Saturday, February 21, 2015

Dark Leviathan

Dark Leviathan [link fixed]: The Silk Road might have started as a libertarian experiment, but it was doomed to end as a fiefdom run by pirate kings.
Ulbricht built the Silk Road marketplace from nothing, pursuing both a political dream and his own self-interest. However, in making a market he found himself building a micro-state, with increasing levels of bureaucracy and rule‑enforcement and, eventually, the threat of violence against the most dangerous rule‑breakers. Trying to build Galt’s Gulch, he ended up reconstructing Hobbes’s Leviathan; he became the very thing he was trying to escape. But this should not have been a surprise.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Criticism of religion

The New Atheist project is to criticize religion. We pursue this project by a variety of means: from the driest philosophical analysis (e.g. me) to polemics to mockery gentle (e.g. Jesus and Mo) and savage (e.g. Charlie Hebdo). We have our flaw, but only a minority* of New Atheists support geopolitical violence (and that's because most New Atheists are also citizens of imperialist nations, and Western imperialism is not a project initiated by New Atheists), and I literally know of zero New Atheists who condone, much less advocate, personal violence. Regardless of his motivations, regardless even of his opinion of religion, Craig Hicks' murders are absolutely infantile. Our project is not about our enmity with religious people; our project is our criticism of a way of thinking. We want people to be happier, not dead, and we believe religion makes most people unhappier than they could be. And, unlike for example, Black people, atheists are not generally subject to unjust state violence (and many benefit from unjust white, male, class, heteronormative, and cis-gendered privilege); we have no particular need of armed self-defense.

*That's my sense, without the rigorous statistical analysis I don't have the resources to perform.

There are, I will repeat, right-wing, American exceptionalist New Atheists, e.g. Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but their advocacy for Western imperialism is as much politically motivated as religiously, and they are, with no small hypocrisy, allied with an explicitly Christian government. But if you look at what we actually say, you will find neither passive acceptance nor active advocacy for personal violence against religious people. The worst I think you can find is, as PZ Myers argues, a lack of attention specifically to creating a positive ethical system.* But you will find no New Atheists listing Muslims to kill, you will find no New Atheists glorifying cowardly criminals such as Hicks, you will find no New Atheists saying, "The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim." And if you do find such a site, let me know: I will lead the charge against them, and not just exclude them from the New Atheist community, but make them the object of public ridicule. (And if my charge is unsuccessful, then I would leave the New Atheist community instantly.)

*I don't particularly agree with Myers. Almost all New Atheists take a level of ethical functioning for granted, a level that obviously excludes Hicks, and it's boring to talk about things we all agree about. It's much more interesting to talk about our general ethical lapses, e.g. the rampant sexism and only-slightly-less-rampant racism within the atheist community.

Our project is to criticize religion, to delegitimize religion as political and social power. If you want to go to church on Sunday, that's your own business, but if you put your collar on backwards, study the mythology of early Iron Age slaveowning patriarchal goat... herders, you still have zero special privilege to set the moral, ethical, or political agenda.

Religious people despise our project, and they want us to just shut the fuck up. All religious people want to preserve religious privilege in general, and then argue — or fight — about which religion is better. Even the Infamous Brad would rather excuse the misogyny, homophobia, anti-science propaganda, right-wing authoritarianism, and scriptural support for violence in Islam than admit his own religion is at best a hobby and at worst a delusion.

If the primary cause of religious bigotry, discrimination, oppression, and violence were New Atheists' criticism of all religion, then there might be some case for asking us to rethink our position. But the real primary cause of religious bigotry, discrimination, oppression, and violence is, of course, religion itself. You say that religion had nothing whatsoever to do with the Charlie Hebdo murders? That relgion had nothing whatsoever to do with murders of David Gunn, John Britton, James Barrett, Shannon Lowney, Lee Ann Nichols, Robert Sanderson, Barnett Slepian, and George Tiller? That no one ever religiously justifies the abuse of children? That religion had nothing to do with the Indian Partition and between 200,000 and 1,000,000 deaths? Fair enough; even the New Atheists will admit that there are a lot of political and non-religious cultural reasons going on there. But then you say it's ridiculously obtuse denialism that New Atheists might look for other reasons for Hicks' murders?

I seem to recall something about beams and motes in the Bible.

You religious people want to slaughter each other over your gods. Not all of you, and, lately not even most of you, but a lot of you: even per capita a lot more religious people want to slaughter other religious people than New Atheists want to slaughter anyone. (Sometimes just because of different religions; more often using religion to justify the slaughter.) And most of you no longer want to slaughter each other in no small part because of us, the atheists, secularists and some religious people, all of whom dared subject religious beliefs to rational scrutiny, and to condemn the stupidity and brutality of those beliefs on secular, humanistic grounds.

We're having none of that. We will generally condemn Hicks, he is no longer "one of us" in any sense. He is no longer a New Atheist because we define New Atheism to exclude infantile personal violence: it's our group, and we can define ourselves as we please. Anyone who praises Hicks, anyone who advocates what Hicks did, is right the fuck out. And not just out of our community: we will do what we can to humiliate, delegitimize, and, for such as Hicks, advocate state power to punish, those people in public society.

