Memories Go Fourth

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A year ago, I was reminiscing… three memories: inflation, gold, and a profligate economy founded upon debt, which only sounds like an oxymoron.

… Grandpa here yet?

One more memory, along those lines. Mid ’70s, probably pre-Star Wars, probably a Saturday, and Grandpa’s over for dinner, always a minor occasion. With front-door greetings over, coats taken, dogs settled, and drinks well in hand, the family sits together around the living room, as ever talking and remembering and passing the time.

Grandpa could slice politicians like birthday sponge cake

This particular afternoon, though, the tone is vexed… that special incredulity-slash-resignation only politicians can inspire. This afternoon, the value of a dollar or, rather, value past now lost: how much a dollar no longer buys, and the daft decision-makers who don’t or won’t comprehend, much less accept, their own responsibility – not only for here-and-now but come the inevitable reckoning.

Bonus memory… remember this one? Probably from the ’90s… your RSP advisor has you signing a document that reads, Past is no indication of future performance, and while you scrawl, they finish their spiel by saying, “…but historically, the stock market has always tended to rise.” And as far as that was accurate, it was also mere dissembling unless adjusted for inflation.

As snow on the ground is not the weather, ‘rising prices’ are not inflation. As far as inflation is the issue, prices don’t actually rise; rather, the currency’s purchasing power falls, and more dollars must accumulate to buy the same item as before, which seems like prices getting higher but is not the same thing as costs that rise against sound measures.

If today’s runaway inflation has not been headed our way the past fifteen years, then how about the past fifty? A few months after I was born, the 37th US President responded to runaway inflation, which by then of course had been politicised. Two features of his new economic policy were an end to the fixed-exchange currency arrangement, in existence since 1944, which by then of course had been politicised, and a shocking yet not shocking halt to the international convertibility of currencies into US-held gold. Perhaps no shock, none of this is considered among the 37th Administration’s accomplishments, not whether you look here, here, or even here although it is briefly mentioned here.

At least grant the past two years, yet the ‘runaway’ bit, now as in the ’70s, is simply the amplified effect of machinations underway for the past 109.

M2 Money Supply still matters. Chart: (although don’t bother checking on May 2–3, 2022)

Before the Federal Reserve was enacted in 1913, inflation was an expansion of the money supply – these days an increase in the supply of currency units: dollars, renminbi, rupees, whatever. An effect of inflation is a definite fall of purchasing power by dilution of currency units from having created more and more and more of them. Prices ‘rise’ driven by currency debasement, an effect of inflation where prices seem to rise because their numerical values get higher, and people might spend more for the same, or spend less and have less. Another effect is an expectation everybody gathers for prices to get higher still. Prices ‘getting higher’ or prices ‘rising’ is my way to distinguish between what economists say is nominal and what they say is real. Credit 20th century Fed-era economists, all tied up in knots over the determinants of demand-pull and cost-push and all manner of academic-importance speech, which I guess is the mission-creep you’d need if there were a vacuum of cultural memory that needed filling – as easy as money from thin air, or playing god with people’s lives and livelihoods, or hubris.

How little of this actually is a cultural memory anymore, much less a family one, might be telling. Something I remember my Dad used to say all the time – he said it that Saturday in the living room, and I remember my Grandpa agreed: “It isn’t that people don’t know; they simply don’t want to know.”

There’s a lot riding on partial perspectives – everything, you could say – so, what… let it ride?

Or look into things. More thoroughly, on your own terms, whether you’re curious or not. Suppose you even come to understand the world more than you thought you did, or more than you remembered.

Can you tell which one was the watchdog?

On Bias: I. Disparate Bias

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On Bias: I. Disparate Bias

Various dictionaries define bias as a tendency or inclination: usually preconceived, sometimes unreasoned, and typically unfair; an inherent if not intentionally irrational preference. Partiality, expectancy, perception… where such words are synonymous, still if they meant exactly the same thing, wouldn’t we use exactly the same word? So what exactly is bias?

Sociologist Jim Mackenzie, ostensibly on behalf of teachers, introduces bias as “something we all deplore.” He associates bias with truth, in a negative way where bias leans toward its own ends, and with justice where bias unchecked is distinctly unfair. Still, his ensuing analysis of two “images” is instructive. First, bias indicates something to be gotten rid of… imagine an excess of prejudice, or a distortion or “impurity in a lens… that prevents us from seeing things as they really are” (p. 491) which, you’ll notice, leaves an alternative of being unable or unwilling to get rid of it. Second, as a void or deficit to be filled, or an insufficient consideration or partial blindness by which we’re unable to see what’s already there, or even see any alternatives, bias indicates something to be gained which, again, leaves open the inability or unwillingness to gain it.

