Tag Archives: Social Science

Al Gore Believes in Evolution

The emails hacked from East Anglia University don’t add up to a climate change conspiracy. But now the scientists who were building – or, as one wag at the Wall Street Journal put it, forging – the climate change consensus have lost control of their story. And only two weeks out from the climate conference in Copenhagen. This cannot end well.

This may not be “the worst scientific scandal of our generation,” as Christopher Booker put it in the Daily Telegraph, and Copenhagen may not be “mankind’s last chance…to save civilization on the planet,” contrary to what an Australian newspaper says. But the email scandal gives deniers and demagogues the opportunity they’ve been seeking; and the Copenhagen conference may simply end in confusion.

Self-proclaimed “skeptics,” many of whom are know-nothings with a political or business agenda to advance, will now press their case that climate change is just a big scare, or, as Nick Griffin would have it, an “elite scam.” This is the worst kind of nonsense, and Mr. Griffin himself is, of course, an elite scam artist of the highest order — a Cambridge University graduate, Holocaust denier, former member of the National Front, now Chair of the right wing British National Party — a man who trades on fear, hatred and feelings of disenfranchisement to gain power for himself. That he has been awarded a place on the EU delegation to the Copenhagen conference does not exactly inspire confidence. Look forward to a circus.

One of the more positive things that could come out of this whole imbroglio would be some new awareness of the role that science plays in society, some attention to the authority science has in shaping policy, and some fresh critical thinking about science as a discipline and a discourse — a public discourse, and, even, an ideology. I am aware that this is probably wishful thinking on my part. I’m also aware that scientists like to think that they have no influence on public policy, or not enough; but to my mind they only think that because they haven’t really looked into the matter. Ultimately their concerns are a form of special pleading, and less interesting than concerns about the philosophical deficit on the other side.

Apart from charges of elitism, or scary stories about great wizards behind curtains and the brave new world they are foisting on us — either the world is going to end in a huge polar tidal wave or Al Gore is going to usher in one world government, who can say which? — apart from all this, what language do we have for talking with one another about science? How are we to debate its findings, decide its limits, its proper application or real world consequences, both intended and unintended?

Gore himself seems enthralled to science and scientific thinking. Think about An Inconvenient Truth, or consider the article he published with David Blood just last week in the Financial Times. Here, Gore and Blood discover the causes of the 2008 financial crisis in how “our brains are hard-wired to think short term because evolution has rewarded serial short-term successes such as avoiding predators and other dangers that faced our ancestors.” A good day trader may have all the instincts of Australopithecus; but one wonders why Gore and Blood have to reach so far back into the past, millions of years back, to a dangerous era of hunting and gathering, to make their case. They could just as easily follow Weber back five hundred years to the moral basis of capitalism in the Protestant ethic, or or look at structural changes in the financial markets in the era of Morgan, or review the more recent history of deregulation beginning with Ronald Reagan and continuing right through the Clinton and George W. Bush years. A careful reading of recent history might suggest we are not so hard-wired after all.

Be that as it may, where the authority of science goes unquestioned, one might well ask (with Mark Steyn), who is guarding the guardians? And the answer today is, no one, really. It seems fair to say that philosophy, our philosophy, the kind we use every day to orient ourselves in the world, is not up to the task.

There are many reasons for this – some having to do with the fact that we understand science to be an amoral enterprise, neither good nor bad in and of itself; some having to do with the macroscopic and microscopic scales on which science is conducted, beyond the reach of ordinary human means. And as a society we haven’t cultivated the discipline and habits of mind, or created the institutions, to deal with science’s encroachment on our lives. It’s commonplace to say that over the past century or so, science has delivered enormous social benefits; but scientific advances and the technologies they muster and require have also exacted a social cost that we have yet to calculate. This is a failure, not of science, but of the unscientific community.

Despair in Paris

The New York Times ran an article recently on the failure of another utopian scheme: Vélib’, the Parisian bike sharing and rental program, which has recently come up against “a prosaic reality”:

Many of the specially designed bikes, which, when the system’s startup and maintenance expenses are included, cost $3,500 each, are showing up on black markets in Eastern Europe and northern Africa. Many others are being spirited away for urban joy rides, then ditched by roadsides, their wheels bent and tires stripped.

