Saturday, December 27, 2014

Coercively harming a minority

miller (a.k.a. trivialknot) asks the question (regarding Christmas music): "[I]f [some social] gain requires coercively harming a minority, is it truly worthwhile?"

"Harm" and "coercion" are subjective terms: we cannot talk about "harm" without talking about how a person feels about something; we cannot talk about coercion without talking about will and consent, so their will can be coercively violated without their consent. These terms are also morally loaded. "Harm" is morally unacceptable negativity; coercion is morally unacceptable force. So the question as its stands is trivial or circular: unacceptable actions are unacceptable. In a morally neutral sense, a person is harmed if and only if they subjectively feel that they have been harmed, and they are coerced if and only if they subjectively feel that they have been coerced. The only way to detect harm and coercion is to ask people. (We also need to discover whether or not the objectively determinable actions they claim to have been harmful or coercive actually occurred.)

We could, of course, define harm and coercion objectively. However, such an objective definition would include and exclude actions as harmful and coercive only according to our a priori moral beliefs about actions. The best we can do with objective definitions is to talk about consistency, not correctness. Thus, miller's question would be, "Is ubiquitous Christmas music substantively similar to other things we consider coercively harmful (morally unacceptable), and substantively different from things we do not consider coercively harmful (morally acceptable)." Ubiquitous Christmas music cannot intrinsically be coercively harmful; in a morally neutral sense, it is coercively harmful if and only if people subjectively feel like they are being coercively harmed. In other words, we cannot examine the objective characteristics of ubiquitous Christmas music, ignoring how people feel about it, and come to a moral determination.

(You may disagree with the above paragraph. Most philosophers who advocate deontic and objective moral philosophy would disagree. I would welcome any argument that's less circular than "subjective moral philosophy is not objective," or, "subjective moral philosophy is contradictory when interpreted objectively.")

There are also the subjectively reflective definitions of "coercion" and "harm": I believe you have been coerced or harmed if you subjectively feel you have been coerced or harmed, and I subjectively feel you have been coerced or harmed, and both of us believe so in an objectively consistent way (i.e. I believe that all objectively similar actions are also coercive or harmful). Again, we can still have a morally neutral reflective definition: the reflective definitions just distinguish between actions that a some people consider coercive or harmful, and actions that almost everyone considers coercive or harmful. For example, a lot of people believe that affording secular (non-religious) marriage to gay people is neither coercive nor harmful, even if a lot of religious people feel coerced or harmed by secular gay marriage. There's an argument that people who feel coerced or harmed by secular gay marriage do not feel like they are coercing or harming Muslims, for example, by eating pork. However, this objective inconsistency can be eliminated by admitting that in a morally neutral sense, eating pork does coercively harm Muslims, and so what?

Again, if we define coercive harm in a morally neutral sense, then by definition saying that some action requires coercive harm (in the subjectively reflective sense) is not saying that it is therefore, and for that reason only, morally unacceptable. We would have to add the statement as a premise, not a conclusion. However, adding the premise entails unresolvable contradictions in our present physical circumstances.

It is not (perhaps not yet) the case that everyone can have and do everything they want, and people who don't get or do what they want have a tendency to feel coercively harmed, especially when they don't get what they want because other people with superior power (either numbers, privilege, or violence) do get or do what they want. So we have to make trade-offs entailing morally neutral coercive harm: trade-offs are a physical necessity. Of course, if we can choose between harming no one and harming someone, most people (besides sadists) would agree the former is preferable. But a lot of social choices, including not only whether to play Christmas music ubiquitously for a month or two but also most criminal and property law, requires trading off coercive harm against some people to benefit others.

Let's consider a trade-off with, to most 21st century Americans, a subjectively obvious answer: chattel slavery of black people. The existence of chattel slavery requires unambiguous subjectively reflective coercive harm to slaves. The slaves themselves feel coercively harmed, and if free white people were in the same situation, they would feel coerced and harmed, so at some level they agree that slavery is coercively harmful. On the other hand, the abolition of chattel slavery requires unambiguous subjectively reflective coercive harm: the owners of slaves feel are harmed by the coercive deprivation of their property, and most 21st century Americans consider deprivation of property by force to be coercively harmful. (One could argue that people cannot be property, but "property" is just as subjective as "harm" and "coercion"; by deciding that people cannot be property, one embeds the moral judgment in the definition a priori. As a subjectivist, I think that embedding moral judgments in language is perfectly fine, so long as we're honest and upfront about it and do not pretend to be objective.) If we have the moral premise that if X entails coercively harming someone, then X is wrong, then both the preservation and abolition of chattel slavery is wrong. We could, of course, have the moral premise that if X is wrong, then its imposition is coercively harmful, and its abolition is not coercively harmful. But that renders the first premise vacuous: wrong things are wrong. Or we could say that when we have two choices that are coercively harmful, we have to just decide between them on some other basis.

