At Least We Know Death Is a Certainty

Despite being on a news vacation, I heard that The New York Times got copies of some of Txxxx’s tax returns. I read the Times article, but will let a few other Times readers comment.

Ralph from Nebraska:

This stunning report takes some time to read and digest and we will all find numbers that amaze and annoy us. I was once a bankruptcy lawyer and I often had to explain this scenario to clients: If you borrow money and don’t repay the money the IRS sees the money that you didn’t repay as income on which you need to pay taxes. Here’s the number that jumped screaming off of my I Pad: $287,000,000. During the last ten years our President has stiffed his creditors to the tune of $287 million. 

STSI from Chicago:

There is something rotten in our tax system that allows someone like Dxxxx Txxxx to spend years litigating the IRS so that he can pay little or no taxes owed. Dxxxx Txxxx is the poster child for how the US tax code has been exploited and scammed by individuals who use taxpayer money to fund their legal battles with the IRS. Congress needs to address this issue and level the playing field so that every American pays his or her fair share of taxes due.

Ron S. from Los Angeles:

I run two small, moderately profitable businesses. I deduct legitimate business expenses, but I also make monthly estimated tax payments to the IRS, knowing full well if I claim losses year after year I will be audited. That Dxxxx Txxxx cheats the system is not only no surprise, it also shows how the U.S. tax system is set up one way for the rich and another way for everybody else.

B. Reed from Washington DC:

Txxxx is a crook who deserves to be prosecuted. But I wish this was an anomaly because it isn’t. . . . How people can see this stuff and not be radicalized and demand dramatic change is beyond me. . . . 

It’s beyond me too.

By the way, we have an election 36 days from now, in which Dxxxx Txxxx and lots of his Republican enablers are candidates for high office.

Why Indeed?

Another in what has turned into a series of selections from Charles Lindblom’s Politics and Markets: The World’s Political-Economic Systems (1976):

A set of unifying beliefs that assert the virtues of the fundamentals of social organization will be found in any stable society. . . . In the market-oriented polyarchies [where there is “rule by the many”], the beliefs show a distinctive character. They are greatly influenced by inequality of wealth and by the existence of a dual set of leaders who enjoy a privileged position in politico-economic organization [that is, government leaders and business leaders]. Many of the unifying beliefs of the society are those beliefs communicated by a favored class to all other classes, with enormous advantage in a grossly unequal competition of ideas.

. . . Deep-seated beliefs and attitudes that persist over time, some people will say, have to be understood as the product of random “spontaneous” social forces. What does that mean? It cannot mean that they arise without cause. Perhaps, then, it means that they arise without deliberate intent. No person or group or government plans them. They are unintended consequences of mutual influences of persons on each other.

Granted. Yet we know that, although people do indeed influence each other’s attitudes in countless unintended ways, they also intend a great deal of control over attitudes, beliefs and volitions. Parents and teachers, for example, teach children — explicitly and through their own behavior as example — the virtues of obedience to authority. In most societies, they also teach children that improvement in their position in life will and ought to depend on their own personal qualities (rather than on an alteration in social structure).

Moreover, many of the unintended influences of people on each other reinforce the intended indoctrinations, as when someone who repeatedly challenges authority makes his friends so uncomfortable that they gradually drop [them]. Much unintended mutual influence among persons is therefore patterned control rather than random, because it reflects a pattern in intended influence, which is itself not random.

Why the particular pattern of intentions that we perceive? Why the emphasis on such a theme as obedience to authority (rather than a skeptical, only conditional, and selective acceptance of it)? Why deference toward the wealthy (that does not even discriminate between earned and inherited wealth)? Why individual responsibility for improvement in the quality of life (rather than social cooperation to improve polity and economy)? Why genialized privilege for the wealthy and powerful (rather than offsetting constraints and responsibilities to balance their advantages in wealth or power)? Why so profound a respect for property as to lead many people to think it immoral to steal a loaf of bread to save one’s family from hunger?

These are not random themes. They confer advantages on persons in the favored social class. How do they come to be “spontaneous”? How do they come to be near universally taught? They have been endlessly communicated to the population — explicitly and through behavior as example — through the church, the media, the schools, the family and the pronouncements of business and government leaders. Since they have been in this way communicated for centuries, they have passed into folklore and common morality, with the result that almost everyone joins in the intended and unintended or “spontaneous” processes by which they are passed on to the young and reinforced for the old [230-231].

Unquote.

Maybe there’s more skepticism about our common beliefs than there was in 1976. If so, such skepticism hasn’t translated into very many progressive government policies. In the US, at least, with a few exceptions, it’s been the reverse. But as skepticism justifiably grows, will our politics lean toward the alternatives Lindblom put in parentheses? I sure hope so.

(A giant blue wave 40 days from now would help.)

The Shocks That Flesh Is Heir To

26JOAN3-jumboThe Kronos Quartet was founded in 1973. They released the first of their 43 studio albums in 1979. I went looking for a copy of the rather obscure Music of Dane Rudhyar after I’d bought several of their more accessible albums, including Monk Suite: Kronos Quartet Plays Music of Thelonious Monk; Terry Riley: Cadenza on the Night Plain; and White Man Sleeps. I’m sure I saw them perform in person at least once. I was a fan.