With 80 percent of the initial 20,600 bicycles stolen or damaged, the program’s organizers have had to hire several hundred people just to fix them. And along with the dent in the city-subsidized budget has been a blow to the Parisian psyche.

“The Vélib’” wrote the French paper Le Monde, “was aimed at civilizing city travel. It has increased incivilities.” The failures of the bike scheme remind Parisians of other incivilities, like car burnings in the banlieues. This helps explain Parisian despair. The collapse of the Commune in the 19th century, the barricades of ’68, now this?

The real question is whether there are lessons for the rest of us in all this. One has to do with scale. The exorbitant $3500 price tag is just one outward indication that the Vélib’ was created at the wrong scale. No one ever denied that Utopia would come at a price; but only in a centralized, government-run scheme could bicycles for everyday use cost $3500. The Vélib’ was doomed by grand ambitions, engineered and administered from the top down, with the government developing a scheme for good living and well being and then expecting human beings to conform to it.

Scale matters. How much greater the chances of success if, say, a household, or an apartment building, or even a city block, decided to pool their bikes, or buy some cheap used bikes, and then gave everybody a set of locks that opened with identical keys. The smaller scale experiment may not have had the same civilizing influence that the Vélib’ promised to have, and it could never have turned all of Paris green, but it probably would have worked.

Imagine a thief trying to steal a bicycle from an apartment building or a block where everybody had a stake in keeping the bikes available and maintained. Or imagine if someone within one of these smaller communities decided to turn the bikes for a profit on the black market. There would at least be a good chance of deterring or catching the thief; shame and other forms of punishment also work best within families and very small, close communities.

The Parisian experiment reveals a deep flaw — in the experiment, because it was conducted on such a grand scale, but also in human nature; and the latter flaw should have been taken into account when constructing the experiment in the first place.

I know there are some people who will take issue with that last point, and say that what I am calling human nature is a social construct. Change the society, and what you took to be human nature will change with it. The trouble with this view is not just that it meets an objection to social engineering by calling for more social engineering, which means putting someone — who? — in charge of Hope and Change; the problem is also that it imagines we can step outside of history to do all this engineering, and then somehow populate our brave new world with creatures untainted by history — as if there is a place that is really no place, a utopia.

But our lot is this imperfect world. No amount of engineering — social, scientific, or social scientific — will ever restore us to grace. That’s no cause for despair; it’s just a reminder that theory has its limits.

Management in your mocha, a Taylorist in your tea

Back in the early spring of 2008, I wrote about Howard Schultz’s plan to shut down all Starbucks retail stores for a day-long training exercise. Apparently the Starbucks CEO was convinced that his sagging stock price must somehow be the fault of his employees, or at least could be improved if his employees were only better trained in the Starbucks way.

It was only a passing reference. I was half-seriously wondering if Schultz’s decision had inspired Chrysler’s Bob Nardelli, in a caffeine-deprived moment, to write a clumsy email announcing that he’d be shutting down Chrysler’s plants for a full month in the summer of 2008. We now know how all that turned out. Nardelli was trying to save a sinking ship, and couldn’t. Fiat now controls Chrysler; Marchionne has supplanted Nardelli. And Starbucks? Schultz is still in charge; and the company’s fortunes seem to have improved, but only a little. Starbucks was able to beat analysts’ expectations for the third quarter, largely through cost-cutting measures.

And management is once again going back to the baristas, whose performance at the counter has come under fresh scrutiny. That’s because a big part of this new cost-cutting approach has to do with making coffee service at Starbucks more efficient. A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal the other day focused on Starbucks use of Japanese “lean” management techniques, applying the sorts of “scientific” management approaches in their coffee shops one usually finds on manufacturing floors.

The new emphasis at Starbucks on making their business “lean” is inspired by manufacturing improvements at Toyota, and it all comes down to reducing the amount of time baristas spend going through the motions of getting you coffee: “Motion and work are two different things,” says Starbucks’ Scott Heydon. “Thirty percent of the partners’ time” — partners is a word Starbucks uses to describe its counter-help – “is motion, the walking, reaching, bending.”