And that is precisely what we did with chattel slavery, and what we do with Christmas music. Both alternatives are, in a morally neutral, subjectively reflective sense, coercively harmful (and the imposition of music can be a form of torture, arguably worse than the imposition of pain). We simply have to choose between them. How we do so is a matter for scientific inquiry; how we should do so is a matter of philosophical and political theoretical inquiry.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Atheism and neoconservatism

I don't want to directly address the main point of Luke Savage's article, New Atheism, Old Empire:a few prominent New Atheists — Savage names Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens — have views on Islam that explicitly or implicitly support American Imperialism and neoconservatism. First, I think this part of his critique is mostly correct. I know of Hitchens' and Harris's views, and I definitely disagree with them. I'm not as familiar with Dawkins' present views; I liked Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, but his project as a popularizer of atheism is very different from my own, so I don't follow him closely. Dawkins is also a sexist pig, which reduces my interest in following his thoughts to zero. Regardless, I don't find it extremely counterintuitive that he might not just find the Islamic religion terrible (it is), but that he might be bigoted against Islamic people. More importantly, it's just not particularly important whether or not this or that New Atheist is or is not aiding and abetting the neoconservative cause. To the extent that some are, they deserve criticism and correction, but New Atheism (and atheism) is not a left-wing project, and that some New Atheists are not on the left is not by itself problematic. What is more problematic is Savage's implication that the atheist critique of religion itself is nothing but neoconservative propaganda.

I want to first object to the idea of using New Atheist or New Atheism as any kind of meaningful collective noun, even a noun that refers (as does the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article, The New Atheists). People who write books (other than textbooks) are not representative, contra Savage's assertion, of anyone or anything. Writing a book is an intensely personal, not a collective, effort. The God Delusion represents Dawkins' views; God Is Not Great represents Hitchens' views, etc. And reading a book is just as personal; each reader brings their own unique point of view to every book they read and takes from that book their own individual value. Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens — and Stenger, Eller, Myers, Coyne, Carrier, and every other author who has written on atheism — are all sui generis. We can judge them, but We must judge them individually, by name.

If "New Atheist" is not appropriate to label actually published authors, it is even less apt to label — except in the broadest, most general terms — any actual group of people who are not published authors. The term "New Atheist" is originally a pejorative label established by critics of atheists. The use of the term goes back (at least) as far as David Haxton Carswell Read's 1966 book, Whose God is Dead: The Challenge of the New Atheism. The term is still used pejoratively to collect a disparate group of people whom some critic disagrees with, as if they constituted some cohesive collective. While there are, of course, many cohesive atheist groups, such as American Atheists, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, etc., there is no overall cohesive atheist group at all, let alone any cohesive group of New Atheists. It would be an exercise in vacuity for Savage to define (or adopt the implicit definition) New Atheists as "neoconservative atheist writers" and then "prove" that New Atheists are neoconservatives.

Savage seems to want to talk about what is at least a real intellectual thread, a particular kind of critique of religion, and connect that critique to neoconservatism. According to Savage, "New Atheism’s intellectual foundations are also exceptionally weak." Savage claims that there is an intellectual thread that seeks to expose the "inherent 'irrationality' of all religions [emphasis added]" by "scrutiniz[ing] religious myths without attention to, or even awareness of, the multiplicity of social and theological debates they have provoked, the manifold ideological guises their interpreters have assumed, or the secular belief systems they have helped to influence." But this criticism is misguided. Most atheist writers are not anthropologists, and simply assume that the the dominant religious (especially the most problematic religious ideas) in their own culture is what religion is in all cultures. This view is obviously incorrect. If atheist critiques of religion were intended to address the full diversity of religious expression, including the culture of the Walpuri, Yanomamo, Jain, etc., then this ethnocentrism would be extremely problematic. But atheists tend to focus not on deep sociological, anthropological, or philosophical issues, but on political and cultural issues in their own polities and culture. When an atheist criticizes, for example, the religious causes of evolution or climate change denial in American culture, it is irrelevant that the Walpuri have a completely different conception of religion than do American Christians. In no other field does the charge make sense that thought and opinion in that field must necessarily be absolutely universal to be meaningful. Political scientists, for example can criticize Republicans (and Democrats) even though the American two-party democratic republic is hardly universal; economists can criticize or support the PPACA even though the American health care system is not even prevalent in most capitalist countries. The idea that some criticism of some particular idea invalid because it is not universal to all ideas in the same (very general) category is simply nonsensical.

