific American.

He has come out forcefully against John McCain during the economic meltdown, saying the Republican candidate is “more frightening now than he was a few weeks ago” and earlier that the GOP has become “the party of stupid.”

I wonder if he means “stupid” as an individual like McCain or Bush? Or does he mean an agglomeration, say, of the eedjit vote?