Pi, Re-Stating My Assumptions, or What I Learned About Life While in Grad School

You know when your brain hums, your synapses continue to spark, and the slipping into the comfort of the subconscious of sleep proves always just beyond one’s grasp? Such is my mood having watched the movie π. Not so much sleep, as I watched it in the middle of the day, but the fact that the film prompted a cascading number of semi-coherent thoughts that my brain constantly moved between before solving, or really outlining what it was that I was trying to solve; a punctuated equilibrium of onrushing ideas, briefly seeing possible links between concepts previously under-acquainted with one another in my brain, and then the hurried ushering them out as new ideas flowed in and connections began being made once more. Not some orderly, linear process, but a kind of fractal effervescence. This all would seem ironic, if you watched the film, because the plot revolves around the madness induced in a man whose brain becomes obsessed by the idee fixe that, just as nature reveals regular geometrical patterns, so too could the stock market (or, really, any social system) be understood in terms of a buried mathematical formula which awaits discovery if one lends it enough dedicated thought. My ambitions might be more prosaic but the goal of writing this might be just as slippery to grasp. You could say that it is “too big, too fail”. *Bmmm, tsshh*. But seriously, I set off without adequate planning, ignoring every piece of advice I ever gave one of my undergraduate students. I feared that the paralysis of over-analysis might mean that the pieces settled back into my subconscious where I hope that this blog post might serve as a duster instead. So I write more in hope of coherence than expectation. You would be well advised to read in the same spirit.

 

Of course, like the pursuit of the child in Don’t Look Now, or the quest of Don Quixote, in search of the ineffable and the infinite, in this pursuit of truth madness lies. It probably won’t escape the viewer of Pi, or anyone who has read When Genius Failed or The Myth of the Rational Market (for my money- pun very much intended- the two best books on finance and the stock market), that the market is the modern arena of Sophocles: the hubris of thinking one has the code, the angering of God/the gods with the pride and seductions of material wealth and Mammon, and the inevitable nemesis and professional destruction as the taxpayers’ bailout money gets called in to fill in the smoking crater where once verdant and fecund fields of beautiful profits sprouted without end. Where once one has the world at your feet, now one is humbled into penniless madness. Even Donald Trump eventually is told “You’re Fired!”

 

After those nights of unrest, when- exhausted- we finally fall to sleep and we find the scribbled piece of paper next to the bed where we wrote that movie script idea, that philosophical point that would change our understanding of life, or that thing which would make that special social occasion just right, we often find ourselves disappointed. Inspiration the night before often looks like madness and meaninglessness the day afterwards. I presume that it was this situation that someone had in mind when the phrase “in the cold light of day” was coined. Normally we have the good sense to crumple the paper in a clenched fist, as we semi-wince with shame for having been so deluded and obsessive, and find the nearest bin. So it is that I will probably always regret writing this blog post. My plea of mitigation is that we’ve all been in this headspace and surely I get points for baring the nonsense that I am writing to the world, knowing full well that what follows is not stuff of literary legend: The Social Contract written as Rousseau fell under a spell on the road to Vincennes, the Diary of Dostoevsky’s Madman, or the drug-induced hallucinations of the Beatles or Lewis Carroll. Instead, what follows are fragments of semi-formed thoughts. Perhaps some of them make sense, more likely they don’t, but perhaps they’ll spark something in your brain that you wouldn’t mind sharing back. So goes the world, I guess. No hubris here. The comments are open for abuse, comments, or clarifications.

 

Nevertheless the themes of rational discovery of truth and the forces that confound us seemed to touch on so many of the strands of ideas that had popped into my head over the previous few weeks. The importance of fiction, the purpose of marriage, the existence of God, the crisis in social science, politics and how we live, the death of traditional liberalism, and how I should work towards happiness in my own life. Just as Sophocles’ tragedies contain enduring themes of the human condition which subsequent authors have used to enlighten us, so too I think meditating on these themes in our own lives might yield understanding. And there is something in the struggle to grapple with the meaning of all this. Just as “pride goes before a fall”, so an acknowledgement of our own wretchedness and a profound sense of humility and vulnerability has to go before we can access the sunlight of meaning and beauty shines through. Or so I have decided earnestly to believe.

