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Some Fruits of Meditation

2016 September 6
Odin with the ravens Thought and Memory

Odin with the ravens Thought and Memory

As regular readers know, I’ve been meditating for some time, with some useful results.

A lot of modern meditation teaching and writing emphasizes meditation for benefits: be calmer, more loving, happier, be more effective. Heck, even “make money.” That’s all very nice, and I’ve certainly noticed benefits, but the original impetus for a lot of techniques was to learn something specific: What you really are.

A lot of what I do is “choiceless sitting.” I just sit there, and do nothing. Impulses come, thoughts come, feelings come, and I just let it all pass.

About a month ago, I woke up one morning with extraordinary clarity. I could feel each impulse to do something very clearly. Get up. Roll over. Scratch. Go check my email. Use the toilet.

Each one came very slowly and I watched it, and it subsided. And another, and another.

They were all, very clearly, external to me. I was watching them, and they were not me. The sensation was unpleasant; as though they were impositions, some outside force trying to make me do things.

This wasn’t a unique experience, but it was far clearer than during normal mediation, where the impulses felt much closer.

The Hindus sometimes say there are two paths: “not this, not that” and “this and that.”

On the first path, the one I’m on, you peel away everything that isn’t you until you realize that you are the witness, and everything you thought was you, like your body, your thoughts, your personality and so on, isn’t you.

This aligns very well with modern neuroscience, by the way, which finds that by the time the conscious mind is aware it has made a decision, the decision has already been made. You think you have free will, you think you make choices, but you don’t. You just rationalize choices your body has already made.

Ramakrishna put it, theistically, “You do nothing, God does everything.”

The result of this is a sense of freedom: Because you don’t actually make choices, you can stop worrying about them. You aren’t in control, it’s not your responsibility, so chill.

This idea is intensely alienated from the common understanding of the human condition, with all its emphasis on free will, and choice, and responsibility, and doing this, and doing that.

Meditation can also produce a very profound feeling that what you are never changes. Indeed, it can’t. This core “Ian” was the same when I was five years old, 25, and today. My body and personality have changed quite a bit from age five to 25, or even two years ago, but that core is the same.

More than that, that core is the same as everyone else’s core. My self has no features different from your self.

Again, this is very alienated from the common understanding that we’re all unique flowers, slightly different from each other.

We are, but only in the non-essentials, the stuff that isn’t the self, like personality, or body, or personal history.  The self, that never changes, seems to be the same for everyone.

(For the Buddhists who follow the canon that there is no self, I’ll note that I understand why Buddhists believe this. You look at everything you can sense and realize “I’m not that” and are left with nothing. I simply follow the Hindus, that nothing is something, at least, that’s my sense of it. Some Buddhists, for example many Chan Buddhists, agree.)

Because the self can’t change, it also can’t be hurt. If you identify as the self (or the nothing), there is a sense that you are impervious: Yes you can feel pain (and it sucks), and your body can be hurt, but that which is actually you remains as it always was.

This allows for a great relaxation: You don’t have to be scared and worry all the time. That relaxation has physical benefits; you wind up in parasympathetic mode far more often. You suffer far less stress, and you’re far happier and healthier as a result. The default “not doing anything” mode for humans is to think about the past and the future, but you start doing that far far less, which is good, because worrying and dwelling on the past makes people unhappy and imaginary threats make you stressed.

This also allows a great deal of happiness to arise. It’s not the “uncaused happiness” which comes later on the path (and which I have experienced only rarely), instead it is happiness that takes almost nothing.

“My goodness this food is wonderful. Isn’t that a beautiful bird? Isn’t it wonderful that we can make buildings which soar?”

My favorite experience was about five months ago. I was walking down the street and heard the distinctive sound of air brakes and the squeal of a bus and felt happy. Isn’t it wonderful that I don’t have to walk everywhere, and I also don’t have to own a car? (Not that cars aren’t wonderful.) I felt absurd that this made me happy. But hey, happiness.

The small things that are great (ahhhhh, this mattress is soft) you notice far more often and you receive far more pleasure from. A lot of people miss all of this: They walk in a world of wonders, and they gain no pleasure from it.

In the summer of 2015, readers may remember the Greek financial crisis: Syriza had been elected and was trying to avoid the worst of the terrible austerity the Troika had forced on them.

I was pretty chill about that until Syriza betrayed the Greeks by accepting a terrible deal. I was furious. I wrote an angry denunciation and went for a walk. An hour later, I was still angry, and I wasn’t enjoying being angry. It’s not a pleasant feeling when it drags on and on.

I thought, “This is ridiculous. Being angry doesn’t help the people on whose behalf I’m angry, and it hurts me.”