Savage segues almost imperceptibly from the true but trivial claim that atheist critique of certain brands of American Christianity (and perhaps Islam) do not apply to all religions to the idea that our critique does not apply to any religious expression. For example, Savage reproduces Terry Eagleton's objection to God Is Not Great:
Hitchens argues earnestly that the Book of Genesis doesn’t mention marsupials; that the Old Testament Jews couldn't have wandered for forty years in the desert; that the capture of the huge bedstead of the giant Og, King of Bashan, might never have happened at all, and so on. This is rather like someone vehemently trying to convince you, with fastidious attention to architectural and zoological detail, that King Kong could not possibly have scaled the Empire State Building because it would have collapsed under his weight.
Not even Hitchens, much less atheists in general, use this "factual" approach exclusively; God Is Not Great engages religion on a number of fronts. But Savage uses Eagleton here to imply that no religious person ever (or only an insignificant, marginal, minority) ever holds factual beliefs about their religious texts, in the same sense that no one believes that King Kong is a documentary. Savage's position might be correct, but it would require an empirical argument, and engagement with the empirical arguments of atheist thinkers. Simply quoting the opinion of a literary critic is insufficient, especially without presenting any opposing argument.

Savage goes on to quote Richard Seymour's book, Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens to "define" religion:
Religion is a labour of interpretation, of symbolic and ideological production from which agents derive meanings adequate to their life circumstances. Apart from anything else, the sheer indeterminacy of religious texts would make it impossible for there to be a literal, consistent meaning present in the texts: interpretation is indispensible [sic].
But this definition is obviously nonsense. What does Seymour mean by the "sheer indeterminacy of religious texts"? If there is no "literal, consistent meaning present," what precisely is it that religious people are interpreting? In what sense is a passage such as Leviticus 20:13 —"If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." — at all indeterminate? We might or might not like what it says, but it seems crystal clear that it says something very specific and definite*; the need for "interpretation" does not come from a lack of literal meaning, but from us not liking the literal meaning. Would Savage claim that no Christians today justify their opposition to homosexuality just because the Bible literally says so? If so, let him prove that thesis.

*Context and translation are of little help to indeterminists here.

Savage then asserts that the atheist critique of Islam is flawed because it "assumes that fundamentalism is the product of bad ideas rather than particular social and material conditions . . . [and] attribute [violence] to some monolithic orthodoxy." First, atheists do not really hold that "fundamentalism" (whatever that means) is the product of bad ideas; we argue that fundamentalism is a bad idea, regardless of its genesis. Second, to be fair, most atheists are not Marxists, and do not give as much importance as Marxists to social and material conditions. But Savage is being at best inconsistent and at worst hypocritical: if Islam is "the product of particular social and material conditions", and not "the product of bad ideas," so too is atheism. Indeed, on the narrowest interpretation of Marx, consciousness is purely epiphenomenal; criticizing ideas of any sort — religion, atheism, capitalism, communism, science, law, etc. — is sterile and useless. Savage wants to have his critical cake and eat it too: religion is exempt from criticism because religious ideas are just the result of social and material conditions; atheist ideas are fair game and create the social and material conditions of imperialism and neoconservatism.

Finally, "monolithic orthodoxy" is unacceptably vague. If Savage means to imply that atheists believe that every religious person (or every Muslim, Christian, Hindu, etc.) ever, past and present, believes exactly the same thing about everything, and, more importantly, that the atheist critique of religion fails if this absolute agreement is even trivially compromised, he would clearly be demolishing a ridiculous straw man. More importantly, his critique depends just as much on attributing an equally ridiculous monolithic orthodoxy to the atheist critique of religion. Atheism is hardly monolithic; not even capitalism is a monolithic orthodoxy. But if Savage does not mean to imply an absolute agreement, what does he mean? Does he mean to imply the idea that most members of religious groups do not agree within their own group about a substantial collection of ideas, and their agreement rests on authoritative interpretations of authoritative texts? That every religious person's beliefs are sui generis, and that almost every religious group encourages unrestricted individual ideas about god and the divine? Such an interpretation could perhaps be argued, but to present this interpretation as obviously, unquestionably true seems as ridiculous as the straw man of perfect agreement.

Even if Savage's specific criticism of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris were completely correct, Savage clearly has made no effort to engage with the larger atheist critique of religion as it actually exists. So why go farther? I suspect there is an underlying reason: it is tempting, and false, to believe that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and my friend's enemies are my own. Clearly, the Islamic world is engaged in a struggle against western imperialism, in its sharpest, most directly military form. As opponents of western imperialism, it is tempting to see the victim of imperialism as our friends, and shield them from criticism. But just that the Islamic world is the target of western imperialism does not make them friends of the western Left, the working class, of the struggle for freedom and justice. I don't think that the Islamic world really is on "our" side; they are, at the very least, on their own side. Savage appears to argue that any criticism of any victim of oppression justifies that oppression. We must be careful, of course; blaming victims for their own oppression is never correct. But criticism need not be blame. We should not claim that we should never criticize, for example, Islamic misogyny because that justifies imperialism to "correct" that misogyny, we should realize that even if the Islamic world were a thousand times more misogynist that it actually is, such misogyny cannot justify imperialism; indeed, no "faults" can ever justify conquest, subordination, and oppression. Criticism can be used as a partisan tool, but it is not intrinsically a partisan tool. We should, like Marx, seek to be ruthless critics of everything existing, and Marx himself offered some of his most ruthless criticism for opponents of capitalism.

