Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Trained incapacity

I had a very distinguished visitor blow through this August—a full-blown member of the Finnish intelligentsia.  Finland has highly-rated schools so this is no small achievement.  And the lives of the senior members of the professorial class in Scandinavia are, shall we say, blessed.  He has spent much of his working life in Paris and can write and has been published in French.  His passport has many entries—the guy gets around.

Neuschwanstein from the valley
Because Finland has such good schools, many Finns acquire a love of learning that continues throughout their lives.  For example, my guest and his wife had decided recently to take in a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin but before they went, they took classes.  (This was the opera that so impressed Ludwig II he not only became Wagner's lifelong patron, he named his most famous castle Neuschwanstein after the opera's Swan Knight.)  So I was treated to an explanation of Wagner's notions of knightly chivalry and how German society suffered from not adhering to the noble ideals of militarism.  Because Finns will take classes for damn near anything, not just opera, they are informed at a level that is just stunning on any subject that remotely interests them.

Unfortunately, Finland is currently facing some nasty economic choices.  Because she is a member of the Euro, she finds herself being put on the hook for the crazy lending practices of the big European banks.  In this, she is like Germany which is also being told it must lower its living standards to pay for problems in other parts of the Euro zone.  The Real Finns, the party that has come out of nowhere because it will address this issue, are like the kid who must point out that emperor has no clothes because all the respectable folks are too busy admiring the wardrobe that doesn't exist.  My guest, who once was a Marxist and knows Marxist scholarship in minutest detail, has become a thoroughgoing neoliberal because it is the respectable thing to be.  So he is quite horrified that the Real Finns may be right.  And of course, the Real Finns are right about the threat of being forced to pay debts they never incurred—no matter how goofy they may be on other matters.

And so a guy who is so curious he will takes classes just to go to an opera finds himself with a death-of-God crises (again) because he is discovering that neoliberalism is at least as full of shit as Marxism ever was and he has been drinking the Kool-Aid again.  A man in his position cannot join the Real Finns, but between Marxism and neoliberalism, he doesn't have the conceptual tools to figure out how to even explain what is happening as economics threatens to sink the European dream.

For example, he seemed to believe that the Finnish Central Bank had been part of the government because it exercised government-like power.  Since central banks tend to have very similar organizations and missions, I found this highly unlikely but because I didn't actually know the facts, I acted as if it was possible until I could check it out.  So I Googled it and discovered Finland's Central Bank had been formed in 1812, which meant it predated the existence of the Finland, the country, by 105 years.  Pretty hard to be a part of a government in a country that doesn't yet exist.  And I am certain that the privately-owned Finnish Central Bank has paid hack intellectuals to write essays praising the bank's political “independence” at regular intervals over the years.

The problem here is pretty basic.  If you only understand the press-release version of central banking, you are about 90% blocked from understanding why a central bank has very little interest in the well-being of the general public and a whole lot of interest in the well-being of the banking system.  Now it could be argued that without generalized prosperity, the banking system is doomed to fail. (In fact, this is precisely what is happening right now—the failure of borrowers leading to the failure of lenders.)  But this little nugget of wisdom is one of those facts the neoliberals buried in their march to meaningless power.

The question here is, "What happens when a country's finest minds have been deliberately misled into believing unbelievable bullshit?"  And a related one, "How does someone so smart fall into two ideological dead-ends in one lifetime?"  I keep returning to the matter of respectability—by understanding the boundaries of fashionable thought, my guest had managed to obtain one of the cushiest lifestyles I have ever heard of or can imagine.  This is one hell of an accomplishment for a poor boy from a small city in central Finland.  The downside of this ordinarily virtuous behavior is that he and his colleagues in their ivory towers don't understand an economic catastrophe that is clearly apparent to the peasants who make up the Real Finns Party.

This is not a good thing.  After all, our intellectuals are accorded that cushy lifestyle so that they will generate cultural wisdom.  When the culture is threatened by economic chaos, the intelligentsia should be more organized and have more and better conceptual tools than a political party of peasants—it's what they are being paid to do, after all.

Veblen, who spent his working life in academe, offered a clue to this seeming “paradox” when he suggested that no group devoted a larger fraction of their incomes in the service of Leisure Class respectability than professors.  My guest indicated that Veblen might have been on to something when he told of the five-day drunk his department organized last spring to honor the 18 people who were getting their doctorates.  This party was so complex they needed to rehearse (mostly because someone suggested it would be fun if they did old dances like the minuet.)  It was dress-up time with sashes and swords and medallions.  But five days of organized merriment does not hide the fact that these folks who are glorying in their Leisure Class respectability have through great effort become incapable of understanding an economic threat seen clearly by the folks who have to clean up the mess they left behind.

Veblen had a term for folks whose fancy educations are mostly a pursuit of Leisure Class respectability to the point where a reality like paying for someone else's debts can no longer be really understood.  He called it trained incapacity.

On my way to the steam show in Edgar, I stopped in a small town to eat a bratwurst served up by the local Lion's Club at a roadside stand.  It was a perfect late-summer day in north-central Wisconsin—warm, sunny, breezy, blue skies, puffy clouds.  The brats were even better than the setting suggested.  I sat down at a picnic table and discovered I was sitting across from the 76-year-old birthday boy who had been grilling the brats.

