Paglia v. Philosophy

Camille Paglia attempts to explain the absence of women in the BBC's ridiculous philosopher popularity contest.

I feel women in general are less comfortable than men in inhabiting a highly austere, cold, analytical space, such as the one which philosophy involves. Women as a whole – and there are obvious exceptions – are more drawn to practical, personal matters. It is not that they inherently lack a talent or aptitude for philosophy or higher mathematics, but rather that they are more unwilling than men to devote their lives to a frigid space from which the natural and the human have been eliminated.

OK. There may be something to this. But she goes deeper.

Today's lack of major female philosophers is not due to lack of talent but to the collapse of philosophy. Philosophy as traditionally practised may be a dead genre. This is the age of the internet in which we are constantly flooded by information in fragments. Each person at the computer is embarked on a quest for and fabrication of his or her identity. The web mimics human neurology, and it is fundmentally altering young people's brains. The web, for good or ill, is instantaneous. Philosophy belongs to a vanished age of much slower and rhetorically formal inquiry. Today's philosophers are now antiquarians.

Fascinating. But as far as I can tell, philosophy as traditionally practiced is at its high water mark. If I had to bet, I would put money on the claim that more books of philosophy were published in the last ten years than in any other ten year period of history. There are, without a doubt, more people well-trained in rigorous methods of philosophical inquiry than ever before. And as travellers to this little piece of the information superhighway may be aware, philosophical conversations and debates can be conducted over the internet, and they are. It's probably a good bet that there were more words written last year in online discussions of philosophy than were written about philosophy in any other year of human history.

Now, Paglia wants to say that philosophy is no longer as culturally central as it once was. I think she's right. But then again, nothing that used to be culturally central is as culturally central as it once was because we've got a more polyglot decentralized culture. At her AEI talk a few months ago, Paglia seemed panicked by the breakdown of institutions of cultural hegemony. Hollywwod films aren't what they once were (and nobody cares about the Oscars). Elite universities have become so so. You can't get classical music over the radio in Buffalo. Etc. She was agitated because, apparently, she passed into old-cooterism some time around 1994 and evidently doesn't grasp that the age of centralization and hegemony is definitely over, doesn't understand the new institutions and mechanisms of cultural transmission (other than the fact that this mysterious revolutionary thing, the internet, exists, and matters), and so sees the decline of HOLLYWOOD, and THE IVY LEAGUE, and NETWORK TELEVISION, and BROADWAY — the old familiar institutions of centralized cultural hegemony — as symptoms of general decline. The fact that philosophers aren't being interviewed by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News means that philosophy is more or less invisible to Camille Paglia, despite the fact that it is flourishing by any historical standard, and despite the fact that women, such as Martha Nussbaum and Christine Korsgaard, are at the absolute top of the game.

Now, I agree that academic philosophy is insufficiently engaged with the public, and could hold a more priveleged place is the fragmented popular consciousness. And I think this is due to straightforward institutional reasons. Academia as it is presently constituted does reward a kind of bloodless scholasticism. One reason I decided to drop out of academia was that I thought direct engagement with current policy debates and cultural concerns would make me a better philosopher. Greats like Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Mill, Marx were not academics, but men involved in thinking through the practical political matters of their day. Our political philosophy would be more publicly engaging if more philosphers were directly involved in politics. We would be more likely to produce American BHL's and latter day de Beauvoirs and Rands. But that is a long, long way from the claim that philosophy is a dead genre.

[Link from Chris Sciabbara, who brings out the Paglia's comments on Rand.]

Save Me From Myself!

Julian's brilliant Reason essay on “parentalism” is a must read.

I like this:

But perhaps a more important problem with parentalism is that it licenses what Sartre called “bad faith,” the attempt to avoid the burdens of responsibility by denying our own freedom. Classical liberals may even inadvertently encourage this by speaking of responsibility as “the other side” of freedom, as though it were the spinach that had to be cleared away before getting to desert. But is that really so? When we make trivial choices—what to have for dinner, what movie to see, which CD to buy—what we most value is the freedom to select without constraint from many options. Yet when it comes to our most central choices—what kind of person am I to be, what work will I find rewarding?—we may take as least as much satisfaction in the feeling of responsibility for our choices, in knowing that we have shaped a life that is ours even when we have chosen badly.

Own it, people. Own it.

A Total Failure According to Its Own Standards? Give Me a Dozen!

In an astoundingly shallow review of several books on happiness, Carol Tavris drops this humdinger in her discussion of Layard's statist impulses:

Professor Layard takes [active government promotion of happiness] further, proposing that government should make the happiness of its citizens a primary goal, the heart of its public and economic policy, using laws and taxes to reward cooperation in pursuit of a common good, make work life more compatible with family life, help the poor, reduce rates of mental illness, subsidize activities that promote “community life”, reduce commuting time, eliminate high unemployment, prohibit commercial advertising to children (as Sweden does) . . . . If the thermostat theory is right, none of this will raise the overall happiness level of the population, and some temperamentally grouchy people will complain that they miss the traffic, but who cares? Sign me up. [emphasis added]

Got that? Even if the entire justification offered for all this state action is completely and totally undermined by the empirical evidence, Tavris wants to sign up for it anyway. Why? No doubt because Layard's interpretation of happiness “science” coveniently, nay miraculously, maps onto her existing political commitments, and it's nice to have another arrow in the rhetorical quiver.

