Friday, October 31, 2008

Private property

An essential component of communism is the idea of "no private property". But this is simply a label, not a complete ideological or political position. We have to look at the issue more closely.

First, the idea of "no private property" is not best understood regarding the ordinary physical property that people typically own (or control in conditions similar to simple ownership): clothes, furniture, dwellings, cars, etc. The communist trope goes, "Communism doesn't mean we all have to share a toothbrush."

On the other hand, I've actually lived in a commune with no private physical property literally beyond my toothbrush and my underwear. And it was far and away the highest material standard of living I've ever enjoyed (even counting my current DINK lifestyle) despite the fact that only about half the commune was working in "straight" jobs and it was during the 80's recession. Not only did we have a high standard of living, we also had the capital to start several businesses and buy a house in San Francisco. So the idea of no private physical property is plausible.

The primary focus of the communist idea of no private property regards absentee ownership, such as a landlord renting a house, investors owning a factory, or bankers owning money. Specifically situations where people own things without having any kind of physical relationship to the property. For example, I physically possess my house, but my landlord owns it... at least on paper.

Fundamentally, the idea of abstract, absentee ownership alienates the work required to produce goods and services from the rewards of efficiently producing them. If a worker becomes more efficient, the rewards of that efficiency go not to himself but to the owner of capital. The only way, then, to motivate a worker on a long term basis is to keep him in conditions of "work (faster) or starve."

This fundamental long-term problem is masked to a certain degree in an expanding economy, because an expanding economy is chaotic and has local pockets of labor shortages. It is the local shortage, not the efficiency of the labor, that drives up labor prices. But, because labor is commoditized, the higher labor prices driven by the local shortage attracts more labor to the "pocket", driving labor prices down to the minimum cost necessary to keep the laborers alive and productive.

All markets, free or otherwise, always drive resources to the bottlenecks: i.e. those places in the movement and transformation of raw materials to commodities where demand exceeds supply. All markets either force prices down to the labor cost, or they drive prices up to the actual subjective use-value.

What capitalism does, by establishing and coercively enforcing absentee ownership (how else would you establish absentee ownership but with coercion?) is make ownership of capital a structural bottleneck, a bottleneck that cannot be resolved by adding more resources to it. It's a pure positive feedback system, with no corresponding negative feedback to prevent overload. It doesn't take a conspiracy or cooperation to make all the surplus resources go to the owners of capital, it's simply a structural feature of capitalism.

This structure violates our basic moral intuitions about fairness and deserts: Why should someone get more for no better reason than simply because they presently have more? It takes no skill, talent or work to use capital to make more capital; indeed capitalists actually boast about letting their money work for them. And when this system is enforced by actually making people starve or live in conditions of desperate poverty, we must engage in massive denial to uphold the system.

But there's not just a moral issue: there are pragmatic issues as well.

Because the positive feedback mechanism that causes the one-way accumulation of capital is structural, not planned, capitalists do not acquire experience or build trust to work together on a long-term basis. The competition within the capitalist class is fierce, pitiless and unrelenting. (Even so, this intra-capitalist competition does not act as a negative feedback system, because it merely moves resources around within the capitalist class; it moves only trivial resources back to the working classes.) No matter how many real, physical resources the capitalists acquire, there's always an enormous incentive to cut costs.

Since labor is commoditized, in addition to making production more efficient in a real sense, by reducing the socially necessary labor time to produce a given commodity, there's an additional incentive under capitalism to make production more efficient in a financial sense, by reducing the surplus resources allocated to the actual workers in exchange for their labor. Unless there's a temporary, local labor shortage, you simply cannot survive as a capitalist unless you do everything you can to pay your workers as little as necessary to keep them alive and productive, and spend nothing at all on their survival once they have aged past peak performance.

Furthermore, because capitalism intrinsically alienates the actual work from reward, it's psychologically and socially easy to alienate it a step further: to have money represent not physical productive capability, but financial capability; to remove the annoying step of actually creating commodities to transform money into more money. This second level of alienation is precisely what we see in the present global financial crisis. With the pure Ponzi schemes finally unraveling, the ruling capitalist class is simply paralyzed. And when the Gods fail, it is the humans who suffer.

Human nature being what it is, these pressures inevitably ends with the capitalists pushing the workers' standard of living so low that they have nothing to lose by open rebellion. It's not just a communist-driven phenomenon: we see these slave, peasant, worker and welfare-class rebellions in every society (cough Spartacus) where a ruling class commoditizes and dominates a working class.

In the past, no military technology was able to withstand a deep-rooted working-class rebellion. A million starving peasants could just spit on the king's army and drown them. Today, perhaps, not so much: with biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and an army willing to use them unquestioningly on their fellow human beings (even on their own countrymen!), it's entirely possible that the capitalist class, when pushed to the wall, will simply engage in genocide and mass murder on a scale that will make Hitler look like a humanitarian.

The cure for these problems is socialism. And not just any old kind of socialism, but socialism that intentionally and explicitly acts as a transition to communism: an end to all class relations, an end to all economic and political exploitation, and an egalitarian society sharing the abundance of material wealth we have the capacity to produce today.

Socialism starts with the state directly being the only (or the dominant) absentee owner: Ownership of dwellings, ownership of capital and (as we're doing right now) ownership of money.

You might object, "But I don't want the state to own the capital!" Too late, it already does. More precisely, the owners of capital own the state: our present government exists primarily to protect the interests and private property of the owners of capital. Any sop to the working class results only from dimly enlightened capitalists (i.e. Democrats) who understand the danger of open rebellion. But even now, with the economy in ruins, a quagmire in Iraq, and eight years of the stupidest president and ruling party since... well... ever, the Democratic party still cannot garner 60% of the vote, and they're rushing as fast as (or faster than) the Republicans to transfer real material wealth from the working class (taxpayers) to the capitalist class (bankers)... to prop up the system; to rescue capitalism and the capitalist class from their own incompetence and egregious stupidity.

Regulatory/welfare capitalism, a la Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson (and to some extent Richard Nixon, surprisingly enough) is a good idea, at least on paper. Use the government to set a "floor" for financial labor costs, thus ensuring that labor commoditization does not drive the price of labor to the bottom, to ensure that at least some of the surplus value of labor goes directly to the laborers. It actually worked, kinda sorta, for 40+ years.

But regulatory capitalism is inherently unstable, because it leaves too much power in the hands of the capitalists, and the vicious intra-captialist competition means that every capitalist has an enormous incentive to find some way around the regulations... especially if he can ensure that the regulations still apply to his competition. All you need is one exception (cough Mariana Islands) and the whole system starts to unravel. Add that to the obvious strategy of using money to dominate the mass media, and as we have seen in present-day history we see that the power of capital overwhelms the power of an uncoordinated, isolated and alienated population.

The problem is that capitalism makes ownership, especially absentee ownership, completely unaccountable to the public interest. We simply cannot take away Bill Gates money in anything even resembling the same way we can take away George W. Bush's political power as President of the United States. Next January, Bush will simply be just another citizen, but Bill Gates will always have the economic power to decide what is valuable. This power is inalienable: No matter how incompetently he tries to create value (cough Windows Vista), he will keep his money.

The problem of keeping a socialist state accountable to the people — without a nongovernmental capitalist class acting as something of a counterweight — is presently unsolved. But we know that having a capitalist class with an inalienable right to absentee ownership provides minimal accountability, and they eventually erode what little accountability that can be established politically.

It's a scary thing: I'm proposing abandoning the devil we know, capitalism, for the devil we don't know, socialism. But I don't think we have much choice: The devil we know has every incentive to kill most of us and enslave the rest. I don't see how socialism could be worse.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Quotation of the Day

[J]ust because the thing I saw wasn't there doesn't mean there wasn't something there that I didn't see.

Ann Althouse


That's some fine legal reasoning. I think Ann's definitely shown that she can see the law library from her house.

[h/t to Jon Swift]

Monday, October 27, 2008

Constitution-Free Zone

Apparently, 2/3 of the population of the US lives in the Constitution-free zone.

I guess that's an improvement; my original guess was around 100%.

[h/t to James F. Elliott]

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Reliable belief-producing faculties

Al: I think I've hit a better epistemic system: A belief is justified if and only if it is produced by a belief-producing cognitive faculty that is properly functioning.

The Barefoot Bum: Interesting, Al; a bold formulation! But I'm not sure that I understand you completely. How do we know that some belief-producing cognitive faculty is or is not properly functioning?

Al: First, let's talk about a faculty that we can't believe is properly functioning; that may shed some light on the subject.

TBB: Fair enough, go on.

Al: Consider a faculty that has been formed by a process of evolution. Clearly such a faculty cannot bet considered properly functioning in an epistemic sense.

TBB: Why not?

Al: Well, evolution selects for survivability and reproductive success, correct?

TBB: That's the theory, yes.

