Monday, June 25, 2018

Finally at the 200-day Moving Average, Again

After dropping off a cliff the Dow has moved sideways for the past five months. Today it closed below the 200-day Moving Average for the first time in 501 days.  A phenomenal run  to be sure.  But what now?
The stock market always does what it is supposed to do but rarely when it is supposed to do it.  

So it goes with the current correction in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  Although the S&P 500 tested its 200-day moving average over two months ago, only today has the Dow closed below the average for the first time since June 27, 2016 - the third longest bullish streak above the average ever.  The strength of this market has been breaking down since early February and I blogged about it at the time.

Since then I have been watching the Dow on a daily basis.  Among the many things that could be noted about the recent market activity is the fact that the Dow formed a symmetrical triangle throughout February and most of March.  Out of that formation the Dow broke down into decreasing highs and lows until a recent, modest uptick in May and the first half of June.  

Overall, during this time, the Dow touched the 200-day MA on April 2 and again on May 3, but recovered each day.  In Dow Theory the intra-day action is not as fundamentally important as the open and the close of the day.  Today it ended the day below the average.  What could this mean?

This might be bearish but it is also healthy.  The markets were WAY out of whack with the "Trump rally" which basically lasted from election day 2016 through late-January 2018, an incredible though historically unsustainable run.  As I posted before, markets do not typically behave either bullishly or bearishly in such an "uncorrected" fashion.

I also noted that the further the Dow strays either above or below the 200-day MA, the sharper the snapback toward the average.  The initial stage of this correction was extremely sharp before it gave way to a sideways, range-bound condition.  This condition should most likely be read as the bull working through the overbought condition that existed in January.  The fact is the market did not break down completely.  Rather, the 200-day MA moved up to where the market was holding.  That actually could be seen as a sign of strength.

Either way, closing below the 200-day MA is a sign that the "radicalized" nature of the markets has probably (finally) run its course.  If this bull market continues, it will do so with traditionally normalized returns, not the ridiculous action of 2017.  So that is healthy to the extent that it is more sustainable.

In reality no president has nearly as much sway over the stock markets as Donald Trump typically and narcissistically ascribed to himself before the correction.  (The Federal Reserve has more impact.Recently, Trump again made the unlikely claim that the markets could be up as much as 60% before the end of the year.  He has called the current US economy "the strongest ever" (which is classic fake news).  This only reflects how desperate Trump is to "win" the economic issue.  His brash, unfounded statements also reveal his completely self-centered blindness to the reality of the world economy that trivializes the US presidency.  No reasonable president has ever done what Trump has repeatedly done - tie the success of his term in office to stock market performance. More simply put, tax cuts and deregulation alone do not a bull market make.  The world is more complicated than that Donald.

But, I digress.  The point is the Dow is now (finally) testing the support of the 200-day MA after today's negative action, breaking a historically extended winning streak.  Is this just an understandable and even predictable healthy technical adjustment in a continuing bull market?  Is this the confirmation of the beginning of a bear market?  No one knows.

On the one hand, the US economy remains strong and corporate profits should reflect this.  On other hand, we have potential trouble with inflation, tariffs, interest rates, and other uncertainty.  On one hand, The Motley Fool lists 7 reasons the markets will continue to go up.  On the other hand, Investopedia states that we should all be worried about the coming recessionAs a better president, Harry Truman, once quipped in response to the "on the one hand, on the other hand" economic analysis: "Give me a one-handed economist."

It is not pessimistic to contend this bull market is long in the tooth.  We have experienced nine years of strong growth (though some believe this current bull market began in early 2016).  This chart on the history of bull and bear markets since 1926 shows that, while the current bull is robust, it still isn't as strong as previous bullish streaks.  CNBC would disagree with that analysis, however.  According to its research this is the strongest bull market in modern times.

