31 May 2012


There has been of late a fascinating outbreak of discussion of microfinance at Marginal Revolution.

The first time I wrote of microcredit in this blog, in December 2010, I noted that Muhammad Yunus was generally considered its father, Grameen Bank was the DNA, and Bangladesh was the cradle.

I reported in that and a following entry on a controversy over a particular transfer of funds from Grameen Bank to Grameen Kalyan, a sister organization.

Half a year later I returned to the subject and referenced efforts to extend the basic model to the US.

A lot of newsy water has passed under the bridge since then. The significance of the discussion at Marginal Revolution, though, is that it takes our attention away from Yunis, away even from the 20th and 21st centuries, and asks us to think of microfinance/microcredit with a much longer life.  Jonathan Swift gently rocked its cradle in 18th century Ireland.
That discussion will in turn direct you to this book.
Happy reading.

27 May 2012

For Sylvia Jane III

Yet if free will in the sense under discussion  is bound up with the notion of the autonomous individual soul we ought to consider the argument of Averroes (Ibn Rushd).

The Moors of the 12th century had access to the writings of Aristotle -- the Christian world didn't rediscover Aristotle until they started winning back large parts of Spain, and ended up in the possession of some of the (formerly Moorish) libraries.

Anyway, Averroes wrote a learned commentary on the works of Aristotle, and the part of his commentary that most concerns us right now involves the idea of the human soul. Simplifying the matter considerably, one may say that Averroes --
invoking Aristotle's authority -- believed that there is only one true immortal human intellect, or soul. Our individual selves, our personalities, come about
because this one common soul is mixed with a lot of different individual bodies.
Perhaps our bodies are so many stained-glass windows in a Church. The underlying mind, the “active intellect,” is the same –the light of the sun outside the Church. But the streams of light are differentiated as the various “passive intellects” once they have passed through the material of the windows.
If anything like this is so, where will we locate our notions of freedom? In the passive or in the active intellect? Or perhaps in the stained glass itself?

26 May 2012

For Sylvia Jane II

Continuing the consideration of free will, and of Sam Harris’ recent book on the subject, from last week.  

As I indicated there, I’m not persuaded that Libet’s experiments have the broad significance sometimes attributed to them. Accordingly, I find unpersuasive Harris’ reliance on those experiments in his discussin of the factual question.

Beyond that, there is the value question. Harris wants us to abandon the idea of free will because it is part of the further idea of an autonomous self, and he wants us to give up that. The idea of a separate self is (as Buddhism teaches) the cause of all suffering and the abandonment of that illusion is enlightenment.

I recognize this idea as part of a noble philosophical heritage. For myself, though, I’m sticking with … my Self. The idea of the self, as a locus of responsibility and originality, has given us the politics of rights, of social mobility, the struggle for companionate over arranged marriage, and much else. How much “else” quickly becomes a matter of attribution and interpretation, but it seems likely for example that the idea of the lonely creative genius which was so much a part of romanticism was itself a factor in creating some of the works of art with which we associate the period.

Selfhood, whatever else we may say of it, is not only about suffering. And it is my humble prejudice that we should keep selfhood (and such notions of freedom as are intermingled with that) until we have better reasons for abandoning it than anything yet presented.

I'll have a final comment on this line of thought tomorrow.

25 May 2012

A Critique of Gambling with Borrowed Chips

In The Federal Lawyer, the monthly FBA publication, Jane Gravelle of the Congressional Research Service has written a critique of my recent book on the financial crisis of 2007-08, Gambling with Borrowed Chips.

Here is a link to the book.

Here is a link to the review section of The Federal Lawyer for June. Gravelle’s review begins at p. 3 of that pdf.  If you are reading this after that link has lapsed, try here instead.

As you will see at either site, Gravelle had some kind words about my book as “readable and entertaining.” She enjoyed the historical material, and appreciated my explanations of “a lot of concepts and practices.” So if my book is ever re-issued with a dust jacket, we may be able with judicious editing to mine this review for blurbs.

She spends most of her review arguing with my book though: arguing in particular that my analysis of the cause of the crisis, and my prescriptions for avoiding its like in the future, are thoroughly misguided. Thus, she has my gratitude for giving me a wonderful excuse for discussing that analysis and those prescriptions further, and I will take advantage of the same in a series of posts you’ll be able to read right here next week.

For now, though, I’ll limit myself to an observation about the kind of book this is. Gravelle writes, “Gambling with Borrowed Chips is not a scholarly work, in that it has no references or footnotes.”  

