ad astra per alia porci

value-free public discourse?
July 18, 2010, 5:35 pm
Filed under: current affairs, philosophy | Tags: , , ,

An extended quote from Michael Sandel’s Justice:

The prospect of bringing conceptions of the good life into public discourse about justice and rights may strike you as less than appealing – even frightening. After all, people in pluralist societies such as ours disagree about the best way to live. Liberal political theory was born as an attempt to spare politics and law from becoming embroiled in moral and religious controversies. The philosophies of Kant and Rawls represent the fullest and clearest expression of that ambition.

But this ambition cannot succeed. Many of the most hotly contested issues of justice and rights can’t be debated without taking controversial moral and religious questions. In deciding how to define the rights and duties of citizens, it’s not always possible to set aside competing conceptions of the good life. And even when it’s possible, it may not be desirable.

Asking democratic citizens to leave their moral and religious convictions behind when they enter the public realm may seem a way of ensuring toleration and mutual respect. In practice, however, the opposite can be true. Deciding important public questions while pretending to a neutrality that cannot be achieved is a recipe for backlash and resentment. A politics emptied of substantive moral engagement makes for an impoverished civic life. It is also an open invitation to narrow, intolerant moralisms. Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread.

Quite rightly said. Sadly the Singaporean model of public discourse and its limits seem to be diametrically opposite to Sandel’s ideal model. Religion and race issues are taboo, out-of-bound topics that are largely excluded from the realm of public discourse, because of our experience of racial riots and other reasons. However speech has the power of releasing pressure and clearing the air between parties, and exclusion of speech that is based on religious viewpoints seem not only ironically inimical to the spirit of liberalism and democracy, but also detrimental to the future stability and vibrancy of society. The Rawlsian concept of public reason as applied to public discourse, where every citizen may only bring to the table of public discourse reasons that people of different moral or political backgrounds could accept, is not only unrealistic, but undesirable. People embody and espouse the values that their particular culture, race and religion (or lack thereof) imbue in them, and to require them to set that aside in public debate is a tall order indeed and detrimental to the standard of public deliberation. Erasing such values from the public sphere impoverishes public debate, and breeds discontent amongst a citizenry whose particular viewpoints find no platform to be aired.


explaining binging

Humans are creatures of habit, and once automated behaviour is programmed into our subconsciousness, we stick with it regardless of its ill effects on us. David A. Kessler in The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite argues that overeating has its roots in the practices of the food industry and natural consequences of modernisation.

People overeat because we are primed by our surrounding environment to do so. Kessler suggests that it is more nurture than nature that percipitates binge eating. Food today is readily available, and served in large portions that encourage overeating. Food comes in all sorts of fancy packing and “new” flavours that encourage people to buy and sample them. Kessler vividly uses the metaphor of the “purple cow”: a person will not bat an eyelid at an ordinary cow, but the sight of a purple cow excites and intrigues.

More damningly, Kessler opined that the food industry has been consciously producing food products that encourages overeating and make consumers want to have more and more, in a bid to earn profits. According to Kessler’s research, the tools are sugar, fat and salt – that is in essence the three elements that trigger off an orgy of overeating. Add more sugar, more salt and more fat, in the right “magic” proportions, and you instantly get a product that the masses go crazy for.

I can see how this is practised in my immediate life. Potato chips come in all sorts of flavours, and they are amazingly salty and not to mention, fried in oil. Fast food are largely all fried and laden with salt – from french fries to old Chang Kee curry puffs. And fast food chains “innovate” by periodically offering new selections made using the same methods.

Reversing a culture of overeating is not easy. The method of adding more salt, sugar and fat takes advantage of deeply-ingrained primal instincts in humans. Our ancestors are programmed to be deeply attracted to high carbo, high salt and high fat foods because of their harsh environment where rich sources of fat and energy are scarce and survival necessitates that a person should gorge whenever he finds food. Obviously the modern human does not require this primeval instinct anymore, but the problem is that we still have this inbuilt mechanism deep within our brains.

The essence of what Kessler propose we do to combat the evil of overeating is consciousness of instinct and active denial of the influence of instinct. We have to know that our brains are telling us to eat and actively decide not to take up what our instincts tell us to do. Easier said than done, that is for sure.

Yet what sets us apart from mere animals is our capacity to deal with our baser instincts to promote the greater good or achieve a more important personal goal. The dominance of will over instinct can and should be the status quo.

what’s with the stuff
December 16, 2008, 4:03 pm
Filed under: current affairs, diary | Tags: , , ,


Flyers are like the plague: I try my best to avoid them. When faced with an outstretched arm armed with a flyer, I know that I am in an impossible situation. On one hand I would like to make life easier for the person who is only doing his or her job; but on the other hand I know that the flyer would be wasted on me because I simply will have no desire for anything advertised. Whenever I took a flyer, it was usually because the person who was distributing them looked really pitiful with his or her intimidating stacks of undistributed flyers. I don’t need the information on the flyers, and I wince whenever I had to chuck a freshly-printed piece of glossy paper drenched in colours into the waste bin.