 

I think the film sparked so many thoughts because I feel like I am also contemplating the futility of trying to “think” my way towards solving the big problems that I find myself contemplating. In each of these areas- and many more- we’ve applied incredibly complicated apparatuses (apparati?) over the centuries to fundamental problems of the human condition: meaning, scarcity, power, justice. I have tried to become acquainted with these apparatuses because I have found ignoring the issues impossible. The Enlightenment project sought to apply human reason to these abstract problems and access truth. I’ve been affiliated to some kind of institute of learning for most of my life, so I have confronted most of these issues with a ready-made grammar to hand, set out by people who have set the boundaries of our intellectual disciplines. Or at least the middlebrow translations of these disciplines as transmitted to me by our public intellectuals. When confronted with real-life application, most of these grand intellectual edifices have proved insufficient to the task at hand.

 

Let’s take an example: economics. Possibly we’ve all heard the joke that economists have predicted 11 out of the last 8 recessions. Certainly 2008 saw the phrase “the emperor has no clothes” applied in record amounts to the discipline of economics. But how deep do the cracks to the discipline go? The answer is, surely, right to its foundations. The Nobel Prize winner, Robert Lucas, said that we had solved the problems of depressions. Alan Greenspan admitted to Congress that his worldview had been rendered irreparably not fit for purpose. The Euro came to pieces. On issues from the minimum wage, to the Greek bailout, to Brexit and interest rates, one can find hordes of economists on any side of a given argument. Since Samuelson ditched the literary Keynes in exchange for the formalist mathematical approach to economics, the principles of the scientific method have been applied, presumably with the same purpose in mind. Knowledge accumulates thanks to the miracles of peer review and the application of reason to understand the regularities of the empirical world.

 

Has this been the case? All of the “laws” that we have thought have been discovered have proven to be all too contingent. California has recently said that it would slowly raise its minimum wage to $15/hr. The Facebook wall of my erstwhile Congressman, Adam Schiff, was littered with comments from people saying “Economics says that raising the minimum wage will KILL JOBS AND RAISE PRICES”. And yet economics says no such thing. The fact is that most policy interventions simply swap one possible equilibrium for another. Or, if one conceives instead economics as a dynamic system that is always unstable, susceptible to manias and panics, boomlets and irrational exuberances, one is back where one started with Keynes’ animal spirits and his heirs like Minsky and Wynne Godley, but certainly without abstract laws that deserve ALL CAPS LOCK posts on public servants’ Facebook walls. While columnists and Facebook friends shout “so-and-so doesn’t understand basic economics”, the answer is more usual that precious few of us do and perhaps none of us. Instead we follow the answers most conducive to our own gut instincts of happiness. How many conservatives do you know who will acknowledge the more optimistic meta-analyses of economics papers on a rising minimum wage? How many liberals do you know will admit that they don’t know how such a rise will play out in a given context?

 

Having seen behind the curtain of how fame in academia is not co-terminous with merit, how prestige, showmanship, flashy methods, and important endorsers matter more than whatever it is we mean by good work, the idea of appeals to individual economists, let alone economics as an abstract discipline of one collective mind on an issue, seems faintly ridiculous. Economics is a contested field, of contested ideas, based on contested methods, in a discipline where influence is aggressively contested. Economics is not engineering and it is time we all stopped pretending otherwise.

 

The ‘truth’ is that people use the “science” of economics to further a political project and shift power from one group to another. To abuse Von Clausewitz, economics is politics by other means. One of the things we cannot know is how much of these political aims are intended. Does George Osborne pursue austerity because he believes what he says? Or does he have a political ethic that says that the powerful do as they will and the weak suffer as they must? It’s a brave man to say for sure. Is Osborne someone with a sense of the good life, a profound moral commitment to furthering his vision through public policy, and some hazy bets about how to inch Britain and the world towards that vision? Or is he “a useful idiot” who does think economics is akin to engineering in hock to some long-dead economic scribbler (as Keynes memorably put it)? Or perhaps he is ‘merely’ an egotist who finds a kind of erotic thrill in power and being in charge without much caring the results of such an undertaking? Such are the mysteries of the human heart even when we try and diagnose the motivations that power our own decisions through our own muddied understanding of such things.