Nevertheless, like bear markets, bullish ones have an expiration date.  Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently labeled the Trump economy as the "Wile E. Coyote economy", destined to go "over the cliff" in the foreseeable future.  Seeking Alpha reported that four factors were coming together to form the next American recession. According to the conservative Financial Times, Trump's tariffs endanger the entire global economy.  Trump just belches that we "ain't seen nothing yet."  I bet that's true, but perhaps not as Trump intends

Even if it isn't the strongest economy ever, the present US economy has not been this robust in many yearsWarren Buffett is definitely optimistic about the near future of the economy.  His advice is to ignore all the noise about buying and selling and simply keep leveraging into the market.  So there is a reasonable argument for future gains.  Looked at from his perspective, today's action might setup an excellent buying opportunity.

So, from the perspective of technical analysis, I will now watch the RSIMACD, and Slow Stochastics indicators for guidance.  As of the close of business today the MACD is only beginning to enter "oversold" territory.   The RSI is not confirming anything yet (it is within the mid-range of its scale), while the Stochastics is mildly oversold.  This is not a definitive technical situation.  If the RSI and the MACD continue downward for the next couple of days then it will be time to make a judgment call as to whether the oversold condition constitutes a buying opportunity or advises to remain cash heavy.

Today's Dow event does not constitute either a buying or selling opportunity.  Rather, the action of the next few days or weeks will reveal that.  The 200-day MA is rising and will continue to rise in the near future.  It will take a series of negative days to flatten it out and/or send it downward.  For now, this remains another indication of underlying strength.

The stock market reacts to short-term news but is generally a leading indicator, not a lagging one.  My guess is that in February the markets began the process of discounting a coming recession brought on by poor economic decisions (new tariffs, debt inducing tax cuts) and healthy economic fluctuations (a return to historically viable interest rates and more limited liquidity), a pattern that will remain until this correction has fully expressed itself.  In other words, the time to expand stock positions lies somewhere in the future. 

We can only hope that this correction will take the edge off of middle America's cultish acceptance of the trainwreck that is Donald Trump.  He and his party deserve their fair share of credit for this state of things, just as they so eagerly accepted full credit when the good times were rolling before.  As in so many other ways, Trump has demanded enough rope to hang himself, even if he really has almost no control over what is happening at all. 

Ironically, today, for the first time, a majority of Americans say they approve of the way Trump is handling the economy.  Unlike the wisdom of the stock markets which is a leading indicator, public opinion is almost always a lagging indicator of the state of things.  Trump's popularity is up because the economy was on fire, not because his policies can perpetuate such growth - they can't.

Is the American majority justified with its appraisal?  Who is more correct, Warren Buffett or Ben Bernanke?  No one knows but one of the Dow's longest streaks above the 200-day MA ended today, after 501 days.  It could be a sign of a return to healthy market conditions within a robust economy (in which case we should all invest more) - or it could be a sell signal for a coming recession (in which case its time to divest).  There is more uncertainty than clarity. Trump took a lot of credit for this bull market (which began in 2009).  He should now carry the burden of the past half-year (so far) of correction as we await further developments.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Atlanta Campaign: Kennesaw Mountain and the River Line

Note:  This is the fourth part of a series of brief essays giving an overview of the Atlanta Campaign of 1864.  See previous essays here, here, and here.  Last names are only used for previously mentioned commanding generals.

The situation on June 22, 1864 as depicted in the VASSAL module of my Atlanta Is Ours! game.  Johnston has dug in around Kennesaw Mountain and Hood is about to strike Hooker at Kolb's Farm.  North is left, South is right, East is up and West is down in this perspective.

By July 3, Sherman had sent Schofield and associated cavalry around the Confederate left flank approaching the Chattahoochee River.  You can see the defensive line of Shoupades along the river with the prize city of Atlanta just beyond.  Sherman would ultimately send Schofield back around to the east to cross the Rebel right flank. 

After skirmishing and maneuvering Johnston's Army of Tennessee out of northwest Georgia, covering over 50 miles in just three weeks, we saw in my last post about the Atlanta campaign how things bogged down as Sherman attempted to push around the Confederate left flank.  Over four weeks in late May and June the Federals managed to advance only 12 additional miles. 

