Friday, November 24, 2006

Ami de mon amie, L' (1987)

Why does it have to end or not end? Can't it be what it is? But love does that. It either ends or doesn't end. It cannot sit still. It impatiently and constantly demands an evaluation of what it is and where it is going. It's self-conscious to the point of self-destruction. Can't it dissolve all these worries? Ah, boyfriends and girlfriends -- when will they ever learn?

Making Love to Ginger Rogers

"He made love to me," pouts Ginger Rogers in a strange little moment in the 1935 movie Tophat, explaining to her friend why she feels misled by Fred Astaire. That line almost shocked me into supposing that Ginger meant what we would mean by that today, but Tophat was made too late for the line to qualify as a bit of "Pre-Code Hollywood" realism. In fact in 1935, "make love" could still signify any degree of physical involvement, most often just kissing, which the storyline makes pretty clear is all Ginger meant.

A Prolegomena to Any Future Cosmological Argument

Let's consider Taylor's cosmological argument for the existence of God seriously this time. I have heard it before many times. But this time, I will honestly consider it. I will start at the beginning.

First, what of the principle of sufficient reason? It states that for every positive fact or truth there is a sufficient cause or reason why that fact obtains or why that statement is true. I think we ought to accept this because not doing so would lead us to other undesirable problems. There is a sufficient reason for the universe existing. The prove that, suppose there is not a sufficient reason. If there wasn't a reason, there also would not be cause, and the universe would not exist. But the universe does exist, so there is a sufficient reason as to why. But we have to follow the principle all the way through. We cannot pick an arbitrary point to stop simply because the theists stops at an arbitrary point, or the non-theist stops at an arbitrary point. We cannot let the standards of the other position determine ours. That way, we're not taking it seriously, we're only trying to deface the other's position.

Arguing cosmologically, the theist says that the universe must have a cause and its cause is God. The theist stops after "Therefore God exists." We can ask, using the principle of sufficient reason, "Why does God exist?" He says, he always existed. Then we ask further, what is the sufficient reason for His existing always? Likewise, the non-theist says "The universe existed forever". But what is the sufficient reason for the universe existing forever? The argument stops there, as Russell says, because the theists stops shortly after that as well.

The crucial issue, then, with cosmological arguments is that the theist and the nontheist are going to accept different stopping-off points in their respective applications of the principle of sufficient reason. The nontheist then says that he explains the universe's existence in fewer steps, and does not multiply entities beyond necessity. Therefore God is not necessary. "I have no need of that hypothesis," as Laplace says.

I have not considered Taylor's argument yet, because we cannot get off the ground. Before I can get to that point, I have to settle the problem of sufficient reason. I haven't gotten very far! See what taking something seriously gets me! I referred to this in other posts about absurdity. I'm embracing the absurd at this moment. It is not a contradictory position, I contend. Pyrrhonism, ultimate skepticism, has always intrigued me. But I see it as something to at least try to escape from. I always end up falling back into it, however.

I think I'll stop there.

Ballet as a Metaphor for Love

Before we fall in love we know what qualities we are looking for in a lover--or think we do. The profiles on or Eharmony or Yahoo Singles certainly suggest that. Once we have fallen in love, it's a different story.

When people are pressed to explain why they love their lover, they usually have nothing to say except what a simpleminded answer would give: because she's she, and because I'm me! When it comes to explaining why they love, they are tongue-tied. Is it that you can't capture love in a finite list of qualities? How do you explain the reason for love? A list of physical and psychological qualities seems too quaint, like something out of an unsophisticated movie. A list of spiritual qualities seems to be a fabricated reason. Any spiritual reason would lead someone to love all people the same, making people inseparable from love of people.

At this point in my life the metaphor for love is the lighting at a ballet. What we love is well-lit, because love is the source of the light. When the light goes out, the beloved joins the rest of the ballet dancers. Unfortunately, what promises to illuminate love's death darkens its birth. Only lovers turn love on, others do not. But love isn't a searchlight. It's more of a security light that only some things trigger.

Many people in defense of love say that it cannot be captured at all. Still, the illusion that love is grounded in something--some quality or list of qualities--gets things backward. Where I am concerned is the value-conferring kind of love might hold more promise. Someone can value where they love, rather than love where they value. That might explain why what is valued in a lover is not necessarily valued in someone else with the same qualities. The light is not on them. It reflects the subjectivity of the object of one's love. It is simply a value judgment. It would also explain why, when love dies, what we once found beautiful, we now find commonplace or not even our type.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Colonists as Faithful Subjects Under the Grenville Program

The Stamp Act of 1765 is conventionally taken as the beginning of the sequence of events immediately preceding the American Revolution. But it was only the most famous of the series of policy decision concerning the colonies enacted by Lord George Grenville’s prime ministerial rule in British Parliament (1763-5). During this period, the British Government turned its attention at American after a generation of war with the French and a century of neglect. This was a period that forced the colonies to understand the implications of imperial rule.

