2002. Picasso’s Woman throwing a stone.

Intersting puzzle. Commentary on today’s identity politics.

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we have from Zizek’s Return To Plato As Materialist?

A Woman Throwing a Stone, a lesser known painting by Picasso from his surrealist period in the 1920s, offers itself easily to a Platonist reading: the distorted fragments of a woman on a beach throwing a stone are, of course, a grotesque misrepresentation, if measured by the standard of realist reproduction; however, in their very plastic distortion, they immediately/ intuitively render the Idea of a “woman throwing a stone,” the “inner form” of such a figure. This painting makes clear the true dimension of Plato’s philosophical revolution, so radical that it was misinterpreted by Plato himself: the assertion of the gap between the spatio-temporal order of reality in its eternal movement of generation and corruption, and the “eternal” order of Ideas.


We ned to nudge our thinking into .   terrains.

1993. school and prison

There are many good schools, many good teachers and many children learning and actually have a good time. But even the best schools a time feel like prison. I remember it from my own childhood and there are testimonies like Albert Schweitzer and Jean Pisget who wrote about their own difficult time with school and their yearning to escape. One of our local schools just got shut down because threatening language was discovered on the bathroom wall. It’s important to realize that even the best mannered and intended children learn a certain hostility to authority and its irrationalities through the process of going through the school system. Part of the awareness among children of the school – gun situation is that children are more tempted to express their hostility than they would in normal times. Over reacting will only make the problem worse if children see adults as being anxious, defensive and irrationally angry. Important to remember to that for the vast majority of children there is no outside that they are any longer allowed to vacate to. We do not have a child friendly, nor a society always thinking kindly toward parents nor teachers.

My own view is that putting more guns into the situation makes school feel like a bad western. Better is to have a society without guns so it feels more like a domestic comedy.

1946. The psychology of shooters.

The psychology of shooters. A shooting requires at least three things. a shooter, a victim, and a gun.

But a shooting takes place in a cultural context, in an atmosphere, a feeling for how things are. The question for young people forming their identity is who am I , and the crucial question is what do I move towards in society? Obviously we live in a time when there is very little political power  and for most young people economic power seems far away. So the locus of power in society now is in guns. Imagine the landscape, perhaps the county,  where you live. It is richly dotted with guns and each gun is a locus of potential power. As much in imagination as in physical reality but nevertheless fully real and felt by young people to be realizable.

So, yes, It takes a shooter, a gun, a victim, and an atmosphere.

The shooter has a young lifetime of alienation from the community of adults, parents, and friends.

Victims are easy. The world is filled with other kids and authorities.

Guns are always a problem and their presence is a magnet. My  view is that they should have far less presence within a society bordering on zero.


The atmosphere is a combination of parental success,  optimism about the future, integration into schools and peer groups and above all a sense of what worth life is about.

Churches used to be present in  most communities and or a constant if dull reminder of an orientation to life. We have not yet found a way to match that.  when we have a president and teenagers who share the psychology of winning is everything, weapons are cool, people are either winners or losers, we have nearly lost it.



1915. Population and economics

Provocation #112 Population

As we look for positive plausible scenarios for the future we need to be imaginative, compassionate and realistic. Economics can play a crucial role in creating an economy that is supportive. But when the history of our time is written a key question will be: why didn’t we deal with the obvious?


We each have excuses but they don’t add up to much.

We have many examples of the collapse of societies through population.

Economics does not go after the most interesting phenomena of which population is certainly one. Increase in population destabilizes all existing relationships, requiring room of some kind to be made for the newcomers. But increase in population is also a stabilizer – if your focus is on the need for constant growth.

THIS IS SO OBVIOUS! Yet way ignored as a systems problem requiring and not getting very serious thought. The problem of population is compelling and interesting – but maybe even more so for economists is the phenomena of the avoidance itself. Why?

Book note.
“Remarkable book about the evolution of property and how this shaped human society. Impossibly, wonderfully broad in scope.”

The book is Owning the Earth. The Transforming History of Land Ownership by Andro Linklater. Posted in Twitter, by William Goetzman, who wrote the very terrific book Money Changes Everything. Matt Sware met him at Yale School of Management..





1898. the reduction to pleasure and pain

It is important to bear in mind that Adam Smith was at a cross roads in thinking, between a literary and a newtonian approach to understanding society.

The imperative in economics. and much of intellectual life in current times, is toward calculability, which requires assumptions of stability, which is politically conservative. The needs of “big data’ require calculability. Change and stability are both needed by society. The interesting task is to honor both and it would be terrific to see economics playing more of a role in this balanced thinking.

But as it is, the drive in economics to deal with single dimensions distorts the whole field of society.

Hot and cold, heavy and light, beautiful girl. Beautiful painting, beautiful music. In economics it is pleasure and pain, or utility.

we have from Bentham

“that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness…or…to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness” Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789)

The idea of the draw of attractive things seems ok, but to then try to compare the power of the draw of a sunset by quantifying it with the draw of a $10 bill or a bowl of soup seems a bit confused. Maybe even sinister. (Notice his use of the word property (that will be the topic of an upcoming provocation.)