 

Or perhaps we can take development economics as an even better example. One of the books that has had a profound effect on how I see the world is The Elusive Quest for Growth by William Easterly. So much development economics thinking was based on the idea of growth theory (itself based on pretty flimsy intellectual foundations) that suggested that poor countries were poor because they didn’t save enough. If we wanted to save Africa from permanent poverty, we had to send them aid to make up the savings gap. Instead we had aid embezzled, white elephant projects constructed, politicians selling “deliverology” and other ‘secrets’ of Western liberal thinking. The bien pensant gather in ballrooms and boardrooms and hawk methods that make them feel good, feathering their own pecuniary nests, and profess to be somebody who helps those people we feel so much for, those invisible bonds of solidarity made flesh. After all of these years, what do we really know about development? We know we’ve created a self-sustaining class of people who will claim to know the answer and use it to further their own aims in the process, whether wittingly or not. People who also look at the problem as one of engineering. Of getting to the “right” answer. An answer which never involves the political wrestling of power or fighting for something which someone else powerful wants. Hillary in this sense is like Blair is like Osborne- do they care that the “right” seems to always coincide with the “might”? Do they think about the power relations behind these desiccated policy discussions? Or do they actually believe, against evidence, that the medicine that they prescribe will have the effects they announce will surely come? Or is it purely the path of least resistance for those without the need or the ability to access the interiority that so often calls us out on the bullshit that we ourselves so often spout? Does Tony Blair or Hillary Clinton have dark nights of the soul? Sometimes I fear they don’t. Are they driven mad by trying to understand the hidden “truth” of how the universe works? Or do they pick things up which serve their purposes and pretend that the policy was reached after much angst and soul-searching?

 

I used to be in management consulting (and know many people still in that world). I hear so much talk of “adding value”, of making “efficiencies”, or “applying frameworks”. Do these people examine what they’re saying? Do they honestly believe that they are bending the arc of history towards justice? Do they think that they have the “right” answers to real problems? Or is the justification that we’re smart, we think blah, so it must be good for everyone to implement it. And then we move on. Economists make predictions which don’t come true (or miss the huge events which do come), those in development watch real incomes in Africa remain stagnant since the 1960s despite all their “developing”, and management consultants hoover up profits while denying skilled labour to the very companies which hire them by joining consultancies in the first place. Did our “radical cost reduction” work? What does that even mean? How was this framework even arrived at? How would we know even if it did work? Did I collect my airmiles on my way to the client site?

 

We know too what happened with the application of reason to banking in the run-up to 2008. Value at Risk proved that we have no idea how to mathematically understand risk (or should we think instead in Knightian uncertainty?). Quants earnestly reassured us that the collapse in stock market values was a “once-in-a-million year event” despite the fact that models are an engine as much as a camera and, since the fall of Bretton Woods and the move to financialization in the 1980s, the world has seen crisis after crisis (Tequila, Asian, Russian rouble, ERM, Euro, Great Recession etc etc) in greater size and frequency than before. Fund managers so often lose money and extract rents when one’s pension is often safer in a low-cost fund that simply tracks the stock market. Approaches that seem to work better? Those who know the management of the company well, think about what the company means to its customers, buy and hold for the long-term. Human understanding, not just abstract mathematical rigour. Did Warren Buffet get his CFA yet?

 

What about international relations and political science? Has studying for a PhD in the field given me confidence that the Enlightenment values of Mssrs. King, Keohane and Verba have allowed us to slip the surly bonds of David Brooks’ bromides and touch the face of God? Not exactly. One still gets more insight from reading Machiavelli, Hobbes, Marx, Polanyi, and Sartre than any number of past issues of the American Political Science Review. Studies have proved an interesting launching point to contemplate the dynamics of how our political communities work, but what can I say that I know now that I did not before I started? Knowledge has come more from introspection from stimulation than any formula I have learned thanks to “science”. Are there any laws of politics that endure beyond during the period of a temporary constellation underpinned by certain institutional arrangements? Not that I know. The application of abstract reason certainly hasn’t provided me with any knowledge from studying the field for so long.

 

Equally the prospect of liberal secularism seems like an assumption that I inherited rather than one based on a compelling case for how it actually advances the cause of my material or spiritual comfort or those I care about. The scientific method that has so failed us in the social world fails even more miserably in theological discussion. If God exists, why can’t I scientifically prove it? Well, friend, there are all kinds of things beyond our scientific understanding that we believe are powerful and have an effect on the world. Well, that’s just because science hasn’t developed to a point where we can rationally understand it yet! That sounds like a faith-based argument to me. Again, I meet so many atheists who peddle these arguments like Moses come from the mountaintop: the Enlightenment is progress! Science will unlock the secrets of the human heart! How miserable a thought. How shallow base materialism is. To invert the scene in Brothers Karamazov, if science will discern all the secrets of the human heart, then I gladly return the ticket to that destination. But isn’t there beauty and awe in nature? Of course! But that’s why so many Victorian scientists were captivated by it. Because the intricacies and beautiful patterns of nature: Euclid’s geometry, Pythagoras’ golden ratio, the mystery of the universe hinted exactly at something beyond human understanding.