The wastefulness of it all irks me tremendously. Waste requires excess, and the modern age seems to suffer from the problem of unhealthy abundance. We produce too much for our own good, and we overconsume.

The supreme irony is that theoretically at least, the free market should not result in waste, but rather achieve maximal efficiency in the allocation of resources in our world.

Take the example of the modern supermarket. I have always wondered whether it is overstocked, and where did the excess unsold food go. Surely everything cannot be sold, and I believe supermarket operators would not have given away food for free because that would result in no rational consumer paying money to buy their goods at all. As a result much waste is created, which is such a pity since perfectly good food that could have been used to feed the poor is wasted. In this sense, the free market guarantees waste.

Producers deliberately provide goods that do not stand up to repeated and prolonged use. Computers get obsolete quickly. The phrase “they don’t make it now like in the good old days” seem to apply to almost anything that can spoil through frequent use. It is amazing how despite technological advancements, products seem to break faster.

The media creates demand that would otherwise not exist and plays off inherent human fears and weaknesses, amongst which include the fear of ostracism and social rejection. Thorstein Veblen would label such consumption as “conspicuous consumption”. The fickle world of fashion bears this out; designers churn out new designs every season and consumers buy them, even though their wardrobes are already bursting with underused apparel.

I am in no position to offer concrete and well-thought solutions to our waste problem for I am not a professional with a deep understanding involved in industry, but I am at least able to point out certain general points.

We should recognise that laissez-faire alone is insufficient; the free market should be supplemented by sufficient regulations. Of course the devil is in the details and the question of exactly what regulations are sufficient is the real crux of the matter.

We as consumers and individuals should also recognise that our consumption patterns have a direct impact on the actions of producers. Each decision not to buy excessively is a signal to the producers that they have produced too much. This can create a positive feedback cycle where production is rolled back. On the other hand, our own greed can also result in producers producing more and more unwanted goods.

We should also recognise that we don’t need so much to live normal and satisfying lives. Stop grabbing every free gift that presents itself; think instead of whether one really needs it. Stop hoarding so many things at home and instead pare down to the basics and give away the rest to those that need it more.

It is ironic that technology in dramatically reducing production costs have in turn come full circle by making us want even more to be produced, trapping many modern humans in the cycle of work and shop and concomitantly the world of stress and existential ennui. Perhaps a change in our view of consumption and more importantly, our consumption patterns, would change things for the better.

Forbes – 26/11/07 + 10/12/07
December 8, 2007, 2:47 am
Filed under: current affairs

Forbes – 26/11/07 + 10/12/07

Insight into the Chinese stock market boom

  • Some companies have taken stakes in stock brokerages.
  • This creates a circular relationship that inflates stock prices.
  • When investors pay more and trade more, these companies have increased earnings due to the increased profits of the stock brokerages they have a stake in.
  • This increases the price of the company which in turn encourages people to trade more.
  • It doesn’t help that liquidity is pretty much restrained by the government; Chinese investors cannot invest their money in overseas markets.

P/S ratio

  • James O’Shaughnessy says that the price-sales ratio is a better measure than the traditional price-earnings ratio.
  • The idea here is that a low P/S ratio is an indicator that the stock is relatively cheap and poised for higher returns. Investors tend to overpay for growth and glamour and underestimate businesses’ tendency to regress to the mean; buying low P/S stocks capitalises on this.
  • P/S ratio should not be more than 1.5, which is the average for the S&P500, and there must be an upward trend for earnings.
  • Earnings can be easily manipulated and companies on the rebound may have earnings that are temporarily depressed.
  • Price-book value ratio is most useful with companies that have hard assets, but does poorly when measuring companies with intangible assets

Ken Fisher’s Portfolio Strategy

  • Continue to buy stocks at good prices; events like the credit meltdown, American elections and Iran will either not happen or have little effect.
  • What he is concerned with is the possibility of the yen rising, because American and European markets are being propped up by speculators borrowing in yen.
  • Interestingly, he recommends Flextronics from the Singapore market.

The Economist – 07/09/07
September 8, 2007, 1:56 am
Filed under: current affairs

The Economist – 07/09/07 Continue reading

The Economist – 24/08/07
August 21, 2007, 10:02 am
Filed under: current affairs

The Economist – 24/08/07 Continue reading

The Economist – 17/08/07
August 18, 2007, 8:11 am
Filed under: current affairs

The Economist – 17/08/07 Continue reading