Sunday, September 19, 2021

AOC is not one of us

I like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I think she's intelligent, a good politician, and not particularly evil. I would definitely pick her for most anything over a bottom-feeder such as Kyrsten Sinema.

But she's not a socialist. She's not even a progressive, at least not in any meaningful sense. She's a bog-standard corporatist Democratic party politician. She's not a bad person, and I think she has done and will do what she can to ameliorate the billionaires' inherent assholiness, but when push comes to shove, she'll take the billionaires' side over the people.

How could she not? She's a member of Congress. If her fundamental loyalty to the billionaire class were in question, she would be completely excluded from the business of Congress until she lost her next election. 

Most importantly, Ocasio-Cortez has no outside institutional support for any kind of socialist or progressive agenda.

Socialists and progressives cannot simply depend on electing "good" people to political office. Socialists exert real power over the state, or take actual state power, by developing institutions outside of the capitalist- or billionaire-oriented official political institutions. 

None of our socialist organizations are developing these institutions.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Political and ethical philosophy

Ian Welsh is almost always politically on point, and the politics in his post, Rationality Is Not A Way Out Of Group Action Problems like Climate Change and Covid, is a good example. Solutions to problems of public goods just do not emerge from the politics of individualism and individualistic "rationality".

Welsh's position has some precedent. Hume writes that it is "not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger," and Mel Brooks puts the sentiment  mordantly: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die." And the first lesson of game theory is the Prisoner's Dilemma, where the "rational" choice leads to the least desirable outcome for everyone.

In theory, we could (maybe) get optimal outcomes by making everything a private good in a pure free market economy, but in the real world, the Arrow-Debreu model fails on the same computation problem that kills the omniscient central planner problem. It's not particularly helpful to declare, however correctly, that everything works perfectly in a perfect world.

But Welsh is mistaken at a fundamental level by arguing that virtue ethics is preferable to utilitarianism and instrumentalism. According to Welsh, our poor reasoning abilities undermine utilitarianism: we cannot act to improve the world if we cannot accurately predict the consequences of our actions.

He's definitely correct that utilitarianism can easily degenerate into justifying apparently horrible actions for the supposed "greater good." (I've been reading a lot of trash superhero/supervillain fiction lately, and the trope of the supervillain perpetrating horrible actions for the greater good" trope is ubiquitous; indeed the "antagonist is just pure evil" trope has entirely ceased to be entertaining.)

Welsh constructs virtue ethics to mean that there are actions that are intrinsically bad, and these bad actions are absolutely unjustifiable, regardless of even the actual outcome, much less the supposed outcome. Moreover, we know these action are intrinsically bad directly without mediation:

We know that being greedy, or selfish, or cowardly, or sadistic are bad. We know that rape is always bad. We know that killing people is bad. We know that beating people is bad.We know that hunger is bad. We know that homelessness is terrible. We know lack of water kills. When the IMF removes food subsidies we KNOW more people will go hungry. When we sell bombs to Israel and Saudi Arabia, we know they’ll be used to murder innocents.

I definitely agree with Welsh: I think that "being greedy, selfish, cowardly, or sadistic are bad;" however, I just don't think my opinion is true. I don't know that they're intrinsically bad; all I know is just that I don't like them.

The problem with utilitarianism, that doing utilitarianism stupidly will fail, is not a problem with utilitarianism per se; stupidity and poor reasoning is a problem with human beings. Literally anything can be done stupidly to bad effect.

If we have to reason out what is virtuous, then virtue ethics is susceptible to the same problem: we can stupidly or fallaciously come up with the wrong virtues. Welsh just handwaves around the problem, supposing that we have some sort of mystical knowledge about what really constitutes virtue. At some level, unvirtuous people don't disagree about virtue; instead, they ignore their intrinsic knowledge of true virtue. But we can just handwave around the problem for utilitarianism: people who do horrible things supposedly for the greater good are just ignoring what they mystically know is the true greater good for the same reason a person might ignore what they know is true virtue.

Welsh speculates without evidence that a fundamental social problem is that the elites have used utilitarianism to rationalize behavior they know is unvirtuous. I don't want to disparage Welsh for speculating, but we could just as easily speculate that our elites have failed because they have a different conception of virtue than Welsh and I both have. The elites might well see themselves as paragons of virtue and the suffering of the common people as not a result of elite's actions but rather a consequence of the common people's lack of virtue.