What a treat he was!  We chatted about the corn crop, commodity prices, the value of agricultural land, the invasion of the Mennonites, and other matters important to his life.  I was obviously a city slicker sitting 100 feet from my Lexus but my new buddy didn't seem to hold any of that against me—especially when I decided to take on the persona of that giant of Wisconsin politics—Robert LaFollette.  Got to try out many of Fighting Bob's best lines.

I wound up staying about an hour and I had to leave my business card behind.  This man proved pretty conclusively to me that a true Producer Class Progressivism would be a real vote-getter even in someplace like rural Catholic conservative Wisconsin.  I was still smiling about my brat experience the next morning—it almost made me think a revolution was possible.  A least it seemed like a USA version of the Real Finns could become strong enough to have a real impact on the economic direction of the country.

Sounds like fun.  At least it would be a lot more fun than trying to attack the Leisure Class stranglehold on “respectable” thought in the corridors of academic and other power.  Besides, I am pretty sure I can never compete with a drunken five-day costume party as a certification of my credentials in the economic debates that must surely be held—and soon.


  1. Trained seems a harsh judgment to throw upon your Finnish friend. I guess it reflects the high hopes we put on people who are blessed with a life filled with time to study.

    But part of all of our training, that incapacitates all of us, are society's own foundational rules/mores. Things like where we vote for people to represent us, and then these representatives grant special privileges and monopoly capacity to companies to support our national interests (things like banking and energy that operate in a quasi-national bubble of protection).

    And as the years go along--predators sneak in. We, the people, had put our trust in them, that they would operate in at least the national interest if not our own common people interest.

    Civil society expects that, so we can then focus on our own lives, family, and work while freeing our minds and time from having to tell idiot politicians what to do while demanding justice departments get off their butts to enforce justice. We are all let down, not just your friend--it was not his job...and he was not necessarily betrayed by the grand idea as much as the inherent evil of 'trusted' people.

    Maybe this is too is why the economy has stalled, none of us can do our work producing because too much of our time is undermined by betrayed trusts, spent second guessing (legitimately so!) all the stupidity and ourright criminal actions that are rife in society--the trust has been broken, the leaders of key energy and banking businesses especially have failed society, but are too entrenched to be avoided and replaced. Society thus far too civil to confront them.

    Lastly, a quick comment about the great foundational ideas passed down to us from history's intelligentsia--ideas from Marx, Adam Smith, et al--as history tries now to judge these great ideas, they never distinguish the failures of human execution versus the weaknesses of the great idea.

    Sure, we can claim the great idea needed to account for humanity and their execution--but I call bullshit. Humans are too predatory, too greedy, too creative in their Lex Luthor and Loki schemes to beat any system.

    And in the real world, Marx and Smith's ideas could not create a unfailing superhero to smack down the predators. Just men, with all their faults, have to somehow rise to greatness. No wonder FDR and Churchill drank like fish and had affairs...humanity, by definition, cannot be perfect.

  2. L also claims I was too harsh on my pal from Finland. And I am still Protestant enough to worry that my critique of his Leisure Class silliness is not in fact, just a case of old-fashioned envy.

    Even so, I was raised to believe that folks who are given a lot of talents are expected to do something useful with them. One of pal's books was a study of pubs--research done while spending lots of time drinking in pubs. Nice gig if can get someone to pay you for this.

    But having said all this, I am still profoundly disappointed that a star in arguably the world's finest school system cannot grasp, because of intellectual blinders, the basic facts of the economic systems that threaten to ruin his life.

    One other thing, the evil Predators can be beat. It has happened quite often throughout history. The evidence is all around us. Marvel at the distilled Producer genius that is, say, a Toyota Prius and you just KNOW that Producers usually create the world we live in.

    Unfortunately, Producers want to believe that just because they are doing their jobs well, they don't have to sully themselves in the details of politics or economics. It is not that they don't have the ability to change their world--as history demonstrates, they CAN do it if they try--it's just that they can't be bothered most of the time. Now that the productive middle classes have a lot of time on their hands because their jobs were sent to some shithole in Vietnam or Bangladesh, maybe they will discover that when it comes to economics, they CAN be bothered to understand their world.

  3. I doubt your concern with envy was the motivation for your wording, but I do understand your thoughts regarding 'those to whom much is given, much is expected' and multi-lingual pub books not meeting that criteria.

    Still, it is my hope people like your Finnish friend all around the world will take this as a wake-up, that they will use this time of need to awaken a passion for improvement to make up for their period of excess.

    And too, in my experience with discussions with Europeans is that they in fact are still open to disagree openly without painting the other person as an enemy. It is good to discuss, to disagree, but to still value greater this opportunity to listen freely to the other sides of an issue.

    That seems in america to have changed in the past couple decades, less and less debate is encouraged and more and more it is ignored as a learning experience and only used to refine their messaging toward their already converted lockstep people.

    And maybe the biggest thing lost is the actual goal is no longer improving the country and its people, but merely to push an agenda or some special interest.

    Even when engaging the agenda/special interest, it seems even 'worthy' special interests have become rife with schemes for personal enrichment at the gov't/contributors trough foremost and to achieve progress only secondarily.

    It would certainly be easier to forgive the inevitable mis-steps knowing the leaders/CEOs having been sailing yachts around the world and vacationing in their homes in three countries instead of working out the problems.

  4. Oops...bad editing on my last comment...the last sentence should read--
    "It would certainly be easier to forgive the inevitable mis-steps knowing the leaders/CEOs have NOT been sailing yachts around the world and vacationing in their homes in three countries instead of working out the problems."