Al: So we must conclude that a faculty produced by evolution contributes to survivability and reproductive success. But that's a very different thing than justification of truth.

TBB: Is it?

Al: Sure. Suppose, for example, that a primitive human being had the belief that tigers were benign cooperative beings. Suppose further that whenever this human being saw a tiger, he believed that the tiger wanted to play a friendly game of hide-and-seek, and the human being tried to hide. This is a clearly false, unjustified belief, yet it would promote this human being's survivability, would it not?

TBB: I suppose it would, but...

Al: Wait! I have more.

TBB: Please go on.

Al: Suppose, however, that some faculty were created by an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God. Surely we could hold a priori that such a faculty was reliable.

TBB: Perhaps so! But I still have some questions. First, in your evolution example, you talk about the content of a belief (tigers are benign beings who like to play hide-and-seek) independently of the physical expression of that belief (hiding from the tiger).

Al: Well, yes.

TBB: It's easy to take an omniscient philosophical perspective, but you're not asserting that you really are actually omniscient, I hope!

Al: No! Of course not!

TBB: First, you're just assuming you're correct, that tigers really are dangerous beings who want to eat us.

Al: Well, aren't they?

TBB: Well, I think so, but maybe I'm wrong. Maybe tigers really are benign beings who just like to play hide and seek, and you and I are just being paranoid.

Al: That seems far-fetched!

TBB: Perhaps. But let's look at the problem from a different perspective: how do we actually determine the content of a belief independently of its physical expression? On what basis could we, in principle, actually determine that our primitive human being actually has a false belief instead of the true belief that tigers are dangerous and will eat him if he doesn't hide?

Al: I suppose we would just ask him.

TBB: But isn't speech a physical act? We're no longer determining the content of a belief independently of the physical expression of that belief.

Al: Perhaps, but speech is a very different kind of physical act; surely evolution cannot select for the particular words we use to describe our beliefs.

TBB: Good point. But I still have a question: before we can ask him about his beliefs, we have to learn his language. And to learn his language, we can only correlate his words with his non-speech actions. So we're back to determining his beliefs dependent on the physical expression of those beliefs.

Al: But perhaps he uses the same words to talk about hiding from a tiger that he uses to talk about playing a friendly game of hide-and-seek with his truly benign neighbors.

TBB: Perhaps he might. But the question goes deeper: does he play hide-and-seek with a tiger in the same way that he plays hide-and-seek with his neighbors? I know when I played hide-and-seek as a child, I would laugh and be delighted when I was found. I definitely did not try to fight off and kill the child who found me.

Al: I hope not! You would have been quite the monstrous child, killing off your classmates like that.

TBB: I probably would not have survived very long. Likewise, if your primitive human laughed and was delighted when the tiger found him, if the didn't try to fight off and kill the tiger, he also would not survive very long.

Al: Hmmm... That's a good point.

TBB: Even if he were to use the same words for two different situations, if his behavior differs in those situations, we must conclude that he has different meanings for the same word. Perhaps he means "hide-and-seek" ironically or metaphorically when applied to the tiger.

Al: I suppose we can't rule that out; we have plenty of experience with irony and metaphor in our own language.

TBB: Furthermore: If his behavior is identical with our own behavior in all respects, we have no basis to conclude that the words he uses to label that behavior have a different underlying meaning than our own words. And if his behavior differs from our own, then presumably one is superior to the other in terms of survivability, and we can tell based on physical expression that one is correct and the other incorrect.

Al: But what if there's no difference in survivability?

TBB: Then by what virtue would you say your beliefs are true and his false? Is it true that one must hide behind a tree and false to climb a tree, even if both are equally effective at avoiding being eaten by a tiger?

Al: Well...

TBB: Let's turn to your God-given faculty.

Al: All right.

TBB: First of all, you've created four premises; you've made four assumptions.

Al: Four?

TBB: Yes, four: 1) God exists; 2) God is omnipotent; 3) God is omniscient; 4) God is omnibenevolent.

Al: OK, when you put it that way, I suppose we have four premises. But those are not very controversial premises.

TBB: Perhaps not. But I'm confused; perhaps my reasoning is poor... perhaps my cognitive faculties are not properly functioning. How do you get to the reliability of some faculty from these premises?

Al: The reasoning is simple: An omnibenevolent God would want us to have reliable faculties; an omnipotent God would have the ability to grant us those faculties; an omniscient God would know how to do so. Q.E.D.

TBB: I'm starting to see. But please forgive me: There's one step there I'm not quite sure about.

Al: It seems clear to me: what's your question?

TBB: I don't quite get the first part, "An omnibenevolent God would want us to have reliable faculties."

Al: Why wouldn't an omnibenevolent God want us to have reliable faculties?

TBB: Well... suppose — and if you can take an omniscient philosophical perspective, I hope you'll grant me the same privilege — suppose it were good that we had unreliable faculties? Such a premise doesn't entail a logical contradiction, does it?

Al: Well... I'm sure it does, but I can't figure out how right now.

TBB: Well, if you think of something, let me know. In the meantime, if it's good for us to have unreliable faculties, it would be no surprise that we would have the false belief that it's good to have reliable faculties.

Al: But then we wouldn't know anything! That's just epistemic nihilism.

TBB: Of course. But we can't exclude the possibility a priori. But I'll be charitable: we have four premises already; a fifth won't kill us: It's good to have reliable faculties.

Al: All right, so it all works out, right?

TBB: Not so fast!

Al: Hmmm?

TBB: Let's look at our reasoning:

P1: God exists
P2: God is omnipotent
P3: God is omniscient
P4: God is omnibenevolent
P5: reliable faculties are good
---
C: human beings have reliable faculties

Al: ok.

TBB: I have a question: Why should human beings have reliable faculties?

Al: What do you mean?

TBB: I mean, perhaps dolphins, or orangutans, or perhaps even rocks have reliable faculties; perhaps God doesn't really care what kind of faculties human beings happen to have.

Al: I suppose you're going to make me add another premise.

TBB: Mais oui. So now we have:

P1: God exists
P2: God is omnipotent
P3: God is omniscient
P4: God is omnibenevolent
P5: reliable faculties are good
P6: God wants human beings to have reliable faculties -or- God wants what's good for human beings
---
C: human beings have reliable faculties

Al: Are we done now? Or do you want a seventh premise?

TBB: I think six will do to make my point.

Al: Which is?

TBB: You've created seven premises and a careful chain of valid deduction.

Al: I'm glad you admit it!

TBB: Gladly. But out of all that, you've said nothing more than our faculties are reliable! No other conclusion follows from your premises.

Al: But at least I've explained why we have reliable faculties.

TBB: You haven't explained anything; all your premises say nothing more than the simple assumption that our faculties are reliable.

Al: As if by magic?

TBB: What, a supernatural deity isn't magic?

Al: Well...

TBB: There's another problem, though.

Al: What's that?

TBB: You're not saying that our faculties are perfect, right? Just reliable; good enough so that the beliefs formed are mostly true.

Al: Well, yes. Everyone makes mistakes.

TBB: Your "explanation" does not account for those mistakes, neither the pattern of mistakes, how we can detect them, nor why we should make mistakes at all.

Al: Well, I'm talking at a high level; I'm sure all these details can be fixed up.

TBB: Sure they can. But at the end of the day you're going to have to say:

P1: God exists
P2: God is omnipotent
P3: God is omniscient
P4: God is omnibenevolent
P5: God wants us to have faculties that err when (something)
P6: God wants us to have faculties that are correct when (something else)
...
P236: God wants us to have faculties we can tell are erroneous when (something)
P237: God wants us to have faculties we can tell are are correct when (something else)
...
Definition: Reliable faculties have the above characteristics
Pn-1: It's good (indeed optimal) to have reliable faculties
Pn: God wants human beings to have reliable faculties
---
C: Human beings have reliable faculties

Al: Well, all right.

TBB: So in practice, you just list all the characteristics of human faculties, call that "reliable", and assume that God exists, etc. wants us to have them.

Al: Well, when you put it that way...

TBB: Even if we could do no better than to just list all the characteristics of human faculties, we can chop off the first four premises, take out "God wants us to..." from the rest of the premises, and say exactly the same thing. No additional conclusions follow from these extraneous premises.

Al: But these premises might be true; there's no logical contradiction.

TBB: That's not a very high bar. If we don't care how many premises we have, then I could concoct some fantastic story about the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and the conflict between the pirates and the ninjas, and how the ninjas stole the spark of reliable cognitive faculties from the Holy Spaghetti Sauce and implanted them into human beings to aid them in their...

Al: Stop! I get your point. But that's clearly a ridiculous fantasy!

TBB: Of course it is. But it might be true; there's no logical contradiction.

Al: But...

TBB: And you're aiming at Christianity, right? Not just some abstract deistic God who creates cognitive faculties and then stands back and gets out of the way.

Al: Of course.