Johnston's forces were now entrenched around Kennesaw Mountain, the most formidable defensive line he had put together since abandoning Dalton.   While the Rebels had not managed to halt the Federal advance or even severely bloody the Yankees in battle, they had managed to frustrate them to the point where Sherman, for the first time since Resaca, sought to strike them a blow.

Essentially, Sherman's strategy remained the same as it had the past few weeks.  If he could spread the Southern line out enough with his superior numbers, there would be a weak spot somewhere to attack.  He did this primarily by using Thomas’ army to fix the Confederate position while sending McPherson and/or Schofield to go around Johnston’s left flank.

During one such extending maneuver, on June 22, Hood struck with two divisions against General Hooker’s corps at Kolb’s Farm.  Like New Hope Church and Pickett’s Mill, it was a short, sharp attack only this time the roles were reversed.  Hooker’s men were on the defensive and repulsed Hood’s attack.  Schofield continued around Hood’s position, threatening his flank.  General Henry D. Clayton’s division was brought up from reserve to cover the now greatly extended line.  From end to end it stretched almost 10 miles compared with 7 miles around Dallas and only 3 miles at Resaca.  The Confederates were less concentrated than at any time since the campaign began.

It was raining again which made movement sluggish.  So Sherman ordered an attack on the Confederate position well in advance, on June 24th for a 27th assault.  This gave the Yankees plenty of time to reconnoiter the lines and concentrate against what was thought to be the weakest points.  This time Thomas and McPherson would mount the attack, the largest since Resaca.

Union artillery opened up at 6AM on the 27th but by 11AM the attacking elements were withdrawing.  The Rebels held everywhere.  Out of some 14,500 attacking Northern troops there were some 2,900 casualties against a few hundred Confederate losses.  Another bloody repulse.  Southern casualties were less than 1,000.  These losses were small compared to the Overland Campaign occurring simultaneously in Virginia between Lee and Grant.  At Cold Harbor, for example, Grant lost 7,000 men in just a few minutes.

Nevertheless, the fighting at Kennesaw Mountain had been intense.  The Confederate line was thin and had no reserves.  But the Union troops could not punch through due to the highly defensible terrain.  The one advantage Sherman secured in the attack was that Johnston’s troops were so pinned down that only a handful of cavalry troops and the initial deployment of about 1,000 Georgia Militia were all that stood in the way of Schofield’s continued probing of the Confederate left flank.  Despite the Southern “victory” the Federals still held the initiative and another retreat was soon ordered.

About this same time Johnston’s close personal friend, Senator Louis Wigfall, was on his way to Texas from Richmond.  Wigfall visited Johnston and informed the general that the Confederate government was displeased with his seemingly endless series of retreats and his inability to deal Sherman a decisive blow.  Johnston basically shrugged, stating that the Army of Tennessee was so outnumbered and had so little in the way of logistical support as to be incapable of offensive operations.  The Southern general argued, as he had for weeks now,  that General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s excellent cavalry be called in from Mississippi to cut Sherman’s rail line and now extended line of communications as a pretext for forcing a retreat.  While militarily sound, this was a politically unrealistic request, however, since, other than a handful of infantry units, Forrest's horsemen were all that was protecting Mississippi from Federal control.

The Kennesaw Mountain line held until July 2, when Schofield’s Army of the Ohio probed to within a couple of miles of the Chattahoochee River, the last major barrier before Atlanta.  The Confederate line was now 16 miles long and Johnston had to shorten it or risk being cut off from Atlanta itself.  A much shorter line was established around Smyrna Station, about 7 miles further south.  Heavy skirmishing continued daily and by July 5 Johnston retreated again, this time into specially constructed defensive fortifications along the river.

Before the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain began, Confederate chief of artillery Brigadier General Francis A. Shoup displayed a bit of ingenuity by creating a series of log and earthen forts in the shape of arrowheads, 16 feet high and 12 feet thick along a 9 mile stretch of the river just 6 miles from Atlanta at its closest point.  These “Shoupades” were designed to require fewer men to adequately defend the line, freeing up troops for a healthy reserve to respond to whatever Sherman had in mind next.