But we will not shut up. We will not stop criticizing religion. We will not stop pointing out the stupidity, cruelty, and brutality of religion, and we will not stop saying that what you think God does or does not want, good or bad, has nothing whatsoever to do with how reasonable, caring, loving, empathetic and sympathetic human beings behave towards each other.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Craig, Brad, and the New Atheists

On February 10, 2014, Craig Hicks killed three young people. Hicks actions are abhorrent, criminal, and the deaths of his victims unequivocally tragic. Hicks is not in any way, shape, or form heroic; he is a criminal, a coward, a murderer.* My arguments against our "justice" system notwithstanding, he needs to be punished to the full extent of the law.

*I am not a journalist; I can pre-judge Hicks to my heart's content. I can live with certainly being excluded from sitting on his jury. If I'm wrong, I'll apologize.

Hicks is, among other things, an atheist, and his victims were, among other things, Muslims.

Thus, we do have to ask: did the New Atheist "community," however defined, contribute to this crime? I think the question cannot simply be dismissed; it needs to be asked, and we must answer it carefully and deliberately.

In Muslim Panic, Satanic Panic?, the Infamous Brad, presumably a NeoPagan, whom I've been reading for years, and for whom I have tremendous respect, answers in the affirmative: The New Atheist community is nothing "but an anti-Muslim hate group." If Brad's charge is true, then the New Atheist community definitely would bear substantial responsibility for Hicks' murders, even if it is true that Hicks is legally insane or has a serious medical mental illness.

But, uncharacteristically, Brad's argument is substantially flawed.

Brad first mentions the Washington Post article, "Chapel Hill killings shine light on particular tensions between Islam and atheism," where author Michelle Boorstein explores the possible relationship between New Atheism and Hicks' murders. Boorstein delivers a balanced piece, raising the question of the relationship between "public criticism and violence," in contrast with statements by spokespersons of notable atheist organizations decisively rejecting Hicks' kind of violence. Brad then contrasts Boorstein's article with The Baffler article, The Nuances of Nonbelief. In this article, Stuart Whatley argues that atheism, being simply the absence of belief, has no overarching ideology that could be a legitimate cause of Hicks' crimes.

Brad dismisses Whatley's argument out of hand first as a "No True Scotsman" fallacy, but this dismissal seems completely unfounded. A "No True Scotsman" fallacy is a fallacious move from an empirical claim to a definitional claim. As far as I know, no New Atheist claims empirically that all atheists are nonviolent (or even especially good people). Whatley's argument may be flawed — he ignores, I think, that atheists who speak publicly about atheism, and offer public criticism of religion, have formed at least a loose community, with some socially constructed cultural values — but Whatley does not seem to move from an empirical claim to a definitional claim. At best, we might define a "true" New Atheist is one who renounces senseless, infantile, and socially illegitimate* violence such as Hicks'; since Hicks does not meet the definition, he is not a true New Atheist. In just the same sense, I personally was born in the United States of French/Italian/English parents and have never lived in Scotland; therefore, I am not a True Scotsman. That argument would hardly be fallacious: even though the definition might be arbitrary, I simply do not fulfill any component of the definition.

*One does not have to be an absolute pacifist to be a New Atheist.

Inexplicably, Brad compares the New Atheists vs. Muslims to the #NotAllMen vs. #YesAllWomen controversy. I know absolutely nothing about the details of the latter controversy, but on general principles, there's an obvious context there: the existence of a millennial, socially constructed hegemonic patriarchy, from which all men benefit, whether they like it or not. A man cannot simply use his personal attitudes to excuse himself from patriarchal privilege. But there is no such thing as a socially constructed hegemonic atheism. Furthermore it's not NotAllAtheists, it's exactly one atheist out of millions, who's also apparently a gun nut and an American chauvinist. (And furthermore, an atheist who had, according to Michael Nugent, written extensively on social and religious tolerance.) The comparison is especially inapt because Brad himself admits that "atheists are, in America, the single most hated belief group, with approval ratings on par with or maybe even below religious extremist terrorist groups." Hardly the stuff of hegemonic power.

Brad's main point is to compare the New Atheists to the NeoPagans' shameful participation in the prosecution of alleged "Satanic ritual abuse" in the 1980s and 90s. Again, this comparison seems entirely unfounded. In what sense at all are any New Atheists whatsoever endorsing the legal persecution of innocent people for public relations gain? Has a single even moderately prominent New Atheist said, for example, that we should not challenge the illegal imprisonment of innocent Muslims in Guantanamo Bay just because they are Muslims, because we want to curry favor with the authoritarian neoimperialist United States government? Brad seems to think too that criticism of Islam is somehow insincere, that New Atheists have latched onto Islam just because Muslims are a popular political target. I can assure Brad personally that this is not true: New Atheists criticize Islam because we are genuinely critical. We — or more precisely some authors, notably Harris and Hitchens — might have become more popular because the target of our criticism happened to match United States imperialist policy, but the motive for criticism of Islam rests on genuine disagreement, not simple opportunism.

Brad's main point, however, is not his worst point. His worst point is a paragraph literally libelous hate speech:
Not all atheists are bigoted anti-Arab, ant-Islam wannabe hate killers, but yes all Muslims have to fear New Atheists. After the New Atheist communities’ most prominent authors have spent the last half dozen years or so beating this drum, I don’t see how anybody can call the New Atheists anything but an anti-Muslim hate group. These are people who can’t be distracted from their message of anti-Muslim hate by oppression or violence from any other religious community, whether it’s the veto on public policy the Ultra Orthodox hold in Israel or the anti-gay secessionist rhetoric of Alabama’s fundamentalist Chief Justice or terrorist acts by Christian Identity groups or anti-abortion groups or anti-Islam terrorism by Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Nope. Try to bring any of that up, and they change the subject back to, “the Muslims are coming to kill us all!”
First, if public criticism of a group is "hate speech," then this paragraph is prima facie hate speech: whether or not his criticism is warranted, Brad is being publicly critical of New Atheists. Could some nutjob read Brad's criticism and that conclude that some New Atheists, whom all Muslims should fear, need killin'? The only alternative to public criticism is that everyone suck everyone else's dick 24/7.