(Heydon styles himself the “Vice President of Lean Thinking,” and I suppose that makes for a fun business card. But whenever someone has a title like that, odds are he works at a vastly over-managed company that has lost sight of its core business – or at least has mistaken the business of management for management of the business.)

Of course, another word for “lean thinking,” as Heydon practices it, is Taylorism. There’s really nothing all that Japanese about it. Management teams travel to Starbucks locations around the country, armed with a stopwatch and a Mr. Potato Head doll. (I’m not making this up.) They teach the virtue of efficiency by asking store managers to assemble the Mr. Potato Head doll, and then to improve on their own performance by reducing the ratio of motion to work.

The Taylorists then apply the same tests to the fetching of coffee or the grinding of beans; they draw “spaghetti diagrams” to document confused movements behind the counter or divigations across the shop floor; and they prescribe new, more efficient coordinations of action.

The objective of these rites and mysteries, we are told, is to free up time for the baristas to “interact with customers and improve the Starbucks experience.” But that’s obviously management double-speak; the objective here is to sell more coffee and coffee drinks and other Starbucks stuff, faster than ever before, and the baristas know it. Maybe you can do that by “interacting” with customers; but one barista from Minneapolis just thinks Mr. Heydon and the Taylorists plan to turn the workers into “robots” and “the café into a factory.” That’s not a bad way of putting it. After all, the most efficient Starbucks would be a Starbucks free of slackers behind the counter – an Automat, with espresso drinks served up by mechanized routine and kiosks on the floor hawking Starbucks swag.

It’s clear that some very powerful people at Starbucks decided a while back that the coffee business is really the fast-food business. In so doing they lost sight of, or consciously jettisoned, some basic truths about coffee and cafes. The most important of these is that coffee is a social beverage. You don’t need to go to Vienna or study the history of coffeehouses to understand this; just drive out to the suburbs, where very often the Starbucks is the only place in town – or in the strip mall – where people can plan to meet.

The Taylorist approach to coffee preparation and service makes much more sense if you are serving coffee at a drive-up window. It does for coffee what the fast food joints did for the meal – strip it of its sociability and make it something to be consumed on the go. That’s not exactly conducive to making the coffee shop a place where people want to gather. And if you go this route, you have to assume that all of your customers are going to be Taylorist in their pursuit of coffee – that, for them, coffee is a fix. The very idea is offensive.

Starbucks is not alone in this regard. Apparently even Mom and Pop coffeehouses are now discouraging wifi use during the day because online customers tend to linger. This is not a welcome trend. To sit in a coffeehouse working, or talking with a friend or reading a book – or, better, talking about a book with a friend — is to feel oneself a part of the civilized world.

On my way to a meeting in Chelsea the other day, I decided to stop at a Starbucks to see if I could discover any signs of Mr. Heydon’s Taylorist experiment. There wasn’t much of a line – a sign of efficiency? or of slow business? — so I stepped up to the counter and ordered what I always order at Starbucks: a double macchiato. What size? the clerk behind the counter asked. A double, I said. Oh, he said, a doppio. (But he said it like, dopey-o.) Yeah, a double, and please, just a dab of foam. He turned and communicated something inaudible to the young woman working the espresso machine. She looked confused. I don’t know how to make that one, she said. I guess she was just starting. Another woman came over and took her through it, and as she was doing that and I took my change from the clerk, I chimed in from my side of the counter: and not too much foam. Just a dab.

This certainly wasn’t going to be efficient: even if the woman at the espresso machine knew how to fill the order, I wasn’t going to let her do it without oversight, because I like my coffee just so. As do most people. In this instance, the rookie barista didn’t even come close to making the coffee I wanted. What I got instead of a caffè macchiato was a paper cup filled with foam, some espresso swishing around underneath.

When I asked if she could take some of the foam out of the cup, she looked confused. The woman who had been training her intervened, took one look at the foamy concoction, and said she’d make me a new one. But not too much foam, I said. It’s a macchiato. Macchiato. That means ‘stained’. The foam should just stain the coffee. Just a dab. I was starting to enjoy this. Meanwhile, over at the counter, something else was happening – something very small and seemingly insignificant, but in its own way, magical.