The design was innovative and predicted the type of entrenchments that would become common in World War One, some 50 years in the future.  But most of the Southern generals had no clue what to do with them.  General William H.T. Walker’s division actually began to dismantle the Shoupades along its portion of the line and construct traditional trenches.  Other generals such as General Patrick Cleburne saw the potential for deadly crossfire between the forts and manned his position accordingly.

Probably due to a lack of understanding of his line’s design, Johnston over-concentrated his army and failed to establish adequate reserves that the Shoup's design might have afforded.  Thus he was subjected to the same Union maneuvers that had forced all the previous withdrawals.  At first Schofield’s continued probe of the Southern left flank was checked at Nickajack Creek.  Then Sherman withdrew Schofield and, based on intelligence from his cavalry, ordered a sweeping action by all three of his armies around the Confederate right flank, crossing the Chattahoochee River at several lightly guarded or unguarded locations, Thomas and Schofield at Powers Ferry and Johnson’s Ferry around July 9th with McPherson marching 10 miles further east to Roswell and crossing there on July 14th.  Shoup’s line was compromised and Johnston again retreated.

The Yankees were now less than 10 miles from Atlanta.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Reading Enlightenment Now

Just when we seem of have needed it most Steven Pinker has written a wonderful book that reminds us that, overall, big picture, things are not anywhere near as bad as they sometimes seem.  Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress dives deep into the available data of civilization to prove that, thanks to the idea of “progress” hatched during the Age of Enlightenment, “…there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.”

Bill Gates calls Enlightenment Now “My new favorite book of all time” and it is easy to see why.  Pinker makes the case for the continued application of human reason to every aspect of our culture, society and individual lives.  He does so without denying the challenges facing humanity such as climate change, nuclear weapons, terrorism, etc.  But Pinker sees every issue facing humanity as an intelligible problem, not a crisis.  Reason solves problems. Pinker says reason is “non-negotiable” and that pretty much serves as the cornerstone of the whole book.

Out of reasoned objective knowledge humanity has thrived like never before.  The list of reason’s accomplishments, when combined with science and humanism, unveils a world improving in almost every progressive measure.  The fundamental optimism here is refreshing and inspiring.  Pinker realizes the word “progress” has become a cliché, but he insists that it still applies.

Pinker smothers the reader with scientific data.  Life expectancy is way up all across the globe, at a now accelerating rate since 1940.  What’s more, most of those added years are productive years, not years as an invalid.  Undernourishment is still high in Sub-Sahara Africa and Southeast Asia, but it is dropping dramatically everywhere. The number of famine deaths worldwide is at an all-time low, minuscule compared to how many died of starvation as recently as the 1960’s.

The wealth generated by capitalism, another aspect of reason and applied science, is now distributed to more people on the planet than ever before.  Pinker acknowledges the issue of income inequality but he generally thinks that is a natural expression given the fact that some people are going to be more motivated and more capable than others.  Beyond that, the wealth of most of Africa and Asia is growing exponentially and in Europe and the Americas vast majorities of the populations live comfortably.

With the generation of wealth, social spending has actually risen everywhere in the world since 1940.  More people are cared for through various welfare programs than ever before in human history, in America as well, addressing issues that arise from inequality.  The poverty level in the United States is at an all-time low. People worldwide living in what is considered “extreme poverty” have been escaping that level of poverty at the rate of 137,000 people per day for the last twenty years.  Read that once again.

The global population growth rate is declining, though the number of humans on the planet continues to increase every day. Since virtually everyone has improved sustenance and we are fed better than ever before, better education and understanding is possible through all societies.  Which is a good thing because humanity can apply that knowledge toward addressing problems such as pollution. Deforestation, the denuding of the planet of its temperate and tropical forests, has been reined in significantly since 1975.  The world as a whole is generating fewer CO2 emissions today than it was ten years ago.  Reason can be applied to problems.