 

But what if they are right? What if “God is dead”? Then at least have the strength of one’s own convictions. Naturalism does not give us moral guidance in any discernable sense. We “can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’”. This is why Nietzsche- the most honest atheist who ever lived- said that man was free to undergo a “revaluation of values”: rather than the “slave morality” of Christianity, or the banal aridity of Kantian liberalism, Nietzsche suggested the merger of Dionysus and Apollo, the triumph of strong, bold men, the return of the heroic ubermensch! Do our New Atheists suggest such a thing? What should be the source of our moral guidance? What if I want to contest it with a Nitzschean vision of my own? It seems we fall back on a “read literature and be inspired!” from Hitchens or something equally insipid from Dawkins. There is no firm, scientific ground on which to stand. The God of having no God seems to have failed.

 

This idea of secularist neutrality is as bogus as the claim that the scientific method is similarly neutral in understanding other social fields. In the words of one critical theorist, theory is always “for somebody”. USC’s lack of a religious foundation make it just as value-laden as Notre Dame’s Catholicism. Indeed, the base materialism, the degrees which provide “skills valuable in the marketplace”, and the encouragement of hedonistic excess like some modern-day Trimalchio’s dinner party produce just as worrisome moral outcomes as any damage atheists might put at the door of religious education. Indeed, one might posit that the upsurge in political action on behaviour and speech on American campuses (and British ones too) might well be a secularized religious reaction to a campus culture that encouraged a hedonism that was damaging campus communities and the students caught up in it. Perhaps that’s why the author of “The Rules of Attraction” should be so caustic towards what he calls “Generation Wuss”. Maybe they’ve just read his book and learned the moral lesson? Again, it seems the only people more annoyed than the rebarbative conservatives with their “snowflake” memes and “Give Trump some free speech!” are the liberal secularists entirely unmoved to deal with the causes of such symptoms. When one sees as one’s ontological starting point “rational man” making voluntary contracts, one inevitably misses the political potency of the power of culture to immiserate.

 

Equally tyrannous to the idea of positivism and accumulated “scientific” knowledge of human affairs is the tyranny of “common sense” and “getting on with it”. We inhabit a society with rules, large social forces, dominant institutions and purveyors of “sensible moderation”. The Times, The Economist, saving up for a house in London near a good school. Such is the “other” secular theology of putting your head down and getting on with life. Yet it increasingly makes us all miserable, denies our individuality, and furthers the interests of those doing well from the status quo. Just as economic prescriptions that one doesn’t like are “unscientific”, political prescriptions are “ideological” or “unserious”. The quest for accumulated knowledge towards a scientific truth that never arrives is like the stripping away of all proposals for change until one arrives, totally unburdened by any ideas whatsoever, at the political centre.

 

Of course, in Britain, there has gone one step further. No one likes talking about it and other people are put in charge who “know” about such things. We have quangos, commissions, review bodies, and statutory bodies. Politics is instead boiled down to “eating bacon sandwiches” and “faceless Eurocrats”. There are economic elites hiving wealth off to tax havens, donors populate the House of Lords, the disabled are the source for swinging cuts, the threat of Boris Johnson as our next Prime Minister looms large despite the fact that the philandering, un-serious, callow, entitled, accomplice to assault and homophobe is entirely unfit to sit down for one to have a meal with, let alone vote for. Talk about escalating mental health crises, disappearing green space, homelessness, kids not being able to play, communities hollowed out by de-industrialization and chain stores, gets you looked at with narrowed eyes like you may actually want to DO something about all this. And where might that leave us all?

 

The Britain of the Diggers, Levellers, Suffragettes, Chartists, Tolpuddle Martyrs, and the civil rights movement seems all like dangerous people who didn’t know what was good for ‘em. Keep your head down and do what you’re told. Being in control of one’s own life, with the possibility to radically change things for the better, seems like someone proselytising about religion, someone asking you to find a space for moral compassion for refugees/old people/the homeless/the Welsh/whatever. Life’s too tiring to work out how to make it less tiring.