In order the finance the Seven Years’ War (the French-Indian War as Americans know it), Britain had borrowed money from the Dutch, merchant bankers, the Bank of England (established in 1694), and private companies and individuals at high rates of interest. Lord Grenville believed that it was his duty to pay this debt off, but could not afford to upset Independent Gentlemen and British nobility by increasing their taxes in so doing.

He therefore,

(1) left the colonial land tax at ₤4/-, which was not popular. Under peacetime conditions, the land tax stood at ₤3/- and most people expected the tax to be reduced after the signing of the Peace of Paris in 1763.

(2) He cut expenditures in the army and navy. This was seen as more weakness on the part of the government back home, especially with the growing empire, and unpopular with the colonists since it was mainly they who helped meet these costs.

(3) Grenville also believed that since Britain was defending the empire, the colonies should help defray the costs. Consequently, he introduced a series of policies known as the Grenville Program.

The colonial assemblies, however, were much rather in favor of voluntary financial contributions, as had been done in the past. Central to Grenville’s colonial policy, and certainly central to Britain’s prevailing mercantilist ideology of the time, was the detailed investigation in 1763 into the American evasion of the trade laws: the Customs Board estimated the average annual revenue from the American customs to be a mere ₤1,800.

This was intolerable to Grenville, whose guiding principles were strict adherence to legality and financial solvency. Attempts to enforce the existing trade regulations, as by incentives to naval officers and customs officials, preceded their alterations by Parliament in the American Duties Act of 1764. The most controversial of this new duty enforcement was the creation of a new vice-admiralty court—a court that exercises jurisdiction over maritime affairs—for the trial and punishment of smugglers, but whereas these courts were unhindered by juries.

The prospect of a trial without a jury excited the temperaments of colonists, to whom London booksellers, as Edmund Burke tells us, sold more books on law theory in the American colonies than anywhere else in the British Empire. Also important were the writs of assistance which helped enforce the Acts of Trade by allowing customs officers to conduct general searches of premises for contraband. In 1761, James Otis represented Boston merchants in their challenge to the renewal of the writs. He failed to convince the court, but gained public prominence in arguing that colonists’ natural rights were violated by the writs.

The first deliberative attempt to tax the colonies and to fulfill the Proclamation of 1763 was the Sugar Act, which was an alteration of the molasses duty which converted it into a source of revenue as well as a trade regulation. The molasses duty was originally 6d per gallon. But this was evaded by smuggling or by collusion with the customs officers who charged about 10% of the duty.

The Grenville Treasury Board dropped the idea of a molasses prohibition, accepting that trade was vital to the economy of New England. Thus the rate of duty that would produce the highest revenue therefore became the Treasury’s highest concern. Their conclusions estimated that the point at which marginal revenue equaled marginal cost of productivity lost through taxation was 3d per gallon. Grenville maintained that the molasses duty had the twofold aim of producing revenue and maintaining imperial preference, since there would still be no duty on molasses imported from the British West Indies.

The Grenville ministry also sought to amend the legislation on the status of colonial paper money as legal tender. The Currency Act of 1764 applied only to the nine colonies south of New England, which had had a similar act since 1751. Out of those, only North Carolina and Virginia had a suspect currency, but the British Government thought a general regulation was preferable for discriminatory measures.

The problem centered on the use of depreciated Virginia currency for the payment of debts from that to British creditors. The Bute ministry, Grenville’s predecessor, had warned the Virginia assembly to mend its ways, but without effect. The Currency Act under Grenville immediately prohibited all colonial paper money as legal tender, but would not cancel existing monetary issues. This had little immediate effect and did not incur sustained colonial criticism until after the Stamp Act crisis.

After a century of colonial rule, Britain had essentially perfected the art of taxation. Just a hundred years earlier, during the 1600s, the revenue collected from the colonies was paid for entirely by way of land taxation. By the time the Stamp Act was introduced into Parliament the chief motive of the Grenville ministry had changed from collection of revenue to the assertion of sovereignty.

