Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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I have been reading Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. I had been warned previously that the book spouted some leftist nonsense, but the people who had told me are guilty of their own ideological hackery. I have found nothing of the sort thus far, though am just about halfway through the book.

High Country of the Mind

The author had a few turns of phrase, almost prose, which I liked. The sort of thing that I do in my blog, the exploration of higher orders of thought, Pirsig calls the “high country of the mind”. Similar to travelling to the countryside or to a remote area or to a mountain in Pirsig’s book, your mind is travelling to higher orders of thought away from the tumult of everyday thoughts. In essence, you enter the world of philosophy and philosophizing.

Pirsig says not many people come up to the high country of the mind. Those who do sometimes get lost or confused (i.e. mental illness, explaining the eccentricities and sometimes madness of some philosophers). Some may never come back because there is no civilization there to help you back. You are essentially following trains of thought where no one has been before. Like the countryside, it is a treacherously beautiful part of the mind.

Maintenance of the Mind

I think there is a subtle comparison between the maintenance of a motorcycle and the maintenance of your mind through philosophy. He says anyone who is interested in learning about or improving their motorcycle to make sure it runs better and “feels right” must have a peaceful state of mind when working on the machine.

I think a parallel line of thought can be drawn for philosophizing, to understand and invest yourself in the understanding of how your mind, your existence, your consciousness and your reality works. You have to have a certain state of mind, like zen for lack of a better word. For myself, the higher orders of thought come more often when I have the time to think, usually spurred by something I’ve read or something I’ve seen or a moment of reflection on past life experiences when I’m writing in my journal.

The Romantic & The Classical

I like how he divides the world into two meta-concepts about the human mind: the romantic and the classical. The romantic approach sees the beauty of things in and of themselves, like an appreciation for the outward appearance of a motorcycle in the book. The classical approach appreciates the underlying form of things (remember Plato?), such as the mechanics and moving parts of the motorcycle’s machine. Pirsig seems to think that the whole of philosophy is bent on reconciling these two concepts, which are constantly at war with each other. Beatniks & squares, art & science, right & left, soul & mind.

My own thoughts on the subject are that the brain is already structured to harmonize both aspects.  They are not meant to be split up or favour one over the other, though sometimes it is easier for people of simpler minds. Your mind is capable of harmonizing the creative soul with logical reason. You reach your full potential by exercising both. Probably what Aristotle meant by being virtuous, I suppose.

Quality & Truth

Pirsig, or rather the first person character, also struggles with the notion of Quality. He posits that defining Quality puts it under the analytical knife because there is no rational or creative way to approach it, since it is precedes rational thought and creative thought. He brings in Kant to explain it as a priori knowledge, like time and space (although Kant himself is a slave of reason). He also proves that we know what Quality is when we see it. That’s how we know it exists. We can make value judgments that something is better than another thing. Quality itself is neither subjective nor objective, but perhaps a third entity unto itself used to understand the real world.

In this blog, I know Quality by another name: Truth. In my first blog post, I asked whether truth was subjective or objective and whether it was rational. I think Pirsig answers the question so far in his book. But the other questions in my post, those remain to be answered. Perhaps not by Pirsig, but there is still half a book to read. It is nonetheless discouraging to know that the first person character went crazy in the pursuit of understanding the concept of Quality and now refers to the ghost of his philosopher as Phaedrus.

Concluding Thought

I have no intention of stumbling into madness in the pursuit of Truth, however much I may be intellectually tired and disturbed by the burden of philosophical questions and answers. Perhaps enlightenment of what the truth is will be a lifelong endeavor. I am prepared to wait for all the pieces to fall into place. I rather enjoy my escapes to the high country and hope there are many more trips to come.

Masters of Destiny, Pawns of Fate

The utilitarian economist…does not ask a man to renounce his well-being for the benefit of society. He advises him to recognize what his rightly understood interests are. In his eyes, God’s magnificence does not manifest itself in busy interference with sundry affairs of princes and politicians, but in endowing his creatures with reason and the urge toward the pursuit of happiness.

Ludwig von Mises brings up an excellent point in Human Action.  The Marxists argue that everything is subjective, that there is no such thing as the pursuit of truth for its own sake. There are always interests behind the motives of progress or human actions.

This ties in with the Hegelian notion that the world turns and progresses independent of human will and action. Progress creates itself independent of human beings. Human beings are  merely vessels to be used by the Weltgeist.  Marx goes further with this idea and posits that class wars are inevitable and inexorable.