A woman holding a big cup of coffee approached the register and asked the clerk where she could find the nearest subway. This was way off script. But of course the clerk knew the subway system, and he asked what any New Yorker would ask: which train do you want? There then followed a long discussion about where the woman wanted to go, and which train would be best. Another customer standing near the register joined in. A conversation among strangers had started. The social had asserted itself, in a way it could only in New York City, at that particular juncture in the transit system, and now there was no way around it, no science that could streamline it or predict it, time it or script it. No way to manage it.

Mr. Efficiency

The business guru Jim Collins has a stopwatch – an impressive, digital stopwatch, judging from the picture of it in the New York Times.

His stopwatch keeps three separate times, a running tally of time spent on pursuits he labels “creative,” “teaching,” and “other.” Collins tabulates the readings of the stopwatch on a spreadsheet; then he posts the results on a whiteboard in his Boulder, Colorado office. His aim, he tells the Times, is to keep the creative pursuits (writing and exploring ideas) at or above fifty percent of his time, and to divide the rest of his time between his teaching duties at the University of Colorado and the managing of his small enterprise – which supports all the things Jim Collins does: writing business books about why companies succeed and fail, giving talks, and consulting.

Bravo, I would like to say. I know the vigilance required to keep other obligations from impinging on one’s creative work, and though I am not teaching right now, I aspire to a balance much like the one Collins has achieved. But then there’s that stopwatch, and the spreadsheets (Collins even logs his hours of sleep: he needs 70 to 75 hours every ten days), and I have to wonder just what sort of guru Jim Collins really is – or what religion he’s out to spread.

Adam Bryant, who wrote the profile for the Times, calls it “doggedness.” Collins takes an “exacting approach to time management and research,” Bryant writes, and lives according to a “method” he “borrows from other hypersuccessful people. He approaches every aspect of his life with purpose and intensity.” That’s certainly one way of putting it. But it misses an important point, and misses why I can’t bring myself to applaud or approve.

Bryant’s portrait of Collins is a study in what I would call ethical Taylorism. I think the coinage is sound and the label applies. Taylor, of course, is F. W. Taylor, the great grandfather of “scientific management” and management consulting. Peter Drucker, the guru’s guru, described Taylor as “the Isaac Newton (or perhaps the Archimedes) of the science of work.” In the time studies for which he’s best known, Taylor analyzed a bit of industrial work and broke down the actions required to perform it into hundredths of a second to look for more efficient ways to perform the action. He thought there could be a “science of handling pig-iron” and a science of shoveling (and, incidentally, that the pig-iron worker or the day laborer was too stupid to figure out the “one best way” to perform his appointed task).

Collins has turned his whole life into a Time Study. He has made a habit of efficiency – habit here in the Aristotelian sense of an ethical habit, a disposition or hexis. It is only fitting, I suppose, that this creature of scientific management should devote the “creative” work he so jealously guards from other obligations to questions of management theory — those are less likely than others to lead him to other obligations — but the real point here is a simple one: ethical Taylorism makes a virtue of efficiency. Or, to put it another way, it mistakes efficiency for virtue. (In this light, I have to wonder how ethical Taylorism might have played into the financial crisis, or how it might play into the impending business failure of the New York Times.)

The most popular expression of ethical Taylorism is probably Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a book nearly everyone professes to have read but hasn’t, because books like this are ultimately unreadable — and not ever meant to be read (because that would be a waste of time). It, too, is a celebration of the life efficiently lived, of effectiveness; the two Taylorist terms share an etymological root in the Latin efficere, and a philosophical confusion of human being with an efficient cause.

Or they both rely on an unphilosophical reduction: in this conception, human work is merely a means to an end, so it should be made as time-efficient as possible, and human beings are agents — no, merely agents who bring about an end, rather than ends in and of themselves. There is not much room here for human dignity, or true vocation, or even a sense of creative work as discovery and self-discovery. (The creative is harnessed to a regime of production.) I might go so far as to say that there is not much room here for the human aspect of human being; ethical Taylorism reduces the human being to an economic or industrial agent. Think of the business organizations that embody this ethos; think, too, about the politics that follow from this reduction.

