Economics 101: Missouri Fails

I woke up this morning to the depressing news that working families in Saint Louis Missouri will be earning $2.30 less an hour than they did yesterday. That is because the Missouri State Assembly passed a law earlier this year that prohibited any municipality from enforcing a minimum wage above the state minimum wage.

I am depressed because I now know that greater Saint Louis’s estimated 2.8M workers will all, in aggregate, be earning $2.30 less an hour and spending less of their earnings on consumer goods. That is to say, their aggregate propensity to consume will decline, which means a loss of employment for households dependent on that consumption.

What’s the up side? You mean, why would Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens and Missouri’s Republican legislature support legislation that hurt Missourians?

C’mon. Really? Look, I am begging all of you to look at to take a peek at who is bankrolling Missouri’s bought and sold state legislature. These folks couldn’t care less about Missouri working families. For them, its all about out of state investors, padding the wallets and bank accounts of the already filthy rich.

Oh. And, here’s the punch line. When Missourians demand lower wages, employers will flock to Missouri.

Ok. Sorry. I’m from the highest wage, highest benefit region of the country. In order to attract investors, we raised wages and we raised taxes. High wage, high benefit employers are flocking to my neighborhood because they know that employees where I live are mad, mad, mad about consumption — they have so much disposable income.

In Missouri? In Missouri? You’re kidding, right? Workers make so little in Missouri that you would be foolish to build a business there. In the mean time, visit Your governor and your legislators are laughing on their way to the bank.

Value: Still Misunderstood

In his Introduction to Capital, Karl Marx offered an observation that may seem trite:

Exchange-value appears first of all as the quantitate relation, the proportion in which use-values of one kind exchange for use-values of another kind. This relation changes constantly with time and place. Hence exchange-value appears to be something  accidental and purely relative. Consequently an intrinsic value, i.e. an exchange-value that is inseparably connected with the commodity, inherent in it, seems a contradiction in terms (K Marx Kapital I:49-50).

Herein Marx speaks to a common misunderstanding about value. For, even though it has formed the centerpiece of neoclassical economic theory since 1868 (at the latest), value is still poorly understood even by some economists.

That misunderstanding arises from the two-fold character of the commodity, including the labor commodity, which, on the one hand is what it appears to be, however culturally, socially, or historically embedded. It is some thing. And we value every thing for the qualities it enjoys — again, however culturally or historically inflected — that satisfy some need. So, for example, the value a relic has for me is found in the actual hair, bone, skin, fabric of the relic, which are themselves embedded in a culture and along a historical path in which such things are valued. In capitalist societies, things are also related to one another by a common, shared, universal element — value — that each thing bears not because of the specific, individual qualities any thing enjoys, but on account of what they all share socially.

The social character of value has led many people to conclude that value is arbitrary or conventional. The value of any thing is wherever aggregate supply and aggregate demand intersect. Constrain supply holding demand constant and the value of any good will increase. Expand supply holding demand constant and the value of any good will decrease. Or, culturally, expose enough of the public to a wildly popular movie — for example, the Matrix — and then watch how fashion choices marginally shift. This could suggest that value is totally arbitrary or conventional.

Value is specially confusing when we consider how it is shaped by automation. Obviously investors will only automate when the marginal returns they anticipate from automation exceed the marginal returns they derive from manual or semi-manual forms of production. In the real world, where millions of commodities compete for total aggregate income, few commodities enjoy the capacity when automated to shift total demand. There are, of course, exceptions. Because petrol is generally considered among the least elastic commodities, when fuel prices rise, consumers are inclined to spend less on other, more elastic goods. In theory, however, we can easily appreciate the conditions under which automation might actually lead to an aggregate decline in marginal returns.

Take a factory that relies upon human labor. Employees at the factory are compensated for their labor with a wage, a portion of which they spend on goods, perhaps the goods that they help manufacture. Assuming for the moment a closed system, where aggregate supply exactly equals aggregate demand and where the total value of all goods produced equals the wages consumers are ready to spend on these goods, any decline in wages is matched by an equal decline in the value of the goods for sale. So, for example, if the total of all goods is an apple and the sum total of income is $1, which the consumer has earned picking apples, automation of apple picking must consider who will purchase the apple once the apple picker is made redundant. If total income in this market is reduced to $0, then the value of the apple cannot be greater than $0.

