Friday, February 17, 2012

Quick Take: From a Distance

A minor theme may be emerging in my choice of things to photograph for this blog: things in the built environment that project one image when glimpsed in passing or viewed from a distance, but that reveal something quite different on closer inspection.

Walter Benjamin had his "Arcades Project," so maybe this could be "The Facades Project."

Today's exhibit is the Carnegie Education Pavilion in Hardy Ivy Park, along Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta.

From a distance, approaching on foot or driving up Peachtree from the south, it looks modestly impressive: not a grand monument, by any measure, but solid, respectable, and public-spirited enough for a small park:

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Bafflement of Colleagues

I recently wrote to an economist colleague to request some references on the idea of moral hazard as it has made its way into economics form the insurance industry. I have since found further references by other means, but my request sparked an exchange in which I found myself confronted by puzzlement on the part of my colleague . . . and a pressing need to further clarify what I mean by the tragic outlook, and what some critics have meant when they said such an outlook poses a moral hazard.

One crucial point of clarification - a point on which my colleague insists - is that the original meaning of moral hazard is very restricted in scope. It really only applies to principal-agent relationships under conditions of uncertainty, particularly relationships within which the principal (i.e., an insurance firm) in effect shields the agent (i.e., the insured client) from certain losses. The hazard, from the insurer's point of view, is that being shielded from risk will change the behavior of the agent with respect to those same risks, possibly bringing about greater losses than would otherwise have occurred.

So, on the face of it, the tragic outlook cannot be subject to the moral hazard objection, because there is no principal involved, and agents (i.e., you and I) are not shielded from risk. I'll have more to say about a possible extension of the moral hazard objection in another context, but I think the intuition behind it is having, in some more general sense, "nothing to lose."

But my colleague started asking other tough-minded questions about the coherence of the tragic outlook itself and, in formulating my responses, I've come to a better and more articulate understanding of what I mean.

To that extent, I am generally grateful for the bafflement of colleagues.

Here is how I first characterized the outlook:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Following up on an aside in my first post on Brown's book, I'd like to consider an essential question of ethics and political philosophy:  What is the smallest self-sufficient unit of human life?

For myself, I lean to the ancient account, from Plato and Aristotle: the smallest self-sufficient unit of human life is the city, that is, the polis, which entails community and political order as well as geographic proximity and economic interdependence.

An adult human being may indeed be able to eke out a bare subsistence, alone in the wide world, but to thrive, to have any hope of developing our capacities and leading fully human lives worthy of the name and, indeed, to have help in getting through hard times, we need community and some kind of political order.

It is a peculiarly modern folly to think not only that the individual can be self-sufficient, but that we somehow start out as self-sufficient, and only come into civil society by choice or by contract.

What the ancients realized, what the moderns seem to have forgotten, is that we are always already in some kind of community. We cannot come into the world and reach adulthood without communal cooperation involving at least two other people.

We members of H. sapiens sapiens aren't exactly precocial, able to leap from the womb and start fending for ourselves.

(I sometimes comment to my students that the "state of nature" thought experiment, introduced by Hobbes, could only have been written by a man, and probably one who had never raised children. That Rousseau never raised children is entirely too well known, and a blot on his character: he sent off to the orphanage the children he fathered with his companion, Thérèse.)

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have been reading Plato's The Republic with my students in a political philosophy class. In order to figure out what justice is, Plato has Socrates build a hypothetical city. In the following, Socrates is using the first person; he is speaking to Adeimantus who, as it happens, is Plato's brother:

Friday, February 3, 2012

14 Days and Counting . . .

I have been continuing to read Wendy Brown's book, Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs, though sporadically. My train commute really isn't all that long, and I've had many, many other things to read in the mean time.

I have small addition to my review-in-progress of the book, which merges with the theme from my last post: skepticism.

Imagine I came to believe the world as we know it really would end in 21 days and, following my own priorities, I decide to meet my neighbors and to work toward getting us all organized to prepare for the end.

Why on Earth would they believe me?

Because I am convinced, I might well regard their disbelief as irrational denial. But, in all fairness, consider the possibility that it is also, at least in part, rooted in a healthy skepticism. I am making an extraordinary claim - certain knowledge of the very hour at which the-world-as-we-know-it will end - which would require extraordinary proof.