Despite news of colonial protests, Parliament proceeded with the Stamp Act, arguing that the virtual representation of the colonies was the basis of Parliament’s right to tax. Grenville asserted that even in Britain fewer than 5% were directly represented. In fact, great care had been taken to make the Stamp Act acceptable to the colonies. The wide range of duties, which averaged only about 70% of their equivalent in Britain, had been devised to provide an equitable distribution of the burden.

The defense of America was after all very expensive—the annual cost of the army alone standing at an estimated ₤350,000—and the burden of the colonists’ own internal taxation was very light. The revenue from the stamp duties would increase only as the colonies prospered, and the tax would be largely self-enforcing through the legal invalidity of unstamped documents. There was no foundation for the contemporary and historical myth that Britain would drain money from America.

On the eve of the Revolutionary War itself, a petition was submitted to the Crown to resolve these differences peacefully. It is known as the Olive Branch Petition. The document begins with Congress declaring themselves to be “We, Your Majesty’s faithful subjects of the colonies,” and entreating the King to consider this, “Our humble petition.”

The Congress recalls how British and colonial forces together had repelled the French and the Spanish and, owing to the sacrifice of the colonists, they thought that the victory would redound at least to some extent and would benefit themselves as well as the mother country.

This is addressed now to George III, “Your loyal colonists doubted not but that they should be permitted with the rest of the empire to share in blessings of peace and the emoluments of victory and conquest.”

The petition goes on to say that, in response to Grenville’s Parliamentary measures, which the colonists regard as somewhat disciplinary in nature, the colonists now must arm themselves for their own defense. All of this conveys anything but the true sentiments of a faithful people, the Olive Branch Petition being replete with statements that would leave no doubt as to the sincerity of the Continental Congress in seeking the full restoration of the British Empire.

Was Lord Grenville to blame for all of this? His ministry undoubtedly left a personal mark on American policy. A great deal was done in such a short time. The fact that Grenville’s ministry gave so much attention to the colonies was due not to any particular ideological approach, but to the need to solve problems, old and new.

The phrase “Grenville program” arguably implies a certain coherence that did not exist, since the colonial acts sprang from differing motivations. The policy of maintaining a large army in America, and the crucial public commitment to finance it by a colonial tax, for example, were both legacies of an earlier ministry, that of Lord Bute’s.

Grenville himself, a financier with legal background, was shocked at the disorder and defiance of authority revealed in the American scene. Hence the comment of an anonymous contemporary of his, “Mr. Grenville lost America because he read the American despatches, which his predecessors had never done.”

Further reading:

Thomas, P.D.G. British Politics and the Stamp Act Crisis: The First Phase of the American Revolution, 1763—1767. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Thomas, P.D.G. “The Grenville Program, 1763—1765.” A Companion to the American Revolution. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. 118-122.

Thomas, P.D.G. “The Stamp Act Crisis and its repercussions, including the Quartering Act controversy.” A Companion to the American Revolution. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. 123-134.

Sheridam, Richard. “The Molasses Act and the Market Strategy for British Sugar Planters.” Essays in American Colonial History.

Ferguson, James E. “Currency Finance: An Interpretation of Colonial Monetary Practices.” Essays in American Colonial History.

John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams etc. The Olive Branch Petition. June 2001. Georgia Tech. September 2005.

Unknown Author. Imperial Reorganization 1763—1764. 2005. September 2005.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Eclipse of Modernism and the Rise of Methodological Rhetoric

[An essay on D. McCloskey’s rhetorical analyzes of the economic science, why it matters that economics is rhetorical, why methodology is not over, and some lingering problems. ]

It is not easy to think of a proposition in economics that all reasonable economists agree to have been falsified by the evidence. It seems that no theory has ever been certified as dead. Yet many economists continue to believe that they are marching under the Popperian flag, and many of them wave the Friedman banner of predictive success. Of course most economists don’t worry about the scientific status of economics and think they could do economics without a methodological fuss. Does it matter that when asked what economists are doing or reflecting on that they come up with unsatisfactory answers? D. McCloskey believes that it does, and I think he is largely right about the reasons why.

McCloskey has no difficulty in showing that economic discourse is primarily “rhetorical” and not “scientific” in the Popperian sense. (The same is certainly true in “science”.) For instance he gives convincing demonstration that the use of literary devices in what appear to be formal arguments by Gerard Debreu, he documents the metaphorical nature of well-known propositions of Friedman, he shows the use of tropes by Solow and of quite straightforward rhetoric by various other economists (i). For good measure he gives his readers practical advice on rhetorical analysis in his essay How to do a Rhetorical Analysis and Why. In this and other works the aim is not to show that the economists are wrong altogether but rather that they were doing something other than what they believed themselves to be doing.