TBB: And in your story, you have talking snakes, talking donkeys, magical trumpets, angels, giants, people rising from the dead left and right, earthquakes, solar eclipses, four horsemen, the whore of Babylon, plagues, magic iron chariots... shall I go on?

Al: No, I get your point, but...

TBB: But nothing, Al! You object to a few pirates and ninjas? Seems like you're straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel. That's from your story, is it not?

Al: Yes, but...

TBB: I think your "reliable faculties" argument needs a little more work.

Al: Perhaps it does.

Friday, October 24, 2008

To the Republicans and neo-cons

Take heart: all is not lost. All was not lost after Reagan transferred hundreds of billions of dollars of real, material wealth from the masses of people to the ruling class. All is not lost after Bush transferred ten trillion of dollars of real wealth to the ruling class. One or two more orders of magnitude and you can rule the world, with absolute power and privilege undreamed of by the most extreme caricature of a decadent oriental potentate.

You are revolutionaries, intent on making radical changes to the very fabric of society. Such a revolution always entails unexpected and unanticipated problems. Those problems require a period of readjustment, a time to "catch your breath" before the next push.

That's what the Democratic party is for. Obama is to your next leader what Clinton was to Bush: someone who will stabilize the last round of problems so you can pursue the next round of changes from a solid base. You'll lose this election. If you're smart, you want to lose this election. You cannot both solve the temporary problems stemming from the latest round of revolution and still keep your credibility for the next round. Better to delegate the task to the Democrats, because you can attack them publicly for the problems while they stablize the new state of society.

You're almost there; you need just one more big push, probably in 2016.

In the meantime...

You need someone like Sarah Palin, or perhaps Sarah Palin herself. A critical component of your strategy must be to hold the religious right as your base for the popular legitimacy you'll need for the next push. They're perfect: they'll never vote their own material self-interest. Promise them you'll burn gays and atheists at the stake and keep the women barefoot and pregnant, and they'll give you everything they own and work overtime to give you more. Sarah: Stay in good with the relgious right. You might run, but (unless Obama is already sinking fast and unelectable) make sure you don't get nominated in 2012. Keep your powder dry and run in 2016.

Make sure the Murdochs are on board. They are critical. Promise them anything and make damn sure you deliver. If you lose the mainstream media to the forces of truth and the interests of the people, you're doomed to wait at least another generation for absolute power. Or, worse the goddamned commies might sweep in and defeat you completely.

Using the mainstream media to push hard hard hard on Obama. Start on day one and don't ever let up. If Obama makes the tiniest mistake, attack. Block any attempt for him to do anything good. If he does manage to do something good, take the credit and attack him for preventing you from doing better.

Keep attacking the Democratic party for being communists, socialists, fascists, traitors, terrorists, atheists, child molesters; they should be both a monstrous, imminent danger to humanity and ridiculous figures of supine impotence. If a Democrat sneezes, accuse him of germ warfare. The attacks don't have to be reasonable, logical or sensible; if you have the mainstream media to repeat the accusations, people will believe — even if they don't believe any of the specific allegations — that Obama and the Democrats are not really "our kind of people."

You'll have a congressional majority in 2010. Like Palin, keep your powder dry: wait until 2014 and then pull out the last of the stops. Impeach him then. If you can, actually prosecute him. If you can actually force him out of office (even better if you can actually put him in prison) Biden will be an easy target in 2016. But even if he beats the impeachment, the 2016 Democratic candidate will be too compromised, too defensive to put up much of a fight.

In 2016 run your Palin. You must have the religious right; you cannot, like Bush pere, be half-hearted or wishy-washy about them. You must have someone like Bush who really is one of them. Don't worry, they just want authority; dress up your authority in their trappings and they'll jump off a cliff for you.

In 2016 you won't have to fool around behind the scenes like Cheney had to. The people will hunger for a strong leader; you can do whatever you please completely openly. Fire everyone who didn't totally, completely oppose Obama at every turn and put in those who will be 100% loyal to your program.

And then? The sky's the limit. You can do whatever you please, without fear of reprisal or punishment. Anything: your will limited only by your imagination. Since the dawn of human history, people have only dreamed of such unfettered power; you can achieve it.

What are you waiting for?

What we don't have

We still have a lot...

We have hundreds of millions of people who are willing and able to work, to produce not only the necessities of life but also luxuries and the technology and infrastructure to create even greater production. We still have productive labor. We have working farms and factories, shops and stores, trucks and trains. We still have the means of production. Thus we still have supply.

We still have hundreds of millions of people that need food, shelter, clothing, transportation, medical care, entertainment and all the normal needs and desires of ordinary life. We still have demand.

We still have our houses, our cars, our appliances, our stuff. We still have wealth.

We have everything we ought to need to have a functioning economy.

We do not, however, have a way for the ruling class to realize a profit on matching supply and demand. We do not have a way of determining to which faction of the ruling class to give what profit we can realize.

For this lack, millions will starve and die — millions more than were already starving and dying when capitalism was going well — and the rest of us will be incredibly impoverished. Meanwhile, members of the ruling class, the ones who have "failed", will have to sell off their second yacht, their seventh home, and perhaps cut the gardening staff. The "winners" will, in material terms (if not financial terms) control an even greater portion of the world's wealth.

Yes, making drastic changes to our political economy will cause tremendous suffering; all drastic changes cause suffering. But we know, because we've seen the suffering that occurs when capitalism is going well (not to mention what will happen now that it's failing) that not making changes will perpetuate even more suffering.

Insanity, it has been said, consists of doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. There is no longer any reasonable hope that capitalism can deliver what it promises: a world free of unnecessary and unreasonable suffering, a world where material wealth is, if not distributed evenly, is at least distributed well enough that no one has to starve amid plenty. It's just not going to happen.

It's time to abandon the problems of capitalism, unsolvable precisely because they are inherent to the system, and try a drastically new set of problems. Maybe we can do better; it doesn't seem possible we could do much worse.

On the mortgage crisis

I used to be a mortgage broker. I sold only fixed-rate mortgages to people with good jobs and good credit, which is why I wasn't a mortgage broker for very long. But I'm pleased, at least, that I helped a few people get loans that will at least not ruin them in the current crisis.

My sales training for sub-prime mortgages was very explicit, and the sales pitch was direct: No matter who you are, no matter what your situation, get any loan on any terms you can to buy your house. If you own your home, you own the increase in value. In two to five years, the price of your house will have risen sufficiently (and your credit rating will have improved) that you can then get a good, fixed-rate collateralized loan at a reasonable interest rate. If you don't buy your house now, if you continue to rent, you'll be unable to afford to buy a house in the future because prices will have risen faster than you can save.

This is precisely the sort of behavior demanded of individuals as a systematic feature of capitalism: the pursuit of short-term individual benefit, which will, through the magic of the invisible hand, translate to long-term societal benefit. As Keynes noted, "in the long term, we're all dead."

A lot of people bought into this sales pitch. These are people now being excoriated as "irresponsible borrowers" who must suffer the punishment of the marketplace. But these people will be punished with homelessness and desperate poverty, while the "responsible" people who continued to rent will be punished with punitive taxation and loss of their savings to bail out the bankers and capitalists who not only encouraged this "irresponsible" behavior, but made it imperative to avoid short-term erosion of individuals' finances.

The capitalists knew that the bubble would collapse, but they couldn't get out of the game of musical chairs. Until the funny money is actually undermined, those with more funny money have an incredible short-term advantage over those with less funny money. Each individual capitalist just hoped they wouldn't be the one standing when the music stopped. Little did they know that the risk was spread out so thoroughly that the only chair left would be the one held by the taxpayers... the chair our Democratic congress, completely unfettered by an impotent Bush, have demanded we vacate so the ruling class has a place to sit.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sunsara Taylor on Sarah Palin, Rape Kits, and the Bible

Metaphysics and philosophical terminology

I do my best to use philosophical terms in their canonical sense, i.e. the sense that the preponderance of writers in the generally accepted philosophical canon (and the professors of philosophy who establish that canon) use them. Thus I'll use epistemology to talk about knowledge, ontology to talk about existence, and so forth.

Keep in mind too that I'm an amateur without formal education. I haven't had the four to eight years of indoctrination education by a coherent philosophical faculty that an ordinary person receives to obtain a legitimate BA, MA or Ph.D. in philosophy. I just don't have the time to drop everything for eight years to get a formal education; should I therefore not think deeply about ideas and the world? I do the best I can with what I have.

Some terms seem tremendously abused in the philosophical canon. There really is no consensus on what they mean, at least not one I can determine from my own reading. Far and away, the most abused term is "metaphysics". As best I understand, the term was coined to refer to literally the book Aristotle wrote after his book, Physics. It's been defined as ontology and theology; New Age woo-woos try to define it as an antonym to materialism; The Logical Positivists tried to define metaphysics as sheer nonsense.