They were known for playing a range of music not usually associated with string quartets (“Purple Haze”, most famously) and also for wearing cool clothes on stage. They were very modern.

My interest wasn’t totally musical though. One of their members was a blonde woman, a cellist with a mellifluous name: Joan Jeanrenaud. I wondered what she was like when she wasn’t playing cello.

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As these things happen, the Quartet and I eventually went our separate ways. 

Then, what should pop up yesterday on YouTube but a video of the Kronos Quartet? They were playing a piece of medieval English music: Thomas Tallis’s Spem In Alium

There was something different, however. Where there used to be a blonde woman, there was now a dark-haired man. Where was Joan Jeanrenaud?

From The New York Times in 2012:

It’s still hard to picture the ubiquitous Kronos Quartet without Joan Jeanrenaud. For 20 years there they were: three hip-nerdy guys and one willowy, glamorous woman.

Then, in what seemed eerie emulation of an early role model, the British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, Ms. Jeanrenaud was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She took a long-term leave, starting in 1999, that morphed into retirement from the quartet and its arduous six months of annual touring. . . .

. . . the impact of the illness has, in her case, been relatively benign. Ms. Jeanrenaud’s condition affects her legs. Du Pré’s began with a loss of sensitivity in her fingers, disastrous for any instrumentalist.

Jeanrenaud has had a solo career that’s included teaching, performing, recording and composition. When the Times article was written, her multiple sclerosis was under control. More recently, however, she was filmed entering a room in a wheelchair and slowly repositioning herself before beginning to play. 

Suddenly seeing her again 20 or 30 years later, dealing with partial paralysis, well, what is there to say?

JoanJ-raw

Growing old sneaks up on us. But I suppose gradual is better than sudden when it comes to aging.

YouTube has Jeanrenaud’s 2008 album Strange Toys. This track is called “Waiting”.

PS: The all-American Ms. Jeanrenaud was born Joan Dutcher in Memphis, Tennessee. She attended Indiana University before studying in Europe.

Happiness, Schmappiness

What follows is 42% of an article about Schopenhauer written by a philosophy professor for Aeon:

On 13 December 1807, in fashionable Weimar, Johanna Schopenhauer picked up her pen and wrote to her 19-year-old son Arthur: ‘It is necessary for my happiness to know that you are happy, but not to be a witness to it.’

Two years earlier, in Hamburg, Johanna’s husband Heinrich Floris had been discovered dead in the canal behind their family compound. It is possible that he slipped and fell, but Arthur suspected that his father jumped out of the warehouse loft into the icy waters below. Johanna did not disagree. Four months after the suicide, she had sold the house, soon to leave for Weimar where a successful career as a writer and saloniste awaited her. Arthur stayed behind with the intention of completing the merchant apprenticeship his father had arranged shortly before his death. It wasn’t long, however, before Arthur wanted out too.

In an exchange of letters throughout 1807, mother and son entered tense negotiations over the terms of Arthur’s release. Johanna would be supportive of Arthur’s decision to leave Hamburg in search of an intellectually fulfilling life – how could she not? – including using her connections to help pave the way for his university education. But on one condition: he must leave her alone. Certainly, he must not move to be near her in Weimar, and under no circumstances would she let him stay with her.

What her line of 13 December doesn’t reveal is that Johanna simply couldn’t tolerate Arthur: ‘All your good qualities,’ she wrote on 6 November, ‘become obscured by your super-cleverness and are made useless to the world merely because of your rage at wanting to know everything better than others … If you were less like you, you would only be ridiculous, but thus as you are, you are highly annoying.’ He was, in short, a boorish and tiresome know-it-all.

If people found Arthur Schopenhauer’s company intolerable, the feeling was mutual. He spent long depressive periods in self-imposed isolation, including the first two months of 1832 in his new rooms in Frankfurt, the city that became his adoptive home after a stint in Berlin. He defended himself against loneliness with the belief that solitude is the only fitting condition for a philosopher: ‘Were I a King,’ he said, ‘my prime command would be – Leave me alone.’ The subject of happiness, then, is not normally associated with Schopenhauer, neither as a person nor as a philosopher. Quite the opposite: he is normally associated with the deepest pessimism in the history of European philosophy.

Schopenhauer’s pessimism is based on two kinds of observation. The first is an inward-looking observation that we aren’t simply rational beings who seek to know and understand the world, but also desiring beings who strive to obtain things from the world. Behind every striving is a painful lack of something, Schopenhauer claims, yet obtaining this thing rarely makes us happy. For, even if we do manage to satisfy one desire, there are always several more unsatisfied ones ready to take its place. Or else we become bored, aware that a life with nothing to desire is dull and empty. If we are lucky enough to satisfy our basic needs, such as hunger and thirst, then in order to escape boredom we develop new needs for luxury items, such as alcohol, tobacco or fashionable clothing. At no point, Schopenhauer says, do we arrive at final and lasting satisfaction. Hence one of his well-known lines: ‘life swings back and forth like a pendulum between pain and boredom’.