Forget wonder. Focus, instead, on success, only on what works, on being highly effective, even “hypersuccessful.” With doggedness and luck (Collins attributes much of his success to luck), things might work out for you. But — win or lose — the real trouble with ethical Taylorism is that it offers (at best) an impoverished idea of virtue or human excellence. Eventually, you’d think, the human will rebel, or wander from the plan of “creative” work into unfruitful and unscientific speculation on his Creator, or nap. I certainly hope so.

Reckoning on a Riot

Yesterday’s New York Times Week in Review section found sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh wondering why we are not out in the streets, rioting for bread.

You can tell it’s a prospect that gives him a little thrill – or a touch of academic brain fever. Venkatesh’s writing rises above social-scientific banalities only when he’s describing the complete breakdown of social order.

He is sure that if we all stop blogging and texting, twittering and talking on cell phones, and if we can all get over the shame we all feel over the massive credit card debt we all carry — no, really, this seems to be his argument — we will all get in touch with our true feelings again, or at least with the righteous anger we ought to be feeling over AIG bonuses and Chrysler’s nosedive and John Thain’s interior decorating budget; and in the light of that new day we will all rise up and take to the streets.

Not to worry, of course: Professor Venkatesh assures us that there won’t be angry, unruly mobs in the streets bent on mayhem. Why would there be? We will all turn out for a riot, but stay just for good conversation with our fellow citizens, kind of a democratic carnival or street fair, or a big town hall, in which, I guess, unemployed bankers, sinecured academics, Toledo plumbers and everybody else will come to approve a new program of social justice.

Maybe I’ve been living in New York City too long, but I prefer to avoid crowds when I can, especially angry crowds, and I don’t expect people driven to the street by anger suddenly to turn all warm, mushy and benevolent at the sight of fellow sufferers or the prospect of a conversation. Maybe we would all be moved by pity and compassion and realize a sense of shared purpose if we only could come face to face, and acknowledge our pain. But isn’t it just as likely — more likely — that the day of reckoning so eagerly anticipated by Professor Venkatesh wouldn’t turn out the way he expects?

What the world needs now may be love sweet love; but there will be no easy resolution to the political and social conflicts this economic crisis might generate. Democratic deliberation is above all a habit, one we are out of; concerns about the thing we hold in common — the res publica — have given way, for now, to worries over the losing everything we have, or own. So it is with some regret that I would inform Professor Venkatesh — pace Rodney King — that we probably can’t all just get along; and, what’s more, we probably won’t.

A Second Question for Brad DeLong

Yesterday The Economist opened an online debate on Keynesian principles by asking two economists, Brad DeLong and Luigi Zingales, to take up the proposition, We are all Keynesians now.

The debate allowed comments from readers, and many of the comments pointed out that the nous-sommes-tous proposition itself was badly phrased. But there was wisdom in the house’s folly, and it turned out that putting things in this broad way actually helped get the debate off to a promising start: both DeLong and Zingales had to spend some time in the first round trying to figure out what the proposition meant, or could mean.

DeLong was charged with holding up the “pro” side of the question. His intellectual honesty wouldn’t allow him to defend the proposition outright; so instead he took the tack that he wished it were true that we were all Keynesians, or that we all should be.

The crux of his argument, at least as I read it, involved a refutation of Say’s Law. Those who have misgivings about government spending, or who argue that spending (from the government or any other quarter) cannot spur economic growth, create jobs or raise production are appealing, whether they know it or not, to Say’s Law. That law holds — wrongly, says DeLong — that demand is created by supply, not vice-versa. If government spends (to create demand), increased supply (which brings job and production figures up) will not necessarily follow; indeed, say the proponents of Say’s Law, the private sector or consumers may cut back on spending. Supply will stagnate.