But, more importantly, I know what hate speech is: it is saying literally that people are inhuman and deserve death. "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." So... Sam Harris perhaps crossed the line when he said that Islam might, if they acquired long-range nuclear weapons, require a preemptive nuclear strike. Harris has defended this postion as entirely hypothetical, but I still don't like it one bit; it looks way too much like the "ticking time bomb" hypothetical to justify torture. And, of course the late Christopher Hitchens was notably in favor of a global war on Islam. And fine, if Brad wants to criticize Harris and Hitchens, he would have my support, but to generalize this criticism to all New Atheists is a blatant lie. Some New Atheists are also pro-imperialism, some, such as Jerry Coyne, are pro-Israel. — there's a considerable range of opinion in our "community" — but my sense (without a rigorous statistical sampling) is that pro-imperialists are a minority among New Atheists.

Brad asserts that New Atheists talk only about Islam, and refuse to discuss any other religious oppression. This is a flat out lie. We can't discuss everything, but New Atheists talk about a lot of stuff. Just look at the front page, for example, of Planet Atheism. There is a range of opinion and topics. Notably, the front page includes a story critical of the lack of the media coverage and the weak government response to a Christian terrorist intending to blow up mosques in Jerusalem. There's a lot of stuff critical of Christianity there too (duh). New Atheists have written about Irish blasphemy laws, Christian anti-evolutionism, Christian theodicy, etc. We also talk about race relations, anti-vaccination stupidity, and feminism.

All this from a cursory investigation of Planet Atheism and a few prominent New Atheist blogs. PZ Myers, has even written two thoughtful pieces on the responsibility that New Atheists really do have in Hicks' crimes: Own it ("I do not think that atheism compelled [Hicks] to kill Muslims, just as I don’t think Islam compels one to become a suicide bomber, or Christianity compels one to bomb abortion clinics. But I do think that the ideology must accept some responsibility for failing to teach people not to do those things.") and Beliefs have consequences ("I don’t think there’s a significant component of atheism that preaches for violence against believers, but there are a large number of atheists who seriously try to argue that atheism should include no moral component at all."). The New Atheist discourse is a lot richer than Brad would have his readers believe.

The only thing Muslims have to fear from New Atheists are our words: we will criticize Islamic misogyny, authoritarianism, superstition, and, yes, its scriptural and ideological support for political and personal violence, which goes far beyond any violence justified in resisting Western imperialism. The only reason Muslims have to fear imperialism from New Atheists is that, sadly, many New Atheists are embedded in an imperialist capitalist system that we did not create, a system bent on a conquest of the (oil-bearing) Muslim lands we did not begin: the proper criticism should be directed against imperialism, not New Atheism. And the only reason Muslims have to fear personal, individual violence from New Atheists is because writers like Brad and Luke Savage (see also my response) spread bigotry and vicious lies about us. That's hate speech.


I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principles of mathematics, for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense.

— Charles Darwin, Autobiography.

Freud wrote that love involves the undervaluation of reality and the overvaluation of the desired object. While the correct valuation of a person is an odd, if not impossible idea, we might say Freud meant something like this: for various reasons, many of them masochistic, we become involved with others who cannot possible give what we ask for; we can wait as long as we wish, but they do not have it, and one day, if we can bear to abandon our fantasy and see clearly, we might face reality straight on.

— Hanif Kureishi, "A Theft: My Con Man," qtd by Emran Mian

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Savings and Investment

It is a trope of neoclassical economics that we have to trade off present consumption for investment, to increase future consumption. While this trope has some value, in conceals as much as it explains.

In (still way oversimplified) real terms, we consume the real (physical, tangible) goods and services created by the previous production cycle. There's no point in not consuming those goods: at best we can put some in storage; at worst we just waste them.

The choice between consumption and investment is not a choice between today's consumption and tomorrow's consumption, it is a choice between tomorrow's consumption and the day after tomorrow's consumption.

At the beginning of each production cycle*, we decide what to produce, which will be available (and must be consumed or employed in production) at the end of the production cycle and the beginning of the next cycle. Furthermore, each production cycle inherits the choices made at the beginning of the previous cycle, less depreciation.

*I am making the obviously unrealistic assumption that all production has the same cycle, and all production is synchronized in this cycle. The analysis, however, still holds if for multiple, heterogeneous overlapping production cycles. We just make more decisions more often, but all the decisions are still production-cycle-lagged.

So, on January 1st, we (the members of a national economy) have a warehouse full of consumer goods, and a lot of capital, human and physical. On Jan 1, we decide what to produce in the coming year, and we can choose between:
  1. producing consumer goods to fill up the warehouse at the end of the cycle
  2. maintaining our existing capital stock (repairing buildings, factories, physical infrastructure, and machinery)
  3. creating new physical capital (new buildings etc.)
  4. creating new human capital (training workers and professionals)
  5. researching new technology (both scientific research as well as new forms of industrial and professional organization)

And, of course, we have to decide in detail precisely what consumer goods to create, what capital to maintain, what new capital to create, what new technologies to produce.