If you’re like I was, or most people are, you’ve had many such thoughts: “Don’t worry, be happy,” “Just relax,” “Dwelling on your mistakes doesn’t help.” They’re all versions of, “Being unhappy doesn’t help the situation.” You think the thought, and whatever emotion you’re stuck in, or problem your dwelling on, doesn’t go away.

But this time it did. Just disappeared. And I was happy.

A couple hours later, at home, I started dwelling on my personal financial situation. Not good. I was poor and if I didn’t get some money, I might even wind up on the street. I reviewed my plans, and what I was willing to do to avoid such a fate, and then I thought, “Dwelling on this further won’t help. I’ve made my plans, I’m doing what I’m willing to do, so there’s no point in making myself unhappy by dwelling on it.”

Again, I’m sure most people have such thoughts, and most of the time they don’t work. Maybe we stop for a few minutes, through willpower, but soon we’re back to it.

This time, however, I stopped, and I was happy and I didn’t go back to it. No point. When new facts come up about my finances, I revisit, decide what I’m willing to do and pack it away.

Life is often a shit show, but as Twain once wrote, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.

I didn’t change any of what I had planned to do about money, I didn’t worry, and so far (at least), I haven’t wound up on the street. Even if I had, I might as well enjoy the day. And for the day I have food, internet, books, and a place to sleep that is air conditioned and rather comfortable. Why should I be unhappy?

None of this means that bad stuff doesn’t happen or it doesn’t suck when it does. Many years ago I talked to someone who was probably enlightened and asked about enlightenment and suffering. They said, “There is no suffering when you’re enlightened, but it’s still better to have less pain.”

I didn’t understand that then, but I do now, even though I’m not enlightened. What you learn to do is not add anything to whatever pain you’re experiencing, to not care that you’re in pain. That reduces the effect of the pain significantly, but it doesn’t mean that pain doesn’t still suck. Enough pain and you’ll still be screaming with the worst of them.  Still, you know it doesn’t harm that which is truly you and you know that it will end.

It’s funny that I started this article by saying meditation is about finding out what you are, not about benefits, then turned to the benefits. But like a lot of things in life, if your primary concern is the benefits of the action, those benefits are often slower in coming. Most of the benefits of meditation come from not caring.

I often joke: “The whole of the path is not giving a fuck.”

It’s a joke. It’s also true. The first time I listened to this “guided meditation” I laughed myself sick, because it’s exactly right.

Happiness is not giving a shit. It is not worrying, not dwelling and moving on. It isn’t not planning or not trying to fix things, it’s not mindless. You do what you can, you make your plans, but you don’t dwell. Someone insults you, say, you may get angry, but you aren’t thinking about it three hours later. You experience pain, you don’t start down the self pity road and once it’s done, it’s done.

You don’t add.

I’m not perfect at this, oh no. I make no claims at enlightenment.  But I am far far better than I was two or three years ago.

Everything passes and most of the suffering of life comes from what you add to what actually happened.

And strangely, not caring, not clinging, leads to a lot more happiness.  Ordinary people think that if you’re happy you should grab on to it hard, but that kills the happiness. Be happy, let it pass, and something else will happen to make you happy.

These, then, are some of the fruits of meditation. Eat, and enjoy.

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Two Charts Which Explain J.K. Rowling’s Love of Blairism and Hatred of Corbyn

2016 September 2
J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling

So, the author of the Harry Potter books has come out hard against Jeremy Corbyn, and for Blairism. She has defended the Blairite legacy, and she has some good points: There were more nurses and teaching assistants, for example.

One could note that Blairism, as with all neo-liberalism before the crash of 07/8, was unsustainable. It was based on bubbles. Though it is true that Blairites did distribute more money than Conservatives have past the bubble: Insane austerity was not yet the guiding principle of the day.

Unsustainable means “helped cause the crash.” It’s true that Blairites would be less cruel than Conservatives, and it is also true that almost every MP who opposed Corbyn also abstained from voting against Welfare cuts, for example.

I don’t want to get too down on Rowling. As very rich people go, she’s a pretty good one. She doesn’t dodge taxes, she supports social welfare spending, and so on. “High” UK taxes are why she’s no longer quite a billionaire. (Quite; you needn’t worry she’ll be on the rolls again.)

But I think to understand Rowling’s love of Blairism one should understanding three things. First, she got welfare and doesn’t seem, again, to have noticed that the Blairites she loves are now anti-welfare.

Here are the other two things which might be important to understand Rowling’s love of neoLiberalism:


Top Tax Rates

Top Tax Rates

Whatever else is true of Corbyn, if he becomes Prime Minister, he will raise taxes on the rich.