For DeLong, Say’s Law is patently false. “In general,” writes DeLong, “spending works to spur the economy, and the government’s money when spent is as good as anybody else’s.” To back up this assertion, he adduces two examples: the first, oddly, is the creation of the housing bubble from 2003-2006, made possible by capital inflows from Asia and easy money from the Fed; the second is the creation of the dot-com bubble from 1996-2000, “when the assembled investors of America discovered the internet and in response businesses spent money like water on computers and telephones.”

While there’s no doubt that IT spend was a driver of growth at the end of the last century, I would question whether bubbles are really the best example of growth, or whether either the housing or dot-com bubble disproves Say’s Law once and for all, as DeLong seems to suggest.

There is, after all, a difference between actually creating demand and simulating demand — isn’t there? And more importantly there is a difference between sustainable growth and growth that turns out to be illusory — a mere bubble. Isn’t there?

Zingales brought the whole issue more clearly into focus when he argued that Keynesian economic policy cannot be the solution to the current crisis; to assume that you can fix the current crisis by simulating (or, DeLong would say, creating) demand is to misunderstand our trouble: “The current crisis is not a demand crisis,” wrote Zingale, “it is a trust crisis.”

In a comment, I asked DeLong to take up the point, and to say a few words about how the current wave of government spending might help to restore trust and confidence.
He posted his reply

We have a banking trust crisis. Fixing that requires fixing the banking system. Keynesian deficit spending policies don’t help fix that crisis.

But the banking trust crisis–which has been rolling forward for eighteen months now–has in the past six months generated another crisis: a collapse of spending and collapse of employment crisis.

Keynesian deficit-spending policies can help keep this second crisis from growing much worse. Indeed, they are about the only thing that can.

First, a clarification, or an admission that I might have misread the remark that prompted my question in the first place. I am not an economist, so I take words like “trust” in the way most ordinary people do, according to the meanings they have in everyday conversation. So I didn’t understand, from the outset, that Zingales was confining himself to “banking trust,” the trust that allows credit to flow; I assumed that the breakdown of the banking system had eroded trust in a more fundamental and pervasive way. Indeed, that’s been my understanding since this whole mess started, and it seems I brought those broader concerns about trust to my reading of Zingales.

But let’s confine ourselves for the moment to the banking trust crisis. DeLong admits that Keynesian deficit-spending policies won’t — or “don’t” — fix “the banking trust crisis”; so the answer to my question seems to be: the current wave of government spending will do nothing to restore trust and confidence. But Keynesian policies will help prop up spending and employment, DeLong adds, which are collapsing due to, or in the wake of, the banking trust crisis.

This may seem a bit like trying to make repairs to a house built on quicksand, which is why, I suppose, DeLong prefaces his remark about Keynesian policies by noting that we have to fix “the banking system” in order to restore banking trust. Apparently the Keynesians are going to leave us on our own to perform that Herculean feat, while they take care of the spending.

My fear is that the Keynesians will go for the quick fix, because that is what Keynesians and policy-makers of every stripe do. But still, I wonder whether DeLong wishes to leave open the possibility that addressing the spending and employment collapse will help restore “trust” in some broader sense? And if so, how might that play out in real world terms? Would he at least admit that you can’t create demand without restoring trust? How, for that matter, can we talk about demand without talking about trust? Isn’t trust an essential component of demand? If not, then what, exactly, is demand?

For non-economists at least, demand and trust are not mere ideas, abstractions or models. Perhaps some deeper and broader appreciation of the workings of trust in our lives — in our jobs, in our everyday associations — would strengthen the Keynesian position DeLong espouses; or reveal the insufficiency of Keynesianism that DeLong seems on the verge of admitting.

Then again, maybe this is really just all about my misreading of the word “trust.” As I say, I read it broadly; and I consider it essential to the workings of the free market and a free society. So my concern is not just with the flow of capital but with a loss of social capital.

We can’t confine “trust” to the banking system, or build a firewall between the “trust” that makes the banking system work, on the one hand, and the broader social trust on which we rely in our economic life (what Yeats called “getting and spending”) on the other. Doing so may only blind us to the true nature of our current problems — which, I’d argue, aren’t just worries over our economic problems, but which are more deeply rooted in a widespread anxiety and uncertainty about what American life promises and offers.

As Dale Launer, another Economist reader, put it, we’re “spooked.”

