Thursday, January 21, 2010

The real issue: we need to value truth

I have mentioned before that our political system is non-functional, that we are not able to have productive, intelligent debate about the issues, and that something needs to change if we ever expect to deal with the many problems our country is facing. You could put this another way: why is it that a country with all the advantages of America - an open society, great wealth, the most powerful nation in the world, the only remaining superpower - has a social structure significantly poorer than the other developed countries, an infrastructure unprepared for higher energy prices, and is bogged down in two wars with no end in sight?

I have been reading George Soros' "The Age of Fallibility"; he has given this question a great deal of thought. Soros pins the blame on a lack of regard for truth. This resonates with me because it explains so much: how come the media and politicians are allowed to steer the public debate into meaningless side-tracks and frequently present a picture that is an outright lie? Why do we fall for it again and again? Now I understand why pundits like Paul Krugman and Glenn Greenwald are so frustrated. I understand now that we cannot expect logical outcomes and behavior until we deal with the root problem.

George Soros is quite an interesting character. He has a deeply philosophical approach to life, it might not be what you would expect from a hedge fund manager. Indeed, his philosophy and life experience have formed the basis for his approach to financial speculation. He lived under Hitler's Nazi government as well as the Soviet Communist government, so he has seen the result of totalitarianism and of ideology dogmatically and relentlessly pursued. The key to his philosophy is what he calls "reflexivity", which is the idea that reality can never be perfectly understood because your own actions and thoughts and the actions and thoughts of others alter reality. This should lead you to realize that you may be wrong, i.e. you see your own fallibility. His ideal of an open society is based on the realization that we are all fallible, no one has the absolute understanding of the truth, and so we should not suppress ideas. He also talks about "far-from-equilibrium" situations, where the normal rules don't work anymore. He has had great success recognizing these times and capitalizing on them.

Why then with a philosophy based on being unable to perfectly know reality, does he value the search for truth? Because the further your actions stray from reality the more likely that reality will at last intrude and you will pay the price.

The philosophy acknowledges that we can manipulate reality to a certain extent. We have seen this in the various financial bubbles, and as someone in the George W. Bush administration said, "we make our own reality". This can be true to a point, but eventually the Iraq war looked unsuccessful even to those who championed it.

The American public, says Soros, is too easily manipulated. We value success too much in this country, and tend to have an end-justifies-the-means attitude. We are not as concerned as we should be about the truth and reality. This should be our focus if we hope to change our country.

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