I basically believe reductive materialism: nothing exists but fundamental physical entities and their interactions. I do not believe there is any sort of "metaphysical" reality above, beyond and/or separate from physical reality, and we can obtain knowledge of physical reality only by appeal to the evidence of our senses.

Still, I think the term is too useful to simply abandon; it's an enormously useful term to apply to statements, propositions and beliefs. Our description of reality is not the reality we're describing. "The map is not the territory." To describe some statements as metaphysical does not entail that one is describing the content of those statements as metaphysical.

To be more specific, a metaphysical statement is a statement with content that we do not evaluate according to a formal, symbolic method or process. By this definition, statements that define a basic formal, symbolic process for evaluating statements are therefore metaphysical, because how are we to evaluate such a definition? To evaluate a formal symbolic process, we would have to define another formal, symbolic process to to perform the evaluation, making the original definition not basic.

But this characterization is not a characterization of how reality works at a basic level, it's a characterization of how human intelligence works. And human intelligence, existing as it does as an emergent, abstract property of an organ with 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses, the outcome of 500 million years of evolution, cannot be called "basic" in any profound sense.

When I talk about the metaphysical definition of science, I definitely do not mean that there's this actual thing we call "science" that exists on some non-material, metaphysical plane. I mean "metaphysical" in the statement-oriented sense. The definition of science is the definition of a formal, symbolic process to acquire knowledge; it is a definition of what the word "knowledge" means: statements justified according to a specific process.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Miserable failure

Not the man (or not just the man) but the movie too was a miserable failure.

The Apostate agrees.

Quotation of the Day

Because he is still very much a True Believer, Sully [Andrew Sullivan, "high from huffing Reagan’s jock and Thatcher’s panties"] is not capable of looking Conservatism square in eye and seeing that Dubya and McSame are not its aberrations, but its apotheosis. He has shaken off some of the lesser, uglier doctrinal teachings of his faith, but still clings fiercely to the abstract, rapturous purity of its core dogma and will probably never be able to wrap his head around the fact that Ayn Rand's little wingnut terrarium is not a heroic creed, but a moral spider hole for misanthropes, rich degenerates and rich degenerate-wannabes.

-- driftglass

Junkie logic and codependency

driftglass nails the "junkie logic" of the right wing.
Dubya was meth with a ketamine chaser delivered hammer-and-anvil directly to the lizard brain.

Dubya was 40 million Pig People tired of the hard, fussy job of being a tolerant, powerful democracy finally once-and-for-all blowing America’s family inheritance on an eight-year, blood-drunk bender.

Dubya was the United States crawling through dumpsters at our national soul’s midnight, killing anything that moves, licking out the contents of random baggies, hoping the little white flakes clinging to the plastic is crank and not rat poison, and waking up the next day -- that horrible, horrible sun-also-rises morning after -- broke and twitchy, arguing over what more they can sell off to keep the party going and who they can blame for their gone-to-shit lives.


But I disagree with him about the some of the details, and the details are important.

Does it all start with Reagan?
And in the Conservative Crack House of Many Doors, Ronald Reagan was that first cocktail. The first line of coke. The first needle. The first "Holy Mother of God!” WOWGASM that shotguns right through the blood/brain barrier, reformats your entire ethical hard drive, and scrimshaws a brand new Prime Directive on the inside of your skull.
But I disagree. It's not Ronald Reagan but Ayn "I not only can but should have everything I want and to hell with anyone else" Rand who deserves the credit; Ronnie was just the first guy to market the drug to the masses.

I think his extension of the metaphor to the Clinton administration is more apt than even he intends.
[Clinton] arguably delivered to the wingnuts more of everything they ever said they wanted than anyone else. ...

[The right hated him because] Clinton was mere addiction maintenance delivered in measured doses under adult supervision: all policy-wonk that wasn’t cut with that industrial-waste-grade bigoted, psychotic bloodlust that gives Conservatism its wild, freebasing edge. Clinton was methadone, and for the hardcore lifestyle junkie, that shit is for babies.
It's important to understand that maintenance isn't treatment. Driftglass calls November 4 "so much more than an election. November 4th is an Intervention." I think he's wrong. I think Obama will be very much like Clinton: he'll offer the right a celebrity's stint in rehab to take the edge of the worst downside of the addition, but he'll do nothing to address the fundamental problem.

Because the problem is not with right itself, and the right has in no way yet "hit bottom". The Democratic party and the American moderate liberals are just acting as codependents. "Tsk, tsk, look at the mess you've made of yourself. We'll clean you up, and get you presentable."

There's a great scene in Trainspotting, "The downside of coming off junk was I knew I would need to mix with my friends again in a state of full consciousness. It was awful. They reminded me so much of myself, I could hardly bear to look at them." I'm also reminded of a scene from the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers where they decide to stop doing drugs: the scene slowly transforms over a number of panels from the usual cartoon idealization to a photorealistic depiction of disgusting squalor; the brothers (wisely?) get stoned again and return to their cartoon utopia.

The point is: just cleaning up the worst downside of addiction is a feature of codependency; the codependent is doing neither himself nor the addict any favors. It's true: addiction really "reformats your entire ethical hard drive, and scrimshaws a brand new Prime Directive on the inside of your skull." Just mitigating the effects of the new Prime Directive isn't enough; the addict has to "find Jesus" (or Bill) and create yet another "Prime Directive".

Which is fundamentally why I do not see this election as fundamentally transformative. Sure, McCain will continue the bender, but Obama will just codependently clean up the immediate mess; after four or eight years of tedious sobriety the leaders of the American people will be ready for yet another bender.

The drug is, of course, capitalism, unlimited personal economic power unaccountable to the rest of society. It's not even the exercise of this power that's the drug, its the acquisition. The first hit comes with your first million, when you realize that you can now do anything you want and say, "fuck you" to most anyone who might object, without argument, without justification. And you want more: You want that second million to say "fuck you" to those who have just one million. Even when you have the most money of anyone, you still want more, because that's your prime directive: Get more. And besides, you'll never have more than everyone else put together, and the more you have, the bigger the target you are; what you have taken away from others can be taken away from you.

It is not enough to merely dole out this drug in measured doses. Clinton- and Obama-style "methadone capitalism" won't solve the problem. We have to create a new Prime Directive, one that doesn't lead inevitably to death and destruction.

We have to "find Karl".

Psychological sincerity

Comrade PhysioProf is, I think, looking at Lahde's quotation too narrowly, especially if you look at the quotation in the context of Lahde's full message.

It is certainly the case that there are some people who enjoy being busy, very busy; Lahde's message — and my agreement with it — is not some envious or dismissive attack on such people merely because they are different.

I've invariably found with such busy-by-nature people is that they are the not in the least concerned with their "legacy"; they "work" hard because the work isn't work to them, it's play.

Lahde's screed is not aimed at such inner-directed people. It's aimed at the millions of people who work hard not because they are impelled by their inner nature, but because they are outer-directed, they are responding to familial and societal pressure. More importantly, they have constructed an attachment to destination, not the journey. People are, of course, free to do as they please, but outer-directedness and destination-striving are recipes for unhappiness.

Dick Feynman is, I think, a classic example of the hard-working inner-directed person. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman relates a very important anecdote. Working at CalTech (IIRC) Feynman became very concerned and uptight about his "legacy", about whether he was really doing important work, and he was feeling miserable and unproductive.

He decided, then, that he was not going to worry about whether his work was important or not. Rather, he was going to work on problems and puzzles that interested him, that he found fun. If these puzzles weren't "important", well then, too bad for everyone else. Of course the irony is that this approach led to the work that won him the Nobel prize (which Feynman treated very unseriously).

I see this sort of outer-directedness all over the place. I personally know people making a $1,000,000/year who drag themselves to work with desperate misery. I know wealthy people who have allowed their wealth to change them from kind, caring people into gigantic assholes, paranoid and contemptuous of the rest of humanity concerned only with protecting their wealth and privilege, mistaking their achievement for virtue.

In a related sense, I know people who are living good, happy, satisfying lives, free at least of the suffering of poverty, who are nonetheless miserable because they have not achieved enough, not done work that is really important. They do things, work at certain jobs, undertake certain projects not because they enjoy doing that job, not even because they have to do something to live, but because they think this job and that project will enable them to do "important" things.

But as Lahde notes, there are no truly important things except that which is important to the individual. There is nothing that will grant you a "legacy"; striving for a legacy is doomed to failure. In just fifty years, 99.999999% of people's work will be forgotten; does that make most people's lives meaningless and vain? And even you are one of the very few, if people are still talking about you in a thousand years, you'll be far too dead to enjoy it. What makes something "important is whether its important to you, not whether its important to other people, either our contemporaries or our descendants.

