Archive for July, 2011


Unorthodox Debt Ceiling Lessons

I’ve been playing around with new ways to think about the debt ceiling debate. Here’s a recent article I wrote for PolicyMic on this subject, but here I want to say some other random things.

So far, I disagree with basically everything that’s been said about this month (?) long media/political event.

First, I want to go on the record and say that there will not be a default. People have tried to escalate the risk this time around, but I just don’t think it will happen. People have already cautioned that just because it would be stupid to not raise the debt ceiling does not mean it will be raised. True enough, but when the incentive system  is so clearly and robustly in favor of some result, one has to have a pretty sophisticated reason why we should worry in this case. I’m reading a book on negotiating and the author claims that 80% of concessions are made in the final 20% of the allotted negotiating time. Deadlines get things done.

Some people say that America looks stupid and why can’t we get this issue solved. I agree that America will look very stupid if we run out of money, but I don’t think it is at all stupid that we are having this debate and that both sides are trying to extract concessions from each other. Some people say that this is just “political theater” but I  am really growing to dislike that phrase. It’s often used to just stop caring about the debt ceiling altogether or worse, politics altogether. There is a theatrical element, but there is also the completely honest and genuine reason that some people in the house want lower spending and are willing to force a showdown to get that.

Also, I wonder if we have wasted more time whining about our politicians than anything else. How would a different media approach to this issue actually have CAUSED a different outcome. What if the media had just refused to report more than a few times a week about this (there’s no such thing as “the” media of course and collective action problems would make this unworkable)? Some of the “theater” would be gone and many politicians would be able to compromise more easily because the eye of the public would not be on their every move. Negotiations can easily obscure one’s role in the final product allowing various politicians (on both sides) to meet in the middle but still hide that fact.


Debt Ceiling Graphics

Getting a handle on the debt ceiling issue is very intimidating and if you didn’t keep up with every little thing along the way, you probably feel lost like I do. You also probably think that reading the articles every day about the issue feels like a very unhelpful way to get a grasp on things. But here are some graphics that I think are VERY helpful for understanding what the hell is going on.

This one is probably the best (the bottom graphic).

This is very helpful.

Also this.

NYT is late to the game but they have a comprehensive debt ceiling graphic.

It’s also not clear to me that all parts of Boehner plan are constitutional since its enforcement mechanism is a required 2/3 majority vote. But the supreme court has ruled that one congress cannot change the vote dynamics for future congresses and I think has ruled on a case very similar to the current budget legislation. The Graham Rudmann  (sp? for both of those) Act tried to do something similar to what the current caps would do, but was struck down.

Also the Boehner bill allows Obama to request a raise in the debt ceiling while Reid’s plan just raises it. Is there a difference?



I’m really getting interested in demographics. It’s kind of like junk food in terms of thinking.

There aren’t really any big conclusions to draw, but there’s a lot to just chew on.

For example, if you’re reading this, there are about 2 million people who are your exact age.

Also, the south has way more girls than guys as a general rule: move there if you want to meet somebody. Texas is also one of the youngest states in the U.S.

As a nation, we’re getting more age polarized. The number of older people is really jumping, but the number of middle aged people fell. Young people are growing a little bit too. It’s as if god looked at our demographic pyramid and pinched the middle, causing the excess to flow to the top and the bottom.

Also, don’t live in Ft. Lauderdale if you’re a heterosexual guy: it’s all dudes.


We Actually Don’t Know What Slurs Are

Philosophers of language are interested in what a slur is and how it does its dirty work.

It would take a while to explain exactly how mysterious slurs are, but here is an attempt.

The most natural thing for a non-philosopher to think is that slurs are predicates just like anything else, like “red” or “bad.” A slur then would be something like “inferior because of his/her race” so that calling someone a slur is the same is saying something objectionable about them. However, this cannot be right for two reason.

1. Slurs “scope out” of unasserted uses. If I say “If you’re a bad person, I don’t want to hang out with you,” then I have no insulted you. I have merely introduced a hypothetical. I’ve said IF you’re a bad person and so have not ASSERTED that you are a bad person. However, if I said “If you’re a *, I don’t want to hang out with you,” then I have said something quite offensive. This is a puzzle. Slurs are offensive even when they are not actually predicated of a person (but only hypothetically predicated of them).

2. Slurs can be used unoffensively. I’ve been playing a lot of basketball in Harlem, and trust me, many of the black people I play with refer to other black people there with a word that I could not use. This is also anomalous. Nobody can use “red” to mean “blue.” But slurs can be offensive on the lips of some people but not by others.