Pinker writes: “Despite a half-century of panic, humanity is not on an irrevocable path to ecological suicide.  The fear of resource shortages is misconceived.  So is the misanthropic environmentalism that sees modern humans as vile despoilers of a pristine planet.  An enlightened environmentalism recognizes that humans need to use energy to lift themselves out of the poverty to which entropy and evolution consigned them.” (page 154)

All this prosperity and education has manifested itself in various ways.  War between great powers, for example, is at an all-time low.  No major nation is at war with any other major nation.  All the wars on the earth are currently taking place inside countries rather than between them.  While battle deaths have risen a bit in recent years, overall, only a small fraction of deaths occur in combat globally compared to as recently as 1985.  Likewise, genocide deaths, so common in the 20th century, have virtually vanished from the face to the earth, measuring in the tens of thousands today as opposed to the millions dying from 1965 to 1975.  There was a recent blip in genocides confined to Africa in the mid-1990’s but nothing like that since.

Homicidal deaths worldwide are at an all-time low, though they have risen recently in Mexico and America.  While deaths from poisoning have been rising since 1995, accidental pedestrian death, deaths from falls, fire, or drowning are all at record lows in America and Europe and are falling elsewhere.  Occupational accident deaths in the US fell from over 60 per 100,000 in 1910 to about 3 per 100,000 in 2016.  Most of this happened through the application of human reason.

Terrorism deaths are not at all-time lows, they are, in fact, about the same as they were in 1995.  These deaths are a recent phenomenon. There were far fewer deaths by terrorism in 1970, but terrorism still only kills about 0.1 per 100,000.  Nevertheless, it seems that this is one area where “progress” isn't happening.  But, Pinker cautions: “Though terrorism poses a miniscule danger compared with other risks, it creates outsize panic and hysteria because that is what it is designed to do.  Modern terrorism is a by-product of the vast reach of the media.” (page 195)  In short, while the threat is real, it is small.  Very small, largely thanks to the progressive influence of human reason.

The flourishing of education and knowledge has led to the emergence of more democracies than autocracies today than any time since 1800.  Human rights protection is steadily increasing throughout the world.  More countries have outlawed the death penalty than ever before.  Executions in general are at record lows and have been since 1970.  The number of racist, sexist, and homophobic web searches is significantly down since 2004.  Hate crimes have been slowly but steadily becoming less frequent since 1996.  Instances of rape and domestic violence in the US are one-fourth of what they were in 1995.  There is a pattern here clearly made possible by human reason.

As I mentioned, education is a huge part of Pinker’s factual optimism.  “Studies of the effects of education confirm that educated people really are more enlightened.  They are less, racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, and authoritarian.  They place a higher value on imagination, independence, and free speech.  They are more likely to vote, volunteer, express political views, and belong to civic associations such as unions, political parties, and religious and community organizations.” (page 235) 

Worldwide, literacy is at an all-time high.  More human beings receive basic education today than ever before.  The years of schooling are extended in most parts of the world, allowing for truly higher education.  Remarkably, IQ is rising thanks to all this exposure to knowledge.  “(IQ) scores have been rising for more than a century, in every part of the world, at a rate of about three IQ points per decade.…we know that intelligence is highly inheritable, and the world is not engaged in a massive eugenics project in which smarter people have had more babies generation after generation.  Nor have people been marrying outside their clan and tribe in great enough numbers for a long enough time to explain the rise.” (page 240)  Reason ultimately feeds on itself within modern human evolution.

Collectively and individually, we are smarter than we have ever been before.  This has led to a variety of quality of life improvements including: fewer hours worked each week, widespread retirement benefits, and a vast array of consumer goods that virtually everyone rich or poor has access to such as stoves, washing machines, and refrigerators.  The cost of lighting indoors has dropped precipitously and spending on necessities requires less of our income than ever before.  Consequently, leisure time has increased throughout the developed world for both men and women.  Air travel is cheaper than ever and the number of tourists worldwide is at a record.  Never before has humanity interacted with itself across the globe the way it does today.

