Saturday, May 23, 2015

Culinary modernism and reflections on aesthetics and virtue

A Plea for Culinary Modernism
Modern, fast, processed food is a disaster. That, at least, is the message conveyed by newspapers and magazines, on television cooking programs, and in prizewinning cookbooks. . . .

[But...] As an historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by Culinary Luddism, a past sharply divided between good and bad, between the sunny rural days of yore and the gray industrial present. . . .

[M]ost men were born to a life of labor in the fields, most women to a life of grinding, chopping, and cooking. “Servitude,” said my mother as she prepared home­cooked breakfast, dinner, and tea for eight to ten people three hundred and sixty five days a year. . . .

For all, Culinary Modernism had provided what was wanted: food that was processed, preservable, industrial, novel, and fast, the food of the elite at a price everyone could afford. Where modern food became available, populations grew taller, stronger, had fewer diseases, and lived longer. Men had choices other than hard agricultural labor, women other than kneeling at the metate five hours a day.

We have to remember, every second of every day, that we have more than seven billion people to feed, and not a single one of those seven billion is expendable. There is a reason why Whole Foods is mockingly referred to as Whole Paycheck. Luddite, artisanal, non-industrial food is expensive: to consume such food exclusively is to consume more of the labor of others than one could ever replace or repay. Only a privileged few can afford to forego industrial food.

It is one of the arguments of every elite that they are the guardians of (expensive and rare) beauty. David Mura expresses the point eloquently: "There is simply no way, when power has acquired the trappings of beauty, to avoid the spiritual wonder and humility such beauty provides." To destroy the elites is to destroy the beauty only they can embody.

Every egalitarian society is portrayed in fiction and nonfiction as dull and dreary, gray, monotonous, devoid of beauty. More importantly, an egalitarian society must necessarily be devoid of virtue; beauty and virtue are not only closely connected, but actually identical, two apparently different ways of talking about the same thing. Elitism is beautiful, therefore virtuous; egalitarianism is ugly, therefore vicious.

Beauty and virtue are dichotomies. There cannot be beauty without ugliness; there cannot be virtue without vice. Beauty and virtue must be rare: only the exceptional, never the common, can be beautiful or virtuous. An egalitarian society thus can be neither beautiful nor virtuous. Egalitarianism does not (cannot, should not) eliminate exceptionalism (while I admire Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron is an absurd fantasy), but an egalitarian society must resolutely disconnect both beauty and virtue from exceptionalism.

(The connection between exceptionalism and beauty and virtue is, of course, more complicated. The exceptional is not always beautiful and virtuous, but the beautiful and virtuous must always be exceptional.)

It would be a mistake, I think, even as a tactic, to simply reverse the dichotomy, to construct our social reality such that only the common could be beautiful and virtuous. Somehow, these concepts must (should) simply be disconnected. Common or exceptional, the beautiful and virtuous are what make people happy; the ugly and the vicious are what make people suffer.

In a sense too, everyone is, I think, exceptional. And everyone is common, "normal." Everyone is different in some ways, the same in others. It is only the underlying aesthetic and moral distinctions that raise some differences to exceptions.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

‘The Game Done Changed’: Reconsidering ‘The Wire’ Amidst the Baltimore Uprising

‘The Game Done Changed’: Reconsidering ‘The Wire’ Amidst the Baltimore Uprising

The events of the last two weeks, however, have changed my view of The Wire in a very fundamental way. I have spent most of my time listening to people in Baltimore speak about how this uprising came to be and why the anger runs so deep. I’ve been primarily speaking to black Baltimoreans in grassroots organizations who have, in a state of MSM invisibility, been building movements for years to fight poverty, end street violence, and challenge police brutality. This is humbling to admit, but this experience has made me reassess my favorite show, as if a very dim light bulb was being switched on above my head. I am now seeing what the The Wire was missing, despite its much lauded, painstaking verisimilitude: the voices of people organizing together for change. Everyone on The Wire seeks individual solutions for social problems: the lone cop, the lone criminal, the lone teacher, the lone newspaper reporter. Yes, it is certainly true that when entrenched bureaucracies battle individuals, individuals lose. But when bureaucracies battle social movements, the results can be quite different.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015