They emerge not as hard-nosed positivist scientists but as persuaders who, often, have all the tools requisite to persuade successfully. McCloskey believes that recognition of the fact that this is what economists are about would not only have the virtue of honesty but also the merit that fruitful debates could take place. People who believe themselves possessed of scientific truths or to be searching for such truths are disinclined to take note of the disciplines which are not regarded as “scientific.” McCloskey believes that for instance literary criticism and linguistics have been neglected by economists at some cost. More serious, it seems to me, is the neglect of history and the absence of any sense of history. The project of a history-free understanding of the economic world is not self-evidently plausible.

To McCloskey, the perceived methodology of economists is “modernist,” by which he means an amalgamation of positivist scientific thinking, behaviorism, operationalism, and hypothetico-deductive models of science. He traces all this back to the Cartesian dogma that “only the indubitable is true” (ii) Modernism’s application to economics is even more problematic than its application to other sciences. But economists only perceive they are modernists, while in truth they are rhetoricians. In fact the philosophers have moved on, and the economists are still carrying around their “methodological necrophilia.” When modernism collapses, this supposedly entails the end of methodology. Bruce Caldwell argues that McCloskey is arguing for the end of methodology (iii). But McCloskey argues that “Rhetoric” replaces modernism. Economists already have replaced modernism with rhetoric. To turn a phrase from Nietzsche, “The will to overcome methodology is ultimately the will of one methodology over another.”

Rhetoric is the ‘art of argument’ in the classical sense, reminiscent of Aristotle, Cicero and Quintillian, and was eventually “crucified” by Descartes. The best way to define rhetoric in the sense that McCloskey means is the study of the ways interlocutors accomplish things with language. It is critical inquiry. This “disciplined conversation” in economics is a literary matter, heavily metaphorical, and uses a kind of Aristotelian poetics when talking about economics.

The purpose of McCloskey’s own rhetoric is to persuade the reader to accept McCloskey’s view of economic scholarship, both in respect to what it is in practice and what it could be if economists paid more attention to rhetoric in their professional practice. “The subject is scholarship. It is not the economy, or the adequacy of economic theory as a description of the economy, or even mainly the economist’s role in the economy. The subject is the conversion economists have among themselves, for purposes of persuading each other” (iv). ‘Conversion among economists’ and ‘economics as rhetoric’ sounds slightly religious. I am reminded of St. Augustine’s conversion from Manichaeism to Christianity which began after his study of rhetoric. He writes in Confessions that he could not separate the substance of Christianity from its rhetoric in the form of St. Ambrose’s preaching. In that sense, we have an idea of what good classical rhetoric is, that is, the inseparability of rhetoric from substance.

McCloskey never explicitly says what good rhetoric ought to look like, but it’s clear from his prose that his own essays are in fact just that: The Rhetoric of Economics is an example of good rhetoric in the sense that it uses language very well in presenting interesting arguments. But how good his rhetoric is in the sense of being persuasive and thus likely to cause major changes in the beliefs and scholarly behavior of economists, I would not dare to predict after being persuaded by McCloskey that economists are not much good at prediction. Impossible! McCloskey’s articles are written with an elegance which is rare of other authors of contemporary economic thought. So one reads his articles with enjoyment and also is easier to assent to many of his arguments. But one is also left with many doubts.

It is clear that the simple positivism of the postwar years will not suffice either as a description of what we do or as an aim for what we should do. Econometrics at best has turned out to be a useful “filing cabinet” but has not been able to deliver the goods as a tool for the falsification of theories. In any case it has been known for a long time that one of the primary roles of economic theory is to provide a means for organizing our thoughts about a vastly complex world and to provide a means by which economists can discuss their scholarship, that is, understand each other. It is a lack of comprehension of this important role of scholarship which has led some to write off General Equilibrium Theory as useless while others have taken it as a sufficiently accurate description of, say, the present American economy. Rosenberg charges that economic theory is nothing but applied mathematics (v). McCloskey argues that this charge applies only to general equilibrium theory, mathematical economics and armchair discussions of philosophers who fail to see the economic science. Reading McCloskey should help to expose and dispel some of the reasons for these misunderstandings.