By all these measures and more human reason is leading to the betterment of humankind.  The data seems overwhelming that humanity as a whole is moving in the right direction.  Progress is anything but guaranteed, however.  Reason is threatened, for example, by politics and, ironically, by academia.  Political conservatism has given us Trumpism, a most irrational turn of events.  But the academic Left, too, “…has missed the boat in its contempt for the market and its romance with Marxism.  Industrial capitalism launched the Great Escape from universal poverty in the 19th century and is rescuing the rest of humankind in a Great Convergence in the 21st.” (page 364)

Pinker attacks a host of other threats to the continued benefits of reason, science and humanism including a wide variety of forces, generally resulting from a misapplication of reason:  romanticism, cultural pessimism, seeing progress as a dialectical struggle, authoritarian modernism, postmodernism, relativism, religion and its resulting theistic morality, superstition, romantic heroism (as demonstrated in thinkers such as Nietzsche), nationalism and exceptionalism, the philosophical approaches of objectivism (Rand), existentialism (Sartre), critical theory (Habermas), post-structuralism, and deconstructionism (Derrida).  According to Pinker, there is a long list of ‘isms’ that simply defy scientific knowledge in favor of whimsical and non-objective contentions of truth.  He finds all of these inadequate, misguided, and antiquated compared with how reason, science, and humanism have positively impacted civilization. 

Then there is what Pinker calls ‘progressophobia,’ about which Pinker flatly proclaims: “Intellectuals hate progress.  Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress.  It’s not that they hate the fruits of progress…It’s the idea that rankles the chattering class – the Enlightenment belief that by understanding the world we can improve the human condition.” (page 39)

Pinker claims that intellectual progressophobia, like many of the other anti-rational forces mentioned above, is fundamentally driven by two cultural mechanics.  First, there is the “Availability heuristic” which drives “people to estimate the probability of an event or frequency of a kind of things with the ease with which instances come to mind….Frequent events leave stringer memory traces….But whenever a memory turns up high in the result of the mind’s search engine for reasons other than frequency – because it is recent, vivid, gory, distinctive, or upsetting – people will overestimate how likely it is in the world.” (page 41)

The damage of the Availability heuristic comes predominantly through social media and the news media.  Access to information (and particularly to disinformation) artificially heightens human awareness of all manner of ills such as terrorism, domestic violence, economic woes, pollution, corruption, to the degree that these things overwhelm all the positive attributes previously mentioned in this post.  

This plays into the second mechanic.  “…the psychological roots of progressophobia run deeper.  The deepest is a bias that has been summarized by the slogan ‘Bad is stronger than good.’” (page 47)  This is the Negativity bias.  “The psychological literature confirms that people dread losses more than they look forward to gains, that they dwell on setbacks more than they savor good fortune, and that they are more stung by criticism than they are heartened by praise.” (page 48)

The end result of the Availability heuristic and the Negativity bias is that intellectualism (as many other things including religion and politics) tends to discount the factual effects of progress in favor of mis-perceived notions of dystopia, decline, disenfranchisement, and general malaise.  Progress is seen as an illusion or as a passé concept.  Every measure of human betterment previously mentioned is trivialized compared with the realm of perceived global threats and personal dissatisfaction.

But, like everything else in the universe, Pinker argues that Availability and Negativity are intelligible problems that can be addressed and solved by sufficient application of reason, science, and humanism.  “Most people would agree that life is better than death.  Health is better than sickness.  Sustenance is better than hunger.  Abundance is better than poverty.  Peace is better than war.  Safety is better than danger.  Freedom is better than tyranny.  Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination.  Knowledge is better than ignorance.  Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness.  Happiness is better than misery.” (page 51)

As the facts show, worldwide every one of these human betterments is occurring right now and virtually all of them are occurring at an accelerated pace.  For Pinker, a more relevant and accurate appraisal of human progress is a matter of recognizing the confusing and destructive consequences of Availability and Negativity as revealed in intelligentsia, social media, and the news media.