Of course, this is not a call to radical individualism; to divorce one's self entirely from other people. Social interaction, even social responsibility, is important to most everyone's psychological well-being. But it is a curious, ironic, perhaps paradoxical truth that the best, most effective way to be liked is to not care too much about whether people like you, to just "be yourself"; the best way to do "important" work is to not worry whether your work is important. A kind of psychological "sincerity" is more important than ambition.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Quotation of the Day

Appointments back to back, booked solid for the next three months, they look forward to their two week vacation in January during which they will likely be glued to their Blackberries or other such devices. What is the point? They will all be forgotten in fifty years anyway. Steve Balmer, Steven Cohen, and Larry Ellison will all be forgotten. I do not understand the legacy thing. Nearly everyone will be forgotten. Give up on leaving your mark. Throw the Blackberry away and enjoy life.

Andrew Lahde


[h/t to db0]

Intuition and scientific thought

[Inspired by the comments from Thoughts from a Sandwich.]

There's no question that the universe is "organized" in the sense that it's very highly likely (although not certain) that the universe is not just a collection of unconnected, random events. Nobody (besides a few radically skeptical philosophers) disputes this conclusion.

The real question is: what is the best explanation for this organization? Intuition is fine in its place, but coming up with the best explanation requires more, much more, than just intuition.

Our intuition is part of our natural cognitive apparatus, our brains viewed at an abstract level as our minds. It is the result of our past, biologically and socially evolved ways of thinking about the world, which worked under the circumstances our ancestors lived in to solve the problems that affected their survival and reproduction.

We can have some confidence in the reliability of an intuition, but only under the circumstances under which the intuition evolved and for which the intuition was subjected to selected pressure. Whenever we extend our intuition past those circumstances, we can have no confidence whatsoever that our intuition actually applies reliably to the expanded, non-historical circumstances.

We appear to have obtained the ability to consciously think scientifically by accident. Indeed the ability to consciously think at arbitrarily high levels of abstraction appears to be accidental. Conscious scientific thought is a mere five hundred years old, far too little time for biological selection pressures to have made any impact on our physical brains and time for social selection to have made only very little impact on our traditional, learned ideas.

We find something very interesting when we double-check our intuition using scientific thought: Under those circumstances where we see very strong selection pressure for accurate intuitions, the result of our intuition matches the result of scientific inquiry. For example, our intuitions about the macroscopic properties of ordinary objects (mass and size; rocks and trees) matches very closely our scientific understanding of those properties. There is no metaphysical a priori reason for this correspondence; there's nothing in the definition of scientific thought that logically entails it must match any particular intuition. The correspondence is a posteriori, "after the fact". The a posteriori correspondence goes both ways; science specifically gains credibility precisely because it does match our reliably predictive day-to-day intuitions about macroscopic things.

When science fails to correspond to our intuitions, it is always the case that our intuitive predictions of what we should see fails to match what we actually do see. This "failure mode" is a priori: it follows from the definition of science, which takes what we do in fact see as an authoritative epistemic foundation.

When taken out of their original context, our intuition becomes radically unreliable. We don't need to compare our intuition against scientific thought; we need only observe: our intuition leads us to expect to see one thing, and we in fact see something radically different. Counter-intuitive findings of science are all over the place; Lewis Wolpert has written a whole book on such examples, The Unnatural Nature of Science. (Wolpert uses "unnatural" in the sense of "counter-intuitive", not "supernatural".)

And this is what I think Sagan means when he says, "But I try not to think with my gut. If I'm serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble." [thanks, Dagood] When taken out of its original context, it is misleading to rely solely on an intuition; we must employ the more rigorous methods of conscious science. We can employ our intuition for conjectures, but we cannot rely on our intuition to just hand us the whole truth, or even in many cases anything close to the truth.

How I blog

Like the rat, I tend to be wordy.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Just because I can't prove it

Just because I can't prove it, doesn't mean it's not true.

Or so goes the thrust of Tit For Tat's comment on DagoodS's excellent blog.

There are a lot of things wrong with this attitude.

First of all, as DagoodS notes, we can evaluate many claims — such as Tit For Tat's "par 4 hole-in-one" example — by appeal to circumstantial evidence. The disanalogy to claims about God is sharp: we lack even circumstantial evidence for claims about God.

Second, we have to look more deeply at "can't"; this is an equivocal term, because it can refer either to practical difficulty or theoretical impossibility, which are two very different issues.

The notion of time symmetry (reversibility) is extremely important: That physical laws are time-symmetric is another way of describing the conservation of mass-energy. This means that, in theory, we can make actual observations; if those observations are sufficiently accurate, we can "wind back the clock" using the time-symmetric laws of physics, and determine precisely what happened in the past. Even issues regarding the role of the observer in quantum mechanics do not prevent this sort of observation and retrodiction. Of course the practical difficulties of making such specific observations are overwhelming. But there is nothing that prohibits us in principle from doing so.

Again, the disanalogy to claims about God is sharp. The problems about knowing or proving claims about God are not practical, it's not like God is hiding behind my couch, or even around some distant star. The problems are theoretical: You cannot in principle know anything about a God who makes no observable difference in the world, at least not by empirical, scientific methods.

But the philosophical issues are most severe. What precisely do we mean by true but unprovable propositions?

For example, empirical science might not be the last word in epistemology, but if we could somehow know things about God by some alternative methodology, then the objection about the unprovability of true propositions would be rendered moot. Simply proposing an alternative methodology does not inform us as to the truth of propositions that cannot be resolved by any methodology. The claim is not, "Just because I can't scientifically prove it..." the claim is that "Just because I can't prove it at all..." The first version simply raises the question, "If you can't prove it scientifically, how can you prove it?" The second version raises more profound philosophical questions.

We intuitively believe that there are true propositions we don't know are true, therefore there propositions are true or false independent of our knowledge of their truth or falsity. But again, we must be very precise, because "independent of" has the same equivocal meaning as "can't" above. Do we mean independent of practical considerations, or do we mean independent of principled considerations, considerations that follow from the theoretical limits of our epistemology? None of our present knowledge was unavailable in principle to anyone, ever, and what we think we can't know we think we can't know because of the practical problems acquiring that knowledge. Under scientific methodology, ignorance is always a practical problem, not a theoretical problem. And the clear implication is that a statement that can't be be known in principle is not truth-apt.

Under a scientific methodology, truth is metaphysically subordinate to knowledge. To call a statement "true" is to just say that we know it's true, and to call a statement truth-apt is to know ("meta-know") that, in principle, we could know that it's true.

The problem with unknowable-in-principle "truth" is that by definition, because the truth is unknowable in principle, we cannot agree on its actual truth. By definition, no contradiction is entailed by believing the statement is true, nor is any contradiction entailed by believing the statement is false. Just entertaining the idea of unknowable-in-principle "truth" is to deny the essential semantic property of what we mean by "truth": true for everyone, always. Unknowable-in-principle "truth" is impossible to distinguish from opinion.

Of course, there's nothing wrong per se with opinions, desires, preferences, values, and other purely subjective entities. Having and acting on opinions is part of what it means to be human; we are not mere "knowing machines", concerned exclusively with knowing the truth.

But confusing our subjective preferences with actual objective truth is very dangerous, because we have very different ethical beliefs about truth than we have about opinions. "True" means "true for everyone"; if we confuse our opinions with truth, we must then conclude that someone holding the opposite opinion is mistaken, often dangerously so, in just the same sense that a person who believes that it is safe to drive while intoxicated is dangerously mistaken.

John Haught's intellectual and moral bankruptcy

John F. Haught responds to John Loftus' five-part review of Haught's book, God and the New Atheism.

The main theme of Haught's response is that the "new atheists" criticize something that is very different from Haught's own theology. I've seen this theme repeated time and again, from H Allen Orr's review of The God Delusion to Haught's response, as well as many theistic (and some non-theistic) bloggers.

This theme, though, is fundamentally dishonest. If I were to criticize the vapidity of Bollywood* cinema, it would be not merely dishonest but ridiculously irrelevant to answer such criticism by pointing out the structure and complexity of Citizen Kane. Fine: Haught does not have the kind of religion that the "new atheists" criticize; if the shoe doesn't fit, you're not obliged to wear it. So what? Haught's answer is just as dishonest, just as ridiculous.

*India's version of Hollywood

Atheists are not completely stupid; we realize there is a very wide range of opinion on what constitutes religion. (Indeed, there's precisely the range we would expect if the term had absolutely no objective, physical referent.) We're not interested in defining the "essence" of religious belief; we merely observe what a lot of stupid, cruel and malicious people themselves call their religious beliefs and practices and criticizing that. If Haught does not have the sort of religion that these assholes do have, good for him, but so what? That doesn't make the assholes disappear.

There are only two possible answers to the "new atheist" criticism of fundamentalist, literalist religion. One might argue that it's a straw man: nobody (at least not very many people) has such a religion. But of course it's blatantly obviously true that many people — tens or hundreds of millions, perhaps even a billion — actually do subscribe, in whole or in part, to precisely the sort of religion that the new atheists criticize. Not even Haught is stupid enough to assert that there's no such thing as fundamentalist, literalist religion.

