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Thursday, 4 October 2012

Calculators

by Igor Smirnov

We all calculate in the sense of weighing up possibilities, eventualities and options. We are, in an important sense, calculators. Our technical world has rather tended to push this use of the word to one side in favour of those things computers do best, rather than those more interesting things we do best.

Yet highly successful people also tend to be highly successful calculators. Check out this quote for example.

The thing for him to do was to get rich and hold his own--to build up a seeming of virtue and dignity which would pass muster for the genuine thing. Force would do that. Quickness of wit. And he had these. "I satisfy myself," was his motto; and it might well have been emblazoned upon any coat of arms which he could have contrived to set forth his claim to intellectual and social nobility.

Dreiser’s main character (the financier himself) is Frank Cowperwood, modelled on the tycoon Charles Yerkes. Cowperwood is portrayed as a charming, insightful man, who from his early teens is almost entirely concerned with calculating his own personal interests, which he sees as primarily financial.

Luck and bad luck play their part, but successful calculators such as Cowperwood usually calculate their way out of even the most painful setback.

Two key aspects of Cowperwood’s power are his ability to calculate possibilities and a corresponding habit of using that ability in all aspects of his life. Almost machine like in his calculating habits, the modern reader is left wondering how many Cowperwoods there are in the real world.

Because there is no real defence against the habitual, obsessive calculator who is able to shift life’s vagaries in his favour, is there? Anything and everything can be brought into the field of calculation. However inexact the calculations may be, they only have to tilt the wheel slightly to tip the balance in the long run.

So what are our defences against obsessive political calculators who make calculation their full-time occupation? Endlessly determined to tilt the wheel in their favour, they never stop, never look at anything from any angle which hasn’t been calculated, sifted and evaluated as to its potential for personal advancement.


Of course we have one obvious defence in that the modern world is too complex for them. They can’t tilt the wheel far enough, frequently calling the odds incorrectly, frequently taking themselves, and us, down the wrong path. Maybe this is the problem, the inability of our leaders to calculate the odds in an over-complex world.

But as for the bigger and more successful calculators standing behind our leaders - I suspect their ability to calculate is relatively unimpaired, their determination to tilt the wheel in their favour remains just as powerful as  Cowperwood's.

7 comments:

Roger said...

One of the alleged benefits of government by aristocrats was that they were so rich they could afford to take a disinterested
view and do what is best for the country. Rubbish of course, one can never be too rich and looking after No 1 and one's mates is important. Similarly with monarchy, communism and dare I say democracy.

Looking after No 1 is a form of calculation as is making sure one's supporters are satisfied. So how to make us the demos (or plebians) the No 1? Well, he who pays the piper.... But we do pay the pipers - plenty - but not enough it seems. Some propose we fund our parties fully, no extras at all. But lobbyists will still schmooze and to be fair some do make valid points. Similarly big business or trades unions surely expect something in return.

But how in practice could you ensure there were no under-the-table deals, no cosy directorships etc etc. We would have to accompany each parliamentarian with a cohort of toughs armed with chainsaws plus a lawyer or three to listen to what was said. All this 24/7 inside and outside parliament, not practical.

Back to that old disinfectant - sunshine. Let the whole business be in the open, all bank accounts, pay, fees, expenses, directorships and timesheets open to view. Personally I would staff the parliamentary administration offices with volunteers from an especially severe wing of the Women's Institute - blue rinse, severe spectacles and sharp hat pins to be de rigeur. Chuck out the men-in-tights.

Angus Dei said...

But does it add up:)

A K Haart said...

Roger - "Back to that old disinfectant - sunshine." Exactly - transparency all along the line.

Angus - no it doesn't, that's the irony!

Sam Vega said...

Max Weber makes much of the rise of rationality as a form of legitimacy and power in modern society: he saw it as a one-way ratchet, with a future of ever-increasing calculation and rational assessment of the odds.

I'm not sure whether there are any big calculators behind our current leaders.

Our best defence against them is the inherent lack of wisdom and ease in the calculating game. To get on, they have to lock wheels with others, and grind away until something gives. There is plenty of space for us in the gaps. I love it when we hear that the likes of Heseltine and Andrew Mitchell planned their route to being Prime Minister when they were at Uni. They have not made it, and thanks be to whatever circumstances that frustrated them and caused them to waste their miserable driven lives.

A K Haart said...

Sam - yes, I think there is also a statistical aspect to politics in that only one ambitious toad can be PM at any one time. Some must fail.

I also suspect that the big calculators are moving on from national governments to the EU, UN and other international bodies.

James Higham said...

Because there is no real defence against the habitual, obsessive calculator who is able to shift life’s vagaries in his favour, is there? Anything and everything can be brought into the field of calculation. However inexact the calculations may be, they only have to tilt the wheel slightly to tip the balance in the long run.

And that's very much the type of person we've been railing against of late - they calculated the best way to achieve their goals. Difficult to combat.

A K Haart said...

James - it is, because they are good at it and do it all the time.