Archive for October, 2013

Defending Myself About “How Old Is The Self?”

October 29, 2013

Recently I posted a recap of my Philosophy Now article critiquing Julian Jaynes’s “bicameral mind” theory. Marcel Kuijsten replies with a long scathing attack, on the Julian Jaynes Society website.*

images-1In brief, Jaynes said modern introspective consciousness (a “sense of self”) did not arise until around 1000 BC, before which people believed their thoughts were not their own but, rather, voices of gods instructing them (the “bicameral” mind).

I criticized, as historically wrong,  Jaynes’s argument that societal upheavals around that time caused the changeover. Kuijsten doesn’t really rebut that, but says Jaynes was instead relying mainly on supposed evidence that the change did occur then, such as the “cognitive explosion” of Greek philosophy and the religious “Axial age” – which actually came somewhat later! – but this just begs the question of why the alleged dramatic transformation occurred, leaving Jaynes with no answer.

And if the Greek flourishing evidenced the onset of introspective consciousness, did the later Dark Age evidence its loss?

imagesKuijsten repeatedly contends that earlier (“bicameral”) peoples made a bigger deal of gods than do moderns. For example, in Mesopotamian cities, “the entire leadership consisted of gods, who made all the important decisions,” conveying them through priests. “People psychologically similar to us,” he says, “would have no need for these elaborate machinations.” Likewise, “if the Mycenaean Greeks were psychologically identical to us, there would be no need for gods.”

Really? Has he never met a fundamentalist Christian? “No need for gods” indeed!

I have read intensively about ancient societies, and Kuijsten’s casting them as god-obsessed is very dubious. The idea of gods was a handy construct to explain the inexplicable, but people didn’t take it all that seriously. God plays a far bigger role in the lives of many religious believers today. Yet Kuijsten doesn’t suggest they’re bicameral.

Joseph Smith with his harem

Joseph Smith with his harem

He does cite some fairly modern people, like Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith, hearing god voices, as supposed vestiges of bicameralism. Kuijsten seems to take such stories at face value. Smith (whose life I’ve studied) heard no voices; he was a con man who made it all up to gain wealth, power, and sex with lots of women. No doubt “god voices” were similarly useful for the ancient priests Kuijsten invokes.

He makes many other similar arguments that modern mental phenomenology evidences a past bicameralism; such as auditory hallucinations, which he says are quite common among normal people. Common (on occasion), perhaps; normal (if continual), no. Normal healthy people don’t constantly hear voices thinking they’re from gods; and mentally healthy ancient people likewise did not confuse their own thoughts with god voices.

UnknownWhere I noted that children, once they learn language, realize their thoughts are their own, Kuijsten chides me for ignoring childrens’ imaginary friends, which he deems yet another bicameral vestige. However, imaginary friends are not analogous to believing one’s own thoughts come from gods; children grow out of this phase; but, according to Jaynes, ancient adults did not.

My assumption that introspective consciousness was a very ancient biological adaptation is attacked as lacking evidence. The only alternative is woo-woo supernaturalism. And while Kuijsten says such consciousness could not have evolved without language sophistication, that certainly arrived long before 1000 BC. Kuijsten himself elsewhere puts it around 50,000 BC!

I am labeled “oblivious” to dozens of brain imaging studies supposedly validating Jaynes’s model. Well, I’m no neuroscientist; but I daresay no 3,000-year-old people have had their brains imaged.

Kuijsten (like one blog commenter) also emphasizes that much mental activity and behavior is unconscious or not fully present; and the concept of self can vary among different people and cultures. All true, but hardly suggestive that even the dullest normal modern human lacks a sense of self. The same would be true of our ancestors. And while just what a sense of self really means has long vexed philosophers, we all know what the concept refers to. There’s no convincing reason to imagine people before 1000 BC didn’t have it, and believed their own thoughts were voices of gods. They were not so stupid.