We can say that rape and murder are across the red line. Fine, but what do we do about it? What do we do about the person who will rape unless they are killed or imprisoned? Are killing or imprisonment (and imprisonment is torture), across the bright line or not? What do we do about millions of people who demand to keep slaves and will die before they free their slaves? Do we force them to release their slaves under threat of death, torture, or impoverishment? Virtue ethics, I think, suffers from the same sort of sophistry as I've long accused Libertarianism of. Immoral actions are only immoral when we don't agree with the end.

I think the latter theory has more support. Corey Robin's The Conservative Mind, Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians, or really anything in the present conservative media. Conservatives and authoritarians fundamentally justify their position by appeal to virtue and only secondarily by an appeal to utilitarianism.

Remember, to many conservatives, the fundamental argument against homosexuality is that homosexuality is just as intrinsically wrong as rape or murder. They know so with exactly the same conviction and sincerity that Welsh claims to know that rape and murder are wrong. The fundamental argument against helping poor people is that they deserve their poverty as a result of their vice, and it is just as much a vice to alleviate poverty as it would be to procure new victims for a rapist. The poor should suffer as much for their poverty as rapists should suffer prison for their crimes.

Utilitarianism, instrumentalism, and pragmatism does not have the same fundamental flaw. Again, I concede that utilitarianism done stupidly will have bad effect, but, again, anything done stupidly can have bad effect, and (absent magical knowledge) virtue ethics can be done just as stupidly. However, I claim that utilitarianism can be done intelligently and that virtue ethics cannot be done intelligently, unless we construct our virtues on utilitarian grounds.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Pusillanimous pissants

Do you believe that Donald Trump legitimately won the election in 2020? If so, an astonishing number of people, including election officials, state attorneys general, and judges, conspired to fraudulently undermine the election. Indeed, the necessary conspiracy would be so vast that democracy (or what passes for democracy) in America is dead. The entire government lacks any semblance of constitutional legitimacy.

So if you believe this conspiracy, if you believe that the government is irredeemably broken, why are you posting on Facebook/Twitter/whatever? All you're doing is exposing your dissent to an illegitimate tyranny. If you truly are a patriotic American, you should be running to the hills right now with your AK-47 to join the Resistance. 

But you're not running to the hills right now, are you?

You're not because you know that Trump lost the election, and that result is so unacceptable that if elections mean Trump loses, so much the worse for elections.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

A call for unity

It's not really a good sign when Paul Campos opens his call for unity, How to build a mass political movement to empower the poor and working class, with an example of a jackass saying something dumb (quoting ComrⒶde Cooper saying, "[I]f you’re a nonvegan, you are not a leftist"). Jackasses of every political affiliation say say stupid shit all the time. It's just noise with zero political significance.

Sure, the Party of Trump Republican party is actually fascist, and there are a lot of people opposed to fascism; however, fascism is a very particular strain (and a particularly malevolent strain) of authoritarianism, and there are a lot of authoritarians, and other varieties of assholes, who are not fascists.

The Democratic party has been the party of neoliberal authoritarianism since Carter. Neoliberal authoritarianism isn't fascism, and is less pernicious than outright fascism, but it's still an anti-worker authoritarian ideology.

Campos's implication is clear: if you don't support the mainstream neoliberal "resistance" to Trumpian fascism, then you're just like that dumbass vegan who is undermining the mass movement. If you're not part of our opposition to fascism, then you're objectively pro-fascist, n'est ce pas?

I've said this for years: it's not enough to declare, even sincerely, that you're against fascism. It's not enough to say that your brand of authoritarianism is slightly less obnoxious than their brand of authoritarianism. 

If you want the support of the working class, you have to actually support the working class. Biden does not want to support the working class. The Democratic party does not want to support the working class. You don't need all the votes to win; I guess you don't want mine.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Yes, Senate Democrats DO understand the urgency of the moment

Mike the Mad Biologist thinks that Senate Democrats Do Not Understand the Urgency of the Moment.

He's wrong.

It's tempting to invoke Hanlon's Razor, but after a point, the hypothesis of stupidity becomes too unlikely to support. And the alternative here is not really "malice".

The billionaire class does not like democracy. Why should they? It's not so easy to maintain an oligarchy when just nyone can vote, and just anyone can credibly run for office.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties serve the billionaire class. Where do you think they get their money?