Schopenhauer knew from his extensive studies of classical Indian philosophy that he wasn’t the first to observe that suffering is essential to life. The Buddhists have a word for this suffering, dukkha, which is acknowledged in the first of its Four Noble Truths. The fourth and final of these truths, magga, or the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to the cessation of dukkha, would also inspire large parts of his moral philosophy.

The second kind of observation is outward-looking. According to Schopenhauer, a glance at the world around us disproves the defining thesis of Gottfried Leibniz’s optimism that ours is the best of all possible worlds. On the contrary, Schopenhauer claims, if our world is ordered in any way, it is ordered to maximise pain and suffering. He gives the example of predatory animals that cannot but devour other animals in order to survive and so become ‘the living grave of thousands of others’. Nature as a whole is ‘red in tooth and claw’, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson later put it, pitting one creature against another, either as the devourer or the devoured, in a deadly fight for survival.

Civilisation doesn’t help much either. It adds so many sites of human suffering. In The World as Will and Representation (1818), Schopenhauer wrote:

if you led the most unrepentant optimist through the hospitals, military wards, and surgical theatres, through the prisons, torture chambers and slave stalls, through battlefields and places of judgment, and then open for him all the dark dwellings of misery that hide from cold curiosity, then he too would surely come to see the nature of this best of all possible worlds.

If you had to guess the world’s purpose just by looking at the results it achieves, you could only think it was a place of punishment.

These observations, the first on human nature and the second on nature itself, support Schopenhauer’s pessimistic claims that life is not worth living and the world should not exist. We are never given in advance the choice whether to exist or not but, if we were, it would be irrational to choose to exist in a world where we can’t profit from life but only lose. Or as Schopenhauer puts it in another key line: ‘life is a business that does not cover its costs’. . . .

Schopenhauer doesn’t deny that happiness exists. He does, however, think that we are generally mistaken about what happiness is. According to him, happiness is no more than the absence of pain and suffering; the moment of relief occasionally felt between the fulfilment of one desire and the pursuit of the next. For example, imagine the satisfaction of buying your first home. What makes us happy here, Schopenhauer would say, is not the positive state of being a homeowner, but the negative state of relief from the worries that come with not owning your own home (as well as relief from the notoriously stressful process of buying property itself). This happiness, Schopenhauer would be quick to point out, is likely to be short-lived, as a host of new worries and stresses emerge, such as paying down the mortgage, or doing up the bathroom. . . .

Instead, Schopenhauer gives us a different picture of a happy life, one that is not total happiness. While suffering can’t be excluded from life altogether, it can be reduced by making sure no kind of suffering goes on for too long. Going back to Schopenhauer’s image of the pendulum, a happy life would include enough success in fulfilling our desires that we are never in too much pain, but also enough failure to ensure that we are never too bored. It would be a ‘game of constantly passing from desire to satisfaction and from this to a new desire, a game whose rapid course is called happiness and slow course is called suffering.’ A well-paced oscillation between wish and fulfillment, which is at most a semi-satisfied life, is the best we can hope for as far as happiness is concerned.

If a good life, conceived as a happy life, is a futile aim for ethics, this raises the question of what the real aim of ethics should be. The background of Schopenhauer’s pessimism is never far away from this question. It’s not obvious to Schopenhauer that the semi-satisfied life presented above is better than nonexistence. Such a life would still contain a preponderance of suffering, even if no kind of suffering would go on for too long.

Rather than trying to make the world into a happy home, then, Schopenhauer opts for an ethics that might save us from the world altogether. He endorses asceticism, the practice of severe self-denial exemplified in the saints and mystics of many world religions . . .

Note that Schopenhauer’s otherworldly ascetics are not happy. They have entirely given up the game of a semi-satisfied life. Instead, they accept, and come to symbolise, the universality and inevitability of suffering, in order to transcend it. In relation to the ascetic, Schopenhauer is more likely to use words such as composure and peace than happiness and pleasure.

To say that Schopenhauer endorsed asceticism might appear to suggest that he practised it himself. Far from it. The most ascetic part of his daily routine in Frankfurt was the cold sponge bath he took between seven and eight every morning. After that, he made his own coffee and settled down to write for a few hours before receiving selected visitors, until his housekeeper appeared at noon, cuing them to leave. He played flute for half an hour each day – an activity that, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, belied the sincerity of his pessimism – and then made his way to his favourite spot to eat, the Hôtel d’Angleterre, for a hearty afternoon meal. After this he might make himself another coffee, take an hour’s nap, then read a little light literature before walking his dog, a white poodle called Atma, while smoking a cigar, all before settling in for his typical nine-hour sleep. The life of the Buddha it was not.

Unquote. 

Happy or not, we can still vote for every Democrat in November and damage that other party for years, possibly decades, to come. Arthur and Atma would agree.