We don’t always, don’t usually act from ideas

It’s odd to read Fouad Ajami’s tribute to Samuel Huntington as Israeli warplanes batter Gaza.

Huntington is best known, of course, not for his writings about the Palestinian question, but for his 1993 thesis of the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the Christian West, which gained so many admirers and adherents after September 11th.

For Ajami, who now counts himself among the true believers, the thesis was an assault on the globalist zeitgeist of its era, proof that the dealings of Davos man could not secure peace and prosperity throughout the world. The passage that caught my attention runs as follows:

Critics insisted that men want Sony, not soil. But on 9/11, young Arabs — 19 of them — would weigh in. They punctured the illusions of an era, and gave evidence of the truth of Huntington’s vision. With his typical precision, [Huntington] had written of a “youth bulge” unsettling Muslim societies, and young, radicalized Arabs, unhinged by modernity and unable to master it, emerging as the children of this radical age.

But here’s the rub. The application and adoption of Huntington’s clash thesis after the events of 9/11 probably did as much to obscure the motives of those 19 young men as it did to illuminate them. Were the extraordinary acts of the 9/11 attackers really an attempt to “weigh in” on the success or failure of Davos or even to advance the “clash” between Islam and the West?

To consider actions as “evidence” of a social scientific “vision” always runs the risk of subsuming them under a grand theory — where they are bound to be lost or lose any of their original complexity as well as any trace of their humanity.

People have rightly worried about this when they’ve commented that Huntington’s thesis is much too broad: to speak of Islam today as a coherent “civilization” or of the Christian West in similar terms imposes a neat social scientific model on a complex and heterogeneous reality. Look within Islam today — in Gaza, in Lebanon, in Hamtramck, Michigan — and the picture is much more complex; visit most countries in Western Europe where the youth bulge is in evidence and you will gain the same impression: people don’t simply live in ideological blocs.

Human communities, villages, towns, neighborhoods, cities are not, can never really be the societies that social scientists talk about. Or at least they are organized less around ideas and causes than social scientists would have us believe. A civilization is not a cult. Or, to put it another way, to bomb Gaza is not just to bomb Hamas. That only works in military simulations, on TV or in the grand parlors of social theorists: it’s make believe.

That the 9/11 hijackers may have thought of themselves as emissaries of a cause, even of a lost civilization, the avengers of al-Andalus, seems likely; but then they took many steps in the days leading up to the attacks that seem wholly inconsistent with that notion. Maybe they only sometimes believed that they had hitched themselves up to a great cause. Maybe nobody can consistently and always act from such a belief. In any case, it seems to me that taking their suicidal delusions, or the suicidal theology of Islamic jihad, to explain their actions is simply to rehash jihadist apologetics without ever really trying to understand them.

It may be more difficult to consider how people act with or without clear and coherent ideas, or motives, or ends in mind, and it won’t yield anything like a grand theory; but it might just get you closer to the truth.

People — you and I — don’t ordinarily act from historical theses, nor do we usually carry the weight of history with us as we plan to act, despite what Hollywood and Huntington would like us to think.

Revolutionaries and assassins and other sociopaths may, at least when drafting their apologies or ransom notes or memoires. I wonder if they can always sustain the illusion, and if they do, how they do it. I wonder, too, if they share with the political scientists the same delusion about the coherence and consistency of human action, and the relation of action to idea.

And I wonder, further, if one could — just for kicks, or even in all seriousness — correlate the emergence of a particular type of sociopath, jihadi, revolutionary, or murderer with the emergence of a “social science” or a scientific view of society.

Unscientific about society

Social science may be able to account for society in part because it has remade society to suit its particular kind of knowledge (the “science” that I would call theory).

For most theorists who study society, there are great social forces at work, will we, nill we, and most of them do us no good; the self is a social construct; the individual is more patient than agent, subjected to a false or inauthentic subjectivity, often a victim.

But there are, interestingly enough, some resources for rethinking society in the history of the word society itself. Society, societas, denotes an elective or voluntary association, not an array of (dark, often hidden) forces that constrain and define and overwhelm the individual.