In truth, while errors in atheist thought should never be shielded from criticism, atheists and the modern atheist critique of religion should be seen not as enemies of the left, but as potential allies. Throughout history, religious thinking, however broadly and diversely defined, has served most often not to undermine but to reproduce relations of domination and subordination. More importantly, all relations of domination and subordination require the kind of thinking that religion must necessarily employ: asserting some privilege, whether textual, interpretive, or traditional that is immune to ration criticism by its very nature — as Eller defines religion, where "the nonhuman and ‘supernatural' are seen as profoundly human and social," i.e. as fetishized non-human expressions of human relations. Domination and subordination must employ some sort of epistemic and moral privilege. Without such privilege, the "right" of one group to subordinate another cannot stand. Epistemic and moral privilege need not be strictly "religious"; it is arguable, however, that any assertion that cannot be established by common natural reason and observation, whether it be a monotheistic deity, an unseen spirit, or a universal moral principle, is ipso facto supernatural and therefore, in the broadest sense (that Savage seems to advocate), "religious."

The problem is not that religion, and religious thinking, can be used only for evil, for reproducing relations of dominance; the problem is that religious thinking can be used for anything; I have no way of independently evaluating the claims that "God loves homosexuals" and "God hates homosexuals (or homosexuality)." It doesn't matter whether these statements stem from a reading, literal or "interpretive," of some text, or from personal revelation, or from theological debate; I have no way of knowing what God wants, good or bad. I know what I want, and I can get a good idea, using reason and observation, of what other human beings want, but I have no idea of what God wants. And I'm not just going to project my own desires on a mythical God and pretend I'm talking about more than what I want. To claim that "God loves homosexuals" is not just to endorse equal rights for homosexuals (yay), but to endorse the idea that equal rights is about what God wants, not what we want. And, since I don't actually know what God wants, for all I know, God really does hate homosexuals. Our social norms become a conversation only among those who claim privilege, with the rest of us as passive spectators.

We on the left must, I think, share the true core narrative of atheism: there is no privilege. There is no religious privilege. There is no capitalist privilege. And there is no socialist privilege. We should be socialists and communists because we have good reasons to believe that, at some level, people want socialism and communism. To oppose the fundamental project of atheist criticism of religion (and not legitimately criticize its errors and inconsistencies) is to endorse privilege. And I would no more endorse so-called socialist or communist privilege than I would capitalist or fascist privilege.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Wave a white flag: On “left” support for the Democratic Party

Wave a white flag: On “left” support for the Democratic Party:
Activists are told by liberals, so-called progressives and other pundits to stop what we are doing in terms of developing independent politics and building our organizations, and to “get out the vote” for the candidates of the Democratic Party. “Leftists” who argue that we need to support the Democrats say, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that electing the lesser evil will give us more space to organize and advance our agenda. Yet this “left” cover for the Democrats, under whatever rationale, is not about building an independent revolutionary movement, but it is about switching our flag and hoisting up those of the Democrats. What it really means is surrender.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Marx on Alienation

In his early writing, Karl Marx analyzes the concept of alienation. Marx adopts a Hegelian methodology in his analysis. To both Hegel and Marx, history is a dynamic dialectical process. A dialectical stage begins with a negation, a contradiction, and then proceeds to a resolution of the contradiction, i.e. the sublation, transcendence, or, from Feuerbach, “the negation of the negation” (Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” 108). The original negation is not erased, but instead transformed (Tucker, Notes xli). Marx theorizes that alienation, especially the alienation of the worker (and capitalist) from the social activity of production, constitutes a negation, one which Marx believes will be sublated or transcended by the advent of communism. In his analysis, Marx claims, contra Hegel and others, the material basis of alienation, explores the specific material character of alienation, and locates the potential sublation of alienation in the sphere of practice.