Yet Mises points out the absurdity of such claims with a simple anecdote. The Marxists would say that all scientific and technological advances were driven by the desire for profits. Bacteriological research created by demand from the agricultural and food service industry to improve the quality of cheeses and wines, etc. The research was not driven by a desire to improve the medical sciences and cure people of diseases.

Mises argues that human action cannot be so narrow in its motive nor in its goals. History teaches us that many useful inventions were discovered by accident.  We may have designed a particular technology with one goal in mind but have it applied to whole other fields of utility. Likewise, we cannot know the benefits or harms of an invention until it is created.

A Precedent to Peace

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As onlookers on the deterioration of the Arab Spring, one cannot help but question the premise that democracy is a precondition for peace. Can democracy really be the remedy to centuries of warfare? Has the Arab Spring failed as we see more uprisings now under supposedly “democratic” governments than we did last year?

In Fareed Zakaria’s book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, he outlines a brief history of liberty in the first chapter. Very unique and specific circumstances led to the creation of modern democracy, a complex amalgam of feudalist heritage, enlightenment philosophy and capitalism. Freedom and a variety of situations, property rights, the rule of law, the separation of church and state, checks and balances and a whole other host of prerequisites – yet not one single aspect alone can make a successful modern democracy.

Is order then a prerequisite for the alleged democratic peace? If so, there is some hope for the secular apparatuses ingrained in some Middle Eastern countries which supposedly combat Islamist extremism. For instance, in Turkey and Egypt, it is the secular military which feels some preordained duty to restore order after uprisings and protests in the leadership, whenever the religion creeps back into politics. The Asian tigers are also interesting case studies when examining evidence that proves authoritarian order, much like feudalism, can give birth to free societies.

Now when we speak of order, the image of dictatorial rule troubles the Western mind and such a prescription for the world peace seems a hard price to pay. This author thinks it a far cry to praise any sort of oppressive regime. However, we must find a way to describe this perplexing trade-off of religious freedom for political freedom in Middle Eastern countries (which may in some cases, not even guarantee freedom at all!). While modern democracy is certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution, freedom is freedom irrespective of state structure or oversight. The dilemma for these countries is that they have not yet understood how to check and balance one set of freedoms against another. And so, the revolution marches on and the national army continues to intervene to restore some measure of order until the people decide what they want.

In this respect, there might be some hope for these countries. Foreign policy aside, there will always be some measure of order in these Arab Spring countries and there will always be some sort of resistance to that order for the sake of change – whether productive or not.

As Mises points out, it would be naive to think that the world progresses independent of human action in the Hegelian or Fukuyaman sense. A man’s interests are rarely identical with his class, however much the Marxists wish it so. What is useful for us to know is Fukuyama’s admittance that little intellectual or emotional appeal can be found in Islamic fundamentalism by the majority of Muslims. They will have to learn on their own how to preserve their private beliefs, while building progressive state institutions  which embrace democratic values – independent of foreign intervention (with the exception of extreme cases where crimes against humanity are committed). Their modern states are young, so they will need more time to develop.

In the meantime, what should the onlookers do to soften order’s blow? As in the case of European and Asian countries, the government must be amenable to democratic change. The United Nations has done a poor job of fostering a culture of liberty within its mandate. Particularly in the last few years, we have seen every attempt by this body to cater to the whims and wishes of dictatorial countries in order to make them “feel more included”, with the reasoning that their inclusion is more important than changing their hearts and minds.

This borders oxymoronic, since the institution was originally created to combat such atrocities as were seen in the World Wars from ever happening again. It is why the human rights regime was developed. It is why international tribunals were called to order. It is why the UN Security Council was formed: To combat those tyrannies in the world which impinged on the sanctity of human life, dignity, and liberty. Such a cosmopolitan culture has fallen by the wayside into abuse and disuse. Until our League of Nations 2.0 can return to such values in a meaningful way, then we cannot hope for peace in the Middle East, nor anywhere where the chains of oppression turn our fellow man into cattle.

Invisible Hand, Invisible Consequences

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On minimum wage:

You cannot make a man worth a given amount by making it illegal to offer him anything less. You merely deprive him of the right to earn the amount that his abilities and situations would permit him to earn, while you deprive the community even of the moderate services that he is capable of rendering. -Henry Hazlitt

As you can tell, I have finished reading Economics in One Lesson. While a purposefully simplistic work, it evoked two questions in my mind concerning the betterment of humankind through free market economics. To take a lesson from Mises (who I am also perusing) and Fukuyama, the answer to these questions lies in the praxeology (human action) and thymos.