These are not all-or-nothing or mutually exclusive choices; instead, we have to decide how many resources (labor, land, and existing capital) to allocate to these broad tasks. Our choices are constrained (or at least influenced) by the choices made in the previous cycle, since both physical and human capital persists (less depreciation) persists across production cycles.

The point here is that we have to choose not between present and future, but between different futures. It is completely irrational to choose in the aggregate not to consume what we want and has already been produced; not consuming what has already been produced does not add one iota to our future consumption, and, in fact, is a "signal" that we should produce not more but less; it's irrational to produce things people appear to not want to consume.

The money system fethishizes this decision: it makes a decision that in reality is a decision between different futures into a decision that falsely appears to be between the present and the future. When I get my paycheck, I appear to have to decide if I want to consume right now the goods and services I can buy with my entire paycheck, or consume less right now and put some of the money in the bank, where it will (ideally) be allocated to investment for future consumption.

But by choosing consuming less right now, what I am really doing, ideally, is allowing someone else to choose consume more right now. It must be so: in the non-ideal case, if no one consumes what I forego, we are actually wasting the last cycle's production and beginning a paradox of thrift, with disasterous consequences. Present savings (foregoing consumption) is at best just zero-sum game (and at worst a negative-sum game).

Thus, the real mechanism, what the money system is concealing is thus: Alice consumes less today of what we produced yesterday, and Alice (implicitly) allows Bob to consume more. This exchange of present consumption has exactly zero real effect on what is produced in the coming cycle: what we produce in the coming cycle has nothing to do with who consumes what we have already produced. Since the exchange has no real effect, it must therefore have moral effect: Alice is "virtuous" (abstemious), and Bob is "vicious" (profligate). Because of her moral superiority, Alice gets to decide how many of society's resources are allocated to new investment, and she gets to consume more of what will be produced at the end of the current cycle; actually, at the end of the cycle she gets to say that because she has more moral entitlement to consume, she is more virtuous by foregoing even more than she is entitled to consume, and morally deserves more decision-making power about what to produce in the next cycle, and, she will receive even more entitlement to consume what is produced at the end of that cycle. Nassau Senior makes this argument explicit.

Put so plainly, it is obvious why this social arrangement has to be fetishized. No one would stand for it if they knew the truth: Alice's present "virtuous" abstemiousness has absolutely no real effect on future production, so her abstemiousness does not materially entitle her to anything. Even worse, the whole system falls apart if everyone is "virtuously" abstemious; this system fundamentally requires that Bob be "viciously" profligate. A moral system that requires vice to avoid catastrophic failure is no moral system at all.

(I am not talking about the choice between working a lot vs. a little, or working on more vs. less socially desirable production, or working more vs. less efficiently, during the current production cycle. All of these choices have an obvious real effect on the amount produced at the end of the current cycle, and the it there's a rational material justification for differential allocation of consumption at the end of the cycle. We might still not want to actually create differences of allocation, but if we did, I think we could do so out in the open without fetishization.

Of course, decisions about how hard or effectively we work during the cycle occur after we have made decisions about how to allocate resources to production. These kinds of decisions do not affect our earlier decisions, which is the problem at hand. Expectations about these decisions can affect the beginning-of-cycle allocation decisions, but expectations are not actual reality.)

So if this system is fundamentally irrational, what could we do instead?

Suppose we are at the beginning of a production cycle, with a lot of stuff to consume in the warehouse and a capital base. The best minds of science (i.e. not economists) give us the following choices, in percentages of available labor and percentage increase over the last cycle's production:

New Investment
% of available labor
Net Additional
0% 0% 6%
20% 3% 3%
40% 6% 0%

(We can also choose values in between these points, assuming some more-or-less continuous functions.)

I'll assume (just to simplify the model) that we're close to the optimal mix of consumer goods and service; we just might want more of everything. I won't distinguish between new human and physical capital. I'll ignore the government.

Additional Productivity compounds: our total productive capability increases at the end of the cycle; which means that we can produce even more in the following cycle. Additional Production does not compound; it just means we have that much more stuff in the warehouse, but no change in our inherited capital.

The "capitalist" way is that each person (household) begins the cycle with some amount of money which varies by person. We follow this procedure:

  1. We auction off all the consumer goods in the warehouse, which people will consume during the period. This money goes to consumer firms. Some people don't spend all of their money.
  2. The consumer firms pay the amount invested, plus a premium, to their investors from the previous cycle. Since all the goods in the warehouse have been sold (except for those nobody wants), this money has to be reinvested or "saved" (stuffed in the mattress).
  3. Each person with money left over allocates that money to new investment: They give the money to producers of consumer goods, who (hopefully) spend it on producers of new machinery or human capital.
  4. People auction off their labor to producers; producers of consumer goods compete for labor with producers of capital goods. The money received from auctioning off consumption goods (less payments to previous-cycle investors) and from investment is used to purchase labor. Firms can "save" money if they choose.
  5. The money is paid to workers at the end of the cycle. Note that in this model, production of new capital (unrealistically) requires only labor.
  6. Based on the allocation of labor, we end up with some mix of production of consumer goods and capital.
  7. Producers of consumer goods who have investment money for new capital pay the producers of capital goods for that labor. All of this money goes to the workers creating capital goods.
  8. Companies use the labor to create new capital and consumer goods, and fill the warehouse back up, and we go back to step 1.

One defect in this procedure is that the supply of money is fixed. This means either that people bid less and less money for any given consumer good (because, assuming we're using some labor to create new capital, the quantity of stuff in the warehouse keeps increasing. However, since people can "save" money from one cycle to the next, neither spending nor investing it, there's an incentive to hold onto money to buy goods more cheaply in the next cycle. But if too many people "save" like this, there's no money for investment, productivity doesn't grow (or can fall, if existing capital isn't maintained), and prices will rise.