The popular quotation, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing,"* is not just about sports (where it's manifestly untrue**) is at the very heart of capitalism. The marginal utility of a dollar is usually negative; the marginal value of the dollar that makes someone a "winner" is everything. No matter how many dollars a loser makes, the loser has the negative utility of losing; once a winner has won, and gained the positive utility of winning, there's no point in accumulating more dollars. However, we don't know which dollar is the winning dollar until after the game — and the game of capitalism never ends — so we have to fight over every dollar as if it's the winner.

*Henry Russell "Red" Sanders; incorrectly attributed to Vince Lombardi.
**Sports are not really about winning; they're about entertainment. Winning is just a part of the entertainment.

To the extent that capitalism is "designed" (more precisely, justified ex post), the primacy of winning is by design. Supposedly, we want every firm and every worker to fight to the death over every dollar, which affords the motivation to ruthlessly cut costs and build efficiency. No one gets to rest on his or her laurels; even the richest, most powerful individual or corporation needs to fight off potential challengers.

Capitalism is not about maximizing one's material, economic well-being. If it were, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett would have stopped after a million dollars; maybe two or three million, but not ten thousand times more than that. Empirical evidence has shown that after about $75,000 per year, more money (and more stuff) stops making people happier. If it ever were just about maximizing material, economic well-being, capitalism stopped being about that in the early 19th century.

Capitalism is about winning and losing. Winners are good. Losers are bad. We reward winners, not because we want everyone to be a winner (obviously, everyone can't be a winner), but because winners are good, and that good deserves reward is just what good means. Similarly, we punish losers not because we want no one to lose (we can't have winners without losers), but because losers are bad, and that bad deserves punishment is just what bad means.

I think that Republicans want to punish poor people not because they're evil or sadistic, but because they're moral. If we reward the bad and punish the good, we become immoral; if we do not reward and punish, then we become amoral: we fail to distinguish between good and bad. Poor people are losers, losers are bad, so to not punish them is contradict or abandon morality itself.

I am an atheist for the same reason I'm a communist: because I'm a utilitarian. Utilitarianism (if it is not trivialized to narrow expediency) necessarily rejects the reward/punishment dichotomy. Utilitarianism is not about locating good and bad, and rewarding the good and punishing the bad. It is about making as many people as possible as happy as possible, and making as few people as possible suffer as little as possible. In theory, a good utilitarian wants to reward everyone and punish no one. (In practice, we cannot reward everyone and punish no one, at least not today, which is what make utilitarianism interesting. And, of course, the inventors of Utilitarianism, especially Jeremy Bentham, had some crazy stupidideas about punishment . So what? They were wrong about those points.) If one constructs the reward/punishment duality as inherent to morality, then utilitarianism is necessarily "amoral."

It is both necessary and sufficient to have a reward/punishment view of morality to support any oppressive social relations. So long as the reward/punishment idea exists, those who have "power", who can exercise physical, violent force, will define what is good (to be like those who have power) and bad (to be like those who don't have power). It then naturally follows that the good should be rewarded and the bad punished. Even if some people disagree about what is good and bad, once those with power establish what is good and bad, reward and punishment will follow.

A lot of leftist don't like this idea. It burns the ass of many feminist women that I know that I think that men who use prostitutes shouldn't be punished, that I think (ideally) rapists shouldn't be punished. It's not that I think prostitution is great (or even not bad), or that rape is no big deal (of course it is); it's that, first, I think that punishing rape doesn't eliminate it, and second, so long as we punish a thousand rapists, we implicitly permit the punishment of tens of millions (soon to be hundreds of millions) of poor people.