 

The good life, prosperity, political reform, our moral commitments to others, all out of bounds. Ironically, as someone born and brought up in England, the British have punched well above their intellectual weight in attacking these problems and yet talk of them in modern England seems to invite only ridicule and scorn.

 

The experts don’t know anything. The game is often rigged. And those who are not actively rigging it, are mindless rubes helping others or convincing themselves that what they are doing is just the objectively right thing and self-interest is merely a happy byproduct. And, yet, the hard-headed realism of hostility to abstract ideas seems often like a hard-hearted indifference to what makes us human. “Stop having ideas and just get on with it” never held too much appeal to me. “Practicality” often translates into being an unwitting slave to the practice derived from other peoples’ abstract ideas. So it is that recent news of UK establishment connections to off-shore accounts, the transfer of all school assets into private hands, the overwhelming presence of donors appointed to positions of power, attacks on the disabled while building nuclear weapons that will never be used in the name of a fealty to an economic idea that is less rational prescription than ideological Trojan horse, the selling of national assets to meet targets not met, has not met with revolutionary fervor, but with grumbles and that barely repressed hostility to being entreated to doing anything about it [I know I repeated a few but they bare repeating…]. Rousseau said that the British people are “free once every five years” but, in reality, the UK electorate more often than not elects one bunch of politicians into power until a major economic disaster sees an election where the other lot from the same universities get a go under the same terms and conditions. Britain has no Pirate Party, although it can muster the Monster Raving Loony Party to take the piss out of the whole thing. Cynicism, yes; idealism, no.

 

So where does that leave us? Well, here’s a partial list. I don’t know what I am talking about as much as I am sure that pretty much everyone else doesn’t either. The positions I hold are almost definitely because I find them somewhat convenient to do so. What I do know is that I should be honest about it and not nearly so defensive when challenged. Rather than double-down because IT IS WHAT I THINK, DAMMIT, AND YOU MUST BE A MORON TO THINK OTHERWISE, I think my first intellectual commitment should be to the radical certainty that there should be no such things as intellectual certainty. The answer to those who assert scientifically-derived truth claims should not be “here’s another one that is definitely true AND YOU ARE WRONG”.

 

Cognitive dissonance- our psyche’s inability to confront such an intellectual setback and instead to pretend that no such thing has happened- can be seen everywhere we look. Our failure to be vulnerable, our profound limits and our frailties, allows us to construct huge edifices that we contort and rearrange in search of happiness. I think perhaps only radical humility and vulnerability can create that space where we can access what truly makes us happy. It is the denial of these emotions that allow us to build our tallest, most impregnable towers: Lenin admired Nechaev because he said that the revolutionary should purge himself of all such emotion. Those in the vanguard should become hardened, martial figures. This article that I read recently tells the tale of Lenin encountering Beethoven’s apassionata and forcing himself to turn away because he could feel himself softening. The arrogance of reason and the denial of the human might be why so many Islamist terrorists have studied engineering. It took an anthropologist to explain to the finance quants the reasons for the fate that had befallen them in one of the best books about 2008.

 

To get all philosophy of science about it, epistemology won’t find its way to ontology. Any attempts to do so like the character from Pi will only make you go crazy or erect constructions of human knowledge that will lead to nemesis eventually. “Science” in social affairs won’t ever give us truth, but it is a denial of what is human to be unbothered by finding a usable truth on which to salve our existential angst.

 

Two verses spring to mind to give life to what I mean. Aeschylus when he writes “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

Or in Amazing Grace when the song goes “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound, to save a wretch like me”. I was recently sent a podcast that contained this conversion story. It made so much sense to me that meaning should come through tears. When human constructs we intellectually invest in fail, our faith gets shaken (is it any coincidence that Whittaker Chambers described communism to him as “the God that died”?). But this shaking of our faith can be the start of a truer understanding. Something beautiful.

 

So if the grand intellectual endeavours of the social sciences, the folk wisdom of “do the right thing and get a highly paid job”, and the intellectual frameworks of liberalism that I so admired as a youngster, have not worked, how does one look for truth, happiness, understanding?