UK one percent share of income to 2005

UK one percent share of income to 2005

Blairism is kinder-gentler Thatcherism. It is neoliberalism, and rich people have done very well under neoliberalism. Though this chart doesn’t show it, the top .1 percent do even better, the top .01 percent even better, and so on.

I don’t doubt Rowling’s good will, or her concern for those who have less money than she does. She’s put up by paying taxes she could have dodged. But that doesn’t alter the fact that neoliberalism has been very good to her, and she’d have been a ton less rich if the policies Corbyn favors, as epitomized by tax rates after WWII, plus far less generous copyright protection, had been in force.

Blairite neoliberalism, like Clintonianism, is the policy regime that lets rich and upper class people feel good about themselves. They get most of the benefits of neoliberalism without having to watch a boot stomping a face over and over again, as under Cameron.

That doesn’t alter the fact that neoliberalism is a cruel, unsustainable policy regime based on exporting British manufacturing, favoring “the City” and the financial industry over all others, and on pushing income and ownership of assets towards a small number of people. Nor did that change under Blairite Labour.

Rowling, of course, also thinks that Corbyn can’t win. Maybe he can, maybe he can’t. It’s certainly true that Labour infighting has seen the polls move heavily against Labour. It’s not clear, however, that this is Corbyn’s fault, or that it will be true come election time, or that a Blairite leader could win election either. Labour has been losing, and its collapse in Scotland did not happen while Corbyn was leader, nor probably would have, as it was driven in part by anger at austerity policies which Labour refused to oppose.

All this, however, is neither there nor that. The bottom line is that being a Blairite, Clintonian, or other third-way type, allows the rich and well-off to have their wealth and their tax cuts, and feel good about themselves.  Rowling may be 100 percent motivated by the milk of human kindness, but she is still supporting a regime that has done very, very well for her against the possibility of a change which would damage her financial position significantly.

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The Brazilian Dilma Rousseff Coup

2016 September 2
by Ian Welsh
Dilma Roussef

Dilma Roussef

Rousseff has been impeached and removed, supposedly for corruption, though there’s little evidence she personally benefited from corruption, while many of those who impeached her are very corrupt. Brazil was a “miracle economy” for much of the past decade and a half while the “left” ran things, but much of that was due to forces beyond local control, like the price of oil and the strength of the world and Chinese economies.

The new President’s “plan” is as follows:

President Michel Temer said on Wednesday that fixing Brazil’s economy would not be easy, but his priority was to pass a spending cap this year, attract foreign investment, reduce unemployment, and begin pension system reform.

A.K.A., neoliberal austerity. Unions will be crushed, pensions will be cut, spending will be cut, and outsiders will be allowed to buy up Brazilian companies and resources for relatively cheap, so long as Brazilian elites get a cut.

Rousseff wasn’t the greatest prize, having run neoliberal-light policies in many areas, but she wasn’t personally corrupt and she engaged in far less austerity than Temer will.

Parties of the left are being crushed in much of South America for the simple reason that they ran the countries during the resource boom of the 2000s and have not been able to manage the drop in resource prices, first from oil, then generally as China stopped buying so many resources. I’ve discussed the perils of basing a left-wing government on resources before.

(See also Mandos on the coup.)

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The Simple, Obvious, and Correct Fix for Pharma

2016 August 30
by Ian Welsh

There are a variety of issues around private companies producing pharmaceuticals. They basically come down to: (1) It’s expensive; (2) There are huge regulatory barriers to entry, and; (3) People who need medicine will often pay almost any price for it.

Worse, companies that sell medicine don’t want cures, they want palliatives–drugs you have to take for the rest of your life which don’t actually heal what’s wrong with you.

The simple, obvious solution is as follows:

  1. The government takes over all manufacturing of cures and the distribution system. Even if this is “inefficient” the government’s “inefficiency” will not result in the price gouging in which these private actors engage.
  2. The government offers bounties for new medicines. Very large bounties in the billions.

Yes, there are plenty of details to be worked out, but this outline works because government, when not captured by private actors, is incentivized to want cheap medicines and cured people; sick people don’t pay as much tax and government pays so much of the health-care bills. This is true even in the US. Between Medicare, Medicaid, and huge subsidies, the US government pays as much per capita as most universal health care countries, without actually getting universal health care.

Bounties will change the focus from palliatives (though some are good) to cures, simply by offering huge bounties for cures.

Yes, some research funds are necessary, but the bounty must be large enough that people won’t want to keep doing research to get those funds, but will want the big payoff at the end.

This isn’t my idea, many economists have suggested bounties.

But it’s a good, obvious, idea.