Marx argues that Hegel’s account of the dialectical process must be transformed from an idealistic basis to a materialistic basis. Marx holds that Hegel has the dialectic “standing on its head [and] must be turned right side up again” (Marx, Afterword 302). Marx reads Hegel as saying that an actual idea creates the material reality of, e.g., family and civil society. Instead, Marx argues that Hegel inverts subject and object: actual material human beings create the ideas of family and civil society (“Contribution” 17-18). Marx holds that our social relations are not fundamentally in the human mind but in the material world. Dialectical contradictions arise when the material economic conditions conflict with the social institutions apropos to earlier economic conditions (“Marx on the History” 2). Although Marx follows Feuerbach’s lead in inverting this reading of Hegel, Marx extends Feuerbach’s materialism. In “Theses on Feuerbach,” of Marx claims that Feuerbach does not conceive of human activity itself as material (143). Marx argues instead that human activities, including thought and social relations, are also material (145). Richard J. Bernstein argues that Hegel unifies the material and the ideal in Geist (29-30), so too does Marx unify the physical and the ideal in the material.

After locating the dialectic in the material, Marx characterizes the specific nature of alienation in the material social relations of production under capitalism. In “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” Marx argues that capitalism inverts the relationship of humanity to labor, from the existence of worker for his or her fulfillment in labor, to the use of labor for the existence of the worker. Because of this inversion, labor under capitalism becomes institutionally alienated in four distinct ways. First, the product of labor becomes not merely objectified – Marx argues that it is humanity’s intrinsic nature, our species being, to produce objects, to exert our will on the natural world (75-76) – and not only expropriated, but taken to become actively hostile to the worker, not fulfilling but diminishing her- or himself, sometimes to the point of loss of reality, literal starvation, and death (71-72, 74). Second, capitalism alienates the worker from the labor process itself. Not just the product but the activity of producing no longer belongs to the worker; the worker becomes essentially a machine programmed by those who have purchased his or her labor power (75). Third, because, as mentioned above, it is our species being to be active, engaged, producers, Marx argues that by alienating workers from their product and process of production, capitalism thus alienates workers from their species being (76-77). Finally, capitalism alienates individual people from each other (77). When producing for a wage, the workers and the consumers of the workers’ products no longer interact with each other – they no longer create a social relationship. Marx argues that if labor were not alienated, one who produces for another would have “the direct and conscious satisfaction that [his or her] work satisfied a human need” (qtd. in Bernstein 48). By alienating labor, capitalism transforms production, the most intimate and personal relationship between human beings and nature, other human beings, and humanity itself, into an impersonal, bestial activity.

Marx argues that alienation must be resolved in the material, practical world, not merely the world of ideas. Marx asserts that “Social life is essentially practical,” not ideal, and that labor’s alienation, the contradiction between humanity’s actual practice of production under capitalism and production’s essential human purpose, must be resolved in practice (“Theses” 145). Marx opposes his views specifically to those of Proudhon: in “Society and Economy in History,” Marx condemns Proudhon for invoking mystical, nonsensical phrases to explain history and its development (136). Instead, Marx asserts that our ideas follow, not precede, our actual social relations: the “whole inner organization of nations [and] their international relations” are just “the expression of a particular division of labor” (139-140). Marx argues that our ideas are not eternal; they are always tied to material reality: “economic categories are only abstract expressions of . . . actual relations” (140). Marx concludes that Proudhon believes that only the categories, the “isolated thoughts,” need be changed to revolutionize society (140-141). In his condemnation of Proudhon, Marx implies that the opposite must be true: to change our ideas, we must change the physical reality. As Marx describes in “The German Ideology,” we must proceed from the “first premise of human history,” which is not the existence of eternal categories or ideas in the mind of God, but “the existence of living human individuals” and their physical, material nature. According to Tucker, Marx does not condemn ideas per se, but believes that ideas, theory, can “assist” changes in practice (Introduction xxxii). But, for Marx, physical existence and physical practice, what we actually do, remains primary. It is therefore practice – guided by theory – that must change to sublate the alienation of labor, to negate the negation constituted by alienation.

The focus on the alienation of labor makes clear that the conflict between capitalism and communism is not one of pragmatic efficiency but of the essential nature of humanity. Marx is not arguing here that communism or socialism is a way to produce more stuff than capitalism. Instead, Marx proceeds from a radically different view of the essence of humanity than does capitalism. Capitalism proceeds from the view of humanity as isolated individuals, whose relations are necessarily hostile, e.g. Hobbes’ “war of all against all,” or Rand’s fundamental “precondition of civilized society” as the “right to self-defense” (qtd. in “Civilization”) which can only blunt natural human hostility. Marx instead proceeds from the view of humanity as still individuals, but as social individuals, whose relations are ideally communal and mutually beneficial. The isolated individual is the negation of social humanity; the negation of negation will happen only when the negation of isolation is sublated into social production.