(To be honest, I do think that because we are in a social context that strongly relies on reward/punishment, it is presently expedient to punish rapists; we have to do the best we can with what we have, and rape is a problem that cannot simply wait until after the revolution. I'm not strictly against expediency ("in the long run, we're all dead"), but I do not see expediency as a moral ideal. And, of course, when punishment is not even expedient, I'm against it, even if I think some underlying activity is harmful.)

So long as we have capitalism, we will have economic winners and losers, and we will believe socially that winners are good and deserve reward and that losers are bad and deserve punishment (whether of the "hard" Republican punishment of poverty and suffering or the "soft" Democratic punishment of servile dependency). Even if we get rid of the idea that winners are good and losers are bad, even if we get rid of the idea of winners and losers, so long as we have the idea that good people should be rewarded and bad people should be punished as an essential (and not merely expedient) component of morality, we will end up replacing the relations of capitalism with some other oppressive, dominating social relations.

Keeping this idea of reward/punishment as essential to morality is, I think, one important reason why (in the small) the Kerista commune failed, and why (in the large) both Soviet and Chinese communism failed. In Kerista, it was good to be "pure," to be perfectly aligned with the explicit and implicit standards and ideals of the commune; it was bad to be "impure," to have reservations or hesitations with the standards. To be pure, to be good, was to be rewarded with inclusion; to be impure, to be bad, was to be punished by expulsion. In the Soviet Union and China, to be "good" was to be a good communist; to be bad was to harbor "capitalist" sentiments. And, of course, those with power constructed good and bad to reproduce and perpetuate their own power.

Fundamentally, communism is, to be moral, not something that simply changes, either at the fundamental economic level or at the social level, what kinds of behavior is good or bad, and deserves reward or punishment. And, technically, we could have (and, arguably did have) "communist" societies that did reward the good and punish the bad. I maintain, however, that any system, communism included, must abandon the idea of reward and punishment, and their connection with good and bad. Building such a society is a much harder task, I think, than just overthrowing capitalism.


There's a good article in Jacobin: Why the Right Loves Privilege Politics.

First, one fundamental characteristic of capitalism is cutthroat winner-take-all competition: "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." The marginal value of one more point (e.g. one more dollar) is usually negative; however, the marginal value of the winning point is the whole prize: the winner gets everything, and the loser gets nothing. The trouble is, we don't know what the winning point is until the game is over, so we have to fight to the death for every point.

Not only that, but being in the lead confers an advantage. First, there's the gambler's ruin property of statistics: in an interated fair game that's played until one player goes broke, the player with the larger bankroll has a larger probability of winning everything, even though each iteration is perfectly fair (zero expected value for each player). Second, there's the meta-game advantage: if the players make the rules, and the player with the most points/money gets more say in the rules, then players can use a slight advantage to tilt the rules in their favor.

In the context of cutthroat winner-take-all competition, even a tiny advantage is momentous. Regardless of whether the advantage really is "fair" or "unfair" (even granting that "really fair/unfair" is even a coherent concept), it pays to fight to the death to both obtain for one's self or negate for others the tiniest advantage, by any means possible.

Second, historically, capitalist competition has used sex, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical (dis)ability, etc. ad nauseam to confer competitive economic (dis)advantage, and therefore political, social, and cultural (dis)advantage. It doesn't really matter to this analysis whether or not capitalist actually created these distinctions; what matters is that sex, race, etc. has been used for so long to construct competitive (dis)advantage that they are baked deeply into capitalism.

Thus, an important conclusion follows: We cannot eliminate sexism, racism, etc. unless we eliminate capitalism.

I want to be crystal clear about what I am not saying here. I am not saying that if we eliminate capitalism, we will automatically eliminate sexism, racism, etc. And I'm not saying that, within a capitalist system, it is pointless to ameliorate excessive sexism, racism, etc.

I am saying that if the goal is to eliminate sexism, racism, etc., then at some point we will have to eliminate capitalism, and replace capitalism with something (i.e. communism) that is not fundamentally based on cutthroat winner-take-all competition.