Now, however, let us suppose that we add another manufacture — maintenance of automated apple picking machines, which farmers hire at a wage greater than the manual apple pickers. If apples nevertheless remain the only good for sale, at $1, I will still not automate, since I must still compensate my technician at least $1 if he is to purchase my apple. But let us suppose that automation decreases the cost of picking each apple by 50%. Now if I compensate my technician at $1, his wage remains identical; and yet its marginal value, relative to apples, is now 100% greater since he can purchase two apples with it. Automation has doubled the quantity of goods, holding value constant. Efficiency has doubled utility or use value. Measured in dollars, we still have x dollars worth of apples equals x dollars in total wages; but, x dollars in wages now equals two apples.

In the real world, where hundreds of millions of goods are consumed, and where investors must decide whether or not to automate a process, investors are deeply interested in aggregate demand. Should innovation give rise to a decline in aggregate economic growth, then investors will want to know whether and by how much a marginal decline in aggregate demand will place downward pressure on their marginal returns. We saw in 2006 how a dramatic decline in aggregate value placed the jobs of millions of manufacturing workers in danger. For investors, the question was not whether Ted, Susan, and their family could meet their mortgage payment or pay for Jimmy’s anti-epilepsy medication; the question was the bite declining wages would take out of aggregate consumption for all goods.

The misunderstanding is . . . understandable. We want value to reside in things, which is precisely how classical economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus understood value. Whether they were calibrating the value of things to labor time (A Smith) or to the relative value of the things out of which other things were composed (T Malthus) or, even, straining toward a new, more dynamic expression of value (D Ricardo), classical economists wanted value to reside in things.
Neoclassical economic theory, from this vantage point, appears incoherent. For it measures value according to its market value — value is whatever a good or service or idea commands on the market. This market value is its objective value.

To further complicate matters, market value is always hedged in, constrained and channeled by a bewildering variety of factors that we can summarize by law, custom, regulation, and habit. So, for example, a private investor who enjoys access to a lawmaker might make it advantageous for that lawmaker to pass a regulation that increases demand for his good while decreasing the demand for his competitor’s good; or a reliquary might claim a monopoly over the sale of candles and deny common candles access to its sanctuary. These constraints are literally innumerable and yet clearly they shape the values of goods traded even in the most liberal of markets.

It may appear a giant leap, but the question of value and its significance reappears every time we appear on the verge or even in the middle of an efficiency-rich technological innovation. This is because, in the short run, marginal efficiency is measured by the cost entailed in producing any good over the quantity of goods produced at that cost. In the short run, private investors will only replace human labor with technology when the cost of that technology per unit produced is less than the cost of the labor it displaces. The result, on its face, is a drop in the value of the labor relative to the technology, which are marginally identical — identical at the margins.

Notice that were marginal demand for a good reduced by an equal or greater amount than the efficiencies generated by the new technology, the value of that technology would not be greater than the human labor it replaces. So, for example, did adopting a technology reduce employment and wages sufficiently to shift demand for that good downward beyond its marginal utility, an investor would still not adopt the technology. Only if the marginal cost were sufficiently reduced to also lower the price of that good and increase demand up to the margin (expanding profits by expanding the demand for goods that bear a lower price), only in this case would investors adopt the technology.

But also notice that significantly lowering the price of a good through technological innovation (in a competitive market) also reduces the marginal profits that might be won from that good; this, in turn, would trigger a realignment of capital investments toward goods with a larger profit margin. So, for example, if automobile manufacturers cannot make sufficient marginal returns because innovation has lowered the price they can command for a good, investors will redirect their capital to niche markets that enjoy higher marginal returns.

Finally notice that this shift in the indifference curve can also be effected by changes in law, regulation, custom, taxation, and so on. So, for example, when Congress deregulated financial markets in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, it obviously increased the attractiveness of financial instruments. The same overall effect was achieved, however, by dramatically lowering taxation on wealth. In both cases, we can observe a shift away from manufacturing and towards capital goods.
Obviously, we could expand these examples indefinitely. But my point is that these basic principles have been well known at least since the 1860s and have not really been in dispute, at least since the 1930s. Value does not reside in things. Regulatory, legal, social, political, regulatory and cultural forms shape and shift value.