Yes, it is true that I did not use the usual scholarly apparatus of footnotes and bibliography. This isn’t because I am unfamiliar or disrespectful of that apparatus. I have employed it in earlier books, and may well employ it again if I give this particular argument the fuller work-up I believe it deserves. Still … this book was but a précis for some later complete scholarly study, and a précis that might indeed attract readers who are put off my small-print notes and lengthy lists of references.
The text itself does contain references to the works on which I depend, more-or-less explicit or allusive, it is true. Barney Frank’s great whistling-past-the-graveyard quotation, "There’s no immediate crisis,” may be found in The Washington Post for September 7, 2008, for example, as my book clearly indicates.
As to scholarly works, in my chapter “Sound Money” I allude to the work of economic-historian Robert Higgs on the unusual length of the Great Depression and the economic consequences of the Second World War. I also cite no less of an authority than Ludwig von Mises on the aftermath of the Bretton Woods monetary conference.
My own credentials are not those of an academic economist (or economic historian).  They are those of a reporter whose beat it has been for many years now to cover the world of finance, first at HedgeWorld (2000 to 2008) and more recently at The Hedge Fund Law Report and as the proprietor of Enfield Editorial Service. I believe this has been as valuable a perch whence to observe and learn as any other I could have occupied through the key period.  
That will do for the kind of book, and the kind of author, involved. Next week, we shall get to the substantive issues between Gravelle and your humble servant.

24 May 2012

From Land's End to Stadium

I haven’t included a predominantly sports-oriented blog entry in Pragmatism Refreshed since February.  And that was simply my brief reaction to the loss of the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

So now I break the sports drought with a few words about the upcoming Summer Olympics.

Last week the Olympic flame arrived in the United Kingdom, for an 8,000 mile relay that begins at Land’s End.

Land’s End, by the way, is what it sounds like. It is the bit of southwest England where the Channel meets the Atlantic at a point.

I remember reading a book about the Spanish Armada with the clever chapter title, “From Finisterre to Land’s End.”

Why is that clever?  Well, because “finisterre” rather transparently means “land’s end,” and because the pertinent Finisterre in this case is the headline of Galicia in northwest Spain. So the chapter in question described the pre-battle portion of the Armada’s travels, before they arrived close enough for Drake to challenge them.

Anyway, the torch began its relay in Land’s End, in the hands of Ben Ainslie, and before it reaches the stadium in London that will host the Games, it will have passed through 8,000 pairs of hands over a period of ten weeks.

Why Ben Ainslie?  He has been a standout athlete for the UK in each of the last four summer games in sailing events, wnning silver in 1996 and gold in 2000. In those first two games he sailed in what is known as the Laser class. Then he moved up to the Finn class (larger craft) and won gold both in 2004 and 2008.   

For those who are curious, Laser looks like this.

20 May 2012

A Neat Bit of News from Archeology

Excavation within the fortified city of Khirbet Qeiyafa offers physical evidence corroborating the OT’s account of the reign of King David. A new book, Footsteps of King David in the Valley of Elah, contends that three rooms at the site served as shrines, around 1000 BC, and that the evidence indicates worship at those sites was monotheistic and occurred in the absence of graven images of either humans or animals. Judaism was distinctively Judaism, then, that early.
I have nothing really to say about this, but it gives me the excuse to use the following striking image.

19 May 2012

A Philosophic Crank Immortalized

“Among the philosophic cranks of my acquaintance in the past was a lady all the tenets of whose system I have forgotten except one.  Had she been born in the Ionian archipelago some three thousand years ago, that one doctrine would probably have made her name sure of a place in every university curriculum and examination paper. The world, she said, is composed of only two elements, the Thick, namely, and the Thin.”   -- William James.

There’s a lot to like about this passage.  There is, to begin, the mild streak of misanthropy. James’ prose often gives you the sense that he did not suffer fools gladly, and someone of his prominence must certainly have heard from a lot of “philosophic cranks” out to sell their own brand of snake oil.

Secondly, though, and somewhat at odds with that: there’s a love of human variety. This woman was a “crank,” but she was a crank whose silly idea sticks in his mind, and might in the right time and place have made her famous.