The only alternative to the Straw Man approach is, "Thank you." Thank you, Richard Dawkins, for pointing out to us that the religious beliefs actually held by a large number of people are completely irrational and philosophically stupid.

But Haught cannot say, "Thank you," at least not without exposing the vapidity he must himself adopt to avoid irrationality and philosophical stupidity. So he tries to have his cake and eat it to: By implicitly making the "Straw Man" argument, he does not have to actually address the underlying criticism; Dawkins et al. are criticizing something that doesn't exist, so the substance is irrelevant.

Usually I just stop at intellectual dishonesty; once you've determined someone is not an honest seeker after the truth, there's little point in engaging him further. But Haught is famous enough that his response deserves more thorough, detailed criticism.

Haught asserts that unlike Nietzsche and Sarte "most atheists..., in defending moral values they have inherited from a Christian culture, are still theistic at heart." Notice the dishonest segue from Christian culture to Christian theism. One might as well say that most Americans, in defending a democracy they have inherited from a slave-owning culture, are still slave owners at heart. The association between democracy — at least the good parts, the parts even a revolutionary would want to keep — and that the founders did indeed own slaves is an accident of history. You can take out the slave-owning and still keep the democracy, and it's entirely plausible that non-slave-owning people could have just as easily (if not more easily) come up with the same (or better) democratic system.

Thus the underlying argument cannot be simply that these moral values happened to arise in a Christian culture; the underlying argument must be that these values could have arisen only in a Christian (or theistic) culture. Theism must be an essential cause of these values, not merely an accidental association or even one cause among many.

Put another way, it's just as plausible to turn Haught's charge around: Because Christians hold values that are and can be held by atheists, those values cannot be essentially theistic.

Haught goes on to implicitly label the new atheist critique a critique of theological scholarship:
You rightly point out that scholars have read the Bible with diverse hermeneutical perspectives, but most of them [i.e. most scholars] no longer read the Bible in the moralistic and accusatory way that you and the new atheists do.
But of course the new atheist critique is not at all a critique of scholarly Christianity, it is a critique of fundamentalist pulpits and millions of ordinary people. The actual theological scholars are irrelevant. If millions of religious people ignore these scholars, by what virtue are we atheists required to ignore these millions and attend exclusively to the scholars?

Haught goes on to denounce the "ahistorical perfectionistic ideal of biblical inspiration." (Ahistorical? Didn't Haught just say that most scholars "no longer read read the Bible in [a] moralistic and accusatory way?") Well, perhaps the expectation of scriptural perfectionism really is ahistorical. But so what? The perfectionism entails directly from the idea of a perfect God; if scholars of times past did not expect perfection, they were wrong.

But again, Haught is trying to switch the focus. The point of the atheist critique is not that the Bible merely "falls short" of perfection, but that it's incredibly bad. We're not just running a white-gloved fingertip over the top of the door frame and finding a spec of dust; morally and scientifically speaking the Bible is a frat house after a three-day, twenty-kegger toga party. That the moral horror of Christian scripture is attributed to a God called perfect by its own worshipers just adds gross stupidity to egregious moral evil.

Haught is not above blatantly poisoning the well.
At this point, judging from your blog, I can anticipate that your next step may be to repeat the new atheist’s typical reproach that I have departed from theological rectitude and am not playing by the rules. The Bible, you will insist, is supposed to be inspired, inerrant, and morally perfect, and yet we now know (from natural and historical science) that it is all poisoned by the ambiguity, contingency, and messiness of history. Therefore, Christian faith is false.
I know of no new atheist who insists on "theological rectitude". We merely observe that millions of actual people have actual religious beliefs, beliefs that are not only irrational but that they use to substantiate moral positions that we find profoundly objectionable and downright evil. We observe that millions of people who call themselves Christians do in fact insist that the Bible really is inspired, inerrant and morally perfect... and they're dead wrong. If Haught agrees with us, then why is he criticizing us? Why isn't he thanking us for demonstrating that those other guys really are getting religion wrong?

But what about Haught's actual theology? Regardless of who is actually getting it wrong, precisely what does he offer as an alternative to fundamentalist religion?

I agree that Haught's God is not, as Loftus asserts, a distant God. Calling Haught's God distant gives it far too much credit; to be distant you have to be somewhere, but Haught's God is too vapid and vague to be anywhere.
[T]he dominant biblical contribution—from Genesis to Revelation—is not moral instruction, but an emphasis on the themes of liberation, promise, and the need to trust in spite of all present doubts about there being any final redemptive meaning to history and the universe.
Excuse me? Trust God in spite of my doubts? Does Haught have $19 million in an abandoned Nigerian bank account that he desperately needs my help to transfer to the US? "Trust me" and "ignore your doubts" are the words of shysters and con artists... and theologians.

And precisely where are these "present doubts" coming from? A knotty question; surely the can't be coming from the whole first half of the Bible? Surely Yahweh's constant smiting and plagues and death, his fucking with Job just to make a point about how awesome He is, the genocidal wars of aggression, the smiting, stoning and slaying of pretty much everyone who puts one fucking toe out of line, His scarpering off when the iron chariots showed up... surely none of this raises any doubts? Well, maybe one or two.

He goes on:
Jesus’s main concern, namely, that people, starting with the most immoral of us, should trust that our lives have everlasting value in spite of all pain, death, mourning, persecution, personal failings, and needless guilt heaped upon us by the morally righteous.
"Sure, I killed your wife, raped your daughter, burned down your house and molested your cat," one might say, "but that just gives you the opportunity to have a purer faith. Trust me, in spite of your present doubts."

I don't think so. Homey don't play that.

And why do I need God for themes of liberation and promise in the first place? God did a piss-poor job in the "liberation" and "promise" department until He — and his priests — stepped in to take credit for the efforts of human Enlightenment philosophers from Locke to Marx and human liberators from Washington and Lincoln to BolĂ­var and Mao. I can find more liberation in ten pages of Marx than I can in the whole of the Bible.

Haught denies that the Bible is a simple instrument of direct moral instruction (if we try to use that way I definitely agree we will be disappointed, very disappointed... not to mention in jail) but he seems to try to relate the Bible indirectly to moral behavior. He approves of Whitehead: "Conduct is a by-product of religion — an inevitable by-product, but not the main point." Just "conduct"? Not good conduct? I have to agree here: child molestation is "conduct", n'est pas? and I can see how child molestation — and covering it up and giving the molesters another... er... bite at the apple — is a by-product of religion, even an inevitable by-product... but not the main point.

Haught also quotes Kierkegaard — Soren Fear and Trembling "faith is founded in the belief in the absurd" Kierkegaard — "the opposite of (moral) evil is not virtue but faith." So... belief in the absurd is the opposite of moral evil... Wait, what?

According to Haught, the "radical message of Christian faith" is John Paul II's "understanding of God’s kenosis [self-emptying], a grand and mysterious truth for the human mind, which finds it inconceivable that suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return.."

Yes, John Paul, you're right: It's inconceivable — at least for me — that suffering and death can express any kind of love. I do not kill my my children, my wife, my friends, nor do I try to make them suffer; does this mean that I don't love them? By this standard, Hitler loved the Jews, loved them more intensely and more unselfishly than I love my wife.

John Haught praises Loftus for "avoid[ing] the lovelessness and ad hominem attacks featured by some other blogs on the topic." I have a sneaking suspicion he will not so praise my blog.

I think Loftus goes too easy — far too easy — on Haught. At least Fred Phelps puts his hatred, bigotry and sadism right out front; Haught tries to sugar-coat the same evil in lofty words and sophisticated-sounding circumlocutions. If this is the best the "sophisticated" theologians can muster, we must put Christianity in the same dustbin that we put slavery, genocide, colonialism, anti-Semitism, and other egregious human evils.

It ain't socialism

Whatever it is, all this frou-frou about "nationalizing" the banks, it ain't socialism.

We have to look at the production relations, how individual people relate to each other to produce and consume the physical necessities of life. When the first phase of this crisis is over, the production relations will not change: people will be employed by the owners of the means of production, and the owners will still make a profit. We will still pay rent to a landlord or a mortgage — with interest — to a bank.

Our government is owned by capitalists, i.e. the owners of capital. They write the campaign donation checks, they provide employment to our elected officials after their terms are over. All that's happening is that capitalists are resolving the crisis by transferring wealth from the people to the capitalists. They sucked out the people's ownership of stock — concentrated in pension plans — in the last bubble; in this bubble they sucked out the value of people's homes. There's nothing left to suck out except people's actual productivity, which will now be sucked out directly with taxes. That's what Ponzi schemes bubbles do: transfer wealth from the people to the capitalists. Even the most moral capitalist must participate; if the guy in the next bank has found a scheme to extract wealth from the people, I have to participate too regardless of the long-term risks or he'll crush me in the short term.