There are other ways to do this. In particular, you could just move all research to the public sector (which funds most of it anyway) and have an agency which is responsible for getting new medicines through the approval process, which is most of what Pharma does. Make sure scientists will get a modest bonus for a cure and know they’ll be moved to another problem rather than let go, and voila, they’ll want to create cures.

Add in a patent fix of mandatory licensing and shorter patent periods, and you’re pretty much done. (EpiPen and insulin prices are not patent issues, but patents are the cause of much elevated price-related suffering elsewhere.)

Fixing Pharma is like fixing most other problems. It’s only difficult because we refuse to do the obvious, and we refuse to do that because the people who are making a killing at it have bought the government.

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It’s Not Just EpiPen Which Is Seeing Huge Price Increases, So Is Insulin

2016 August 28
by Ian Welsh

All those involved should go to jail, maximum security, where the nasty people are, and pharma production should simply be taken over by the government, while all patents are moved to a mandatory licensing system with durations slashed to the bone (that’s right, neither insulin and EpiPen are in patent protection, which shows just how broken the US system is).

Here’s your insulin prices on crapitalism (not capitalism. Actual capitalism doesn’t allow this.)

“This borders on the unbelievable,” Davidson said, citing an extremely concentrated insulin which “in 2001 had the wholesale price of $45. By last year, the cost had skyrocketed to $1,447” for the same monthly supply.


From 2011 to 2013, the wholesale price of insulin went up by as much as 62 percent. From 2013 to 2015, the price jumped again, from a low of 33 percent to as much as 107 percent

There is simply no question that this will kill people. Those involved should be charged with negligent homicide.

But, hey! Rich people are fine, so it isn’t actually a crisis.

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What Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Microsoft, and IBM Teach Us About Competitive Markets

2016 August 28
by Ian Welsh

Predatory pricing is when you charge less for a product than it costs to produce. The idea is to grab market share and drive competitors into bankruptcy, then raise prices, ideally once there is a lot less competition.

This certainly looks like predatory pricing. It is true that Uber has startup costs, and that businesses tend to lose money in the beginning, but it is widely reported that Uber’s prices don’t match its costs, mostly because it has to pay drivers.

Uber’s preferred endgame is to get rid of drivers and go to driverless cars, but there’s no reason everyone else can’t do the same once the tech is available.

In effect, Uber is burning capital to seize market share, not caring if it loses money. This is the same as what Amazon did: They lost money for years and years knowing that eventually it would control so much of the market that it would eventually recoup those losses.

The whole internet economy, as epitomized by app stores, Amazon, Uber, Lyft, and so on is about oligopolies which border on monopolies. It doesn’t matter if a million people produce goods or services, if most people go to only one or two gatekeepers to get those services, those gatekeepers have immense power. Once established, they can make immense profits.

The usual response is, “If they charge too much, new competitors will arise.” This isn’t entirely true, but it understates the difficulty of creating more competition. The capital was there for Uber and Lyft and Amazon, but it will not be there for a competitor with a similiar business model in ten years because by then, “We’ll charge less” won’t fly. The “new guys” won’t have economy of scale and they can’t expect to win a price war.

There is a reason the old “Big 3” car companies (GM, Ford, and Chevy) were never faced with domestic competition: Any viable competitor needed a largely protected foreign market in order to go scale before they could compete directly (and yes, the Japanese market was essentially a protected one).

Capitalism only provides the benefits it is supposed to when there are competitive markets. These internet gatekeepers and oligopolies are not competitive markets.

The best antidote for Lyft and Uber, right now, would probably be a low-overhead drivers co-operative with similar software. But without billions of capital to blow through, such an organization would have trouble even if its actual costs were lower. Competition would only work if the government stepped in. After Austin insisted Lyft and Uber fingerprint their drivers, competitors sprang up. That wouldn’t have happened while they were in Austin.

Note that what Uber and Lyft are engaged in is not just predatory pricing, it is regulatory arbitrage. “We will not obey the same laws and regulations as our competitors, the taxi companies.”

This is effectively identical to what AirBnB does: Renters on that site do not obey the same laws and do not have the same costs that hotels do.

Regulatory arbitrage.

Now, one can certainly say that taxis are overpriced, while also saying that what Uber and Lyft are doing is as much anti-competitive as competitive. One can say that many laws are unreasonable, and even argue that many laws are designed to keep out competitors and are thus themselves anti-competitive.

This can’t and shouldn’t be taken as a pure “Uber and Lyft and AirBnB” are bad situation; but the end goal should be to keep markets competitive, not replace one protected market with an oligopoly.

Competitive markets are NOT markets in which the government doesn’t interfere. They are markets which the government keeps competitive by making sure things like predatory pricing don’t happen by pro-actively breaking up oligopolies and monopolies, and where it does not create regulations so onerous that new entries cannot get started.