We invest in technological innovation even when it displaces labor and places downward pressure on wages only when we can see higher returns from that investment. Which brings us to Larry Elliot’s observation:

Robots will create more jobs, but what if these jobs are less good and less well paid than the jobs that automation kills off? Perhaps the weak wage growth of recent years is telling us something, namely that technology is hollowing out the middle class and creating a bifurcated economy in which a small number of very rich people employ armies of poor people to cater for their every whim.

But automation could only achieve this outcome were it not dependent for increasing marginal returns upon the wages of the middle class. At the very least, this means either that demand for a good — however manufactured is inelastic — or that marginal returns are no longer dependent upon middle class wages and consumption. In the first case, automation increases marginal returns because irrespective of their wage, consumers will nevertheless purchase the good. So, for example, even though under conditions of high unemployment (or stagnant wages) necessities such as petrol will consume a higher proportion of an unemployed person’s wealth — increasing its value to them — they will nevertheless consume a higher value of petrol than they did when they were employed (or earned higher wages). Automation may have some effect on value, but only marginally. In the other case, where marginal profits are independent of the wealth of the middle class, the shift in consumer markets tells us less about how a good was produced — automated or manually — than how wealth is distributed. This is less a consequence of automation than regulation.

We can see this relationship most clearly in the World War II and post-World War II labor and consumer markets. High taxation on profits and wealth


Is Neoliberalism an Idea?

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Stephen Metcalf gets so much right in his long read “Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world” (2017-08-18 The Guardian), that I am tempted to leave well enough alone. The theory supporting neoliberalism can no doubt be described as an idea; and this idea has, as Metcalf argues, had a profound influence on the policies institutions have implemented all around the globe. And he is more than half right to call our attention to the significant role played by Friedrich von Hayek in shaping and then spreading the ideology of neoliberalism, the theoretical scaffolding that supports these policies.

And, yet, repeatedly in his account, Metcalf appears to suggest that it is the idea of neoliberalism — and not the actual practice of capitalism — that has introduced the pain and suffering peculiar to neoliberalism. For those not yet certain they want to wade through Metcalf’s long read, here is my executive summary:

  1. the utopian ideal of the free market and the dystopian present are causally related; granting the market universal status bears a close relationship to “our current descent into post-truth and illiberalism.”
  2. von Hayek’s Big Idea — that free markets compose free minds capable of grasping the value of free markets, whereas regulated markets constrain minds in ways that obscure reality — marks a departure Enlightenment wisdom and from classic liberalism, even the classic liberalism of his University of Chicago Colleagues Frank Knight and Jacob Viner.
  3. When value and price collapse into one another — as they must in von Hayek’s neoliberal ideology — the tautology falsifies any notion of value that might arise outside the sphere of price, i.e., outside the sphere of the market economy.
  4. By calibrating “liberty” solely to free markets, neoliberal ideology believes that it has shown (a) that free markets alone give rise to objective value; and (b) that values not grounded in market activity are therefore by definition arbitrary and relative
  5. The authoritarian and illiberal dimensions of post-democratic society arise from admitting only to the singular logic of the free market, all other value formations — democracy, diversity, opportunity, health, art, religion — be damned.

“How can the combination of fragments of knowledge existing in different minds,” [Hayek] wrote, “bring about results which, if they were to be brought about deliberately, would require a knowledge on the part of the directing mind which no single person can possess?”

Metcalf summarizes von Hayek’s Big Idea as follows:

It is a grand epistemological claim – that the market is a way of knowing, one that radically exceeds the capacity of any individual mind. Such a market is less a human contrivance, to be manipulated like any other, than a force to be studied and placated. Economics ceases to be a technique – as Keynes believed it to be – for achieving desirable social ends, such as growth or stable money. The only social end is the maintenance of the market itself. In its omniscience, the market constitutes the only legitimate form of knowledge, next to which all other modes of reflection are partial, in both senses of the word: they comprehend only a fragment of a whole and they plead on behalf of a special interest. . . .