The game is just beginning. The financial crisis is, by itself, a fake crisis. We have so far lost nothing but money. We haven't lost any human life or productivity, as we might to an epidemic; we haven't lost any physical infrastructure, as we might to a hurricane or earthquake.

I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who used the baking a cake analogy to describe financial crises: We have flour, eggs, sugar, milk; we have bowls and spoons and a working oven; we have a cook who knows how to bake a cake and the time to do so. But we have run out of ounces and pounds. Money isn't a concrete thing with intrinsic value; it's an abstraction, the unit of measurement of value.

Capitalism is not about producing goods and services that have value. Capitalism is about producing goods and services that have value to individuals with money. If the mass of ordinary people have no wealth and no money, then it is unprofitable to produce what they need, no matter how much they need it. When money moves from the people to the capitalists, we are implicitly deprecating the needs, wants and values of the people and elevating those of the capitalists.

An honest Randian will say, "Yes, so what?" If people have no money, if the capitalists do not value their labor sufficiently to give them money, then it would be a sacrifice — to be condemned and abhorred above all else — to meet their needs. Fortunately, committed Randians are rare (and honest ones even rarer).

The next phase of the game, which will play out over the next ten years (and most sharply in the next two to four years), will be more concretely real to the masses of people. The capitalist class is in chaos, and the result of this chaos will be refocusing production to restore profitability, i.e. producing that which has value to the people with money. Since the great mass of people have no money, the capitalists will scale back production (and maintenance of the productive infrastructure) that meets the people's needs; they will refocus production on what meets their own needs. Since the capitalists themselves are in chaos, it will be difficult to determine even what meets their own needs, and production will fall even further.

It is in the next phase that we'll see an impetus towards real socialism: socializing the production of those goods and services that meet the physical, material needs of the masses of people: food, housing, clothing, education, and medical care, putting the production and consumption of these elements on a cost basis, not a value basis.

No matter how bad things get, the capitalists will bitterly resist, with every fiber of their being, with every weapon at their disposal (including the police and the army), socializing the production of the masses' necessities and putting their production and consumption on a cost basis. The value of these necessities is practically infinite, and it is only by controlling these necessities that capitalists can persuade ordinary people to work long hours and transfer the surplus value of their work to the capitalists: Without "work or starve" the capitalist class has no raison d'etre, it has no justification for being a class.

But without socializing these basic needs, millions of people will starve and die, and the rest will live in abject poverty while the capitalist class lives in unparalleled luxury. We need look no farther than just outside our own borders to see what happens when we fail to socialize basic production: the typical third-world economy with a minuscule privileged capitalist class, a tiny middle class serving their needs, and the great masses of people laboring in sweatshops for a meager living to earn those capitalists their luxuries and privileges.

This outcome can occur, and our size and history is no guarantee that it will not.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The day I became an atheist?

db0 has tagged me with a meme.

Can You Remember The Day That You Officially Became An Atheist?

No. I suppose I was a naive theist when I was a child, but since then I was mostly an "apatheist": I really didn't think or care much about religion. If I was hanging around religious people, I would give lip service to their religion, but I never really "got" it. When I started posting on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board in 1999-2000, the first time I started thinking seriously about religion, I just automatically started from an atheist position.

Do you remember the day you officially became an agnostic?

I never really was an agnostic, in the sense of being undecided. For a while I didn't care; when I did start caring, I was already decided.

How about the last time you spoke or prayed to God with actual thought that someone was listening?

Probably when I was a child.

Did anger towards God or religion help cause you to be an atheist or agnostic?

No. God doesn't exist, and religion just doesn't make any sense.

Here is a good one: Were you agnostic towards ghosts, even after you became an atheist?

Ghosts? Bah. Another moronically stupid idea. I suppose I was agnostic towards parapsychology... until I started really examining the evidence.

Do you want to be wrong?

Sure. And as long as we're just saying, can I be taller?

I don't want reality to be any particular way, except insofar as I can exercise my will to change reality. Other than that, I want to know how reality really is. Wanting reality to be fundamentally different just gets in the way of knowing.


I'll tag James, The Apostate, DBB, DagoodS and Comrade PhysioProf and the rest of the usual suspects.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The global financial collapse

And you think I'm pessimistic. I don't know shit about what's actually going on. This guy seems to be paying attention; he makes me look like a rose-colored-glasses pollyanna.
1. The "Ponzi Pyramid of Debt Death/Bretton Woods II" that was the world's financial system collapsed five weeks ago today. Tens of trillions of electronic fiatscos were evaporated from the servers and spreadsheets housing them.

2. Literally every single large financial instution failed, simultaneously. Worldwide.

3. The world's governments and central banks have been performing ever-greater and more desperate maneuvers to revive the now-decaying corpse, pumping in seven trillion fiatscos.

4. So far, their efforts have shown little success as the spillover effects on the credit and equity markets can no longer be hidden.

A full blown, up-in-your-face credit collapse and stock market colllapse has ensued. Again, worldwide.

5. Coming next: "Great Depression II Meets Mad Max".

6. Therefore, we're scroomed.
Stock up on canned food and firearms.

[h/t to db0]

Quotation of the Day

But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. ... Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

-- Theodore Kaczinski (a.k.a. the Unabomber)


[h/t to kevin]

The moral failure of figurative theology

There is a school of "sophisticated" theology and scriptural exegesis, which holds that if some piece of scripture contradicts our scientific understanding of the world, the scripture must be read figuratively (e.g. as metaphor, simile, analogy, allegory, sarcasm, etc.). This figurative exegesis (figuratism) stands in contrast to literal exegesis (literalism), which holds that if science contradicts scripture, then science is mistaken, by virtue of practical or metaphysical error.

Figuratism certainly eliminates by definition any contradictions between scripture and science, but it's not sufficient to render religious scripture rational.

The most obvious problem is that figuratism seems most often wielded not against literalists but against critics of religion — atheists and secularists — especially those criticizing literalists. When an argument is applied not to those actually making an error, but to those criticizing others for making an error, one strongly suspects disingenuity. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the religions figurativists do not seem to be at all in front of the struggle to protect science and science education from religious literalists; they have left the atheists and secularists to lead this struggle, occasionally offering lukewarm support.

Furthermore, even those religions that ridicule atheist and secularist critics who denounce literalism have been very late to the science game. The Catholic Church, with a thousand-year history of figurative exegesis, officially embraced evolutionary biology only in the lat 20th century, and waited centuries to officially exonerate Galileo.

While the standard — if it contradicts science, it's figurative — seems superficially plausible, it is actually a very different standard than we apply to purely human works.

As an analogy, suppose I'm reading a work of historical fiction. Obviously the main themes and characters are fictional, they are not real, but the story is set in some real historical context. Suppose further that the author misrepresents some basic fact about the historical context; perhaps the author has the battle of Gettysburg occurring in mid-July. In a work of purely human origin, we would likely conclude that the author had merely made a mistake, especially if the mistake had no good narrative function. (And even if it did have some narrative function, we would still look askance; a writer of historical fiction is expected to fit her narrative to the facts.)

The point is, just being scientifically or factually inaccurate is ordinarily insufficient grounds for concluding that the author intended to write figuratively. We rely on more evidence to conclude intentional figuratism. We look for syntactic markers, such as simile words. We look for sense and meaning at the figurative, metaphorical layer: When Robert Burns says, "My love is like a red, red rose," we can see how comparing a person to a flower makes sense. If he had said, "My love is 5' 6" tall," and she were in fact 5' 1", it's hard to see how such a counterfactual statement would make sense at any figurative level.

And indeed we see such counterfactual statements in the Bible that just don't make sense at any figurative level. For example,
[In Exodus 12:37, and Numbers 1:45-46] The number of men of military age who take part in the Exodus is given as about 600,000. Allowing for women, children, and older men would probably mean that a total of more than 2,000,000 Israelites left Egypt at a time when the whole population of Egypt was less than 2,000,000. [Donald Morgan, Bible Absurdities]
There just isn't a sensible way to find any kind of valid figurative meaning for this passage.

Mistakes and errors pose no philosophical problems for a human work, but one expects better — indeed perfect — fact-checking from an omnipotent God composing His most urgent message to humanity.

One of the things I liked about Away With All Gods! is that Avakian zeroes in on the moral atrocities of the Bible. And it is in the moral dimension that figuratism fails.

Figuratism simply does not, indeed cannot, speak to moral pronouncements, because no moral pronouncement contradicts (objective) science. It is not scientifically false that we should stone disobedient children*, that we should put to death a man who gathers sticks on the Sabbath**, that we should engage in wars of aggression, kill the conquered men, women and infants and keep the virgin girls as sex slaves. Nothing in science contradicts the idea that, morally speaking, women are half as good as men.

*Bible Precepts: Questionable Guidelines
**Bible Atrocities


One of the essential semantic properties of objective truth is that true is true whether you like it or not. Nobody likes childhood leukemia, but like it or not childhood leukemia does indeed exist and even today kills hundreds of children in the US. So just the fact that nobody likes some scriptural moral pronouncement is not an argument that it's not objectively true.