A corollary to the above: Even if capitalism were perfectly "fair," it would still be bad.

The fundamental problem is not that capitalism has sexism, racism, etc..* The problem is that cutthroat winner-take-all competition, even if it is perfectly fair, is bad in and of itself.

*Again, I'm not saying that sexism, racism, etc. are not problems; I'm saying that they are not fundamental problems.

I personally use utilitarianism as an ethical framework; therefore, by "bad", I mean that capitalism, and any other cutthroat winner-take-all competitive political economy, increases the suffering of the many for only the most dubious happiness of the few. But that even perfectly "fair" capitalism is bad is not particularly sensitive to one's ethical framework. Indeed, the only ethical framework I can see where capitalism is good is a framework that presupposes the value of cutthroat winner-take-all competition.

The point is, rather than fighting to the death about every small (dis)advantage, we should create a system where every small (dis)advantage is not potentially a matter of winning or losing, of life or death, of dignity or degradation. Dignity, happiness, satisfaction, well-being belong to everyone, not just to an ever-narrowing circle of "winners". When small (dis)advantages are no longer momentous, perhaps then we can work more calmly to actually eliminate them.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Useful and useless commentary

As much as I disagree with LK, he* always has reasons for why he holds the views that he has, and why he disagrees with people. See, e.g. the comments for Marx's project and Measuring socially necessary abstract labor time. We came to an impasse, but we argued our way there.

*Presumably; I don't know LK personally, and he or she has never explicitly indicated his or her gender.

In contrast, this comment is completely useless. The commenter, the-stone-guest, clearly disagrees with me. I don't mind people who disagree; I always think I'm right (if I thought I was wrong, I would change my mind), but I think I can change my views based on evidence and argument. If someone agrees that I can, then I really would like to hear the evidence and arguments why I'm wrong. The cited comment, however, does not do that; it basically consists of "Larry, you're wrong about this idea, you're wrong about that idea, and you don't even understand this other idea." The author does not even explain what the correct idea is. I asked for clarification, but none has yet been forthcoming. Perhaps the author will respond later.

To be honest, I don't understand why the-stone-guest even commented at all. I suppose it made him or her feel better, but it didn't advance my own understanding one iota.

Remember: I already know that people disagree with me (I try not to write about things that everyone already agrees about); knowing that you personally disagree with me does not help me at all. Hardly anyone even reads this blog at all, and no one but me reads the comments, so if you don't want to help me (and are not trying to intimidate* me), why bother commenting on my blog?

*It's very difficult to intimidate me, but an attempt at intimidation is at least a reason I can understand.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The ultimate goal

Sports teams do not go "all out" to get around the rules of their particular sports. Individual teams do not try to do anything to win. They do not do so because winning games is not the ultimate goal of any sport. The ultimate goal is putting on an entertaining show, and, in a capitalist economy, (metaphorically) selling as many tickets as possible. Winning a lot of games does not give a particular team more power, even just within the sport: if everyone knew the Yankees would win almost every baseball game they played, no one would watch baseball. Not even the Yankees themselves want to always win; they want to sell tickets just like the next team, so their victory cannot be a foregone conclusion.

In contrast, in a capitalist economy, acquiring money is the ultimate goal, for most people literally a matter of life and death, and even for the richest, a matter of metaphorical life and death. So long as making money is the ultimate goal, individuals and organizations (i.e. businesses) will go "all out" to make money; they will do anything to win, because losing is death.

Thus, one goal of communism is to transform society so that acquiring money is not the ultimate goal. Under communism, the struggle to acquire money is not a matter of literal life and death for workers, and it is not a matter of metaphorical life and death for prominent or privileged members of society.