The Democrats and Republicans barely defeated Bernie Sanders. Increasing democratic voting rights will just give socialists even more opportunities. That ain't gonna happen. 

Remember, the fundamental Democratic slogan is always "Better Trump than Sanders." They rolled those dice twice, and won the second time only because Trump mishandled the pandemic. (And Obama won only because Bush and McCain mishandled the global financial crisis.)

The billionaire class doesn't really want a fascist dictator, but they believe they can survive a fascist dictator; they don't believe they can survive socialism. Most if not all of the big German corporations survived Hitler.

This point bears repeating: the Democratic party has One Job: protect the billionaire class from socialism at any cost.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

A fatal flaw?

Ekosj writes a surprisingly less-bad article at the conservative site Richochet, "Modern Monetary Theory: Wishful Thinking or Exposing a Fatal Flaw at the Heart of Neoclassical Economics?" The author includes the obligatory ideological swipes at MMT, but points out an interesting feature of contemporary macroeconomics.

The supposed "fatal flaw" is that with superficially reasonable assumptions (notably the natural rate of unemployment and rational expectations), the quantity of money drops out of our macroeconomic models.

Well, yes. This feature is more-or-less by design. Economics is usually concerned with the real economy, the goods and services that provide actual utility to consumers. Economists usually view money as a "neutral veil" over what is essentially a barter economy. And, of course, a barter economy needs no money.

Economists do look at money too, but the constrained choices about money are almost, but not quite, completely unlike the constrained choices of an abstract real (barter) economy: a theory of the real economy works doesn't tell us much about how to set up a money system. Very different social systems could, in theory, coordinate a complicated real economy, and the simplifying assumptions are equally weird in every system.

We have to understand money on its own terms, not as something that emerges from real economic analysis. Ironically, when you study money on its own terms in a capitalist, fiat currency context, you get MMT.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

R.I.P. Snopes

For more than two decades, I have relied on Snopes to provide accurate and truthful fact checking.

Lambert Strether makes a compelling case that Snopes just bullshits their readers when they claim that the charge that Biden broke his $2,000 stimulus check promise is "Mostly False". 

It's not. Biden made the promise, and he broke it. I dunno, maybe he had good reasons to break it. Maybe he's just an asshole. I don't really care; politicians break promises all the time, and I didn't vote for him anyway.

In On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt defines bullshit as an indifference to the truth, in contrast to a lie, where the liar cares enough about the truth to falsify it. Frankfurt goes on to argue that bullshit is more destructive to truth than lies.

In one article, Snopes has completely destroyed its reputation for caring about the truth. I simply cannot trust anything Snopes says or has ever said. They're dead to me.

R.I.P. Snopes.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Biden rides to the rescue!

So it looks like Biden has won. Even if Trump tries to hold on by his fingernails, no one appears to be taking him seriously. We haven't quite lost what passes for "democracy" in America, but that's not the most important point.

Trump is not the real problem. The Republican party is not the real problem. I mean, they're terrible, sure, but they're not the problem in the sense that the the shark in Jaws was not the problem. The shark just is; the real problem Mayor Vaughn.

We've known since the 1980s that the Republican party is evil. And you can't really blame them: sharks gonna shark, amirite? The question is, what are we going to do about it?

And what has the Democratic party done about the Republicans? As little as possible. For nearly a half a century.

All right, fine, it took me more than twenty years to figure it out myself. I even voted for Bill Clinton. Twice. Sorry, I'm a little slow on the uptake. But I figured it out eventually.

Joe Biden and the Democratic party has indeed come to the rescue. But they are not there to rescue us.

They're here to rescue the Republican party. That's been the Democrats' job since 1991.

Biden and the Democrats will make zero real changes. Their job is to do just enough to stabilize the country so the Republicans have time to regroup, get their shit together, and continue their project to turn the U.S. into an authoritarian plutocracy. Don't worry: the Democratic party insiders will get their 30 pieces of silver.

Look for someone in 2024 who makes us yearn for Trump's childlike antics.

I guess that's what we want. That's what we keep voting for.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Science. the left, and genetic academic ability

I am a "scientist" both by profession (I'm minimally qualified to publish in the social sciences) and by philosophical inclination. I think science, broadly defined, is not only the best but the only way to anything that looks even remotely like truth.