Which is all well and good from the perspective of reason.  I have no qualms with Pinker’s data-driven optimism.  As a whole, humanity is flourishing and immensely better off today than in any other time in human history.  But, unfortunately, Pinker tries to make reason the core of human being, which it is not.  He wishes to discard a lot of concepts that are not necessarily completely rational like existentialism and critical theory that I have found useful in my own life.

Of course, like most worldviews, Pinker’s reason project has built-in mechanisms for dealing with facts that are outliers to his concept of progress.  There are additional facts related to progress that he would likely explain away as being the result of Availability and Negativity.  Suicide rates are rising sharply in the United States.  Pollution is getting much worse in many parts of the world, causing a rise in many diseases including asthma.  Anxiety and depression have been steadily worsening among young people in America for over 80 years and there is no reasonable answer as to why.  And it isn’t just in the US where intellectuals and media hold full sway.  Depression is now the top cause of human disability worldwide, regardless of a given society’s level of affluence and education.

This is more than a bias, this is as real as any gains in human rights or peace between nations or the great strides in human health.  Nuclear weapons and climate change, two problems Pinker doesn’t shy away from, are both products of reason.  You can’t seriously argue that capitalism has brought wealth to the many without also acknowledging that it has caused climate change, pollution, and a certain amount of functionalization of humanity.  You can’t have it both ways.  Progress does not come without a price and Pinker wished to dismiss this with an “all glory is real, all evil is a problem to be solved” perspective.  There’s no guarantee reason can solve any of these problems; in fact, it is possible to see how reason is the cause of many of them.

Terrorism is a reaction to reason and science and humanism.  It is a recent phenomena as Karen Armstrong pointed out in The Battle for God.  To a large degree, reason created fundamentalism.  Even more pervasive and affecting than fundamentalism is the force of consumerist marketing.  Marketing is a completely reasonable force in society.  It analyzes data on purchasing habits and demographics and uses creativity to affect buying choice and drive demand for more consumer goods.  This is a wonderful thing compared with extreme poverty but it is also one of the most destructive forces at work on the planet currently in terms of affecting the human psyche and the environment as a whole.  Our absolute submissiveness to marketing as a force in society is the source of untold materialism and its associated ills.  Marketing transposes human meaning on a daily basis and galvanizes our attachment to objects that are essentially empty in and of themselves.  

My bottom line hesitation with Enlightenment Now is that, while reason has accomplished much, it is nevertheless not the whole (nor perhaps even the key) to human experience and understanding. There is no inherent reason why human beings will be, or should be, reasonable.  By nature I am a relativist and multidisciplinary so I grow immediately skeptical of any concept that thinks everything can be distilled down to a few basic universal ideas.  Based upon an avalanche of data, Steven Pinker worships reason and science and humanism as his own intellectual religion.  He makes a strong case and, generally speaking, I find far more about Enlightenment Now that I agree with than I am skeptical about.  But, try as he might, Pinker has not given us the key to human experience.  He has given us the key to progress, to be sure.  But there is a lot of collateral damage to progress which he wishes to minimize, or fails to mention at all, because it doesn’t fit into his expansive but nevertheless limited worldview.

That is more of a qualification than a knock against his achievement.  Enlightenment Now will give every serious reader cause for optimism and it is a powerful antidote to many of problems facing humanity.  Yes, life is intelligible and problems can be solved.  But there is nevertheless much absurdity in the world, reason has created many systems that run themselves outside of direct human control (stock markets, technological development, the decline in human privacy in favor of various forms of surveillance, the emergence of the anthropocene, to name a few).  These forces were founded upon reason but almost always follow influences created by the various systems themselves beyond human control to affect human experience.  This is something Pinker fails to address in the book.  Human reason often develops systems beyond human control.  This doesn’t collapse his splendid logic and factual presentation in this highly recommended book, but it does put feeling good about what he contends into a broader context than he would wish.

If you don't have time to plow through 500 pages of Pinker's book, you can see his 16-minute TED talk covering the book here and a second lecture by Pinker on why the world is getting better here.  