However, great care must be taken not to go to the extreme of “insights,” “intuition” and all economics as poetry. Without some rules a chasm opens for cranks and madmen to frolic in. Without rules one can only hope that intuition of economists will keep back the madmen. It is no surprise then that McCloskey, who has an aversion to epistemology and follows Rorty with a kind of “no-nonsense” pragmatism, has practically nothing to say on this matter (vi). Indeed he reminds me of some evangelicals who believe that society’s problems can be solved by enjoining everyone to just love everyone else. Just so, McCloskey urges us to engage in honest and open-minded conversation but on the grammar of this conversion he has little to say.

There are rules of logic and indeed of evidence that are desirable even when they are open to some philosophical doubt. Yes it’s all rhetoric, but it follows certain rules. In any case McCloskey opens the floodgates without telling us what, concretely, to do with the ensuing tide. This is the most serious failing of his article The Rhetoric of Economics. My own view is this: no really drastic changes are needed in the manner in which much of economic research proceeds at present, although it would be a great advantage if it were to encompass a great deal more than it does regarding the social ontology as other disciplines have provided. There is much evidence that does not come from a ‘time series’. But it is highly desirable that we should know what we are doing and what sensibly we can hope to do. On this matter McCloskey is a very good guide.

Inevitably McCloskey’s enterprise on meta-economics dips into every aspect of doing economics. Mainstream economists preach and pretend to practice the research in economics by developing falsifiable hypothesis and confronting the data. Such methodology (modernism, logical positivism, rationalism, all from Cartesian methodology), as advocated by Milton Friedman, McCloskey criticizes as being too narrow and misleading the science. His basic insight is that economic science involves more than the strictures of falsification; more fundamentally, it involves rhetoric, the argument or discourse using facts, logic, metaphor, and storytelling. Economists rely quite heavily on stories to make their points.

The example McCloskey uses is the Keynesian and the Monetarist, where the Keynesian tells the story about how “oil prices went up, which caused inflation” (vii). But the monetarist says the story “ends too soon, halfway through the second act.” The monetarist, McCloskey says, is “not morally satisfied” unless the story reaches some morally reasoned conclusion (that is, the monetarist wants to place blame on the Federal Reserve.) The dramatic departure is the insight that it is the economist, the person, who works out the story morally and therein gains knowledge, thus economic knowledge actually relies on his introspection. An economic argument is not complete without an appeal to rhetoric, which appeals to other economists’ introspection. It is clear how important rhetoric is.

I agree with McCloskey’s general argument on economic modernism. But his argument about prediction is troubling. Before McCloskey makes his argument about prediction and control, he says “Economists agree on more than is commonly understood. The disagreement about prediction and politics give them an unhappy reputation, yet they agree on many things: the index number problem, the law of demand, the logic of entry” (viii). But what is the law of demand if it is not a prediction? And what is it that economists agree on? That price and quantity purchased are, or will be, inversely related? But there are many examples of and explanations for a direct relationship.

Nonetheless, I am in general agreement. We would in my opinion be more honest and useful if we would do more ‘economics as rhetoric’. This would mean simply making good arguments to support what we know about economies and positions. We would say in effect that this is the best case I can make. It is based on this evidence and these arguments. I am not certain an am willing to listen to alternative arguments. The assumption is that the discourse among scholars and practitioners will bring us closer to useful descriptions of what is and what might be. To be avoided is the argument that the conclusion must be correct because it is based upon science or a scientifically verified theory. That is dishonest within the framework of logical positivism or without it.

Finally, I believe McCloskey’s argument would have been more persuasive had he expanded its scope to address some of the implications for the current content of economics. For example, are economic theories a series of metaphors used to support particular ideologies? What is the role of ideology in economic rhetoric? If we are persuaded by McCloskey’s arguments we have a lot of work to do in scholarly discourse answering the question—so what?

(i) How to do a Rhetorical Analysis and Why. D. McCloskey. New Directions in Economic Methodology. Routeledge: 1994
(ii) Ibid. (i)
(iii) Comment on McCloskey. Caldwell and Coats. Jstor.
(iv) Ibid. (i)
(v) If Economics Isn’t Science, What Is It? Alexander Rosenberg. The Philosophy of Economics. Cambridge: 1994.
a. Modern Epistemology Against Analytic Philosophy: A Reply to Maki. D. McCloskey. Jstor.
b. You Shouldn’t Want a Realism If You Have a Rhetoric. D. McCloskey. Fact and Fiction in Economics. Cambridge: 2002.
(vii) Ibid. (i)
(viii) Ibid. (i)