My poet wife points me to the work of Enheduanna, c. 2300 BC, the first writer to sign her name. Here’s a sample. Read this and try to tell me she lacked a self.

images-2Kuijsten concludes that I cannot explain all “the otherwise mysterious phenomena Jaynes’s theory explains” – auditory hallucinations, childrens’ imaginary friends, “monumental mortuary architecture,” religiosity, and more. None of these is “mysterious” and all can be well understood via conventional science and psychology, with no need for a theory that Jaynes himself conceded seems “preposterous.”

Kuijsten’s final line notes the tendency “to only seek evidence that confirms are (sic) existing beliefs.” His own article is a prime example.

* I have (so far)  been denied access to respond on that website itself.

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Belief in Economics

October 26, 2013

UnknownEconomics has been called “the dismal science.” And calling it a “science” at all is arguable. Yet to me it’s the essence of understanding how the world works. As author Tim Harford puts it, economics is really about how people live.

I discovered his book, The Undercover Economist, at a used book sale. It proved a nice surprise.

A key theme is scarcity power. Economic power comes from control of something people need or want. The book starts with an illustration: a coffee kiosk at a busy train station. Coffee is not fundamentally a scarce commodity but, in that location, rushing commuters have no other source for their fix. Unknown-1That gives the kiosk scarcity power; so its prices are steep, and it does a roaring business.

You’d think that means high profits. Not so! The kiosk ekes out only a small profit. How can that be? Well, there’s a supervening scarcity power: the rail authority controlling the space. Vendors must bid for it, so it goes to the one willing to accept the smallest profit after paying the highest rent. So most of the profits from those high priced coffees actually go to the rail authority.

Scarcity power is one way in which markets can be less than perfect. In a perfect market, sellers compete freely, which drives prices down close to costs, minimizing profits and maximizing what economists call “consumer surplus” – the additional amount buyers would have been willing to pay if they had to. imagesCapitalism’s critics love to scoff that this “perfect market” picture is a fantasy. But in fact, many markets do approximate it. A major example is the airline industry, which generates little profit and hence much consumer surplus.

But meantime, a huge cause of markets being less than perfect is government intervention. Government can create scarcity power in many ways – such as protectionist restrictions on imports, or onerous licensing requirements for trades like hairdressers – as if it’s important to protect consumers from bad haircuts. images-1It’s actually existing hair salons that are protected, from competition by upstarts. And of course businesses use political power, and what amounts to bribery, to get such government thumbs on the scales.

But despite all that, don’t forget that no one is really forced to buy anything. Most goods have substitutes, which limits scarcity power. And buyers buy only when they value the purchase more than the money paid (or more than whatever they could buy instead). This leads to Harford’s second key theme – the world of truth. When pricing and purchase decisions are made in a free market, that creates information about what things are really worth; and that, in turn, dictates what is produced, how it’s distributed, and how resources get utilized. The result is economic efficiency, meaning nobody can be made better off without someone else made worse off to an equal or greater degree. Thus, an optimization of aggregate economic welfare.

images-3Having written in 2006, Harford could not directly answer another critique that has since become quite fashionable: debunking the idea of “homo economicus” making choices based on rational calculation of self-interest. Such rationality is another fantasy, we’re told – consumer decisions are subject to a host of weird biases — so market economics supposedly rests on a faulty premise. Yet the answer to this is clear from Harford’s analysis. The point is that people’s money is valuable to them, if only because of all the alternative ways they could spend it. And even if sometimes (or often) individual spending choices might seem irrational, it’s absurd to deny the rationality of purchases in the aggregate. Whatever might be said of a single $4 coffee buy, thousands of them tell us something indisputably true about how coffee is valued in relation to the myriad alternatives – again, “the world of truth” that market economics incorporates.

And, indeed, that’s the only way we can talk about value at all. “Value” has no meaning except insofar as people make choices among alternatives. Any other system for assigning value (like wage and price controls) is bound to be arbitrary and to result in less economic efficiency than people making choices in spending their own money. The market’s truth is the prime means for making the greatest number better off and fewer worse off.Unknown-2

I’m not an economist. But I don’t see economics as a body of abstruse knowledge; it comes down to logic and common sense. However, many people, who say they believe in science, don’t seem to believe in economics (at least not when it gets in the way of policies they favor).