The “new economy” benefited immensely from anti-trust actions of the past.

There would be NO Microsoft as we know it, for example, if IBM had not used MS-DOS, and Microsoft only did so because the DoJ was on its case about anti-trust violations. MS-DOS was nothing special, nothing IBM engineers couldn’t have made themselves (and likely made better).

The problem is that the DOJ didn’t break up Microsoft when it started acting as a monopoly (they were almost certainly going to, but Bush Jr. stopped the court case in 2001 when he took office.)

You get the benefits of capitalism only when government, acting on behalf of the people, both makes sure competitive markets exist and when it intervenes to take the edges off other outcomes baked into standard market behaviour like rent-seeking, colluding to keep wages down, pushing for less than full employment, buying the government, and so on.

Markets are wonderful things, but like all great powers, they do untold damage if not forced to serve humanity rather than rule it.

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The Simple Fix for Intellectual Property Laws

2016 August 24
by Ian Welsh


Let’s say that someone has genuinely created something new–and we’ll skip the fact that most drug research actually uses massive government subsidies. Let’s say we want them to make money for doing so, in order to encourage people to keep innovating.

Again, there’s a simple fix: Mandatory licensing.

If a company has beneficial control over the patent or copyright:

For X years (I’d suggest seven), anyone who wants to use their patent or copyright must pay them 100 percent of the manufacturing cost of making the product.*

After that, anyone who wants to make their product must pay 10 percent.

You can fiddle with the numbers and years, and yes, patents are usually only small parts of final products and there are details around that which need to be fixed, but the principle of mandatory licensing is what matters.

Now, notice I said “the company has beneficial control.”

If an individual has beneficial control

(meaning most of the profits are actually going to them, not to a corporation), I’d extend the period by two or three times, to encourage individual innovators and to try and keep all IP from winding up in the hands of corporations. Also, an individual often needs more time to fully exploit a new invention or copyright item.

The justification for patents and copyrighting is that they make people more likely both to invent something and to share the details. One of the great problems they try to solve is people inventing something then keeping it a secret how that something is created.

In this age of reverse engineering (assuming we allow reverse engineering to be legal), the second part is less important, though not insignificant. But the larger point is this: We want innovators to be paid, and we want to incentivize them to share. 100 percent monopoly profits for X years is a lot of money, but it avoids the “jack it up by thousands of percents” problem.

It also makes markets actually work how they’re supposed to. In economic theory, competitive markets are supposed to drive costs and profits down because if anyone has high profits, someone else will enter the market. Strict monopoly intellectual rights make it impossible for markets to work the way they are supposed to.

(*When one looks at EpiPen, today, it is not a case of patents, it is a case that FDA trials would cost 1.5 billion.  Competitors should simply be able to copy the EpiPen design and forgo trials beyond confirmation that they have.)

(*This number would have to be different in industries like software and pharma where unit manufacturing costs are often close to zero. The principle is simple: you make back your investment and get a good profit, but your invention/idea is available for all to use at a reasonable price as soon as possible, so society benefits fully and you don’t price gouge.)

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As Turkey Enters Syria

2016 August 24
by Ian Welsh

and takes Jarablus, one wonders what Turkey is doing in Syria. As with everyone, they’re claiming to be there to fight ISIS, and Jarablus was held by ISIS. The ostensible goal is a security zone south of the border, the sub voce goal may be to stop further expansion of the Kurdish YPG mini-state from growing any further, and the fear may be that it will turn on the YPG forces.

The YPG has been working with both the US and Russia, however, and Turkey has been cozying up with Russia recently, even as its relationship with the US has soured since the abortive military coup which Edrogan blames on Gulen, who lives in the US, and which many Turks believe had US support.

At the least, Turkey believes that the Kurds are a major existential threat, and in the past it has very much wanted an end to Assad. Turkey has been a major supporter of ISIS, not its enemy, so it may be wise to see just how much damage it does ISIS in the end, whom it has officially blamed for a suicide bomb attack on a Kurdish wedding.

It’s not clear to me what Turkey’s actual goals are here, but I do think the most important thing is that Turkey has made many gestures of goodwill and reconciliation with Russia recently, so one presumes the plan is not to go all in and take out Assad (which Turkey has the military strength to do).

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The Need to Believe in Goodness

2016 August 23
by Ian Welsh

wolf sheep clothingSome of my best friends have been assholes.

I have known they were assholes, and they were still my friends.

I have voted for politicians who were a lot worse than assholes: they were monsters.

I knew they were monsters and I voted for them because I considered the alternative worse.

One of the most dangerous mental algorithms is as follows:

I am a good person.

Good people do good things.

If I do something it is a good thing.

Therefor anything I do is good.