Worse, because Tavris thinks all this is worth doing even if no one is made any happier, she presumably thinks that all this frighteningly anti-liberal social engineering would work, thereby providing real benefits according to some other evaluative standard, leaving only the terminally grouchy to complain about the lack of things to complain about. This is precisely the kind of fantastically ignorant faith in technocracy that makes the sunny pseudoscientific authoritarianism of the neo-Benthamites so dangerous.

Working Hours Declining

Russ Roberts fact checks Charles McGrath's rumpus and points out these BLS statistics that inconveniently contradict the whole point of McGrath's article.

Hours worked per week (for private production and non-supervisory workers):

1970 37.0
1975 36.0
1980 35.2
1985 34.9
1990 34.3
1995 34.3
2000 34.3
2003 33.7

So… whoops.

Russ also mentions that for some classes of workers, there is more leisure at work these days, which further undermines the “we're working ourselves to death” meme.

This raises the further point that it is just not the case that labor is labor is labor and that leisure is leisure is leisure. Lots of offices, for example, are nice places to go with many amenities, a satisfying set of social relations, and a sense of productive efficacy. This sort of “labor” simply isn't a disutility that is offset by the utility of wages. More of this kind of work can be quite good for us. Conversely, lots of “leisure” is spent accomplishing tedious tasks such as laundry or home maintenenance that one can't afford to outsource. And the so-called “leisure” enjoyed by the unemployed can be downright psychologically toxic.

I would like more “leisure” not so much to get away from work, but to pursue creative pursuits that are not as well economically rewarded as my official work (which is incredibly satisfying in its own right, and worlds away from the salt mine, and everyone should be so lucky). That is, while I would like to travel more, say, or to sleep in more often, what I would really use more “leisure” time for is a different kind of intrinsically satisfying “labor.” I doubt I'm alone in this. So folks need to be more careful when writing articles in the Times about how terrible all this work is.

In particular, McGrath needs to think twice when he writes, “And far from complaining, we have adopted a superior, moralizing attitude that sees work not as a necessary evil, a means to an end, but as an end in itself,” as if it somehow clear that work is not an end in itself, and that it is somehow clear that we should not adopt a superior attitude toward this approach to work.

The Case for Carve Outs

My brilliant colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale explains why the notion that personal accounts and Social Security solvency are unrelated is a canard.

Here's the core of the argument:

The difference between the two projections of future benefit levels funded out of present law payroll taxes — higher ones under “add-on” personal accounts versus lower ones under a “status-quo” hike in payroll taxes — constitutes the basic case for “carve-out” personal accounts. How come? If “add-on” accounts to pay for benefits that are promised but unpayable under present law effectively increases saving and investment and preserves work incentives, the (lower) level of payable benefits under a “status quo” payroll tax hike could be financed with a less than 12.4 percent payroll tax rate under the “add-on” policy. That implies room for a “carve out” — that is, for diverting a part of present law payroll taxes into personal accounts.

How large would be the size of a feasible carve out? Would it ultimately completely do away with the need for “add-on” contributions? These are difficult questions to answer. Two considerations suggest, however, that the scope for carve-outs could be large. First, several studies report that payroll taxes add significantly to marginal tax rates — especially for households' secondary earners — and that labor supply is quite sensitive to higher taxes. Noteworthy here is a recent study by economics Nobel laureate Edward Prescott that attributes the significant decline in European labor supply relative to the United States since the 1970s to higher European social insurance taxes.

Second, loss in annual output because of the savings-reducing impact of the current Social Security system's pay-as-you-go financing structure is estimated to be of the same size as total current outlays on Social Security. That is, were the existing system based entirely on “add-on” personal accounts, the gain in annual output due to higher saving and capital formation would have been about as large as total current outlays on Social Security.

It's a complicated argument, but nobody ever said getting it right is easy.

The Mysterious Easterbrook Justice Detector

From Gregg Easterbrook's The Progress Paradox:

Considering taxes, a person working full-time at the federal minimum would have to spend and entire days wages to buy a $7 Au Bon Pain sandwich combo for lunch each business week. This simply is not right.

I assume he means “each day of the business week.” Anyway, what a weird thing to say! $7 is a hell of a lot to spend each day for lunch. Not considering taxes that's $35 a week, $140 a month, $1680 a year. Is it a baseline of justice that the daily $7 lunch be within reach of each and every one of us. $140 a month is a reasonable monthly food budget including breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My guess is that you can easily make a better than Au Bon Pain quality combo at home for way less than $3 a day. Should you be able to do it on $1.50? $.25? Where (oh where!) can one purchase an Easterbrook economic rightness-o-meter?

What else? A person working full-time at the median wage would have to spend an entire week's wages eating every work day at the Outback Steakhouse, and that's simply not right? Could be? But how do you tell!?