Moscow on the Hudson: New York’s Corrupt Politics and Casino Referendum

October 23, 2013

I am proud to be an American. But not to be a New Yorker.

UnknownI’ve written about the slime of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (still in office, despite further smudges). That’s just the beginning of New York political corruption. It’s gotten so malodorous that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has appointed a blue-ribbon “Moreland Commission” to tackle it. That looks like basically a useless farce.

New York is also – perhaps not unrelated – the least democratic state in the union (in terms of closed political processes, restrictive ballot access, etc).

The latest travesty is a referendum this November to authorize seven new casinos. Cuomo wants this, for the potential tax revenues.

images-2I hate casinos. Once, when my daughter was little, I showed her one, saying, “See all these glitzy lights, the fancy decoration, all this complicated equipment? Imagine the cost – building it, heating it, the electric bill. And paying all the people working. Plus the owner makes a profit too. Where do you suppose all that money comes from?” She got the point.

images-3Casinos prey upon suckers, and especially the less affluent. This is not the kind of “economic development” we need. But, on the other hand, my libertarian instincts would allow casinos, if people enjoy them. Also, casinos in New York currently can be operated only by Indian tribes. (Footnote: because they’re notionally “sovereign.” I’ve never understood this. Yes, we ripped them off, long ago. But they’re not independent nations, not outside American law; why are they exempt from some laws?) And the State itself, with its off-track betting operation and lottery, shares with Indians the monopolization of gambling. I believe in free markets, not monopolies, another reason to open up the gambling business to more competition.

But then the State pulled a fast one. As noted, Gov. Cuomo wants this referendum passed. It looked iffy. So he got the State Elections Board to change the ballot wording. Unknown-1Now, instead of simply authorizing casinos, it says it’s for “promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes” (with of course no mention of downsides). A blatant pitch for a “yes” vote right on the ballot itself. This biased wording makes the outcome almost certain.

Moreover, the smarmy language change was put through in a secretive and clearly illegal manner. Some guy brought a lawsuit, but it was thrown out on a technicality – he filed it late – never mind that the Elections Board itself had been late in making the change public!

imagesRule of law and democracy go hand-in-hand. Government must conduct elections in a lawful, open, and unbiased manner. Government breaking the law and manipulating elections to get the desired outcome is absolutely intolerable in a democratic society. This is not America, it’s Putin’s Russia.

New Yorkers must vote “NO.”Unknown

Is There a God? Why I Am an Atheist and Humanist

October 17, 2013

UnknownMany different religions have been practiced throughout history and around the world – with endlessly different and conflicting stories. Can anyone be sure their faith is true, and all others are not?

You must ask yourself, “How does one know?” And with God, it’s impossible; a God as generally defined is quintessentially unknowable. We can know things about the natural realm, but not anything outside it; and if God created it, he would stand outside it, and thus outside the reach of human knowledge. No mortal could have special, privileged access to such information; all theologies are built upon nothing but imagination.

But actually, if there were a true religion, we would all know it. Because the world would be different. A fundamental truth about the very essence of things ought to be self-evident. God would not play hide-and-seek. images-3Of course, some believers think they see God in every butterfly. But Darwin gave us a more down-to-earth understanding; yet one, in its way, beautiful and awe-inspiring too.

What would a world with a God actually be like? For one thing, there’s the matter of evil and suffering. imagesStraining to reconcile this with the idea of a benevolent God has, from time immemorial, tied religious apologists in knots. None has ever made any sense. If God existed, things would be different.

Yet still believers assume God must be good. Why so? And what would “goodness” mean to God anyway? Why should it mean what we think? An omnipotent God could make evil good. And if we supposedly get morality from God, where did he get it from?

images-4This is just a taste of the tangles the God idea entails: a quicksand of incoherence and contradiction. If you think only God can explain creation, a being so powerful and complex would himself require an explanation bigger than the one he’s supposedly supplying. There is no such explanation – except for humans wishing that reality were different than it is – especially the reality of death – and that there’s so much injustice. Isn’t it obvious that religion was made up by ancient people, with limited knowledge, to fill such wishes, and explain what seemed inexplicable? And that common sense (and Occam’s Razor) tell us such fairy tales can’t possibly be true?