We have at best a chicken game, where people who "save" their money benefit from those who invest their money. The best outcome is if no one "saves" at all, but what will actually happen is that some people will "save", and we will allocate an inefficiently low amount of labor to create new capital.

To be more efficient, we should introduce new money into the system. But where? How much? Who decides?

Again, the capitalist way is to insert a step between step 3 and 4 above. We create a special type of institution, the bank, which can create new money. Based on their judgment about how much people want to invest directly (by direct investment in step 3), and how popular products are (based on the auction in step 1), they create new money and give it to producers of consumer goods to buy new capital. Firms give investment money back to the bank in step 2 just as they give money to individuals.

This has a two-fold effect. First, it directly stimulates additional investment. Second, if the bank creates enough new money, there will be just enough inflation (prices rise for consumer goods overall in the step 1 auction, even though there is more stuff in the warehouse than the previous cycle) that no one has an incentive to "save" money, i.e. stuff it in the mattress, until the next cycle's auction. (The right amount of money to create is expected compounding economic growth plus 2 percent inflation plus or minus adjustment for errors in previous cycles' expectations.) With enough legal and social controls (bank regulations, examiners, a central bank, etc.) this system more or less works.

But the defect noted above still exists: there is absolutely no material reason why holding back some money from the auction for goods in step 1, and thus consuming less stuff relative to people who don't hold back money, should give individuals power to decide how much investment happens in the present cycle, nor a material reason to receive extra money in the next cycle. People who consume less from the previous cycle are not, by virtue of consuming less, materially affecting the consumer goods or investment goods we can produce in the next cycle. That production is constrained only by the existing capital stock and the availability of labor.

The capitalist system tends to magnify even initially small differences in wealth. People with less wealth need to spend more of it in step 1 just to get the basic necessities of life; people with more wealth can afford to save more for investment, which gives them even more money in the next cycle. It is possible, with different kinds of government action to correct wealth inequality. However, the government does not really stand "outside" the system: people with wealth have disproportionate power not only over the economy, but the government as well, and they can and will (rationally) resist correcting wealth inequality.

The communist (transitional communist, or "true" socialist) way is simply to dispense with individual investment, which has no material effect anyway; it's just an arbitrary method to socialize investment. All of the investment happens through the bank, and the bank is run democratically, with everyone having an equal voice on how new money is allocated, advised by experts who will inform the people of the material consequences of investment. We still keep the auction for goods in step 1, but we expect people to spend all of their money at that step (except for money they want to keep in the mattress just in case). There's no incentive to invest individually. We still keep the auction for labor in step 4, but we expect everyone who can work to work at least a little. (There are extra mechanisms to make this happen.)

The only wealth and income inequality comes from people who choose to work more, or work in more socially desirable activities, or work more efficiently. This sort of inequality does not get magnified. If someone works extra hard in one cycle and gets more money, that extra money doesn't translate to forever getting more money; it's a one-shot deal. If someone wants to get extra money in every cycle, she has to work extra hard in every cycle.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Ideas about "political correctness"

Apparently, Fredrik deBoer is out of ideas about what to do about political correctness.

deBoer tells some nasty stories about the abuse of political correctness. And I believe him, in the sense that he's not making up the stories, and I will even grant that they are representative of something larger. But what is that something larger?

I'm 50 years old, and I've been in college classrooms for five years, and I haven't seen anything at all even remotely resembling what deBoer describes. Of course, I live in one of the flyover states, not exactly a bastion of leftism, progressivism, or liberalism. And, although I'm a communist, most of my IRL friends are Economics professors, Econ and Math students, and English tutors. (Can you tell I study and work at a college campus and spend almost all of my free time there?) And I rarely hang around with leftists.

But my (lack of) experience doesn't mean that what deBoer describes isn't real; at best it shows what he describes isn't completely ubiquitous. (In contrast, for example, to some of the egregiously silly things they teach us in undergraduate economics.) But again, what is deBoer actually writing about?

deBoer is writing in response to Jonathon Chait's cringeworthy essay, Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say. The question is: are Chait and deBoer actually writing about the same thing? There are some superficial resemblances, but some notable differences. Chait argues that "Political Correctness" is pervasive, even ubiquitous, and seriously compromises public discourse. (Chait, is, of course, completely full of shit.) deBoer describes instances of bullying. Bullying is bad, to be sure, but they're simply not in the same league as what Chait talks about.

Money quote: The political correctness is "enforced by the children of privilege." So. We have privileged people bullying non-privileged people on the shibboleth du jour. Stop the presses.

deBoer wants ideas on what to do about this. Well, you do What do you do about bullying in general: you fight it or you walk away from it.

I can't stand most people in leftist organizations, and I'm a communist. Leftist organizations populated mostly by privileged, self-righteous, self-important dipshits. (To my friends who are in leftists organizations, I'm talking about them, not you, and I admire your ability to cooperate with the dipshits that infest left-wing organizations.) Even deBoer himself regrettably strays occasionally into self-important dipshit territory. I didn't see that much actual bullying per se in my experience with leftist organizations (and it's also true that I'm very hard to bully), but I saw enough egregious bullshit that I decided to walk the individualist road.

I'm sincerely sorry, Mr. deBoer, that some students and others you know had their feelings hurt. That shouldn't happen to anyone. But it does happen, and it won't kill them. They'll find groups and communities that treat them with respect and consideration.