It was Hayek who showed us how to get from the hopeless condition of human partiality to the majestic objectivity of science. Hayek’s Big Idea acts as the missing link between our subjective human nature, and nature itself. In so doing, it puts any value that cannot be expressed as a price – as the verdict of a market – on an equally unsure footing, as nothing more than opinion, preference, folklore or superstition.

But what if the value form of capital behaves more or less just as von Hayek describes it? What if it is not an idea, but the actual composition and expansion of the value form that gives rise to a highly specific way of experiencing the Self, the World, and the Other?

Metcalf would like to situate von Hayek’s Big Idea in the 1930s. Why? Here is my suspicion. Let us suppose that von Hayek’s Big Idea could actually be found much, much earlier: let us say in 1868, 1869, or 1870. And, let us suppose that, Metcalf’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the rigorous mathematical modeling to which von Hayek believed the contemporary world could be reduced was already well-developed and fully elaborated by the end of the nineteenth century. Would that make a difference? Noted Cambridge historian Eric J Hobsbawm felt that it would.

Up until the revolutions of 1848 and 1849, European liberals had still felt that economic policies were subordinate to political forces; that, for example, republican institutions and values and democratic process could enjoy precedence over private market forces. The haste and ease with which monarchs and armies dispatched the democratic and republican forces of 1848 and 1849 made it clear to everyone that capitalism would not so easily be made subject to political forces. The political despair that followed from the defeats of 1848 and 1849 generated a full decade of unprecedented economic growth across Europe; almost as though the new economic form fed directly upon political despondency. In fact, the process was somewhat more complex. The same concert of Europe that defeated Napoleon also (and far more easily) dispatched the republican and democratic forces of 1848 and 1849. And it was this concert that also recognized the benefits that could be won from recognizing and empowering private entrepreneurs and investors who, until these revolutions, had largely been locked out of the chief positions in their respective state bureaucracies.

In a microcosm, the U.S. Civil War played out the same dynamic that in 1848 and 1849 had swept across Europe. The technologically superior and far better financed United States devastated the technologically backward, agricultural Confederacy, albeit with not the same ease as monarchs put down the uprisings of 1848 and 1849. Yet, where the economy is concerned, the results were the same. The decade following the end of the Civil War saw unprecedented growth.

More importantly for our purposes, after 1865 the world of capital in general, on both sides of the Atlantic, witnessed an acceleration in the integration of laws, regulations, currency exchanges, information, and trade — all of which worked to create one, singular, integrated, comprehensive economic system. That the expansion of this system had an ideological component is doubtless true. But so too was the actual integration of the system into a complex, dynamic integrated whole.

Nobel Prize winner Robert E Lucas, Jr. has represented this integration in the following chart:


Professor Lucas did not fabricate the chart. The data is real. Integration into the global economy gives rise to economic growth. And at present, roughly 98 per cent of the earth is, as Metcalf notes, “swallowed.”

This comprehensive economic integration had an interesting side effect. Beginning in the late 1860s, early 1870s, economists such as William Stanley Jevons, Leon Walras, and Alfred Marshall recognized that a world integrated in this way lent itself to rigorous mathematical modeling. That is to say — the actual economic integration did not follow from but preceded the rigorous mathematical modeling. Here is an example from Jevons’ Theory of Political Economy (1871):

It is clear that Economics, if it is to be a science at all, must be a mathematical science. There exists much prejudice against attempts to introduce the methods and language of mathematics into any branch of the moral sciences. Many persons seem to think that the physical sciences form the proper sphere of mathematical method, and that the moral sciences demand some other method – I know not what. My theory of Economics, however, is purely mathematical in character.

If, however, it was comprehensive economic integration, in fact, not in theory, that invited attempts to grasp that integration in a mathematically rigorous manner, then these attempts are no more ideological than, say, Heisenberg’s theoretical physics. But this means that the question we must ask is how well or poorly von Hayek is able to account for the observed phenomena — and not whether the phenomena, in this case a neoliberal world, exists.