1. Is it possible for taxes to be lowered after a war, particularly in the case whether either the reparations costs are so high or the debt has increased exponentially due to war manufacturing?

There has been a case before where taxes were lowered in the United States post-World War II and revenues increased to make up the difference. There were concerns of unemployment as male soldiers sought to gain back their jobs from the female workers who had replaced them. However, unemployment was short-term because humans are, by nature, productive beings. The US experienced a golden age of commerce.

Well, you might say, the United States was not bludgeoned half to death as Europe in terms of reconstruction. Fine, let’s take West Germany, where Berlin alone was bombed multiple times by Churchill’s Air Force. Chancellor Adenaur and his Minister of Economics Erhard cut taxes down to 18% and introduced currency reform. What followed was the Wirtschaftswunder –  the rapid reconstruction and development of West Germany.

But the skeptic might claim that these are both useless examples because both of these countries had skilled workers in developed economies. Recuperation was inevitable!

One final example: South Korea. While the recovery was delayed by some five years and tariff barriers were raised in the 1960s, the Park government gave tax breaks to businesses and brought up interest rates to bring up savings, leading to an ample supply of credit and capital. At the same time, South Korea began to develop its labour force, responding to global manufacturing demand for its exports. Money and manufacturing led to the further specialization of South Korea into the ICT industry, where it continues to be a leader to this day. So it is possible to have tax cuts and higher revenues in a post-war world!

2. What does Hazlitt think about dumping – the act whereby a country floods a developed or developing market with cheaper goods (and theoretically, destroys all hope of that country ever developing its industry and improving its economic welfare)?

Given Hazlitt’s anti-tariff attitude, I think he would wholeheartedly embrace the Walmart effect of cheaper goods flooding a given country’s market. Consumers have more purchasing power, the manufacturing workers receive profits, and more jobs are created because consumers can spend more. The only short-term fall-out is the temporary unemployment of manufacturing workers as other countries gain a competitive advantage and these skilled workers must find new jobs. However, developed economies are sufficiently diversified as to make absorption amenable.

But what about the effects on a developing country with no developed industry? Well, the same effects occur, but the unemployment is a little more sharply felt. However, in a purely free market world, there should be no such thing as an unproductive worker. If cheaper manufactured goods obliterate  a given industry, then the people of the developing country must simply find another good to develop: agriculture, mining, services, etc. Unfortunately, countries with high unemployment rates love to use this opportunity to beg for more foreign aid, the blank welfare cheque to much of the developing world. If aid were cut off for these countries, they would be forced to produce.

Countries that are rich now were not always rich. There are even some poor countries now who were once rich. In a free market world, it is entirely possible for a poor country to become rich, but not possible for a poor country to stay poor.

Summer Reading

A new look. A new start. Perhaps some new perspectives to add to these dormant pages.

While I conjure up some more verbose reflections on the meaning of life and the pursuit of happiness, perhaps my summer reading list will give you some sense of what’s distilling the cobwebs of my mind.

  1. Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt
  2. The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson
  3. Human Action, Ludwig Von Mises
  4. Winner Take All: China’s Race for Resources and What It Means For the World, Dambisa Moyo
  5. Fearful Symmetry: The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Founding Values, Brian Lee Crowley
  6. Margaret Thatcher: The Autobiography
  7. The Origins of the Political Order, Francis Fukuyama
  8. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  9. The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad
  10. A Room With A View, E.M. Forster

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark 
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 
Within his bending sickle’s compass come: 
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, 
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Reflections on the 2008 Financial Crisis

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***excerpt from a paper on the causes and consequences of the 2008 financial crisis***

This paper has tried to demonstrate that government intervention and politics have had equally important roles in magnifying the devastating impact of the banking crisis in the United States and around the world, not just the alleged free market ideology and capitalist greed pervading private banking institutions at the time. Peter Schiff (2007) explains the outcomes quite succinctly when he observes:

“Economists today view the apparent overinvestment occurring during booms as mistakes made by businesses, but they don’t examine why those mistakes were made. As [Austrian School economist Ludwig von] Mises saw it, businesses were not recklessly overinvesting, but were simply responding to false economic signals being sent as a result of inflation.” (88)

Governments can send false signals to investors and commercial banks when they promise a safety net of capital relief in a crisis and take on the function of creditors to income brackets of the population that have already been labelled by the market as risky debtors. While it is important to help those less fortunate, at what point should social programs be considered more harmful than helpful in lifting people out of poverty and then teaching them to live beyond their means?