Third, there is the point of it. For James, the distinction between thick and thin is critical in examining philosophies. Some are thin – they seem to proceed entirely by logic chopping, by the dance of bloodless categories. Such is the vice of intellectualism. Other philosophies are thick – they bring in the empirical world at every turn – and they draw James’ admiration.  He uses this anonymous woman’s distinction to introduce the works of Fechner, and the remainder of that chapter tells of his admiration for Fechner’s mind as a “multitudinously organized cross-roads of truth.”

It is the distinction, in short, between the hedgehog and the fox.      

18 May 2012

For Sylvia Jane

On April  10, while I was working my way through a multi-post exegesis of philosopher Robert Kane’s book, The Significance of Free Will, reader Sylvia Jane asked why I hadn’t commented on Sam Harris’ more recent book on the subject.

I had to admit that I hadn’t even known of its existence until three days before receiving her question.  

But I’ll return to the subject now, just to say that I don’t think Harris brings anything new or interesting to the table.

Harris makes two points: (1) free will is an illusion, and (2) that is a good thing, too: we’ll all be better off when we rid ourselves of it.

As to (1), Harris relies upon Libet’s experiments. So let’s talk about them. Benjamin Libet is a physiologist who, in the 1980s, ran experiments in which he instructed his human subjects to make a certain simple movement , like pressing one or another button. He had their brains wired up for his machines while they were deliberating and when they finally did press one or the other button. His conclusion was that there was information available from their brain hemispheres that disclosed which button they were going to push several seconds before they pushed either of them.

This certainly sounds dramatic. I have the introspective awareness that I am deciding now to do something as a result of my conscious thought processes, but my hemispheres had gone into the appropriate mode for that decision seconds before?  Free will wrong! Determinism right!  Right?  So Harris would have us think.  It even inspired him to start putting quotation marks around the word “decision.” “You then become conscious of this ‘decision’ and believe that you are in the process of making it.”

My problem with this is that I don’t believe we can infer that all decisions are alike, or that all intentional acts are inherently conscious.  Consider the last time you were out driving. You likely did a lot of things without ever having the conscious experience of doing or willing to do them. Consider hitting the lever that puts the left signal turn on. This is an action of which you may never have had any conscious awareness at all, yet we might fairly still speak of it as a conscious intention. I doubt it really matters in which second before you hit the level a machine would show the relevant hemispheric activity.

But now consider the sort of life-changing experience Kane is talking about. Suppose you have sworn off cigarettes. Yet you’ve just had a big meal of a sort that has often in the past been a prelude to cigarettes. You reach for a pack for a moment – then remember your vow and, we will say, pull your hand back. Do Libet’s experiments give us any reason to believe that was set before you were struggling over it? No. The rare and critical decisions that count always seem to happen when one is not hooked up to a physiologists’ machine, and there is no obvious non-question-begging case for generalization.   

Harris’ second point is somewhat more interesting. Maybe free will is a bad idea (even if it does accurately describe some events in our lives) and we’re better off without it.  This is related (as Harris tells us) to the Buddhist notion that the self is a bad idea.  

I’ll come back to that next week.

17 May 2012

Nearly random link farming

 Today, May 17, is the 220th anniversary of the Buttonwood Agreement.  The beginning of everything we nowadays mean by the phrase “Wall Street.”

Here’s a link that may shed some light on symbolic significance thereof.

John Travolta is the subject of some amusing allegations.

Well … I find them amusing, anyway.  And it seems I’m not alone.

This week’s Kentucky Derby did nothing for the horse named Alpha, but it did a favor for fans of murder mysteries.

And The Onion is on the case.

Some history of the phrase “person of interest.”

Which is also apparently a television show?

I’m reading a book by Detlev S. Schlichter. He may consider this a preliminary shout-out. Here’s the amazon page.

13 May 2012

Find the Fallacy

Two mathematicians begin a discussion by assuming that A=B. Then they begin making changes. They add an equal term to both sides of the equation. A+A=A+B or 2A=A+B. Then they subtract an equal number from both sides. 2A -2B = A+B -2B. They look at this and agree that this all makes sense. Then they agree that this equation can be simplified by a simple operation. 2(A-B) = A+B-2B. This again simplifies to 2(A-B) = A-B. The result astounds them. Two times (A-B) equals (A-B)? Two equals one????

The answer is that the fallacy occurs only at the final step.

We get to 2(A-B) = A-B. But at this point we should recall that if you subtract something from itself you always get zero. So A-B = 0 and 2(A-B) also equals 0.

It is surely the case that 0 = 0, but thus stated the air of paradox has disappeared.

You obviously can’t get from there to the conclusion 2=1, only to the conclusion that

2(0) = 1(0).