All the holy books were written by humans. Unknown-3Calling a book God’s word doesn’t make it so. None contains anything that ordinary people couldn’t have written. Indeed, they’re all such flawed books that any self-respecting deity would disclaim responsibility.

In sum, the world we see is totally inconsistent with the idea of a God, and totally consistent with nongoddity. Everything is natural, explicable in terms of nature itself, requiring nothing “supernatural” outside it. One by one, science has been solving the mysteries, and the answers never include God. We shouldn’t expect a different outcome regarding those questions yet to be answered.

Bigfoot -- at least there's a photo

Bigfoot — at least there’s a photo

Can I prove there’s no God? Well, nor can I prove there’s no Bigfoot. But the burden of proof is upon proponents of improbable theories. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And God is more improbable than Bigfoot.

So why do people who refuse to be convinced by conclusive scientific evidence for evolution accept religious doctrines with no evidence at all?

Because they want to. Human psychology seems highly susceptible to such beliefs; we crave them, and suspend our skeptical faculties. Faith is a belief divorced from facts or rationality; a choice to believe regardless. One can come up with rationalizations, but that’s just trying to justify a belief that’s already been chosen.

Atheism, in contrast, is not merely another “faith” or belief; my atheism is not a choice, it’s simply acknowledging reality. But it’s not a “belief in nothing” and it isn’t bleak. I’m fine with this reality, which gives us the opportunity to live rewarding lives. images-1Rather than being playthings of an inexplicable God, our fates are in our own hands. And we have not done too badly. We’re products of a natural world wherein goodness, justice and morality don’t even figure; but we’ve progressed to achieve at least some.

Indeed, this is modernity’s big story: the cynics and pessimists are wrong. Life is improving, with democratic and humanitarian revolutions, rising quality of life, and declines in violence and suffering.* This progress has occurred not in spite of religion’s weakening, but because of that. People freed of religion are better, not worse. Humanity is being liberated from the hindrance of religion’s stultifying fatalism and false beliefs, with our confidence now lodged instead in our own selves, and our ability to understand reality and thereby to change it.

images-2Thus my humanism is properly focused on humans. This world is the only one we’ve got, and making it better is what gives our lives meaning.

* See again my review of Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.

Why Liberal Intellectuals LOVE the Death Penalty

October 13, 2013

Unknown-1Gregory Benford’s sci-fi-ish novel Artifact takes place in current times. Archaeologists (annoyingly, he spells it without the second “a”) discover a strange artifact in a Mycenaean royal tomb, a stone cube about a yard wide. A prologue tells us it was buried there to stop its killing people.

The action mainly concerns the tussle over the cube between the heroine, American archaeologist Claire, and a Greek archaeologico-military sonofabitch named Kontos. Claire acquires a sidekick, John, who gets beaten up (physically) every time he meets Kontos – I actually lost count. Meanwhile, it takes half the book for John and Claire to get it on. And then we don’t even get a sex scene! We just meet them again next morning. Pretty tepid.

UnknownBut the real main character is the cube. And what a character! It’s got a singularity inside it. Yup, you read that right, physics geeks. For non-geeks, a “singularity” is where normal laws of physics go kablooey. The Big Bang may have banged out of a singularity; and it’s believed one might be found at the center of a black hole.* How the Mycenaeans found one (or it found them), and trapped it inside a rock cube, is not really explained. But never mind.images-6

Well, the Americans, having heisted the cube to MIT, figure out the physics, sort of. And while everything was copacetic for 3500 years, it seems that tossing the cube about during the custody battles destabilized it. In fact, it turns out, the thing contained twin singularities – one of which somehow escaped back in Greece. And you know how twin singularities are – they just gotta be together. So the one in Greece is on the move, seeking enosis (a little joke for geopolitical junkies – read, “union.”) Why then it had skedaddled from its twin in the cube I could not (amid all the book’s heavy physics jargon) get. But anyhow, when a singularity is hell bent for its twin, you don’t want to be in the way. (Lots of radiation and stuff.)