Before going any further, I’d be remiss to overlook my own word choice, summarising Mackenzie: both times, you’ll see I wrote “… bias indicates, which leaves….” Something indicated is pointed out, presumably against criteria or else how would you know to single it out? And for leaving an open alternative from which to choose, such criteria would be definite, or else why not assert amidst ambiguity? Anyway, this is the reasoning for my word choice, and you can take it or leave it, as you will.

Considering his first image, an excess of prejudice, Mackenzie cites Edmund Husserl and the “full intellectual freedom” needed to “break down the mental barriers which [our habits of thought] have set along the horizons of our thinking” (p. 43) – by today’s messaging, ‘open-mindedness is a hard ask’. Maybe so, but set against this is Husserl’s steadfast urgency that “nothing less is required.”

Husserl’s prescription reminded me of Sir Francis Bacon, who would have us overcome what he called the four Idols of the Mind that “imbue and corrupt [our] understanding in innumerable and sometimes imperceptible ways”:

The human understanding is most excited by that which strikes and enters the mind at once and suddenly, and by which the imagination is immediately filled and inflated. It then begins almost imperceptibly to conceive and suppose that everything is similar to the few objects which have taken possession of the mind…

… although the greatest generalities in nature must be positive, just as they are found, and in fact not causable, yet the human understanding, incapable of resting, seeks for something more intelligible. Thus, however, while aiming at further progress, it falls back to what is actually less advanced, namely, final causes; for they are clearly more allied to man’s own nature, than the system of the universe, and from this source they have wonderfully corrupted philosophy.…

The human understanding resembles not a dry light, but admits a tincture of the will and passions, which generate their own system accordingly; for man always believes more readily that which he prefers. He, therefore, rejects difficulties for want of patience in investigation; sobriety, because it limits his hope; the depths of nature, from superstition; the light of experiment, from arrogance and pride, lest his mind should appear to be occupied with common and varying objects; paradoxes, from a fear of the opinion of the vulgar; in short, his feelings imbue and corrupt his understanding in innumerable and sometimes imperceptible ways. (pp. 24–26)

My guess would be no love lost for Bacon, these days, which is nothing if not ironic.

Husserl also reminded me of one of my professors, Dr. William Pinar, whose concept of “reactivation” would seem to grant history just that wee bit more consideration as we set about our ideas and memories, revisiting if not revising them with more intention and, presumably, greater awareness. All these together – Bacon, Husserl, Pinar – I see reflecting Mackenzie’s second image, a deficit of alternatives, not something to be corrected or removed but rather a void to be filled, an absence noted, an allusion by Joyce to the “gnomon in the Euclid” (p. 1). What luck for Mackenzie, being so well represented (thanks of course to me).

And lucky for all of us to be surrounded by the greatest unfilled void imaginable, a universe of limitless time and space: “… a pretty big place!” to quote Dr. Arroway, and certainly big enough to surpass any no-worries belief that, nah, we have it all well in-hand. Mackenzie’s implication is that everyone’s necessarily biased for being finite. Sure, we continually develop new understandings across spaces over time, but short of real omniscience, as if we might observe the Earth’s sphere from its surface – so, make that well short – who could possibly come to know all there is to know? Our limit is our bias although I find a lot of people seem to get this reversed. Then again, pride and prejudice pair up for box office mojo that wisdom and humility would hardly dare to dream.

Our limit is our bias although I find a lot of people seem to get this reversed.

Bias arises inevitably from… call it what you want: our nature, a state of being, Dasein. We’re inescapably subject to it, beset and enamoured by it. Its cumulative effects inflect our cultural systems and institutions while remaining, as Heikes says, invisible to everyone involved, like the water to those oblivious fish. This may be why Mackenzie sets the “onus of proof” for demonstrating bias, be it misunderstanding or insufficient consideration, upon “the person who claims that something is biased, for that is provable,” i.e. hey look! something more, something else, something different. As for demonstrating that someone has fully completely understood or utterly thoroughly considered a matter, and therefore is unbiased: this remains impossible although more and more our cultural infatuation is to start your impossible and put those pesky finite limitations to the sword. Time to fly on waxen wing and silence father’s voice.

Characterising limit as the antagonist is not our only option although for raising hackles, or for squeamish sentiments like Mackenzie’s introduction, I guess bias was inevitably doomed to be the dagger of our mind. Still, somewhat less drastic is MacMullen, who casts bias as more benign prejudice “that exhibits resistance to rational criticism” wherein, I suppose, the patient must minister to himself. As it happens, I have a teacher bias that’s comfortable with MacMullen’s perspective, particularly where he cuts to the core debate that has faced biased educators through the ages: what should comprise the curriculum? what should we teach because what is worth learning? what is school for? Whatever our response to any of this, surely it’s not to cap our limits but to stretch them.

“We must decide,” MacMullen counsels, “whether, when, and how to expose children to (what we take to be) the most powerful critiques of and significant alternatives to our existing political order.” Critical thinking powers activate – that goes for you too, Critical Theorists, so I hope you brought enough for everybody.