It is an open question as to whether or not there will even be any prominent or privileged people. It is possible that, even in a democratic society, unusual individuals will rise to positions of prominence and have privilege, i.e. a substantially greater voice in the operation of society than ordinary people. Martin Luther King and Gandhi are examples of prominence and privilege granted to unusual individuals by virtue of their popularity. However, democracy demands that any prominence and privilege is granted by the people, and can be arbitrarily revoked by the people.

In a capitalist society, prominence and privilege by virtue of acquiring money (or money-generating instruments such as stocks and bonds) is not democratic; in a capitalist society, money is property, and cannot be arbitrarily expropriated. Needless to say, to the extent that this private ownership of money confers prominence and privilege, it is inherently anti-democratic. Hence, a society can be considered fully democratic only if it either refuses to consider money as property or refuses to grant prominence and privilege on the basis of money. In other words, a democratic society must be communist.

The big question, though, is how do we optimize the economy without the struggle for money being the ultimate goal? I should note that now that we have achieved heavily specialized and industrialized economies in developed countries, the struggle for money is not optimizing the economy. It is definitely not the case that communism seeks to overthrow an otherwise pragmatically efficient system on the grounds of some abstract notion of justice. Quite the contrary: communism seeks to overthrow a system that, its historical victories notwithstanding, has proven itself in a modern society to be pragmatically inefficient. Indeed, most modern apologists for laissez faire capitalism argue not on a basis of pragmatic efficiency, but on abstract notions of justice, and modern apologists for democratic "socialism" to some degree or another just argue on the basis that There Is No Alternative to a fundamentally capitalist society.

Communism rejects both apologetics. While abstract notions of justice are important, pragmatic efficiency is also important, and provides a stronger argument for communism than only justice. The argument is not that we have to trade prosperity for justice; the argument is that we can have a society that is more efficient and more just.

More on discrimination and freedom of association

I can't come to any other conclusion than that commercial anti-discrimination laws infringe on the freedom of association. But so what? All laws infringe on some freedom. The question is, rather, do commercial anti-discrimination laws unjustly infringe on freedom of association? There are several reasons why they do not.

First, to engage in public commerce, a person necessarily waives some aspects of his or her freedom of association. If you have a business that is open to the public, you are saying that you wish to associate with the public at large. In a similar sense, if I leave my front door open (perhaps to show my house for sale), I am waiving my right to arbitrarily exclude people from entering it. A closed door is the signal that you may not enter without permission. This argument does not, of course, establish that there are no limits on waiving a right (leaving my front door open does not signal permission that people may take all my stuff), but if a person waives even a part of a right, then they have undermined the argument that the right is absolute. Once a person signals that they are intentionally waiving part of a right, it becomes a social construction, not purely an individual construction, as to precisely what parts of a right the person is waiving.

Even under theories of natural law, whenever we have a conflict of rights, then direct utilitarian concerns come to the fore. Since "natural law" is in conflict, we cannot use "natural law" to resolve the conflict. In the case of commercial anti-discrimination laws, we have a lot of evidence going back a century or more that discrimination causes more harm to the excluded than it does benefit to the excluding. This utilitarian conclusion depends on no small part on the truth that commerce, trade, and employment are not individually discretionary activities; instead, they are necessities of life. Permitting individually arbitrary discrimination risks excluding classes of people from the requirements of life, a considerable harm, but affords a benefit that is at best rarefied and abstract. The person denied the right to arbitrarily discriminate does not lose any economic necessity.

Finally, the legal resolution of the conflict between anti-discrimination and freedom of association is participatory, transparent, and deliberative. It is not being imposed by an unaccountable, exogenous source; it is instead being established by a government that is, to some extent, accountable to the people. Even the judiciary makes its decision-making process a matter of public record. The government is not just acting capriciously; there has been a process of public deliberation about how to resolve the conflict of rights.

If you admit to citizenship in a democracy, you (ideally) have the right to participate in the deliberation, but at some point you have to just say, "The people have spoken," and allow the judgement of the masses to override your own personal preferences. If you feel that individual preferences in some area should override the majority, then you can lobby for a constitutional right, and there are several avenues available: amend the US Constitution, amend your state constitution, or persuade the US Supreme Court or the state's constitutional court that your proposed right exists in the existing constitution.