The specific election version is as follows:

I am a good person

Good people do good things

If I vote for someone they must be good

Therefor whoever I intend to vote for must be good.

Yeah. No.

It is quite possible that you are voting for a bad person. In fact, in the context of the current US Presidential election it is certain.

The lesser evil argument is all very nice, but here’s the problem: The candidates are evil in different ways.

Different. The most obvious is on foreign policy and Russia, where Trump wants to be friends with Russia and Clinton wants to ramp up Cold War II (and maybe go hot, given her desire for a no-fly zone in Syria after the Russians were there).

Trump has all sorts of issues with race and deportation and so on.

Evil in different ways. Bad in different ways. Different groups of people will suffer more under Trump than Clinton.

What I see, all day, are people who deny the real problems with their candidate. The real evil their candidate has done, or is likely to do, if elected. The argument is not “Well, they’re good on A, B, & C and bad on X, Y, and Z.” It is, “They’re basically good people and the other candidate is basically a bad person.”

Russ Feingold is not running for US President. Neither is Jeremy Corbyn. An argument can be made that Sanders was basically good (or, that his good substantially outweighed his bad, which is virtually always there for a career politician.)

But Sanders is not on the ballot. Democrats (and it was Democrats–independents wanted Sanders) didn’t want someone basically good to represent their party.

On the Republican side, there was basically no one good running. A case might be made that Trump was the lesser evil (spare me on Bush, the man who fixed the Florida election for his brother and is thus directly responsible for all the evil of the Bush II regime). The case can also be made that Trump is some sort of fascist (and has been, ad nauseum).

Whatever the case, both Presidential candidates are bad people. In terms of actual damage already done, one has to give the contest to Clinton (by a mile). In terms of who will be more damaging once they are President, the case is less clear.

But both are bad.

I run into this implicit algorithm all the time. I often admire Putin’s competence, or say I understand why he does what he does, and in some cases would do the same thing. I also say he’s an evil man. People freak out, they cannot hold the idea that Putin has done some really terrible things in their minds alongside the idea that he has also done some entirely reasonable things, and that he is terrifically competent.

People are not of a piece. My friends who were assholes often weren’t assholes. If you can’t understand that statement, you can’t understand human beings. My father was a fucking asshole, a monster to his family and to many other people. He also did great good in the world, which is better for him having lived, even if I spent much of my childhood wishing various other people were my father.

To actually understand the world you must be able to hold facts which appear to be contradictions (but which, in fact, aren’t) in your head. People can do both really bad things and really good things. Pure saints or pure devils are rare. Even Hitler was a person, who desperately loved his mother, for example.

Realistic appraisal of opportunities and risks requires the ability to “contain multitudes’ and to seemingly contradict oneself.

I admire Putin greatly. I also admire Genghis Khan greatly. (Don’t quote this out of context, idiots). I also think both have committed evil acts (though clearly Genghis far more so). It is possible to admire someone’s vast competence and disagree with how they use it. It is possible to say that Hitler was a great rhetorician and still disagree with what he did and believe he was evil. It is possible, conversely, to admire a public figure like FDR while saying he was absolutely in the wrong to lock up Japanese Americans.

We can say that Trump wanting friendly relations with Russia is a good thing (they have a lot of nukes), while condemning other policies. We can say that Clinton’s greater support for women’s rights (yes, she has wavered on late-term abortions) is good, while noting that she pushed for what amounts to a huge war crime in Libya.

At the end of the day we still often have to make judgments. We have to say “both these people are monsters, but I prefer A to B, because of X, Y, and Z.”

Making these judgments well requires us to be able to say, “Putin did engage in some truly heinous policies in Chechnya, but I still think that, as a Russian leader, he’s done a pretty good job in the following ways, while failing in these other ways.”

That’s the world. To understand it, you can’t allow your overwhelming need to think of yourself as a good person mean that you think anyone you support or whom you identify as good by your standards. If you do so, you live in delusion, the world in your mind so far removed from the actual world that you’re dysfunctional.

You can support bad people. You do. You can be friends with people who are sometimes assholes. You probably are (and if you aren’t, you probably have family who are, and if you somehow truly have only wonderful friends who are never assholes and a shining family full of angels, well, understand that most people don’t).

The real world sucks. But it’s the one you live in.

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Review of “Max Weber: A Skeleton Key,” by Randall Collins

2016 August 18
by Ian Welsh

Max WeberThis is my second review of a book by Randall Collins, the sociologist. You can read the first, on Non-Obvious Sociology, here.

Max Weber, the subject of this book, is generally considered one of the three founding fathers of the discipline of Sociology, along with Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim.