Works Cited

“Civilization.” The Ayn Rand Lexicon. The Ayn Rand Institute. 2014. Web. 17 Sep. 2014.
Bernstein, Richard J. “Praxis: Marx and the Hegelian Background.” Praxis and Action: Contemporary Philosophies of Human Activity. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1971. 11-83. Print.
Marx, Karl. Afterword to the Second German Edition. Capital. Vol. 1. By Marx. Tucker 299-302.
---. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” Tucker 16-25.
---. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1877.” Tucker 66-125.
---. “Marx on the History of His Opinions.” Tucker 3-5.
---. “Society and Economy in History.” Tucker 136-142.
---. “Theses on Feuerbach.” Tucker 143-145.
Tucker, Robert C. Ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. Print.
---. Note on Text and Terminology. Tucker xxxix-xlii.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Affirmative consent

In Sex Is Serious, Christian (presumably liberal) philosopher and theologian Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig parallels the politics of affirmative consent and conservative Christian, especially Catholic, sanctification of sex. Bruenig highlights a perspicacious, crucial element of conservative sexual ideology: fertility is, in their view, the essential, ineluctable component of sex; to withhold fertility is to render whatever physical acts ensue as not sex. Indeed, by withholding fertility, people corrupt the physical act, rendering the act something not just irrelevant but deeply and perhaps permanently harmful. Critically examining the ethics of affirmative consent, with the recent passage of California's SB 967 as a paradigmatic example, Bruenig notes that advocates of affirmative consent hold that consent, in the strongest form, is the essential, ineluctable component of sex; without consent, whatever physical acts ensue are not not sex, and deeply harmful. Bruenig juxtaposes affirmative consent with the general feminist complaint against pornography to draw the conclusion that like conservative Christianity, "consent feminism" seeks to use state power to impose normative sexuality, a vision of what sex ought to be: "The law makes a statement about the nature of the right kind of sex in general, and also claims that the right kind of sex is serious enough to merit legal intervention." While Bruenig accurately notes a similarity, the similarity is trivial and misses the truly important question: who decides what kind of sexuality is right or wrong?

The juxtaposition of consent and pornography is specious. The feminist critique of pornography has never been that viewing sexual activity for the purpose of arousal is by itself inherently bad. The critique is, and always has been, that in a patriarchal society, pornography is predominately a tool used to culturally normalize the inferior and subordinate status of women. As Gloria Steinem says in the interview Bruenig links to, "We have to say pornography is not erotica, porn means female slavery. It means the depiction of female slavery." There are exceptions, but pornography as normalization of subordination is so pervasive that it deserves general condemnation; the exceptions truly are exceptional. A good analogy, perhaps, is with the police: in theory, the police serve an important, perhaps necessary social role; in practice, however, in a misogynist, racist, capitalist society, the police so predominantly serve as an instrument of oppression of women, people of color, and the poor and working class that they deserve general condemnation. The practical critique does not necessarily negate the theoretically positive value. Pornography is not about sex at all; it is about subordination. But pornography is a side issue.

Because sex happens between (at least) two people, sex is an inherently social act. The frequent use of erotica (and perhaps pornography in the feminist sense) in masturbation makes even this apparently individual act deeply social. Thus, the question is not whether we construct social norms and customs about sex; the question is what kind of social norms and customs we construct. Even the idea that people should have nothing at all to say about others' sexuality would be a social norm, in need of construction. And even then, we would still have to socially negotiate what are appropriate and inappropriate ways, places, and times that people get into sexual relationships. Advocates can unreservedly admit to the charge that we are trying to use the law not to codify existing standards but to change the culture. [ETA] Bruenig herself is trying to advocate her own vision of what sex should be - fluid, spontaneous, without a lot of niggling worries about consent. [/ETA] If Bruenig were just trying to draw and deep parallels between conservative Christians and consent feminists just on the basis of participating in the social construction of sexual norms, she would be making a completely trivial point: social people are social.

To my knowledge, no one believes that sex is unimportant or trivial. Affirmative consent ethics are not at all hypocritical or contradictory. Sex-positive feminism is not dedicated, as Bruenig claims, to "everyone having fun"; sex is not "little more than a silly pastime." The "SlutWalk moment" was not about affirming the value of "frivolous no-strings-attached" sex. It was about establishing women unapologetically as sexual beings, who want sex, and, more importantly who get to choose and consent themselves to expression of their own sexuality on their own terms. If that happens to be casual sex, well, that's their own choice, not mine. Consent is not necessary to protect casual sex; the fundamental point of SlutWalk is that sex is not something that must be pushed onto categorically sex-averse or -ashamed women; women can and do consent to sex, for their own enjoyment and fulfillment. Again, were Bruenig simply saying that affirmative consent ethics upholds the importance of sex, she would be making another trivial point.