The argument that the people should never override an individual's "conscience" is fundamentally anti-democratic. It affords sovereignty to the individual, not the people. There's nothing wrong a priori with individual sovereignty, but historically, we have abandoned the notion of a sovereign individual so long ago that reestablishing the notion would abandon millennia of political development and return us to... well, I'm not sure, perhaps a hunter-gatherer economy. Again, maybe not a bad idea, if we can keep seven billion people alive in such an economy. However, a return to individual sovereignty is a radical, revolutionary proposal; it therefore fails as an argument against a particular social construction in a democratic republic.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Discrimination and freedom of association

I'll let y'all check the original post Response to a Distressed Libertarian Reader about Discrimination, my reply, and Andrew's response.

Are we all up to speed now? Because I can't comment there right now (comments may be closed for the post), I'll reply to Andrew here.

I really don't care if your conscience is offended by having to serve gay people as part of a public accommodation. Yes, your freedom of association is being infringed. Tough. Too bad for your freedom of association. The people have decided that if you want to open a business to the public, you have to serve all the public. If your conscience is offended, too bad for you.

Could the government force us to compromise our freedom of association (or any other freedom) in unacceptable ways? In one sense, yes of course: the government has all the guns, and they can use these guns "justly" or "unjustly." In another sense, no: a truly democratic government cannot compromise a freedom in a way that the majority objects to: if they were to try, they would be voted out, and the compromise reversed. (Are we actually a democracy? Of course not. But in this case, the government is acting democratically.)

If this is a problem for you, if you believe that your conscience should never be infringed, would you extend the same right to those who believe, in all good conscience, that your stuff belongs to them? That it is an offense against their conscience that you have a nice car and they do not? I doubt it. Andrew just wants the right of conscience to extend only to his own conscience and those he agrees with, and not that of others.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The political psychology of taxation and government spending

There's a curious contradiction (in the dialectical sense) regarding taxation and government spending. On the one hand, Modern Monetary Theory holds, correctly, that the government's spending and taxation are not connected in the same sense that household spending and income are connected. The government can always spend what it wants, regardless of the amount taxed, past, present, and future. There are always physical consequences to an activity, but there are no financial consequences, in the sense that, unlike a household, a government (with a fiat currency) can never run out of money. Indeed, given that the economy is growing (and that a stably growing economy is a Good Thing), the government should always be spending more than it taxes, and there's a lot of evidence that, at least in a capitalist economy (and I suspect also in a socialist/first-stage communist economy), there should almost always be a positive inflation rate, so that real interest rates (nominal rates minus inflation) can be negative when necessary.

What taxation actually does is control inflation: the (or some) people in an economy make a social decision to trade off explicit taxation for the implicit taxation of inflation: inflation, i.e. lowering the real value of money, is in effect the same in the aggregate as just taking money away and burning it, which is essentially what taxation is.

On the other hand, government spending is a demand on the productive capabilities of the people. When the government demands an aircraft carrier, the government must remove the workers who will actually build the aircraft carrier from creating things that that people want to consume directly, and those people still need to consume others' social product: food, clothing, shelter, etc. In this sense, taxation really does, at least to some degree, represent people actually paying for public goods: there is a legitimate conceptual sense in which our taxes not only subtract money to control inflation, but also represent actually paying for government spending. The taxes an individual pays substantively represents the proportion of her labor that goes not to exchanging her effort for her own individual consumption but goes to exchanging her effort for public goods and services.

This contradiction is precisely what Theodor Adorno in The Actuality of Philosophy would call a riddle. It is not an economic question that needs a scientific answer; it is a contradiction, a tension, in meaning that requires a philosophical answer. How can we think about taxation and government spending to resolve this conceptual contradiction? I'm not sure about the answer, but when posed like this, at least the contradiction seems clear.