In the meantime, there's nothing to do but take personal responsibility. When you see bullying, stop it. If you can't, then walk away and find some other more worthwhile use of your time.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Political correctness

I wouldn't really call it "bravery," but I am not generally a fearful person. I'm an outspoken atheist in a Christian world. I'm a communist. I'm a revolutionary. I believe it's possible that the United States government, perhaps indirectly, will literally torture and kill me; and the only reason they wouldn't is that I'm too small potatoes to be worth the plane trip to wherever it is they torture people today.

As not fearful as I am, there are still things I think are true that I don't talk about, because I think saying those things would provoke a massive and hostile (but nonviolent) reaction. Basically, I think a lot of people would say mean things to me if I voiced some of my opinions. Again, I'm not worried about being doxxed or getting death threats; if I could be Anita Sarkeesian or Zoe Quinn, I'd do it in a heartbeat. But sometimes, I don't want a lot of people saying a lot of mean things about me, and so there are certain things I don't say because of that possible reaction.

I do not, however, feel that I'm being silenced or that my freedom of speech is at all being compromised. Unpopular opinions are unpopular. If you're going to express an unpopular opinion, a lot of people may say mean things about you. If you think they're worth saying, then you have to weather the reaction. Critics have just as much right to criticize, by whatever means available, as anyone has to speak in the first place.

In just the same sense, if you question the legitimacy of the United States government or the capitalist ruling, you have to weather the reaction, and governments and ruling classes hate having their legitimacy questioned, and they have lots of guns and people happy to torture whomever the government or ruling class gives them. That's the reality.

I don't shut up because of fear. It would be ridiculous if I feared torture and death less than people saying mean things about me. I shut up because the value of saying what I think is true is less than the harm it might cause.

For example, several of my Muslim women friends wear the hijab. I think it's true that the hijab is a symbol of oppression, and, of course, I think it's true that Islam is terrible because it is a religion. I don't talk about these opinions with them. I remain silent, but not because I am unsure of my position. I remain silent because, basically, at the level and in the context of our relationship, it's none of my damn business. The offense and unhappiness I would cause, the rupture of our friendship, far exceeds the value any remarks I might make. So I shut up. If they want to know my feelings on the hijab or Islam, they could ask me, or they could read my blog. They are not stupid women, and if they want to research the debate, they can do it.

I don't agree 100% with anyone. (The only people I don't actively disagree with at all are those talking about things I know little about (physics, biology, etc.); if I had any real expertise in those fields, I'm sure I could find things to disagree with.) But our world is not one where everyone dispassionately considers every idea by abstract analysis. Our world is full of fights, and I think fighting for justice is a Good Thing. The first rule of fights is that those on the front lines get to decide how to fight. If I don't think I have the legitimacy and will to be on the front lines, then I have nothing to volunteer about how to fight. If someone directly asks me for my opinion, I will offer it, but otherwise, whether I'm right or wrong, it's none of my damn business.

For example, straight, white, European-colonial, cis-gendered, middle-class men need no defense whatsoever against minor errors in the LBTQA-etc. feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist fights. Are people fighting these fights always right? Of course not; no one is always right. But even if I think I'm right about some minor error, even if I actually were right, actually criticizing a minor error is almost impossible to separate from defending my privilege, and I absolutely do not want to defend any unjust privilege that I have.

If shipping straight, white, European-colonial, cis-gendered, middle-class men to concentration camps ever became a real thing, I would speak out, but of course, that's not a real thing, nor is it likely ever to become a real thing. Short of that, I shut up about criticism, and just offer my support and cooperation.

I shut up about things I think might be true not because I'm afraid of criticism, but because I don't want to be hard to distinguish from a real asshole without a very good reason.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Institutions and cooperatives

Right after I completed my earlier post, A theory of institutions, I started thinking about cooperatives. Cooperatives don't really fit at all into the theory. I can try to shoehorn them in: they do deliberate and vote, but that isn't their primary motive: members of a cooperative aren't institutionally rewarded or punished for their voting in the same way that politicians are (or should be). They do creative work, i.e. they solve problems big and small, but, again, they aren't rewarded or punished for their creative work in the same sense that a team of engineers would be. (I was, for example, a creative worker in the Kerista commune, but the organization as a whole wasn't primarly involved with problem-solving.) And cooperatives are certainly not self-interested organizations such as capitalism: people are not vying with each other within the organization to maximize their short-term material self-interest.

There are two ways that seem to make sense to define "institution." One is simply any well-defined collection of individuals that reproduces itself, i.e. persists in time and space. The other, of course, is my definition in the earlier post, an organization that uses short-term, local incentives to achieve long-term global goals.

Cooperatives (ideally) just don't do the latter. Everyone in the cooperative acts (or should act) directly on the long-term, global goals. And they not only act directly on those goals, they act to set those goals, and even in setting those goals, they don't (or shouldn't) act just to push their own small goals on the big goals of the cooperative, but try to develop a mutual, cooperative sense of what the organization "should" be. In short, in a cooperative, people (should) actually cooperate, on every level. There's no dialectic between short-term and long-term, local and global. (There are always dialectical processes, of course, just not those particular dialectical processes.) Thus, in the sense of the previous post, cooperatives are just not institutions.

I think this conclusion helps us understand the interaction between capitalism, communism, and "socialism" (in the sense of the transition between capitalism and communism).

