Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Word games and the study of philosophy

The past few philosophy posts have been a bit heavy on the jargon and light on real world applications so I've decided to get into the practical today. One of the reasons I believe the study of philosophy has fallen into disfavor is the emphasis on the jargon and de-emphasis on real world application. It is as if the ability to quote Plato or Aristotle is seen as more valuable than gaining a sense of how the ideas history credits them, and other philosophers, with popularizing might help people understand the world around them.

No President Wants War

Consider the following statement from President Bush in response to a question from Helen Thomas:

Q I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet -- your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth -- what was your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil -- quest for oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?

THE PRESIDENT: I think your premise -- in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist -- is that -- I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect --

Q Everything --

THE PRESIDENT: Hold on for a second, please.

Q -- everything I've heard --

THE PRESIDENT: Excuse me, excuse me. No President wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true.

So, according to the President, No President wants war, regardless of what you may have heard. I call this hiding behind universals, in this case, President-ness. According to this particular President, the act of becoming a President makes one undesirous of war.

This makes me wonder why the nation ever went to war or why no President has ever resigned in protest of war.

Of course, this particular President waged a war. His administration led both the UN and Congress in that direction and according to numerous memos from the British Government, among other sources, was
trying to fix the facts around the already decided policy of war, instead of trying to avoid it, a behavior one might expect from those who don't want it.

Despite these memos, and other reports from administration insiders to the contrary, President Bush would like the citizens of his nation to accept his vision of President-ness. The modern habit of branding might come to mind. Just as modern commercial corporations would have you believe that corporation XYZ always has their customers' needs in mind, despite specific evidence to the contrary, the President would have you believe that Presidents don't want war, despite specific evidence to the contrary.

If I've explained this adequately you can see that there are two approaches to the issue. The top down approach of President Bush, and my bottom up approach. The top down approach takes Presidential qualities as a given, and asks that you disregard evidence to the contrary. The bottom up approach takes the raw data of Presidential desires and actions and tries to discover some generalities. The top down approach is called radical idealism and the bottom up approach is called empiricism.

Inflation expectations remain contained

The above statement can be found in many recent monetary policy press releases. It can also be heard on TV and read in many commentaries. Let's consider what it means.

Expectations are mental. To discover them one would could ask those whose expectations you are trying to qualify. More importantly, you can see what people do. People who expect inflation, in the current usage higher prices, will tend to buy early, carry inventory and budget accordingly.

Just yesterday, while riding home with a friend from 9 holes of wonderful early season golf, I heard an expectation of inflation. My friend, who owns a construction company, looked at the prices at the gas pump and said, "gas prices are going up again." He didn't say, "gas prices are high today so I'll wait until they come down again." His sense was that just as gas prices have risen recently so they will continue to rise. This sounded to me like an expectation of inflation.

Among people I know, admittedly a very small sample, most expect higher prices in the future and are acting accordingly. So who doesn't expect rising prices in the future?

The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia surveys forecasters quarterly. According to the latest report, Beyond the very short term, the forecasters see little threat of accelerating inflation. One answer to our question is that the number crunchers don't expect accelerating inflation. Of course, this group takes as a given the government's measure of current inflation which makes their perspective a little suspect in my view.

I wish the survey included a question about the forecasters buying habits. To wit, of the forecasters who think inflation will remain modest, how many have purchased or plan to purchase a car that gets better gas mileage or perhaps a wood stove for the house.

The economy is strong

The above statement is so ubiquitous it is almost a mantra. I wonder what it means.

Is the economy a thing-in-itself, as Kant might have asked or is the economy the totality of the economic choices and experiences of all those whose actions comprise it?

The top down approach leads us to to aggretive measures like GDP, while the bottom up approach leads us to unpopular reports like changes in household income and spending habits. While recent GDP measures lead one to a view of a strong economy, a more pluralist perspective which takes into account individual households leads us at best to a view of a stagnant economy for the majority.

In other words, before one qualifies the economy as strong or weak, or more generally qualifies anything as anything, one must first define what you mean by the term in question.

The top down approach of radical idealism which holds that ideas of think trump the experience of the thing would lead you to believe that Presidents don't want war, inflation expectations remain contained and the economy is strong. The bottom up approach of empiricism would lead you to believe; given the United States' history of wars, that the commander in chief, on some level, wanted war, the expectations of inflation among the many might not be as contained as the number crunchers spread sheets suggest, and that the economy as experienced by the many might not be as strong as the aggretive figures suggest.

William James defined truth as that, the belief in which, improves one's life in some way. Truth is discovered in living life. Faith in untrue statements confuses. Faith in true statements clarifies. We will see if the top down or bottom up approach leads to a more accurate view.