And it is here that von Hayek turns metaphysical, even religious. For, in essence, he ascribes the emergence of liberal institutions to the gradual elimination of economic constraint; when the fact is that economic growth has always, at least since the fourteenth century, been predicated upon massive public intervention into private markets. Prior to the fourteenth century von Hayek’s rational, economizing individual is nowhere in evidence. There is not a shred of evidence indicating that human communities naturally lend themselves to rigorous mathematical modeling.

Since this is so, we need to ask how policies, institutions, laws, and regulations might have given rise to the very real human experience that counts our market dominated world as “natural.” Like his spiritual mentor Carl Menger, von Hayek was a rabid atheist. He and Menger both fashioned themselves men of science and progress. Yet, when they came to reflect on the “economizing individual,” no science — not history, not anthropology, not sociology, not even the far more mathematically rigorous modeling of their Cambridge School enemies — could stand in the way of their deeply religious faith in price as the reflection of basic human liberty. On this one point, von Hayek literally self-lobotomized. Why? What was at stake?

At stake, I would argue, was an entire world. The fact that this world was humanly constructed, fabricated, and terribly recent (no earlier than the fourteenth century) does not detract from its substantial reality. The world von Hayek theorized is our world, the real world: integrated, rational, comprehensive, total, singular. But this is not to say that it is the only possible world. We might imagine, for example, as Metcalf imagines, a world where the interests of families, religious communities, nature, art, and learning collide and collude with one another if not in the absence of private economic forces, at least not under their singular weight of their total domination. We could then imagine a form of freedom different from Immanuel Kant’s “absence of material constrain”; a form of freedom more in line with Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen’s “conditions that make for freedom”: education, security, housing, health, food, family, friends — which, as Sen notes, is in line not only with traditional Hindu, Buddhist, and Confucian wisdom, but also with the teaching of “western” paragons such as Aristotle.

But — and this is a huge but — this would mark the end of market capitalism; not markets, but market capitalism. And this von Hayek could not imagine.

After he had recovered from his post-1848 hangover — remember, the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848 — Karl Marx took a long, well-deserved sabbatical in London. At the other end of this sabbatical there emerged a work, Capital, that, rather than faulting the new system for what it was not, instead sought to understand what it was. In a phrase, Marx concluded that capitalism was a comprehensive economic system constructed by the social form: value. He defined value as “a self-moving Substance that is Subject” — that is to say, a rational, goal-directed Agent, or, what GWF Hegel thought of as der Geist or Mind.

A close reading of either von Hayek or K Marx is not possible here. Such a reading, however, would quickly show that von Hayek and Marx were actually quite close in their characterizations of capitalism as universal Mind or Spirit. Where they differed is critical. Where von Hayek felt liberated by this comprehensive, all-encompassing quasi-scientific totality, Marx felt that it was the essence of modern human domination; and where von Hayek believed that this form of domination was hard-wired into human ontology, Marx argued that it was peculiar to a historically specific social form: capitalism.

Metcalf’s description of von Hayek’s Big Idea is terribly good. But what if it is not simply an idea?

The application of Hayek’s Big Idea to every aspect of our lives negates what is most distinctive about us. That is, it assigns what is most human about human beings – our minds and our volition – to algorithms and markets, leaving us to mimic, zombie-like, the shrunken idealisations of economic models. Supersizing Hayek’s idea and radically upgrading the price system into a kind of social omniscience means radically downgrading the importance of our individual capacity to reason – our ability to provide and evaluate justifications for our actions and beliefs.

If von Hayek’s Big Idea is simply an idea, then we can combat it with better ideas — judged better by idea consumers, the public. If, however, von Hayek’s Big Idea is itself an expression of an actual social form — the value form of capital — that it seeks to defend, then the idea, while dangerous, is not the real enemy. Policies that deprive us of art, nature, security, health, learning, and love — these policies themselves bring us to value what remains; and what remains is a cold, uninflected indifference curve indicating with pin-point precision each of our market choices which we then mistake for value and for freedom.


The Spirit under Capitalism

I am now roughly half way through Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (2016), and, in the main, appreciate how Dr Roper weaves personal biography, regional history, and broader cultural history together. Nor does Dr Roper steer clear of Luther’s hostility toward “capitalists,” by which Luther meant not private investors but principally bankers and financiers, a point I will touch on below.