Seriously how can the pleasure of a Modigliani painting be compared to the pleasure of Mozart sonata? In forcing these to a single dimension we force much of social life out of economics. Hence we get a corrupted climate, ugly cities, a drive for GDP in the presence of a clear understanding that it is a bad measure – but oh so convenient. A world of textures and nuances gets collapsed into a single linear scale.

Aristotle began with the idea of estate management, the whole thing. Look at this paragraph from his little book Economics.

“When we turn our attention to the human part of the household, it is the woman who makes the first claim upon it; <for the natural comes first, as we have said,> and nothing is more natural than the tie between female and male. For we have elsewhere laid down the premiss that Nature is intent on multiplying severally her types; and this is true of every animal in particular. Neither the female, however, can effect this without the male, nor the male without the female; whence the union of the sexes has of necessity arisen.

Now among the lower animals, this union is irrational in character; it exists merely for the purpose of procreation, and lasts only so long as the parents are occupied in producing their brood. In tame animals, on the other hand, and those which possess a greater share of intelligence, it has assumed a more complex form; for in their case we see more examples of mutual help, goodwill, and co-operation. It is, however, in the human species that this complexity is most marked; since the co-operation between woman and man aims not merely at existence, but at a happy existence. “

So different from most economics now.

The issue is, what do we think about when we try to think economics? Do we look at the mechanics of a newtonian field where pain and pleasure work like the gratifying simple reduction to mass, energy and velocity? Or do we deal with what makes real lives livable?

Economics looks for the equivalent of the solar system within the facts of economy. What is found is the mechanism that seem to lead to wealth concentration. If that system (money is cheaper for the already rich) were frictionless all wealth would be owned by one person.

Jeremy Bentham (of panopticon and having himself mummified and never married) was keen on measurement. Bentham was not stupid, but the attraction to math was powerful

He spells it out

(From Wiki) The felicific calculus is an algorithm formulated by utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) for calculating the degree or amount of pleasure that a specific action is likely to cause. Bentham, an ethical hedonist, believed the moral rightness or wrongness of an action to be a function of the amount of pleasure or pain that it produced. The felicific calculus could, in principle at least, determine the moral status of any considered act. The algorithm is also known as the utility calculus, the hedonistic calculus and the hedonic calculus.

To be included in this calculation are several variables (or vectors), which Bentham called “circumstances”. These are:

Intensity: How strong is the pleasure?
Duration: How long will the pleasure last?
Certainty or uncertainty: How likely or unlikely is it that the pleasure will occur?
Propinquity or remoteness: How soon will the pleasure occur?
Fecundity: The probability that the action will be followed by sensations of the same kind.
Purity: The probability that it will not be followed by sensations of the opposite kind.
Extent: How many people will be affected?

Notice that all are measurable, but hardly describe life as lived.
By the way, his most famous quote, the greatest good for the greatest number, is obviously flawed.

Population 1. Number of people =x and their good = y. The total is xy or per capital y/x.

Population 2. Assume Double the number of people – 2x and Lower their individual good by a third. Total = 2x’. 2/3y =4/3 xy. We still have greatest good for greatest number but less good for each person. So we get more total good but less per person.

Smith was quite critical of paraphrasing text with math,Reference on Smith and Math

Schliesser, Eric S., Adam Smith and Anti-Mathematics (September 3, 2012). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2140828 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2140828

We do not have a politics that can cope with the economy and we do not have an economics sufficient to cope with society and its interaction with the environment.


1895. Adam Smith between two worlds.

Provocation 103, Smith between two worlds.

Smith is like Einstein: the image is so powerful that we do not see much of what came before or after. Adam wrote at a time when interest in all things human was shifting to interest in science and quantification. History has treated him as more the source of laissez faire economics (he never uses the phrase) than he was. His real contribution was to legitimate discussion of the wealth of a society as a whole. The result of ignoring his integrative view of a whole society  is we have quantified but not narrative economics. That is causing us lots of problems because quantitative projections are harder to shift to include new factors: climate, war, inequality, governing not able to handle complexity it created. (important to read Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies and Schumpater’s discussions of creative destruction).

To put it simply: culture, and economics, went from the group world of Hunter gathers to agricultural  empires and feudalism to an individualized focus  and Smith was part of that transition.

The future of economics will improve if we re-embrace Smith’s more profound thinking about the morality of sentiment (who are we as human beings) and the sources of societal wealth  (how to manage the world of nature and institutions for social good).

The literary world of Adam Smith with its deep curiosity about how people lived was glossed over by abstraction and quantification because of calculation’s usefulness to power, administration, and commerce. But the over quantified and under explored texture of human  life has led us to over population, militarism, inequality, climate problems. In the pursuit of money we have becomes stupid about the system we live in.  Can we get back to the humane task ?