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Richter: January, December, and November

January, December, and November.  Large abstracts by Gerhard Richter.  1989.

The ultimate reason for my recent trip to St. Louis was to see three large abstract paintings by Gerhard Richter.  Long-time readers know I have a great appreciation for Richter's diverse oeuvre.  The St. Louis Art Museum features a trilogy from 1989 entitled January, December, and November.  These enormous paintings were created as the Berlin Wall opened.  Richter was born in East Germany and escaped the communist bloc in the early 1960's, making these paintings representative of a particularly poignant moment for him.

These are my favorite abstract paintings by my favorite living artist. 

Me admiring the paintings; affords a sense of their massive scale.

I spent a long time in the room with the paintings.  Other viewers came and went but sometimes I had the whole room to myself.  The accent pieces to my right are not works by Richter.  Off camera, to my left, was Richter's Gray Mirror and Betty.

January, my favorite of the three.  Followed by details of the painting...

“Measuring 320 x 400 cm each, these paintings all but envelop the viewer.  In January, streaks of lead white and light grey cascade across the canvas, covering all but small amounts of the vivid oranges, yellows, greens and blues underneath.  These are arranged in such a way that, especially in the lower left-hand corner, they evoke distant memories of landscapes and their reflection in water.  December plays on the dynamic of vertical and horizontal movements.  The painting is in a state oh heightened restlessness.  Where there is a calmer blur of greys running across, this is disrupted by lighter smears running the opposite direction.  The colors seem to have dissolved further than in January, rare hints of orange, yellow and blue becoming rapidly absorbed into overall tonality.  The direction of November is decisively horizontal.  As the viewer ‘reads’ the painting from left to right, the stop-and-go motion of Richter’s trademark squeegee gives way to a continuous blur in which solid darks and the clean whites of the left-hand panel fuse into different shades of grey.

“Given the distinct position that this color occupies within Richter’s oeuvre, the leaden grey of November not only appears like an amalgamation of the lighter January and the darker December, but also echoes other parts of the artist’s work, including this mirrors and the grayscale of photography.  In his abstract paintings, Richter has largely avoided the beauty that his subtle use of color produces in figurative works such as Betty….In January, December, and November the neutral surface layers appear to all but smother the discord amongst the colors in previous layers.” (Panorama: A Retrospective, page 170)

December.  Followed by details of the painting...

My attention was drawn, among other places, to this particular patch of blue and yellow.



Closer...this gives you some idea of how the viewer can spend a great deal of time appreciating the many diverse nuances of each great abstract piece.

Other details of December...

“Conventionally, abstract painting is understood as a process of essentializing.  Richter takes the very opposite approach by adding layer after layer of paint, dragging large quantities of materials across the canvas in a highly physical and energetic process.  Hence, paintings such as January, December, and November do not represent essentialist reductions but, on the contrary, the accumulation of countless visual phenomena.” (page 171)

“Through making the tug and pull between conscious control and its surrender a central part of his approach to image construction, Richter allows ‘chance as theme and as method’ into his painting: ‘A method of allowing something objective to come into being; a theme for creating a simile (picture) of our survival strategy.’ Dogmatic orthodoxy – in painting as in life – is nothing but a cover-up to shield us from that which cannot be known apriori.  Hence, the meaning of Richter’s large abstracts resides in the very manner of their making, their openness and indeterminacy, in ‘a more modern truth: one that we are already living out in our lives (life is not what is said but the saying of it, not the picture but the picturing).

“This sense of openness and indeterminacy is endemic to both the process of making and the process of perceiving paintings such as January, December, and November.  Richter thus establishes a position of empathy between himself and the viewer.  His paintings convey a shared understanding of humanity experienced through the communal act of looking” ‘What counts isn’t being able to do a thing; it’s seeing what it is.  Seeing the decisive act, and ultimately it places the maker and the viewer on the same level.’” (page 173) 

November, the darkest and most minimal of the three.  Followed by details...