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Nevertheless, I am troubled by Dr Roper’s failure to more adequately integrate the frame of Luther’s experience with the rapidly changing practical landscape that shaped these experiences. Dr Roper does consider the interests German princes and investors had in limiting the control emperor and Pope exercised over their fate. But she is less eager, or, perhaps, less curious, when it comes to thinking through how the changing economic landscape of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries might have given rise to a rapidly changing experience of the relationship between spirit and flesh. She treats the conflict between Aristotelians and anti-scholastics as though it were entirely independent from the practical isolation of abstract value from its material form of appearance that was one of the principle expressions of the emergent capitalist social form. In fact, the two were intimately — which is to say, causally related.

Luther’s (and apparently also Dr Roper’s) failure to appreciate this connection allows “Two Kingdoms” orthodoxy to appear merely pragmatic rather than phenomenal and therefore pragmatic. It also allows Luther’s sacramental theology — mystery — to be set against Jean Calvin’s symbolic presence. The two, however, are much more intimately related than either orthodox Calvinists or Lutherans care to acknowledge. When it embraced preeminence over earthly power and authority, the Roman Church both consecrated, but also recognized the already sacred character of constrained bodies. Oddly, it was with this doctrine that Luther agreed: Christ’s Body, precisely in its limitation, was to be celebrated. Yet, because his understanding of faith had no body, Luther could not assert the Church’s preeminence over earthly power and authority. To do so suggested, for Luther, a kind of works righteousness; redemption by sinful flesh. The “Freedom of the Christian Man” already presupposed the isolation of abstract value from its material form of appearance; the phenomenal bifurcation of the world into . . . two Kingdoms: the abstract value form (faith) and its material form of appearance (works).

When set in this light, Luther’s doctrine is not altogether different from Calvin’s, except that Calvin does away with the mystery. Or, at least, he feels that he does. By translating the Holy Sacrament into symbol, Calvin invites believers into the Saussurian dreamworld of sign and signified, the fun house of mirrors in which Protestantism feels most comfortable. Ferdinand Saussure was the French linguist who successfully characterized the correspondence of social and linguistic form that would become “structuralism.” In Calvin, all is symbol. The body disappears. For Luther, by contrast, the body itself becomes mysterious. Its translation into sacred presence cannot be explained. Nor should we try to.

But this did not mean that bodies were not sacred. To the contrary: bodies were sacred only when they were not sacred — only when they embraced power and authority not as righteous works deserving of salvation, but only under the law of God, only under the constraint of heaven. In practice, as well as experience — pragmatically and phenomenally — this meant that good government was, by definition, not Christian. That is to say, it exercised no emancipatory power. Bodies do not reveal Christ. They do not contain Christ. They cannot. Except through a via negativa.

The unredeemed, sinful body is redeemed by renouncing its sacred character. Money as money is good. Power as power is good. Authority as authority is good. Not divine, not emancipatory, not redemptive. It is good in its negativity, in absence.

On the one hand, this is the theology of the First Commandment. Nothing, but nothing shall be God: no thing shall be God. And, yet, we only experience this through thingly mediation. Or, we deny even the thingly character of the mediation through which we know this: it is a mystery. Constraint ≠ the Divine. Constraint = Flesh. But flesh is not evil. Therefore, a flesh that is not divine is good. Secular authority rules over the flesh. God rules over the spirit.

This, of course, is wholly consistent with the emerging social form, where abstract value frees itself from its material form of appearance, the merely material commodity. The material commodity is not evil or bad. But it is not sacred. The immaterial value form, which knits all social being together, is cannot be fixed in any of its expressions. It is a mystery. This mystery Jean Calvin merely formalizes.

It might be supposed that, whether in its Lutheran or in its Calvinist forms, this isolation of immaterial value from its material form of appearance advances a fundamental critique of secular power. In fact, it advances a coherent defense of secular power. A gospel that expresses itself in bodies lends itself to judgment and to repentance. But a gospel that transcends bodies is only prohibited from posing as redemptive. Any body that acknowledges its merely earthly, worldly character — the Two Kingdoms — cannot be faulted. It must instead be obeyed. A secular body that submits to divine reprimand, divine constraint, falls within the Kingdom of God. I am authorized to criticize it precisely because it is sacred. A merely secular body is just that: a body.