Early Life and Translators

Weber was raised by a father who was involved in moderate German politics and by a mother who was an extremely pious German Victorian involved in the progressive Christian politics of the time. This meant feeding the poor and an absolute abhorrence of sex.

Weber was a brilliant student, but did no interesting academic work until after he had a breakdown. He had married a woman his mother was fond of, and they had a celibate marriage, and many commenters, including Collins, think that the conflict between his mother’s progressive values (including his celibacy) and his father’s more worldly ways led to Weber’s breakdown.

Weber was to engage in an extra-marital affair and it was during his convalescence, that he first started writing the impractical work for which he is still read.

Weber’s most famous work in the English speaking world is the “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” which is unfortunate, because it does a disservice to his overall corpus, it being his first book and representing only a small part of his mature thought. In general, Weber was ill-served by his early translators (such as Talcott Parson), who chose the pieces they thought would help their own academic and political persuasions. Parsons, in particular, was quite conservative and had an organic view of society in which everything had a purpose. This does violence to Weber’s analytical model, which is far more conflict prone.

Weber worked copiously, but I am going to pick out two major pieces of Collins’ precis on which to concentrate: rationality and the preconditions for rational capitalism and the industrial takeoff.

Rationality and Rationalization

Though Weber uses the term “rationality” in a number of different ways and never firmly defines it. The two most important forms of rationality appear to be: instrumental, or, mean rationality Zweckrationalitat) and value rationality (Wertrationalitat).

Instrumental rationality means calculating how to achieve an end. You have a model of the world, you have an end, you use that model to figure out how to get to the end.

Value rationality is an action that is an end in itself. Even if God does not answer prayers it may be good in itself to pray to him. Even if your protest against a government policy may not change the government’s policy it may be right to protest that policy. Going to jail to oppose an immoral war is the right thing to do–even if it won’t change the war’s outcome in the slightest.

These types of actions are different from two others: traditional action, in which we do what our ancestors have always done, and emotional action, in which we just do what feels good.

Traditional action, through the course of world history, may have been the most widespread type of action. While it’s not rational as Weber uses rational, it is rational in the sense that making changes increases risk, and when the chances for survival are razor thin, doing things how they’ve always been done makes sense; these methods may not be the best, but they obviously work.

Remember that these are what Weber called ideal types. Nobody is entirely values rational or means rational or traditional or emotionally driven, and neither is any society. I could want lots of money because that’s what people in my society do (tradition). I could want it because I believe having lots of money means I’m a “winner” (values driven). I could want to be filthy rich so I could have coke-fueled orgies every weekend (emotional) or I could want lots of money for… wait, there is no purely instrumental reason for having money—you always want money for some other reason. Money is an instrumentality to obtain other goals. Or is it?

Instrumental rationality always starts off as being for some other reason, until it forgets what it is doing.

Let’s go back to the Protestant thesis, not in the strict sense of the book, but in the broader sense Weber used it throughout his work.

In traditional religions, like Catholicism or most Buddhism or Hinduism, the highest, most ideal religious life is something only a few people live: There are monks or hermits who live that life and the role of lay-people is to support them.

Monks in monasteries pray and perform rites, priests make sure that sins are forgiven and perform the key rituals and all lay people can do is give them money, confess, and ask them for the key rituals at the right time.

Most forms of Protestantism change this: You read the Bible yourself, you don’t need priests, the monasteries are abolished, and you are called to live a Godly life. The idea of “being called” doesn’t mean anything is good, however. You should still not sin, but it emphasized that work is holy so long as it is not immoral work.

Capitalism before rational capitalism is gambling: Merchants send out their ships and convoys, they make big loans, and when the results come in and they win, they take the money and splurge. Often, indeed, they buy a patent of nobility and stop being merchants.

In the Medieval world, there is little sense that work is good, or holy, or anything but a PITA. Nobles don’t work. Monks may work the land, but their primary duties are prayer and ritual.

Protestantism changes this, or rather, it extends the late Medieval monastic revolution, because it’s not quite true that monks don’t work. The early Cluniac-style monastics certainly do some work, but the late Medieval monastics make work their thing: Monasteries improved the land, worked it hard, and became rich, because hey, they amounted to corporations which never die, never disburse funds, and are immune to taxation.

Protestantism breaks up the monasteries, transfers that attitude to hard labor (it’s holy and good, you’re not gambling, you’re making your toil an offering to God) and extends it to society.

Importantly early merchants are generally considered untrustworthy, but religiously motivated merchants are not. They want regular small profits, they don’t cheat their customers, they are fair and honest.

This is a chunk of the larger Weber religious (Protestant) thesis. He deals with this in multiple studies, including of Chinese Buddhism, Hinduism, and Ancient Egyptian religion.