Utilitarianism and physics

trivialknot has an excellent post, Utilitarianism to deontology. In it, he succinctly describes how the appearance of deontology might emerge from utilitarianism.

Before I continue, I want to briefly describe utilitarianism. Utilitarianism first rests on four more-or-less scientific principles:

  1. People directly experience "happiness" and "suffering"; they're hard to define precisely, but we know them when we feel them. Happiness is intrinsically good, and suffering is intrinsically bad.
  2. People are goal-seeking, which differs from other possible high-level cognitive strategies such as rule-following; (what Daniel Dennett calls sphexishness).
  3. People generally create and act on the goal of maximizing their own happiness and minimizing their own suffering.
  4. People have evolved to be social, and we have evolved the tendency to feel our own happiness when (some) others are happy, and feel our own suffering when (some) others suffer.

None of these scientific principles entail any particular ethical system. Utilitarianism thus must add an ethical ideology to these principles. There are two fundamental principles:

  1. Ideally, we should act so as to maximize happiness and minimize suffering, aggregated over every person, to the end of time.
  2. No individual's happiness and suffering is a priori more or less important than anyone else's; there is no privilege or oppression

Thus, utilitarianism is by definition consequential (we always look at the consequences of an action on happiness and suffering), and universal.

The second principle is important: it rebuts the objection that utilitarianism requires that each person sacrifices his life so that his organs could save the lives of more than one other. However, if everyone did so, we would obviously not maximize happiness; if only some did so, those some would be oppressed. If we drew lots, we would have to evaluate the total effect: does drawing lots to sacrifice healthy individuals for organ transplants increase or decrease happiness and suffering vs. letting individuals take their chances. When the answer in certain circumstances is that drawing lots does increase overall happiness and/or decrease overall happiness, such as a draft lottery in wartime, then we actually do it.

Ideally, we want to maximize happiness and suffering for everyone to the end of time. Obviously, we cannot actually determine the effect on any action for the 7 billion people presently existing, and however many will exist until the end of time. Thus, we operate under both risk and uncertainty, i.e. known and unknown probabilistic distribution of possible outcomes, respectively. TK has an excellent and succinct explanation in his post on the effects of risk and uncertainty on utilitarianism, so I will simply quote:
One appealing resolution is to say that these two problems solve each other. It is true that a naive utilitarianism does not account for uncertainty. But when we do account for uncertainty, then we will reproduce most of our moral intuitions. Although perhaps we will not reproduce every moral intuition, and so this provides a useful way to distinguish between intuitions which are correct and intuitions which are incorrect.

For example, whenever we make decisions, we are more certain of the consequences to ourselves than we are of consequences to people far away. In the face of uncertainty, consequences tend to be a wash, so it is good to prioritize ourselves.

Another example. Whenever we drop a brick off the roof of a building, we cannot distinguish beforehand the cases where the brick will hit someone and the cases where it won't do anything. Therefore, we must judge all brick-dropping the same way. We must make a rule against the action of dropping bricks in random places. This reproduces deontological ethics, which makes rules about particular actions based on the qualities of those actions.

This also neatly solves one of the problems with deontological ethics, which is that there isn't a clear way to generate new rules about actions. This framework suggests that the correct way to generate new rules is to consider the probabilistic consequences of a class of actions.

TK's main point is to note some differences between physics and ethics.

First, he asserts that both physics and utilitarianism are reductionist, i.e. you can (in theory) calculate higher-order phenomena from the behavior lower-order phenomena. However, physics purports to describe how the universe actually is, whereas TK is unclear on whether utilitarianism even purports (much less actually does) describe how the world is.

This is an easy one. Utilitarianism does not describe how the world actually is. It is a framework that people chooses or does not choose to evaluate their actions. The "reductionism" just happens to be part of the theory; as a proponent of utilitarianism, I would not say that utilitarianism is true because it is reductionist. (Indeed, I would not say that utilitarianism is true. Full stop.) Reductionism just serves to make the theory easier to use.

The idea, however, that we know physics is true, that it really describes the world, because it is reductionist is very philosophically problematic. There's no denying that reductionism is a really useful tool in physics, but the connection between reductionism and truth seems very hard to justify. So I don't known that physics and utilitarianism are really very different on this criterion.

Second, TK notes that increasing the precision of our moral calculations do not just allow us to know the moral status of actions with more precision, it can actually radically change the moral status. TK's example is particularly trenchant:
If we discover with certainty that dropping a brick at a particular time won't hurt anyone, and will instead kill a butterfly and stop a hurricane in a hundred years, then that action literally goes from unacceptable to acceptable.
Indeed: and not just acceptable, but compulsory.

But again, is this sensitivity to precision all that different from physics? Do we not have Chaos theory and Three-body problem? I don't actually see much difference here between physics and utilitarianism.

Finally, TK makes a legitimate argument from ignorance: he doesn't know how utilitarianism reproduces such basic, intuitive things as rights, so he cannot effectively use it. I have two responses. First, TK could in fact become an expert in utilitarianism: he's a smart guy, and I think I've made at least the prima facie case that utilitarianism is worthy of study. However, I suspect that the world is better off if TK puts more of his time and effort into the study of physics and as an advocate for social justice. So my second response is that most people's naive intuition about how to act is already utilitarian: you don't have to be an expert in utilitarianism to act as a good utilitarian. Most "nice" people usually act on the following rules/guidelines:

  1. If I can clearly benefit myself without hurting anyone else, then I should.
  2. If I can clearly benefit someone else without hurting myself (much), then I should.
  3. If I can clearly prevent great suffering, even if it harms me, or risks harming me substantially, I should.
  4. Most social rules handle the general cases where the outcome is not immediately clear: I should act according to social rules in uncertain situations.
  5. If a social rule seems like it causes more harm than benefit, I should subject that social rule to heightened scrutiny, and consider changing it.