But Bruenig has a deeper point: affirmative consent takes something important away from sex. Bruenig argues first that the law has always required consent; new laws change only the "expression of consent, which is an intervention into the way sex is [emphasis original]." According to Bruenig, affirmative consent ethics promote
a particular kind of sex, specifically that which is marked by mutual concern, unreserved enthusiasm, and ongoing mutual engagement—a shared focus on body language and verbal cues, refreshed step-by-step, underscored by an honest concern for the other person’s mental and emotional state with regard to the sex act
but ignore "bored sex, disinterested sex, or sex with reservations [emphasis original]." Affirmative consent ethics make women fundamentally mysterious: "women are essentially unknowable, that the usual ways of reading us can’t be trusted, and that our minds must be constantly probed for affirmative signals." Affirmative consent ethics, according to Bruenig, change how we have sex, but do not address sex as it actually is.

Bruenig, however, massively overstates her case. Even in a perfect world, without a hegemonic patriarchy, and even if affirmative consent laws were applicable generally instead of just to higher education institutions in California, affirmative consent does not change how sex is except to exclude rape. First, Bruenig unaccountably asserts that according to SB-967 excludes body language as a form of consent. Antioch College's 1993 sexual assault policy does require verbal consent (which in context is not a terrible idea; see below), but SB-967 says nothing of the sort; it mandates that agreement must be "affirmative, conscious, and voluntary" as well as ongoing. I've been sexually active for around thirty years, from one night stands to marriage, and I have never had a problem interpreting body language as unequivocally granting or withholding consent. Consequently, I have never had a problem with a woman later asserting that I had unconsciously or inadvertently violated her consent. Establishment and maintenance of consent has never caused a lack of passion, spontaneity, fluidity or any other positive aspect of sex.

The only thing that affirmative consent ethics establish is that "I didn't know he or she did not consent" is no longer a defense against sexual assault. SB-967 says that the only legitimate defense to sexual assault is "I had good reason to know he or she did consent." Indeed, SB-967 does not change the legal theory of sexual assault that much. In edge cases, such as statutory rape above a particular age, consent been an affirmative defense against charges of sexual assault: the defendant has the burden of proof, not the prosecution. Fundamentally, I would never defend myself against a charge of sexual assault by saying only that I didn't know a woman did not consent; if I do not know — and have good reason to know — a woman really does consent, I don't have sex. I have been at every stage of sexual activity when a woman has subtly or obviously indicated that she wants to stop. I stop. Period. I do not proceed unless and until I am absolutely clear that she wants to stop. Period. This is not rocket science. Affirmative consent places zero additional boundaries on my own sexuality.

I am personally a relatively sophisticated, perceptive middle-aged man. Not every college student, however, has the benefit of my upbringing and experience. It is critically important to understand that SB-967, as well as the Antioch College policy are aimed not at sophisticated, independent, self-confident adults, but at college students. These are typically young men and women, both sexually and socially inexperienced. Yes, we want to let them experiment, we need to allow them, as the 1993 New York Times article, 'Ask First' at Antioch,, that Bruenig cites, to make mistakes. But only some mistakes. Although no longer acting in loco parentis, college administrators need to help young people avoid catastrophic mistakes. We do not, for example, want to blithely allow young women to mistakenly become pregnant. We do not want to allow young people to mistakenly get sexually transmitted infections. And we do not want young people (indeed anyone) to "mistakenly" violate the personal autonomy and integrity of another person. Hence colleges prohibit bullying and fraternity hazing. And they should also take steps not ordinarily necessary for adults to prevent non-consensual sex. Even the Antioch College policy is reasonable. There are, of course, sexually and socially sophisticated eighteen year olds, who will largely take care of themselves, but if you're become sexually active with an inexperienced eighteen year old, especially if you yourself are more experienced and sophisticated, you could do a hell of a lot worse than establishing explicit verbal consent at every stage. That's how a person becomes sophisticated and experienced, and can move on to more subtle forms of communication.

Fundamentally, consent is first of all complex, and it is not about only sex: consent is the fundamental virtue of liberalism. (The Marxist critique of liberalism and capitalism does not deny the value consent; we claim that consent is necessary but not sufficient, especially in cases of indirect economic pressure.) Even a world without patriarchy, establishment of affirmative consent just brings this fundamental liberal value to the realm of sexuality.

But of course we do not live in a perfect world: we live in a world where patriarchy, although compromised, still retains considerable power. Men do get raped, and violation of consent for men, especially young homosexual men, is an important issue. But rape and sexual assault is a special problem for women. As Susan Brownmiller argues extensively in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, for centuries, perhaps millennia, the patriarchy has used rape (among other means) to exert its power and domination over women. Rape is not an isolated criminal act; rape has been, and still is, a tool to maintain the subordination of women. Even overt, forcible rape is still inadequately prosecuted, especially on college campuses when committed by high status male students such as athletes and fraternity members. (e.g. here, here, here, here, and an attempt at a depressingly long comprehensive list of just college rapes football players). A frequent defense in these overt rapes is that the perpetrators believed the victim had consented, placing the burden of proof on the victim to show she unequivocally did not consent. Shifting the burden of proof to the perpetrators can help shut down this legal strategy.