The other thought is that slurs have no content but merely express anger or hatred or something, just as “ouch” expresses pain, but it doesn’t MEAN anything. This seems not to work though because exclamations don’t have application conditions but slurs do. Someone could say, “that’s a *,” but be wrong because the person he’s pointing at doesn’t have the race of the slur that was used. Another racist could say “False, that’s not a *, that’s a *” and insert the slur appropriate to the person’s race. You cannot have a similar conversation about “ouch.” It’s true that I could be insincere about when I’m feeling pain (and could say “ouch” when I’m not in pain), but there is never a conversation where I say “That pain was an “ouch”” and you say “No it wasn’t, it was a “yikes.”” This brings up a second point: slurs are used as standard predicates and so seem to have application conditions (true when applied to some people and false when applied to others).

But if slurs aren’t normal predicates or expressives, what in the world are they? Philosophy tries to answer this question.


Honesty With Yourself

I talk sometimes on this blog about the idea of being honest with yourself, and I want to refine this notion in this post.

Self-deception is built into the human mind in many ways. Here are two. First, we tend to pick up on and remark on things that support our antecendently existing world view. This reinforces our belief that we are right. Not only that, after we make a decision we are much more likely to think that decision was right than before we made it. Something about our brain makes us continually and aggressively congratulate ourselves on being right. There is some tie between this and arrogance or perhaps just the idea of an ego.

To learn to combat this tendency is what I mean by honesty with oneself. How far can someone REALLY entertain the fact that they may be wrong or bad or mistaken? This is the measure of how honest someone is. It’s no wonder then that introspection and self-scrutiny are intellectual virtues, because the pursuit of philosophy or really science of any kind involves thinking about how ordinary practice gets things wrong. Practice, or the intuitive and fluid way with which we go about a variety of tasks, is a powerful thing. And indeed it is probably fundamental, but just as reflecting on how to shoot a basketball can distract from your practice of shooting and therefore make you miss a clutch free throw, slipping into a practice like a job or friendship or a commitment can make you justify yourself to yourself, continually, and subliminally.

For example, I often hear people say something like “her mom, doesn’t like me and never has, what a bitch.” Or, “I never get a promotion, my manager hates me,” without ever entertaining the thought that they might be a bad boyfriend or a lazy worker. Honesty with oneself, in these situations, requires taking such criticisms seriously and indeed to reconstruct other people’s critique of your whole way of life as robustly as possible. This is scary and hard, but it is required by honesty.

Thus, the more you are honest with yourself, the more you seek real reasons and arguments for your position, again, honesty is connected with self-criticality. The most honest person not only thinks hard about the criticisms of others, but at times, accepts that there is no answer: that one is wrong or did wrong. That is the hardest thing to do because even as your body tries to reassure you with all its evolutionary strength that you are right and good, you know, if you are honest, that you are wrong and bad (in a specific case).

Notice also that this mentality is an attitude: if you have it, you tend to take criticisms very seriously, and this makes it nearly impossible to have confidence in yourself. Confidence then is a kind of magical and powerful type of automatic and intrinsic self-affirmation. A belief that you can do it that is by its nature deceptive and tends to prevent you from scrutinizing yourself.

I think this is why Nietzsche wondered why truth was any good. To function, one must believe that one’s actions are good and right, and this self-image must be nurtured, which it naturally is in most human beings.


Must Philosophy Be Written Down?

I’m doing a lot of philosophy of language stuff lately, and I’m realizing that there are deep differences between writing and speaking. Speaking we learn intuitively as part of how our brain works, but writing is NOT like that. It’s nearly impossible not to speak any language, but its very possible (and tragically common all over the world) to be illiterate.

There is a philosophical difference, or rather a methodological difference between speaking a good idea and writing one down. I think philosophy is about writing because to write a clear thought, you have to actual pay attention to TONS of assumptions and valences and possible misunderstanding and cut them off ahead of time with word choice, organization, and footnotes. When you are in a conversation with someone, the whole world become accessible in certain easy ways. You can say “that” or “this problem” and people will know what you mean. You can use nicknames, inside jokes, and temporal and spatial nearness of objects. You can read facial cues and on and on. With writing, none of that contact is available.

I became interested in this point because some people can be caught up in conversation and make very insightful and creative points, but be unable to generalize or “purify” those thoughts to account for the ways that words, in the somewhat “naked” context of a page, change how they are perceived. To see this, pretend I said to you “you aren’t going to die.” Now think of two situations in which I say that sentence. One is when you’re whining like a baby while putting a bandaid on a cut. The other time I say it, I’m a scientist lecturing to you about my immortality drug. The same set of words can have vastly different meanings depending on the context.

Or try “I’m in a pickle.” Read in the abstract, the sentence feels metaphorical, but what if I’m at a children’s park and I’m inside a large mock sculpture of a pickle.

So, must good philosophy strive to be “eternal”– to be able to convey the same thought and argument to ANYONE who picks up the writing IN ANY SCENARIO. Conversations are special because they are limited, abbreviated, and parasitic on the specific context of the exchange, but philosophical writing, I think, aims to be universal. So maybe thinking deeply partially involves thinking eternally.