Thus the theist is on the horns of a more severe dilemma than he is regarding just scientific truth. If scripture has any objective moral authority, then he must adopt moral literalism: we must hold — as do the Christian Dominionists and many Muslims — that we must hold and enforce those moral pronouncements regardless of our moral intuition.

But he adopts moral figuratism, if scripture is as subservient to our moral intuition — our evolved and evolving human moral, political and social beliefs — as it is to our scientific knowledge, then it has lost its last remaining authority; we can simply throw out the scripture. We are already relying on our human reasoning; we are already treating scripture in precisely the same way as we treat any work of human literature.

A difference that makes no difference is no difference. Either scripture has moral authority, or the supposedly religious believer is in no way different from any atheist.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Don't lie

When you comment on my blog, don't lie. Take some care to check your facts, so you don't inadvertently look like a liar. Intellectual inquiry is difficult enough without having to constantly correct false statements obvious enough that a quick search on Google, Wikipedia, or talk.origins would discover the truth. If I decide you're lying, I'll ban you in a heartbeat.

I have some tolerance for misstatements of fact, but my tolerance varies with my mood and the tone of the comment. If your comment otherwise shows signs of intellectual honesty and truth-seeking, I'm much more likely to tolerate and simply correct a misstatement. If you're all mouth and trousers, if you open your comment with sweeping generalizations, and if you insult me personally or my readers' intelligence, I'm likely to ban on a first offense.

I have zero patience with cretinists, IDiots, Randians [Ayn, not James] and Libertarians. If you're advocating any of these ideas, check your facts extremely rigorously, because I'm already heavily biased — by virtue of long experience — in my opinion of your honesty and intellectual integrity.

Quotation of the Day

The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

-- Karl Marx


I thought I had posted this quotation before, but it appears I haven't. Thanks to Stefan Monsaureus for bringing it to my attention again.

Objections to socialized housing

A couple of commenters have criticized my ideas on socialized housing.

Robert notes:
Haven't you just invented council housing? [link added] Or do you not have that in the US? I think the big problem is that councils and their builders have no incentive to build houses that people want to live in. It's true they have democratic accountability, but most voters have no such incentive either, since most of them all ready have houses.
The closest we have in the US are Section 8 housing — where the federal government subsidizes rent for low-income people — and federally funded welfare (subsidized rent) housing projects.

It is clear that any serious and detailed proposal regarding socialized housing should look carefully and deeply into the lessons learned from UK council housing. Given that Wikipedia asserts that council housing accounts for 20% of all housing in the UK, I think it's fair to say the effort has not been a complete failure.

Still, the point Robert raises is important: There needs to be some impetus for building new housing, especially since in my original proposal residents — because they can buy and sell tenancy — have an individual incentive for keeping housing scarce. This incentive, however, is much weaker than in the present system; the value of a one-time occupancy transfer is considerably less than the full market value of a house or the expectation of profit from an endlessly rising Ponzi scheme housing bubble.

It might simply be the case that other local political pressures, especially businesses who have to pay (in salaries) for occupancy rights, will be sufficient impetus for new construction.

If local pressures doesn't work, there are several alternatives. Local governments can tax paid occupancy transfers, and this tax can be applied exclusively to new housing; if insufficient, the new housing rent add-on can be made proportional to collections. Another possibility is to simply mandate new housing at a higher level, (i.e. state or federal).

Black Sun raises several objections:
Such a public ownership scheme may sound good in theory, but in practice will always fall prey to corruption and mismanagement.
This is a very puzzling objection; skeptics typically do not make such blanket pronouncements about what is or is not feasible in practice without considerable specific empirical evidence.

Furthermore, the idea of the plan is not to eliminate "corruption" and mismanagement, but simply to reduce it. It's not like we can point to capitalist management of housing as a paragon of excellent management; current events show capitalist mismanagement to have globally catastrophic consequences. And simply institutionalizing corruption and calling it "profit" does nothing but sweep the problem under the rug.

People will find a way to trade on the "value" of their residence whether you call it a "title" to the property or "right to occupy."
But of course. My plan explicitly permits trade in occupancy: "Residents may buy and sell the right of tenancy, but only when tenancy is directly and voluntarily transferred; the right of tenancy cannot act to secure any financial obligation."

As Robert notes, this plan still gives residents an individual incentive to maintain housing scarcity, but we can resolve this issue in any number of ways. Additionally, since tenancy cannot be used to secure any financial obligation, credit markets are insulated from even large fluctuations in tenancy transfer markets.

Think private-sector malfeasance is bad? Just look at the dismal track record of nationalized housing in the countries where it's been tried. You end up with a bunch of decaying homes and concrete-block tenements.
This is simply a lie, trivially disproven by the immediately preceding comment.

I stop rebutting a comment at the first blatant lie.

Black Sun's comment, though, indicates a larger problem with the advocacy of communism and socialism. Just as with the advocacy of atheism and evolution, opponents of socialism have no compunction against simply contradicting known facts, and making up new facts out of whole cloth. Just this pervasive tendency should give thoughtful, critical thinkers pause, and impel them to dig deeper and not accept popular dogma.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Socialized Housing

I was talking yesterday to a couple of fellow smokers from my building, both investment bankers, and I asked them, "In what way does the idea of endlessly rising residential home prices differ from a Ponzi scheme?"

They both replied, "It doesn't."

A "free" market in residential housing is a recipe for disaster. The housing market has almost everything you can think of that causes market failure: the "infinite value" of having housing, the long lead times to create new housing, the tiny proportion of housing that's actually on the market at any given time, the very long transaction times to buy or sell a house, and the direct correlation between falling home values and job loss (If you lose your job in a recession, then you'll lose all of your wealth (your down payment) when you have to sell your house... if you're lucky. If you're not lucky, you'll lose your credit rating and be unable to even rent, much less buy again.)

Even rising home prices due to migration (such as to the San Francisco Bay Area, where prices remain high), which is not a totally bullshit Ponzi scheme, still does not do what "free" market theory says it will do. If it did, we'd have ten times as much housing in San Francisco, and rents and housing prices would go down. We don't have more housing, and prices haven't gone down, because individual property owners realize that only enforced scarcity keeps their "wealth" secure. Because of all the structural impediments to a "free" housing market, they have the ability to do so even in the face of tremendous macroeconomic pressure.

There simply isn't any choice but to socialize all residential housing.

But how would that work? Here are my thoughts.

Day 1, the government assumes ownership of all the residential housing. But not just any government, local government — borough, city or town — assumes ownership; your locally elected representatives become responsible for all local housing. Local governments usually have shorter terms: If you don't like how the city council is managing your housing, vote the fuckers out.

All mortgages and rents to anyone but the local government will become null and void, except for loans to actual builders, which the government will assume. If you were counting on the increasing value of rental housing, well, you're fucked. You were participating in a Ponzi scheme, which is immoral and usually illegal.

All residents have the secure right of tenancy: no one can be forced to move except for non-payment of rent or malicious or negligent gross mistreatment of the property. Residents may buy and sell the right of tenancy, but only when tenancy is directly and voluntarily transferred; the right of tenancy cannot act to secure any financial obligation. If the city exercises eminent domain, then they have an obligation to move the residents to similar housing and pay all moving expenses.

The basis for all rental will be the local replacement cost of housing of similar quality and size. The rent, therefore, should first cover the replacement of the property amortized over the total life of the house. Since houses typically last about 50-100 years, the replacement portion of the rent should be about 1-2% of the basis.

Since new housing sometimes needs to be built (because of expanding population), elected representatives can add the cost of building new housing uniformly to rents. So if housing is expected to grow by 3% per year, an additional 3% of the basis would be added to the rent.

(Since the local government would have massive cash flow, it can pay for new and replacement construction without borrowing money, saving enormous amounts on interest.)

Projected property maintenance, established by objective criteria and managed by the government (economy of scale), must also be added to the rent, as well as taxes to pay for residency-based services. Insurance can also be added to provide some cushion for people who lose their jobs, especially in a recession.

Given all the above, unless you own your home free and clear (and some expedient consideration could be made for those few), your cost of residency should be about 10-20% of existing rents and mortgages, with no impact whatsoever on home construction.

The only people who would be seriously fucked would be the bankers, and I doubt that anyone is feeling particularly concerned about their well-being right about now.

Update: Of course such a plan cannot happen under our current system, regardless of the overall benefits. We would be required to "compensate" the current absentee property owners, and such a massive transfer of wealth from the taxpayers to the owners of housing would make the government act as the bankers to capitalists. Even if we could somehow construct a legal theory that didn't consider absentee ownership to be Constitutionally protected property, there's no way the fascist motherfuckers on the Supreme Court would ever buy it.

Update 2: I've answered some of the objections raised in the comments.