The final step would be division by zero, which the basic rules prohibit. Precisely to avoid such paradoxes as this!

My point? Just that zero, and the rules governing its use are more exotic human conceptual inventions than one might think. The casualness with which we usually treat zero comes from familiarity, not from simplicity. This confirms the point I sought to make yesterday, that our most successful inventions are also discoveries, and vice versa.

This turns out to be, not especially Kantian, but certainly Jamesian, or well within the area of their overlap.

12 May 2012

Invention and Discovery

Continuing my thought from last week, a thought instigated by Ciceronianus: 

Do humans actively shape the world?  Do we invent reality? Or do we merely discover it?

Surely we build skyscrapers and bridges, in much the same way that birds make nests. We seek to shape our environment for the sake of our own survival.

Is there some sense that doesn’t immediately involve motor activity in which humans invent the world? Something more constructivist?

A “yes” answer seems to make more sense to me than it does to Ciceronianus. In part this is because of reflection on the history of mathematics A very short statement is this: mathematics is a series of outrageous re-definitions of what it means to be a number. We learn to count when very young, and I suppose it has always been thus. The first conception of number derives from the act of counting.

But through our lives, if we receive any sort of education, we learn about ever more outlandish sorts of number. The strangeness of zero, for example.  Or irrational numbers, those wild things like pi that never repeat and never end.  How uncanny!

We may also wrestle with negative numbers. Then the idea of an "infinitesimal." I remember an old Sesame Street episode with the question whether a circle is “all one side” or whether a circle has “a whole lot of very little sides.” Ernie was raising the question of infinitesimals.  Circles (or other curves) can be thought of as an infinite number of tangent straight lines, each line always receding in size, with the Euclidean point as a limit.

Beyond even that, there is the notion of imaginary numbers. In the real number system, the basic rules of multiplication and division make it impossible that there should be such a thing as the square root of a negative number. But forget about that and invent the square root of -1 anyway! Call it i.

These increasingly absurd seeming steps of human reason are also steps of human imagination.  They seem as sheerly inventive as anything else we as a species can do. The paradox, then, is that the inventions of these outlandish notions by clever humans working at a very high level of abstraction, and often unconcerned with practical consequences, always turns out to have enormous practical consequences.

11 May 2012

That AP Apology

For what is AP apologizing?

For firing a guy who broke his word, 67 years and one week ago.

This is an odd (and old) story, but it is also an intriguing footnote to a great historic event, V-E Day.

When Hitler was dead, and the remnants of his inner circle were at last ready to surrender, the Allies decided on two distinct surrender ceremonies -- one involving the western allies, the other involving Russia.

The AP won what some call the biggest scoop in its history -- it was the first organization to report the end of the war in Europe. Even the NY Times ran the AP story that day -- and the mighty Times almost never deigns to use wire services reports, or admit to it. Anyway, you can see the copy here:

MAY 4 1945

But ... it then fired the reporter who had done so.

That was Edward Kennedy. He agreed, as did the other reporters 'embedded' (they didn't use that tern then) with the US Armed Forces and in a position to know about this, that they wouldn't report the story until they got the okay.

Why not? Diplomacy. The Russian surrender ceremony took longer to arrange than the western one, and the Russians wanted Germany's surrender to them to be announced to the world at the same time as Germany's surrender to the US and UK.

But Kennedy decided (in his own words, in a memoir): "Once the war is over, you can't hold back information like that. The world needed to know."

Kennedy has passed away. The AP has apologized to his daughter. CEO Tom Curley says, "It was a terrible day for the AP. It was handled in the worst possible way."

Well ... maybe. The AP ran with the scoop and then fired him. Maybe a better idea would have been NOT to run with the scoop, and to fire him quietly for trying to pass it off as a news story? Or (if they agreed with him that the world's need to know exceeded the imperative of keeping one's word) run the scoop and keep him on payroll. Either it was wrong or it wasn't. Getting the benefit and dumping the liability -- is that what they're apologizing for?

The story is getting international play. Here's the Jakarta Post. (In their part of the world, of course, the war wasn't over in May. That was part of the reason the western powers had to make nice with Stalin as per surrender ceremonies and such.) Of course the Jakarta Post isn't publishing its own account of the AP apology. It is one of many papers around the world running ... the AP account of same.

Or taking unfair advantage of their competition, whose reporters did keep their word?