Really, that's 99.999% of utilitarianism. The 0.001% comes in how we should examine apparently problematic social rules. Even then, the "experts", who have the training to look deeply into that 0.001%, have the task of justifying their analysis to the rest of the "lay" population.

I will try to write a more detailed analysis of how rights come from utilitarianism.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A theory of institutions

While individual human beings can conceive of "big" long-term, global goals, it's difficult to act directly on those big goals. Part of the problem is psychological: "small" short-term local goals have a lot more psychological motivating force. Hence, when people conceive of big personal goals, they usually break those goals down into a set of small goals. (Hence, for example, most task tracking software will actually show the stricken-out description of task when it is completed, rather than simply delete it; we get a small internal reward from seeing that task completed.) Big goals are harder to act directly on because we usually can't just tell what activity at the moment will efficiently achieve the goal. So, for example, if a group of people want to build a spacecraft to travel to the moon, they have to coordinate among themselves to figure out what each person should do; now, each person has a small goal, and the aggregate of those small goals will (hopefully) result in a person standing on the Moon.

Thus, human beings create institutions to achieve long-term, global goals by implementing short-term local incentives for individual people to do specific things.

An institution can be something concrete, such as a named, physically aggregated organization, such as Apple Computer, NASA, the Catholic Church; something semi-concrete, a part of an organization, such as the enlisted men and women of an army, or something abstract, such as capitalism or the (more-or-less) free press.

What makes something, concrete or abstract, an institution, then is that there are small, short-term, local incentives that map to big, long-term, global goals.

One way to characterize institutions by looking broadly at the small incentives and how they map to big goals. Some institutions will use more than one of these patterns (and almost all use some bureaucracy). Briefly, these patterns are:

Type Short Term Incentive Long Term Goal
bureaucratic precisely follow rules and procedures complicated but well-defined and well-understood, eliminating personal bias
creative solve small problems big, poorly-understood or poorly-defined
military give and follow orders dangerous and/or morally problematic
deliberative voting politically contentious
self-interested personal gain undefined evolutionary

For example:
Type Examples
bureaucratic DMV, IRS, an individual McDonald's restaurant
creative scientific research, engineering, education, advertising, the general staff of an army, senior corporate management, team athletes
military enlisted and field officers of the US Army, rank-and-file police and firefighters
deliberative legislatures, direct democracy
self-interested capitalism, markets, individual athletes, fine arts, literature

Most institutions use a combination of short-term incentives. For example, almost every institution has some rules that have to be followed precisely; thus, they have some bureaucratic incentives. Institutions often interact with each other, and this interaction can be institutional, and follow one or more of the patterns noted above. Some institutions, such as the relation of a military general staff (a collection of generals) to the field officers (colonels to captains) is often 50-50 creative and military (with a lot of bureaucracy). Sometimes, creative institutions are also deliberative.

Basically, individuals in an institution are rewarded or punished based on the small incentives. A functional institution is one in which the aggregate of small incentives achieves the big goal. A dysfunctional institution is one where the small incentives do not achieve the big goal.

So, for example, the Allied military 1939-1945 as an institution (consisting of a collection of collection of institutions) was healthy, because they won the Second Imperialist War. The US Military in Iraq was/is dysfunctional.

One feature of institutions is that they reproduce themselves. They are not simply the aggregate of the character of the individuals comprising them; the institution exerts considerable force changing the character of the individuals who participate in the institution. Thus, it is not just that the police recruit only people in whom the police mindset is already fully formed; individual police officers become socialized into the institutional police mindset.

Many social problems, therefore, come from three sources. First, the pattern of organization of an institution may no longer be well-adapted to the long-term goal. For example, capitalism is organized by self-interest, but this self-interest (IMnsHO) is no longer well-adapted to the long-term goal of economic growth.

Second, a poorly-adapted pattern of organization may be imposed on an institution. The most egregious examples are trying to turn creative pattern institutions, such as education and engineering, into bureaucracies. Bureaucracies are well-adapted to well-defined and well-understood goals, but education is poorly-defined, and both try to achieve poorly-understood objectives. For example, we do not yet have a good grasp on what it even means to be educated, much less how to educate people. For another example, even though landing a person on the Moon was a well-defined objective, we did not understand very well precisely how to do so. We cannot break down either of these objectives into precise instructions; at best, we can break the big problem into little problems. How do I educate this particular class of students in this particular subject? How do I keep a human being alive standing on the Moon? One reason I left software development was that the profession was becoming increasingly bureaucratized; I don't have a problem with bureaucracy per se, but software development is not well-adapted to bureaucracy.

Finally, the big goals of an organization may be something we don't like and don't want. The welfare and disability institutions, for example, usually fail to achieve efficiently providing benefits to as many people as possible, but their covert big goal is to actually deny benefits to as many people as possible, which they do in fact achieve. The big goal of capitalism (again, IMnsHO) has changed from providing economic growth to maintaining the power and privileged of the capitalist ruling class. And bureaucracies without external control on their goals simply become sinecures, with policies and procedures growing without rationale, because, why not? The goal becomes just to grow the bureaucracy.

Because we act intentionally to organize society, this theoretical framework helps, I think, to understand the nature and structure of institutions and their role in society.