I want to think about the social not just as a precondition but as a human accomplishment, the fruit of liberty and free association, a state that human beings can achieve simply by choosing to come together, not just a gulag of the alienated, overdetermined self.

Schumacher’s Burma

If there is a theme that ties together the entries I’ve made on this blog, it would be that “social science” may account for society but fails to account for humanity, and that that failure manifests itself in the shortcomings of social science’s legitimate offspring (e.g., economics) and in the deformities and defects of its bastard children — management theory and management consulting, the new literary theory, social theory passing itself off as a guide to practice or as philosophy, etc.. It seems there’s no shortage of examples of the deficiencies of theory and its malign influence.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I found echoes of this concern in the opening chapters of E.F. Schumacher’s critique of economics, Small is Beautiful. Schumacher’s book discovers in the “small” — the local, small scale, low-impact, communitarian — a salutary alternative to reckless, unsustainable economic growth. He is careful to distinguish the “wisdom” we need to find a more sustainable way from the “fragmentary judgments” of economists. The promotion of unbridled self-interest — of greed and envy — as the great motive of human behavior and the reality of human life he finds restrictive and reductive at best, and, at worst, a criminal and immoral denial of human dignity and possibility, of our nature as beings made in the image of God.

Fair enough, and reason enough to read the book if you haven’t yet done so. But on my reading things go awry when Schumacher starts to look for an alternative to all this bad living and bad philosophy in a chapter called “Buddhist Economics.”

It’s not that Buddhism doesn’t offer some good remedies for what ails the West. It probably does, as do the other great religions of the world. (And, in an odd passage, Schumacher says that his choice of Buddhism for the purposes of his discussion is “purely incidental”; the critique of materialism and the discussion of economics that follows, he says, could have been developed just as well from Judaic, Christian, or Islamic sources. This is disingenuous at best, and history would seem to suggest otherwise: just consider the intellectual history covered in Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, or the accommodations that both Judaism and Christianity made in the medieval and early modern period around usury in response to changing economic realities, religious persecution, and so forth.) For me the real problem is not a question of religious history or the liberation religion promises from history: instead I am trying to understand why Schumacher would hold up Burma as the exemplar of Buddhist economics and its central tenet of “Right Livelihood.”

Now I don’t pretend to be an expert on Burma, but I do know that even in 1973, when Schumacher was writing his book, Burma was hardly the shining example of enlightened economics, social justice and equity that he makes it out to be. Put aside, if you can, for the moment, that since its independence from British rule in 1948 Burma has been ruled badly, and since the 1960s by a repressive military junta, which is responsible for squelching democracy, imprisoning those who advocate democratic reform and for creating an “atrocious” human rights situation. Focus instead only on economic life there at the time that Schumacher was writing.

It must surely be Ne Win’s policy of The Burmese Way to Socialism that Schumacher means to glorify in his portrait of Burma as an economic Utopia. But this is dangerous folly, especially for a writer who claims that from the right ordering of economic life we can create the conditions for peace. With its state-sponsored Buddhism, the Burmese Way not only brought Burma to the brink of economic collapse; it also created the conditions for a military revolt that led to the even more repressive conditions that prevail in Myanmar today. Was it the fog of the incense or the ringing of the little bells that allowed Schumacher to overlook the inconvenient, bloody facts of Burma’s history?

That history had been unfolding for over a decade by the time that Schumacher wrote his book, and at the time many Western intellectuals, frustrated or repulsed by developments in the rich world, had, like Schumacher, looked to the East to find another, humbler, more peaceful way. Some ended up returning to the West, a little wiser for their Eastern experience; others were enthralled and lost all critical perspective. It’s not just that Schumacher now seems to have been terribly wrong and naive; it’s as if he and many intellectuals of his generation had become so disenchanted with the West that they were all too easily enchanted by those offering to disclose to them the mysteries of the East. Or were they simply hiding from the hard questions that it was their responsiblity to face?

In any case, it’s no exaggeration to say that we are just now beginning to cope with the intellectual legacy of the choices that generation made. And legacy is a nice way of putting it. Indeed, the question is whether in the West we will ever be able to recover our footing, especially given how slippery it is out there these days.