The celebration of the critique of the body was evident nowhere more clearly than in Martin Luther’s 1522 in coena Domini, which Dr Roper describes as follows:

As a New Year’s prank for 1522, he published a mock version complete with glosses of the bull in coena Domini, issued regularly by the Pope at Easter to condemn heresy. Luther, of course, condemned the “bull-sellers, cardinals, legates, commissaries, under-commissaries, archbishops, bishops, abbots, provosts, deacons, cathedral clergy, priors…and who can list the gang of all these rascals, which the Rhine would hardly be big enough to drown?” Although his adversaries wrongly accused him of having fomented sedition and falsely alleged that he had taught that there was no need to obey secular authority, they were not wrong to scent the potential for social disturbance in Luther’s message.

Yes. Social disturbance. But it is the social disturbance not of God, but of capital.

Everything is Relative . . . to what?

I like to believe that most of my friends — many of whom are scientists — are not relativists. But then every now and again I hear a phrase — “everyone has a right to his opinion,” “to each his own,” “that’s because you’re a man,” “you’re not a woman, so you can’t know” — that makes me despair. Of course, knowledge is relative. What we know, or think we know, is relative to who we are and where we have been. And, yet, the truth of climate change science is not a matter of perspective. The fact that cigarettes cause cancer is not simply my opinion. Privately funded health care is — objectively — bad for public health. Or, on more neutral turf: the science that allows us to send projectiles into outer space to distant planets is not subject to personal belief; it is not arbitrary.

My family subscribes to National Geographic — you know, the journal owned by Fox News. Perhaps you remember the cover article from a couple of years ago: The War on Science (March 2015).

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Science, as we know, is not an outcome; it is a method, the “scientific method.” It does not dictate what we know; but how we know. So, for example, by following the “scientific method,” researchers could, if they wished, explain the physiological response of an individual’s body when the object of their “love” passed by, even if only notionally; it could explain why two individuals who “love” one another met, on a particular campus, in a particular venue; and it could explain why these two individuals encounter friction over specific topics or behaviors. Has the “scientific method” then captured “love”? Well, no. And, yet, a person who relies upon the “scientific method” would no more object to studies of “love” based upon this method than they would object to studies that enable us to send projectiles to distant planets.

I think that this topic is on my mind because it is a kind of “perspectivalism” that stands at the heart of the #FakePresident’s popularity in the heartland. The “culture wars” as a political weapon — the tried and true method of defeating truth when all else has failed — trusts that the enemies of conservatism hold the opinions they do because of who they are: wealthy, educated, privileged. People believe what they believe because of where they have been and who they are. The #FakePresident’s supporters are cultural relativists. Are we?

No. Climate science holds true even if no one recognizes it. Light moves at the same speed through empty space irrespective of whether anyone is there to measure it.

Which is very different than asking the question: what were the circumstances under which we knew this? Which is very different than asking the question: why did we even know that we should inquire into  the conditions of knowledge?

Which is to say that “The War on Science” is a much broader and much deeper war than Fox News lets on. It is not a war only on scientists or researchers or universities. It is a war on scientia, on knowledge. It is gnostic or, if you prefer, Manichean. There is a world of appearance. And there is a world of truth. Truth is not available through the world of appearance.

Two weeks ago I had the odd experience of traveling through time. It was, I believe, 1988 or 1989. I was at the old Natural Science Museum in Golden Gate Park. I had my sleeping bag, my pillow. My wife was there, but she was not my current wife. And there before me was Scoop Nisker, he of KFOG, guiding us through the Winter solstice. Wow! But, now I am at Spirit Rock and the woman next to me is my real wife. But, there in front of me, once again, is Scoop Nisker; only now his name is Wes. But he is telling me two disparate things: (1) the true is not the real; (2) the real is not the true.

The message was like a splash of cold water. Suddenly I understood the thin but deep cultural connection between right and left in the United States; but also the fundamental difference between, say, the US and Canada or Germany or Italy.

It’s all relative isn’t it? Or is it?