So, to avert catastrophe, the Americans decide the best bet is to arrange a peaceful get-together of the twins. (I’m not making this up.) This takes them back, with the cube, to Greece, which happens to be in the middle of a war (don’t ask). By now, the U.S. military is in the picture, big time.

I’m probably not revealing too much if I tell you the Americans do save the world (again). But the real question is: does Kontos get capital punishment?

Of course, intellectuals, liberals, writers, Hollywood types, they’re all totally against capital punishment. “An eye for an eye makes the world blind;” you know the drill. images-2And they are sincere, intellectually. Yet something funny happens when they have bad guys in their books or dramas. They want to kill them.

This actually reflects an evolutionary adaptation. Our main adaptation was social cooperation, but it has a bug: the “free rider” problem. Cooperation pays, for a group as a whole, but for an individual it may pay more to cheat, or take without giving (free riding). And if so, free riders will leave more offspring on average, and in time their genes will beat out the cooperation genes. The remedy is to make free riding not pay, by punishing miscreants. images-4That’s why humans evolved with a craving for justice and punishment where deserved,** which all the intellectualizing over the death penalty cannot override. The just punishment for murder is death. And we know this in our genes.

Hence literature, movies and TV are littered with corpses of evildoers. Their creators seem to set them up just to gain the psychic satisfaction of giving them their just deserts.

This was noted in my review of the movie White House Down. It doesn’t cut it for villains to be merely captured, since the state has largely exited the execution business. So capital punishment must be administered ad hoc, like in a shoot-out. But there are rules. Usually you can guess whether a culprit will get the death penalty. In general, a single murder isn’t enough, unless it’s particularly heinous, gruesome or depraved. Killing a child will definitely do it. Any two murders, probably. Three or more: certain death.

So back to Kontos. A nasty piece of work. Wanted to rape Claire, but never got further than a breast grab. And for all the times this bully beat up John, he never actually killed anybody. The reader wants his comeuppance – but the death penalty? However, Kontos did commit one indubitably capital offence: political incorrectness. He was a rabble-rousing, war-mongering anti-democrat. So off with his head!

images-5In the end, his fate was so thoroughly predictable that I’m not giving much away here either. Yup, it was the singularity what got ‘im. Right in the labonza. Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark how that Nazi guy like melted? This was worse. Capital punishment with a capital C.

I’m sure Gregory Benford is a very nice man who, at cocktail parties, will give you all the intellectual arguments against the death penalty. But in the book his genes were showing. That’s what really killed Kontos.

* Where the mass of a star, with all its gravity, is crushed down into a pinpoint.

** All this is modeled in game theory’s “prisoner’s dilemma” problem where, in brief, for a single encounter, betrayal pays, but over repeated iterations, cooperation pays more. And this incidentally answers how we are moral even without religion. Cooperative morality is in our biology.

The Warmth of Other Suns and “The City of New Orleans”

October 6, 2013

UnknownI loved Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, about the great migration of blacks from the South between the 1910s and ‘60s. If you’re one of those cynics who thinks nothing ever changes and American racism is just about as bad as ever, read this book.

It isn’t really mainly about racial injustice, but the human beings who responded to it by following a dream for better lives. Yet what they were trying to escape is vividly depicted. You have to wonder why all Southern blacks didn’t just leave. But of course it’s never that simple.

So, while some whites worried that northern cities were being infested with a lower class of people, in general the blacks who came were better people, because it takes such gumption and initiative to uproot oneself like that. This human quality of courageous striving to improve quality of life is so dear to me; that’s why I loved the book.

Unknown-1And I can’t help thinking the same way about all those people in the new migration into our midst. People with the personal qualities to leave behind everything familiar, striking out for something new, aiming for betterment, are the kind of people America should welcome with open arms and flower bouquets. Not fences and handcuffs.