The problem with Keynesian thinking is its assumption that the U.S. government must be the “lender of last resort” to bail out investment banks with taxpayer dollars rather than to allow free market mechanisms to reward financial risk management and punish risky transactions. Bailouts lump taxpayers and shareholders into the same boat of punishment, paying for the consequences of massive private sector failures in order to save jobs. Unfortunately, bailouts can also reward executive officers and managers for terrible performance, damaging minority shareholder and consumer protections. Another Keynesian approach to solving the liquidity crisis might have considered re-distributing those billion-dollar bailouts to individual Americans or rewarding businesses who had prudently stayed away from risky financial behaviour. However, there is something to be said for the Austrian School’s acceptance of the inevitability of economic shocks and building resilience into existing systems.

***

Schiff, Peter. (2007). Crash Proof: How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Social Myth and the Transnational Élite Class

Graz – Review of WEF

This article has inspired me to look more into the work of George Sorel. The following quote from his work is absolutely fascinating:

“According to Sorel, much as primitive Christianity held to the myth of the second coming as the driving force of its struggle against the Roman empire, the general [workers’] strike can be viewed as a social myth fostering class consciousness among workers and reinforcing their revolutionary fervour.” (325)

Sorel would essentially spin Marxism on its head, as well as the ideological struggles of the 20th century. Revolutionary struggles rely heavily on social myths!

Graz argues that there are limits on the global power of transnational corporations, which are often loosely networked and diffuse – so unlike the caricature painted by global civil society that corporations have undue influence in the global system. At the same time that corporations want to expand globally through economic forums like at Davos, they must keep their forums closeted, secured and limited so as not to attract undue attention from global civil society actors. Such forums lack an institutional basis which is the necessary engine to the global power of other organizations like the UN or NATO. The club cannot be exclusive if its actors wish to engage with governments and IOs and therein lies the limits to its power.

Graz goes further to say that international political economy may not be the be-all-and-end-all in the investigation of global systemic changes, but that his findings may point to the necessity of adopting critical investigation of the historical structures of these forums. Foucault would probably call it “the archaeology of global hegemonic structures”. Who wields the true power and influence at successful economic forums?

Forums can divorce transnational business from global societal power and influence. However, there is little distinction between private and public authority, especially where these forums create the delegation of public tasks to private experts and corporate leaders who are not accountable to domestic constituencies.

 

 

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
-William Butler Yeats

Quo vadis?

It has been over a year since these posts started and Pilate may well laugh in their face with his famous: Qui est veritas? Are we any closer to it? Do we recognize it? Is it problem-solving, life-changing, or disappointing? Truth may set one free, only to be entrapped in some other snare of conundrums and trials.

Yet the human mind loves to be challenged and the process of enlightenment for a finite being is never complete so long as there is a wider universe of puzzles and enigmas. As humans, we cling to certainties wherever we find them. But in our heart of hearts, we love the mysteries, the puzzles, the challenges that help us grow in wisdom and power.

The posts have always demonstrated a part of the truth or a category of truth or the direction to turn in order to grasp at the truth. It has been firm in its objective premises and minimized the flaws of faulty argumentation that may be used to arrive at truth. It is sure of itself, perhaps more than the author. Can a subjective being author objective truths? Does the subjective being recognize the objective truth when it stumbles upon it?

In the age of the specialization of subjects, with all the accompanying -ologies of dissective categorization, it is easy to forget the big picture when it comes to truth. However, such specialization may indication that we have better understood the multi-faceted nature of truth.

Kant and Mises have countless times brought up the a priori fact that our brains categorize and rationalize  information in a particular way. Such categorization of the mind is not pure random evolution, but the manner in which humans are able to perceive the real world. One cannot be anti-foundationalist when the whole of scientific inquiry and philosophy of values must make progress in the realm of knowledge. There is a reality; whether it is malleable or rigid is up to the philosophers to debate

When the relativists critique such foundations in the rational sciences, saying that the models and theories do not account for the irrational, counterrational, or superrational elements of human action, behaviour, psychology, etc., the falsity of such statements is rendered by virtue of assuming that such models do not already include such calculations. Indeed, such models presuppose humans operating at the optimum level of their biological, mental, etc capacities are able to do and other sciences/philosophies do represent models that factor in human irrationality. To suggest that such optimum models are flawed because they do not account for human irrationality is absurd. The critique may be rendered and then dismissed, but never dwelt on so much as it is today.

Truth was never unattainable insofar as the human rational mind is there to perceive and know it. We should never overthink it.