 

I think we have to start with what is the balm to the terror of atomised liberal individualism? The view that we are a bundle of cells locked in a meaningless universe? I think the answer is to start at what makes you happy and makes life worth living: connection, love, community, the ability to be vulnerable but feel safe. When do I feel most satisfied with the world? When I visit a friend who has had a baby and they’re beaming from ear to ear. When I hang out with my sister. When I swap gossip with some of my friends from my undergrad days. When I know that I can be at my lowest and my girlfriend loves me just the same. When I get lost in the work I’m doing, or trying to figure out a puzzle, or being creative. When I know there is enough money to get me to the end of the month. When I am curled up on the sofa watching a film. When I work with a co-author or in a team and everyone is trying to learn from each other and not take credit. When I drink less, exercise more, sleep better, and eat well. When I have a holiday to look forward to. Not simply when I communicate with people, but when I feel dedicated to others. David Foster Wallace (yes, overeducated white guy with higher degree in earnest cod philosophy namechecking Wallace shocker!) said that the purpose of fiction was to make us feel less alone in the world. Perhaps that should be the purpose of all social relations?

 

So why not start there and then reason upwards? It’s pushed me towards socialism and decommodifying much of modern life. The idea that communities are healthier when everyone has dignity, there is broad equality, everyone looks out for each other with high levels of social capital, and people feel secure and have the time and scope to pursue their passions. That the role of socialism is to make life “less miserable” and give us more time outside of market relationships and in real relationships with one another, based on reciprocity and not hierarchy. That we undervalue our commons, from parks to free information to the environment to culture. That we don’t spend enough time living purposeful lives, thinking about theology, encountering art, spending time with those we care about.

 

Life has pushed me from economics to political economy, from “common sense” to dreaming of something better, from trying to reason my way to the “correct answer” to simply reflecting on what makes me happy and doing it nevertheless, from working out who I want to be, to thinking what I want to spend time doing. And, perhaps most importantly, from being a worried prisoner of my own head, to a moral agent who has the power to be happy. The world is changing quickly and we might be entering a time where the tweeded nabobs of received wisdom get shunted aside. We’re moving from scarcity to abundance, from capitalism to post-capitalism, and there are many visions for what the future might look like.

 

To get from here to there we need an understanding of human psychology, the institutions we’ve built and how they need to be changed or swept away, and the destructive tendencies of continuing on the old path. The Greeks approached understanding the human condition that way and the power of Sophocles’ rubric for tragedy endures. The same dynamic of human affairs takes place in new institutional settings and we thrill to its insight just the same. There are no general laws or objective truths found in mathematics, but history doesn’t repeat but it does often rhyme. The insights into economics have come from general principles, their interactions within various institutions, and an understanding of how humans try and muddle our way through such scenarios. How should we change those institutions, from capitalism to parliaments, families to schools, to reflect human values and principles of equality, dignity and meaning? And in my own life, I need to be the change that I wish to see in the world. There’s a bit in Keynes where he talks about “the economic possibilities for our grandchildren” and he says that in a few years the misery of the dismal science can be cast aside for something better:

 

I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue-that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.

 

Of course, Keynes here echoes much of the teachings of the Gospels and it seems no coincidence to me that a kind of liberal theology offers answers to so much of the questions I have raised of being brave enough to be counter-cultural, to not get caught up in just acquiring material possessions, that we’re not a meaningless ball of cells, that we should start by loving one another, that we should understand more and set aside violence. Keynes’ suggestion that we take to art and theology to better understand how to live a good life seems ironic when so much of our lives seen in hock to being told to avoid these issues and concentrate on economics!

 

I am finishing almost 7 years at USC, getting my PhD. I left for Los Angeles in 2009, remarkably unhappy in my old job. Next month- touch wood- I graduate and look forward to something else. People asked me for the last few years “So, are you going to be a professor?” and I think the above explains why I won’t be. But my time in academia has also helped teach me how I can start to be happy. I’ve made friends who will last a lifetime. I’ve found the intimacy of teaching and helping students understand “stuff” invigorating and exciting. I’ve enjoyed the free time, lacked a sense of structure, been energised by the great weather, the outdoors, the variety of new culture, food, art. I’ve met a woman who I adore. I’ve started thinking of how to be a good person, of morality and grace, and survived on very little money! I’ve been very lucky and very happy. As I get a chance to start a new chapter, I think I can look forward with excitement. I don’t know what I’ll be doing yet, or where I’ll be, but I know what I value and I know what I don’t know. And that’s O.K. I don’t have to go crazy trying to figure everything out. Understanding and vulnerability matter more than knowing and impregnability. Aiming for the latter will only drive you mad.

 

These are my assumptions.

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