I’ve always also loved Arlo Guthrie’s rendition of Steve Goodman’s song, “The City of New Orleans.” It’s the name of a train, a flagship train bringing blacks north; Wilkerson mentions it. In the original song, the train is actually southbound. But I’ve long had it on a walkman cassette (yeah, I’m living in the last century), and after reading Wilkerson’s book, I hear the song with a new pleasure, and, in my head, lyrics tweaked just slightly. With its last melodic bars, I can just picture that train slowing smoothly to its final stop in the Chicago station, and I get goosebumps. Here’s my version:

imagesRiding on The City of New Orleans,
Illinois Central Monday morning rail;
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.
All along the northbound odyssey,
The train pulls out of Mississippi,
And rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passin’ trains that have no names,
Freight yards full of old black menimages-1
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.

Good morning America, how are you?
Say don’t you know me, I’m your native son.
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans;
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

images-2Playin’ card games with the men in the Jim Crow car.
Penny a point, ain’t no one keepin’ score.
Pass the cardboard box that holds the chicken;
Feel the wheels a’rumblin’ ‘neath the floor.
And the sons of poor sharecroppers
And the grandchildren of slaves
Ride the blessed magic carpet made of steel.
Mothers with their babes asleep,
Rockin’ to the gentle beat,
images-3And the rhythm of the rail is all they feel.

Good morning America, how are you?
Say don’t you know me, I’m your native son;
I’m the man they called a nigger or a coon boy.
I’ll be gone from there forever when the day is done.

Nighttime on the City of New Orleans,
Changing cars with Jim Crow left behind.
Halfway out, and we’ll be there by morning,
Through the Mississippi darkness
Rolling up from the South.
And all its towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream,
And the crackers still ain’t heard the news.
The conductor sings his song again,
“The passengers will please refrain . . . “
This train’s got the disappearing black folks blues!

Good night, America! How are you!images-5
Say don’t you know us, we’re your native sons.
On the train they call the City of New Orleans,
We’ll have come a million miles when the day is done.*

* Original lyrics copyright 1970 by Turnpike Tom Music. For those who might be concerned (like TB), courts have held that a parody is fair use, and mine qualifies.

Alice’s Adventures in Shutdownland

October 5, 2013

Let’s see if I have this right. The government is shut down (except for the parts nobody wants shut) because the Republicans won’t authorize the money for it. But they’ve just authorized back pay for government workers whose jobs are shut down. In other words, Congress voted to pay them for the work they can’t do because Congress won’t vote to pay them to do it.

images-1The Queen of Hearts, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was able to believe six impossible things before breakfast. images-2Maybe she could believe this.

I’ve been a Repub-lican for 50 years. One thing the party always stood for was fiscal responsibility. Was. The shutdown not only doesn’t save money, it will cost money (especially with workers paid to stay home); it’s hurting innocent people; and harming America’s standing in the world. Playing games with the debt ceiling is even worse, threatening default on our financial obligations, with potentially catastrophic global economic consequences.

images-4This is not responsible. In fact it is criminal. Calling it blackmail isn’t a metaphor. The Republican position is, “Meet our demands, and nobody gets hurt.” In any other context such behavior will land you in prison.

This is not how democracy works either. Regarding the Obamacare issue, the Republicans have been defeated through the democratic process. It’s not permissible to nevertheless try to get your way through blackmail. images-5That’s the kind of politics we see in countries that lack a proper democratic culture, like most in the Middle East. I thought we Americans had advanced beyond that. This is retrogression.

I don’t believe it’s actually supported by Republican congressional majorities. Most must know how irresponsible and suicidal it is (it could never have succeeded). But they seem cowed by a band of crazies. Speaker Boehner needs to be the adult in the room, to stand up to them and put a stop to the nonsense that’s hurting the party and the country.

images-3He should have the House vote on “clean” bills to both end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. If the crazies want to oust him, let them try; there are more important things in life, and even in politics, than remaining speaker. But I doubt they actually have the votes. And their losing, once and for all, unambiguously, would be a very good thing. It might even lance the boil and prevent a recurrence.