Hey, though, one look at the pantheon of scholars and heroes in this post should be all anyone needs, as compared to MacMullen’s thing about (what we take to be) critiques and alternatives to our existing political order, or any order really… since when did the root of all debate become a mere parenthetical?

Click here to read On Bias: II. Wrong Bias?

Three Memories…

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At a glance, this post admittedly seems eclectic, which is writer’s code for incoherent. Two things… (i) okay, that’s fair; (ii) ‘show, don’t tell’ is writer’s code for respecting the audience, which is coded code for ‘intentionally eclectic’.

If this works out, future posts will probably be a whole lot easier.

Elsewhere, briefly, I consider something Martha Nussbaum offers about emotions – their essence, their “history,” as she puts it – which really I take to be our histories, and history too, I suppose.

To characterise grief, for example, she says, “… the experience itself involves a storm of memories and concrete perceptions,” what she earlier calls “rich and dense perceptions” (p. 65). Later, she indicates “memory” as synonymous with “an emotional habit” (p. 114) and cites neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux to say memories are not individual items per se but composite outcomes of our physiological network – in one sense, like how a movie isn’t just ‘by’ the Director but thanks to the enduring efforts of an entire cast and crew; in another sense, like how a highway is not so much a destination as a well-trodden connection between two destinations.

For his part, LeDoux distinguishes between (what I will call) instincts and emotions – the former we share with the lowest bacterium, the latter all our own, being self-aware, to boast on high as we will.

All this is fascinating. But when I experience flashes of memory, that seem to me disjointed things, which come and go, glimmer and fade, tripped by who-knows-what… when this happens to me, rather than look back at what comprises them, just as often I’m trying to piece them together with sharper moments into some more indicative pattern. I guess you could say I’m trying to find some meaning to them.

So… three memories, falling together…

In the backseat of my Mom’s VW, stopped for a fill-up, when gas stations belonged in neighbourhoods…

A 1964 Volkswagen Beetle

The jockey’s a young guy, teens or twenties, although that’s still just an adult to me. And he is hustling – from the driver’s window to the pump, the squeegee, the tires, back around to check the oil. I crane my neck, too obedient to undo my seatbelt, so all I see is an elbow and a ball cap. Into the building, back with the Chargex. Somewhere in all this, while he’s blurring past the front windshield, my Mom remarks to me, to herself, something like “Would you look at him – if the whole country worked that hard, the economy wouldn’t be in so much trouble.”

At the time, I took her word for it – this is before friends, or books, or stuff like favourite bands and watching movies. I just logged the admiration, and only much later was I struck that my Mom would ever note the economy. But I figure that’s how pervasive inflation really was at the time. For me, inflation was California on the evening news, people atop car hoods and lounging in open passenger doors, lined up waiting for gas.

“Check the oil too, I guess”

VW Image Credits: Photos by Joel Stocksdale on AutoBlog

Click here and here if you like the VW Beetle

In the front “yard” of the Firehall, where we played soccer and football, and watched the trucks come and go – today with one of the neighbourhood kids.

Just me and him, and no football – just talking. He’s one of these kids who’s already matured, a real brain, and speaks with that cadence adults have. Of all things, we’re talking about gold, which somewhere along the way I’ve heard my brother talking about with my Dad. And you know what they say… by the time you’re hearing nine-year olds talk about it at the Firehall, it’s definitely reached its peak.

In fact, he informs me with assured cadence, gold is now well past its peak on the way down, a claim my Dad confirms for me later that evening. And in one conversation for decades is lost all the lustre that no amount of history will sustain when you don’t know any of it anyway.

New building these days… same trees, less grass

In the living room – the second one, where the furniture feels out of place and the jaded nuclear family finally muddles to a close.

I listen from the door as my Dad, in his deliberate way, explains fractional reserve banking and fiat currencies to me from the easy chair – derisively, at my incredulity, and ruefully, now that he, and we, are irrevocably scarred by misfortune. He explains the Commodity Exchange, in all its cacophony, and the primacy of foreign exchange, and he explains bank reserves, and the vacuous basis of all: debt.

And he forecasts the end – how it can only end, how it must end – and offers his strictest piece of advice: never owe what you can’t afford because – and really now I’m paraphrasing, this was like 1985 – because what people commonly call a House of Cards is actually a Set of Dominos, that are already well underway.

They’re faded memories, 35–40–45 years ago now, and an admitted jumble… is their only common thread “me” and nothing more?

You might say so – and hey, belonging to me, how could they mean anything to you beyond the scope of your physiological network? Different cast + different crew = different movie. So why even share them like this?

No, I wouldn’t expect my memories to strike you, at least not the way they strike me. Still, though… high road or low road – I just can’t help but wonder whether we’re all bound for the same destination.

Click here to read Memories Go Fourth

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