Here is another take.  Written by the son of another 1940s-era journalist, one of those who didn't break that particular story but who could have, and who in fact knew about this before Kennedy did.

10 May 2012

Past the So

Looking at a novel by Tony Hillerman, COYOTE WAITS.

In terms of genre, this is a police procedural.

The police involved are the Navajo Tribal Police. They’ve since become known as the Navajo Nation Police, but this book was written in 1990, so I gather that was still the right name then.

It isn’t well written. Here is a sample of the dialog:

“You’re late, she said. “You said an hour. The cops already made me move twice.”

“It was you who said, and you said an hour and a half or so,” Chee said. “By Navajo time it is now just a tiny bit past the so.”

Yuck yuck yuck.


By the way, the above illustration has nothing to do with police procedurals as a genre, but it is the logo of my d/b/a identity: Enfield Editorial Service.

06 May 2012

Interacting with the World, and Ciceronianus

This weekend, Ciceronianus, author of a wonderful neo-Stoic blog, posted on epistemology. He wrote: "I'm bemused from time to time by the view that the world (as in "reality" or the universe) is, in part at least, our creation, or perhaps is created by each of us for himself/herself."

He named first Kant and later Wilfred Sellars as examples of the sort of epistemologist he has in mind. Let us use the broad term "constructivism" for the broad PoV that Kant and Sellars share, and that bemuses our Stoic.

Ciceronianus, if I understand him, then proceeds to the assertion that such constructivism is either pointlessly obvious or wildly wrong. The obvious and uninteresting point is that "we are human beings, and as such interact with the world as human beings do." Yet those who are most serious about urging that "they shape the world" seem to want to go much further than this, and that furtherness is what bothers Ciceronianus.

I contributed a thought of my own to his comment section.
There is a tee shirt that bears upon some of the issues you raise. It shows somewhat anthropomorphized versions of the Greek letter pi (Π) and of the expression √-1.

Pi is saying to √-1, “Get real.” And√-1is replying, “Be rational!”

I’ll pause now while you slap your knees.

The joke, of course, is that pi is an example of an “irrational” but real number, while √-1 is the definition of i, the foundation of the imaginary numbers.

05 May 2012

Only Cash is Cash

It isn't necessarily the case that one should beware of all the investments known as "cash equivalents," such as money market funds or auction rate securities.

But one should definitely enter into these products, if one does so, with an understanding that they are not in fact the "equivalent" of a federally insured checking account. Only cash is cash.

I've provided a case study at Forbes.com recently.

Click here.

04 May 2012

Black's Law Dictionary

I'd like to thank The Federal Lawyer for bringing me the news (in its May 2012 issue) that there is a new edition of Black's Law Dictionary available, the 9th.

This is not to say that I plan to rush out and buy it.   My own quite limited need for legal lexicography is still satisfied by the very old (4th edition!) Black's that sits on the shelf above my desk. Still, it is good to see the mind of Black’s editor Bryan Garner at work as he explains the principles that have been guiding him over years of work on the evolution of this reference text.
He writes that at least as recently as the 6th edition Black’s contained definitions for (just taking examples from the Bs): botulism, bouche (mouth), bough of a tree, bought, bouncer, bourg, boulevard, bourgeois, Brabant,brabanter, and brachium maris.
“These can hardly be counted as legal terms worthy of inclusion in a true law dictionary,” he says. So presumably he has been weeding out such things.

Challenged, I looked up “bough of a tree,” in my old Black’s Fourth. I learned (or was reminded, I think I had heard it before) that the bough of a tree in feudal law was a symbol, it “gave seisin of land.” In other words, a feudal lord would hand a tenant who owed him fealty a bough of a tree taken from a plot of land, as a way of saying, “this plot is now yours to possess and work [so long as I continue to get my cut.]” It was the same sort of symbolic gesture we see today when a landlord hands you the keys to your new apartment, often with a bit of a flourish!

Knowing this, my dear reader, do you think Mr Garner should be boasting about having excluded such words in his own re-workings? Or do you think it made some sense to include this legal-history tidbit. Let us thrash it out here!

03 May 2012

William James Quote

“Why do we thus so markedly select the tangible to be the real? Our motives are not far to seek. The tangible qualities are the least fluctuating. When we get them at all we get them the same. The other qualities fluctuate enormously as our relative position to the object changes. Then, most decisive still, the tactile properties are those most intimately connected with our weal or woe. A dagger hurts us only when in contact with our skin….”

Principles of Psychology, chapter 21, The Perception of Reality

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.