Saturday, February 20, 2010

I shouldn't have watched Religulous again, but...

Okay this is not gonna go over well, but, that's never really stopped me before. [Actually, social disapproval is one of the ways that our minds become colonized, circumscribed, and constrained.  And it is only through risking social disapproval that we break through those chains to see the world as it really is.]  So here goes:

By any standard modern definition of mental health, the founders of most of the major world religions were  mentally ill.  Matching our modern understanding of mental health up against the written accounts of the actions of these religious figures, one would observe that:

Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha, appears to have suffered from anti-social personality disorder.  He abandoned his family and avoided most personal relationships with other people, preferring instead to live under a tree with his eyes closed for most of his life. 

Abraham, the patriarch of the Israelites and the Jewish faith, appears to have suffered from paranoid schizophrenia: he heard voices, thought God was talking to him, and tried to murder his own son because of the voices in his head.

Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of the Christian faith, appears to have suffered from narcissistic personality disorder.  He thought he was the son of God, told people to abandon their families, give everything away, and follow him.

I know less about the life and works of Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullāh, the founder of Islam.  But he too, claimed that angels sent by God spoke directly to him and is said to have transcribed an entire book, the Qur'an, based on these messages from God.  Today we would call that sort of thinking schizophrenic. 

More recently:

Martin Luther (who started the Protestant Reformation), St. Ignacius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits), and John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim's Progress which formed the cornerstone of Puritanism) all suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder.

Joseph Smith Jr., founder of Mormonism, was a well known con man.  [Read Jon Krakauer's book, Under the Banner of Heaven to learn more.]  I don't know where being a con man fits in the DSM-IV but needless to say, it suggests that Smith's mental health was not 100%. 

What this suggests is that 1) our tradition of holding the medical practice of psychiatry in high esteem; and 2) our tradition of respecting various religious traditions -- are fundamentally incompatible with each other.  To the extent that we hold that the DSM-IV is the best approximation we have for what constitutes mental health and mental illness -- then we necessarily conclude that the followers of the various major religions traditions are following the teachings of people who were likely suffering from mental illness.  And to the extent that we conclude that religion is a good and true depiction of life on earth (and beyond) -- then we necessarily conclude that the DSM-IV is invalid.  And yet, most respectable, modern people in Western society hold these two fundamentally incompatible sets of views ('religious tolerance is good and modern psychology is good') without noting the severe dissonance between these two sets of views.

Said simply -- it seems that we either we need to respect crazy people more, or respect religious traditions less.

Monday, February 15, 2010

some thoughts on economic growth

In order for the economy to grow, you have to make things that improve people's quality of life.

You have to grow things that people can eat (real food that nourishes bodies not the frankenfood that ConAgra creates).

You have to make manufactured goods that save people time or money, or that increase comfort or well being.

You have to make technological innovations that cure diseases or solve problems or connect people in meaningful ways.

You have to provide services that increase stability, that increase happiness, or that help people live fulfilling lives.

You have to build the infrastructure (physical and social) upon which all of the rest of this economic activity can transpire.

That is the foundation of economic growth in any country.

But since 1993 and the passage of NAFTA, the U.S. doesn't really make things anymore. We've shipped a large portion of our manufacturing to Mexico and China and the third world.

A number of companies -- like the private health insurance industry -- create the illusion of making something. Judging from their ads, private health insurance companies claims to be an accounting service to improve health care access, quality, and affordability. But in reality, they are just rackets to pump money from people to corporations.

Since the repeal of Glass-Steagal in 1999, the only thing that has propelled U.S. economic growth is "financial services." But it turns out that the U.S.led "innovation in financial services" was really just a scam, an elaborate mathematical Ponzi scheme executed by the best and brightest firms on Wall Street.

So when President Obama tries to stimulate a depressed economy now, the problem is, the only thing that the U.S. really makes anymore, the only thing we really excel at, is rackets, scams, and financial Ponzi schemes. Left with little choice, the Obama financial team led by Geithner & Summers has tried to re-inflate the financial services bubble and the housing bubble. Because really, that's all we got.

The problem is that this strategy is not going to work. The fundamentals just aren't there. The idea that we can run a successful economy without making things that actually improve people's lives is just silly. The idea that we can just muddle through this mess and everything will be okay is about to crash headfirst into the brick wall of reality.

So, my guess is that the re-inflated housing and financial services bubble will pop. I imagine traders will take profits in the early summer, sticking small scale investors with huge losses, and we'll head into the second dip of the great recession by fall. Because the Wall Street crowd doesn't really don't care if the bubble pops again-- they know they'll get a better deal from a Republican Congress and that a Republican electoral sweep is more likely if the economy is in tatters next November.

The alternative of course would be for Obama to acknowledge the depth of the economic and political problems facing the country and begin to address them. It would likely need to include restoring Glass-Steagal, canceling NAFTA, nationalizing the health insurance and oil industries, cutting the defense budget in half, bringing our troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq, restoring FDR-era levels of taxation on the rich, and creating a national university system dedicated to science and engineering. Ian Welsh has a great list of things that are needed "To Fix America." But again it does not seem that Obama is interested in having that sort of conversation with America or pushing that sort of legislative agenda through Congress. It is exactly the sort of sober, adult conversation that Obama potentially could be really great at. But instead we get nonsense about bipartisan budget commissions and the 'need to reform entitlement programs' including Medicare and Social Security. Quite literally, facing an economy that is hitting on no cylinders -- our political class proposes slashing the most effective anti-poverty programs in the history of the world rather than addressing the sources of the problem.