Protestantism is not a radical break, it is an evolution.

The irony is that as the clerics became rich (this extends far beyond monasteries, into the Church as a whole, a huge enterprise), they were corrupted by their wealth. That corruption led to the Protestant revolution. Then Protestants became rich themselves, and were corrupted.

Meanwhile, the Catholic counter-reformation, though it did not adapt all of the Protestant reforms, adapted enough that the world changed.

Value rationality, in this case the idea that people must act holy, is one of the factors which has led to honest dealing, hard work, and a wish for a sort of business based on large volumes of low profit transactions.

That leads us to…

The Preconditions for Rational Capitalist Takeoff (Mass Industrialization)

Rational Capitalism: Capitalism in its  modern form is different from traditional capitalism. Many societies have had capitalism: the ancient people of Mesopotamia certainly did, the Romans did, the Greeks did, the Chinese, and so on.

They had markets, those markets relied on price signals, and provided goods.

Rational capitalism is bulk capitalism. Modern capitalism requires:

  1. That people buy what they need on the market
  2. That people are available to be hired by the market
  3. Rationalized capital
  4. Rational technology
  5. Calculable law

Most people, for most of history, and in most societies, have not been available for hire. They have not needed to buy their necessities on the market, nor even much of their entertainment.

The capital required for rational capitalism was not available in most places: Capital went to merchant gambling, kings, or to kin. It was not liquid, but bound up in land and chattels.

Technology was bound up in the heads of a few people and a few books, handed down through apprenticeship systems and often tightly guarded. When it was not, the principles by which it worked were not widely understood. In the beginnings, modern patent law was not an attempt to reward those who knew technology, it was an attempt to get them to share their secrets by assuring them a share of the profits (in general, they received much shorter periods of assurance than we currently provide).

And, for much of history, the law was capricious and not suited to mercantile endeavours. Law was created and enforced by people who were themselves not merchants, and because merchants were regarded as scum by almost all traditional societies- including China, Japan and Europe–they were not treated fairly.

Good mercantile law arose in Europe in the free cities, run by merchants. It arose in Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate because the Samurai didn’t want to dirty themselves by regulating such trash, so they allowed the merchants to mostly regulate themselves.

In general, modern capitalism is rational: Calculations are made of profit or loss. They are made of cost inputs and likely markets and predictions are made of the future. The larger the enterprise, the more this is the case. Merchants rely not on windfall profits due to a few large transactions or having one’s “ship come in,” but on millions to billions of small transactions at low profit.

This is, again, an ideal type. It is how rational capitalism is supposed to work, and deviations generally show pathologies (as with broadband companies getting near 100 percent returns).

The larger point here is simple: The conditions for modern capitalism and markets did not exist for most of history, and it took rather a lot of historical happenstance for them to occur.

Modern markets are rationalizing in the Weberian sense because their rules, while arbitrary (go to the highest profit), destroy those who do not obey. When markets become the predominant form of social organization, to fail to act as they dictate leads to you becoming weaker than those who do, and eventually those who make the most profits will buy you out or you will be reduced to poverty by bankruptcy.

Rational systems, in this regard, are not kind, but they are totalizing. Once these systems are put in place, they drive towards their ends relentlessly.

That does not mean they always “work” or are rational in the larger sense. Capitalism may well destroy itself by being unable to prevent climate change, for example. As noted, the wealth gained by Christians who sought the holy life in their works destroyed their faith, just as wealth destroyed the Catholic Church’s moral position and the faith that had truly made them powerful.

History is full of such ironies and catastrophes. Systems work until they don’t, but while they are working, to move against them is tantamount to moving against natural law. So long as humans believe in modeling behaviour on profit and rewarding such behaviour, those who don’t are meat for the gears. Those who tried to resist the Medieval church were cut out from the most advanced part of the Medieval economy and were often prosecuted fiercely. To be a Roman politician in the later Republic who did not believe in foreign wars was to be defeated by those who did, as the latter would have the loyal soldiers, the popularity with the mob, and the vast loot that comes from war.

Concluding Remarks

Weber tends to be misunderstood in the Anglo-American world because of an emphasis on the Protestant Ethic, and a history of partial translations calculated to support translators’ positions. His work is one of the cornerstones, however, for understanding why capitalism arose when and where it did. It is a very long answer to the old question of, “Why not in China?” and, indeed, Weber wrote a book on just that question.

The meta-theme of rationalization and how it both drives forward and dies is important to our own situation, here, near the end of one form of capitalism.

Of course, there is much, much more. I have not touched (though Collins does) on Weber’s analysis of power (class, status, political party) or many other threads. But this should give you a taste for the sort of thought Weber did engage in, far beyond the single thread of the Protestant Ethic.

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