But I’ve said before that President Obama and the Democrats bear much responsibility for this mess (they want it, for partisan advantage); and they must be part of the solution. They have to help Boehner do the right thing, by giving him at least a fig leaf of cover. images-7Maybe some meaningless blue-ribbon commission to review Obamacare (whose recommendations will be ignored).

In other words, something like the meaningless fig leaf of a deal on chemical weapons that got Obama off the hook on Syria.

The End Of The World – Here We Go Again

October 2, 2013

UnknownRemember how the “sequester” happened? The 2011 deal to avoid default created the “Super Committee” to agree on a fiscal deal, under the Damocles sword of the unthinkable sequester if they failed. And the sword fell. So horrible was this, we were assured that certainly in a few days, or weeks, they’d work something out. They didn’t. Nine months later, the whole thing seems forgotten.

Now the government is (partially) “shut down,” and we’re assured that certainly in a few days, or weeks, they’ll work something out. But, as with the sequester, we may find that The End Of The World is not quite the end of the world after all. (Wall Street seems to be shrugging it off.)

imagesHowever, this idea of TEOTW not being TEOTW is very dangerous; because in two weeks, if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, that could be The End Of The Word – full stop. Default on America’s debts would have incalculable global economic consequences.

The roots of the problem are complex, but one thing you have to understand is that for legislators, The End Of The Word doesn’t mean economic meltdown – it means not being re-elected. More pertinently, especially in the House of Representatives with its gerrymandered districts, it means not being renominated, an important distinction. Because, with small turnouts, nominating primaries tend to be dominated by ideological zealots, who demand purity and despise compromise. images-2Intransigence causing economic devastation won’t actually much hurt incumbents electorally – hard to pin it on them – but compromising ideological purity can expose them to primary challenges, requiring at least raising large campaign war chests and enduring negative ads, not to mention the terror of humiliating loss of office.

Now, despite this, majorities in both houses would actually pass all necessary legislation – if they could vote on it – but they can’t. You know how the Senate’s filibuster rules have become perverted so that 60 votes are needed to pass anything except Mother’s Day resolutions. But the House now has a “majority of the majority” rule: nothing can come to a vote unless backed by the majority of Republicans. Thus, in effect, 27% of the whole House has a veto. And those are the Tea Party Republicans most subject to the primal primary fear discussed above. They don’t mainly care about the future of the country or the world or even, for that matter, the Republican party. They care mainly about primary challenges.

I have written much about America’s long-term fiscal problem. In brief, we cannot keep borrowing ever larger sums to pay out ever more government benefits to ever more people with ever fewer working and paying taxes. Especially if – when – interest rates rise from current near-zero levels.

This was what, in the halcyon time of a couple of years ago, the recurring budgetary and debt ceiling crises were actually about. But that was then. Now Republicans seem to have funked that battle; gotten so balled up in their ideological frenzy that they’ve lost the thread of the narrative. In today’s Washington stand-off, the long term fiscal crisis seems forgotten. Maybe Republicans have just given up – after all, in the last deal, they got completely rolled, giving in to the Democrats on taxes while getting nothing in return.

images-3So now instead they’re on this quixotic quest to undo Obamacare – for which they don’t have the votes – yet trying to simply blackmail Democrats into something they can’t possibly agree to. Republicans seem to know they can’t prevail, but to feel they must “fight the good fight” to propitiate their base.

Yet President Obama and the Democrats are far from blameless. Democrats, for all their pious verbiage, love the shut-down – as a stick to beat Republicans and perhaps recapture the House. Further, Obama is supposed to be the national leader, and ultimately the buck stops with him. Meantime, forcing Obamacare through without a single Republican vote was a travesty, and a singular cause of the present crisis. But his bigger sin is his feckless complacency toward the looming fiscal smash-up, that has so worsened during his stewardship. Obama repeatedly blew off opportunities to achieve a “grand bargain” to tackle this long range crisis (starting with the Simpson-Bowles plan). Unknown-1Had he behaved responsibly before, we wouldn’t be in this fix today. The whole thing is really his fault. President Obama will leave office like the engineer jumping off a train rushing toward collision.