I'm not stupid. I know that science is not just a philosophy but a social activity, and prone to the same biases and bullshit as every other social activity. Scientists can be just as racist, sexist, and classist as anyone else. As individuals scientists can hold onto their cherished biases in the face of evidence just as fervently as the most conservative priest. I don't think that if someone has a Ph.D. and slaps the "science" label on something, it is therefore God's Own Truth... or even a little bit true.

But, as a philosophy, as a methodology, as a social practice, I think science, and scientists, have a least a chance of stumbling onto the truth, a chance that no other social practice has. And when some individual scientist makes a mistake, however egregious, we can correct the mistake... using science. And science does, at least in the long run, actually privilege some statements as truth, or at as least moving us closer to the truth.

I'm also a moral subjectivist. I don't think there are any moral truths, precisely because we can't use science to decide moral questions. If the evidence contradicts a moral statement, too bad for the evidence: science is about how the world is, but morality is about the world isn't and what we want it to become. The observation that people can and do murder each other contradicts the statement that people cannot murder each other, but does nothing to contradict the statement that people shouldn't (in some broad sense) murder each other.

Just like any other progressive or socialist, I become incensed when reactionaries ignore or contradict scientific truth just because they don't like it. 

No, COVID-19 really is infectious, whether you like it or not; it really is an order of magnitude more deadly than the flu, whether you like it or not. To be honest, I don't like that COVID-19 is infectious and deadly, but there it is.

No, the Earth really is becoming warmer because of human activity, and the Earth will soon become at best inhospitable and at worse uninhabitable, whether you like it or not.

No, life really did evolve over hundreds of millions or billions of years, whether you like it or not.

No, Black people really are just as smart as white people; women are just as smart as men, gay people just as pro-social as straight people, etc. I happen to like those truths, but that doesn't matter: they're really true regardless of whether I like it or not. And if someone else doesn't like those truths, well, they're free to dislike them, but they're still true.

And we know all the above because science, not because it is somehow "morally superior" to believe any of the above.

But I become just as incensed when progressives or socialists ignore or contradict scientific truth just because they don't like it.

There are a lot of rhetorical moves one can make against any scientific truth. Scientific truths are never known with certainty. Scientific truths are always underdetermined by observation. Science is always theory-laden and dependent on preconceptions. Scientists might always have made a mistake, forgotten this important factor, missed that causal pathway.

Fine. If some philosopher wants to argue that science has given us some nifty gadgets but does not move us one iota closer to any interesting truth about the world, just because science is uncertain, underdetermined, theory-laden, possibly in error, well, that's hardly philosophically disreputable. But I think such a philosopher should be consistent: they should reject arguments from science for positions they like just as vehemently as they reject them for positions they dislike.

I don't think Nathan J. Robinson is that kind of radical skeptic. But when he comes across an idea he doesn't like, he trots out the same anti-science rhetorical moves that I think (hope!) he would vehemently denounce from a reactionary.

Robinson takes exception to Fredrik deBoer's recent book, The Cult of Smart. Robinson quotes deBoer's own summary:

The existence and power of genetic dispositions in academic ability have been demonstrated by literally hundreds of high-quality studies that replicate each other and that find again and again that genetic influence can explain .5 – .8 of the variation in educational metrics within the population.

I'm probably qualified to evaluate this claim, but I'm honestly too lazy to do so. There are plenty of people whose job it is to evaluate this kind of claim and who could do a much better job than I ever could. But it is certainly possible to contest this claim on scientific grounds, and if the science doesn't hold up, too bad for deBoer and genetic academic ability. We'll never be certain, but if we don't abandon science on this topic, we'll be a lot more confident about the answer in twenty years.

Robinson, however, does everything but contest this claim on scientific grounds. Instead, he constructs an elaborate screed that is nothing more than the idea that he doesn't want there to be genetic academic ability, the idea of genetic academic ability is morally reprehensible, therefore there cannot be any such thing.

Maybe that's a good strategy, at least for Robinson. Maybe abandoning scientific reasoning will bring about the kind of world that Robinson wants, and hey, use what works, n'est ce pas?

But I don't want any kind of world that abandons scientific reasoning. And Robinson's science denialism is as repugnant to me as climate change denialism, and has destroyed the credibility I had for Current Affairs as thoroughly as Doug Henwood destroyed my credibility for Jacobin.