[ETA (forgot to pay off my thesis statement!] It's unclear why Bruenig tries to compare conservative Christians. If she were writing a college "common ground" essay, she would argue that the common ground between conservative Christians and consent feminists was a good thing (if it were to exist; I'm unconvinced that conservative Christians really have the temporal fulfillment of human beings at the forefront). Instead, she seems to take more of a "pox on both your houses" view, an Eric Hoffer communists-and-fascists-are-the-same view that people who are genuinely concerned about sex and its place in society are both trying to ruin it, or at least subordinate sex to a political agenda. But the question is not about what sex should be, it's about who decides how sex should be.

There are really only three possibilities about who should decide. First, morally privileged authorities such as the church. If you think you're enjoying sex, but it's not procreative, then they know, because they have privileged information about what God thinks about sex, that you're just fooling yourself, and you need to be protected from your own stupidity and moral ignorance. Second, the powerful (with, obviously, some overlap with authority). Men are typically stronger and more powerful than women; the mob is more powerful than the individual. Whatever men can get by force, overtly or subtly, is by definition good. Third and finally, the individual. It is the great paradox of liberalism* that the rights and privileges of the individual can be guaranteed only by the state; otherwise, the individual is always subject to the mob. Fundamentally, that's what feminist affirmative consent ethics do: make sex whatever each individual wants it to be, irrespective of what anyone else might think, necessarily using state power to protect the weaker from the stronger, and the individual from the mob. Intentionally or not (probably unintentionally), Bruenig regrettably comes down on the side of the stronger against the weaker.

*Socialism expands and does not resolve this paradox; communism (hopefully) resolves the paradox by securing to each individual sufficient economic power to truly make the state wither away.

The message that affirmative consent gives to women, especially young women, is that their sexuality is their own, no one else's, and they are free to consent, and free to withhold consent, at their pleasure, not anyone else's. This is the basis not only of modern liberal virtue but of the empowerment and freedom of every woman. These standards deserve our unequivocal, uncompromising assent.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Principles of democratic communism - Outline

This is essentially the outline of a constitution for a democratic communist "state" (in the Weberian sense). I'm not going to write the individual elements in legalese; I will leave that task (should it become necessary) to those with legal training and experience that exceed my paltry two semesters of undergraduate constitutional law. I will more-or-less assume existing the existing United States Supreme Court's interpretation of the present Constitution as a background for the interpretation of basic terms; please comment if you think existing SCOTUS interpretations might conflict with the fundamental principles of democratic communism.

  1. Preamble
  2. Individualism and collectivism
    1. Individual rights
    2. Collective rights
    3. Collective duties
  3. Political organization
    1. Fundamental Principles
      1. Democracy
        1. Residential and Industrial/Commercial
        2. Hierarchical
        3. At large
      2. Transparency
      3. Corruption
      4. Federalism
      5. Separation of powers
        1. Policy (democratic)
        2. Implementation (bureaucratic)
        3. Compliance (judicial)
  4. Economic organization
    1. Absentee ownership
      1. No private absentee ownership
      2. Complex ownership
    2. Taxation and fiscal policy
    3. Money, banking, insurance, and real estate
    4. Job guarantee and universal basic income
  5. Amendments

(This post will change without warning as I add to and refine the outline and link to specific chapters)


6 Insane Details of Corrupt Politics That Movies Get Wrong (Original title (which I think is better): "6 Ways Government Corruption Is Way Weirder Than You Think")

    #6. Politics Turns Politicians Into Helpless Children
    #5. It's All About Fashion and Sucking Up
    #4. Legal Bribery Happens All the Time
    #3. Lobbyists Are Everywhere, Operating Without Rules
    #2. Even Nations Need Lobbyists
    #1. Lobbyists Can Destroy Politicians Who Oppose Them

Friday, October 03, 2014

The purpose of beauty

[P]art of the purpose of beauty is always to make both the poor and any revolution they attempt appear to be crude and in bad taste, to be a breach of manners. There is simply no way, when power has acquired the trappings of beauty, to avoid the spiritual wonder and humility such beauty provides. Any opposition somehow acquires a stridency, leaves itself open to charges that the world it seeks to destroy will always be more uplifting, more miraculous, than whatever replaces it, whatever you propose. The better choice, the wiser choice is to remain allied with the beauty, support what it upholds, since they cannot be separated.

— David Mura, Turning Japanese, p. 300

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Onrushing penis

"Never, in the history of humanity, has a man been at risk of a woman leaping out of the bushes and accidentally impaling herself on his onrushing erect penis." -- PZ Myers

Friday, September 05, 2014

The upward market sloping supply curve (part 1)

I've been sitting in on the principles of micro- and macro-economics classes, which has been a lot of fun.

But one thing has been bothering me: the justification seems weak for the assertion that market (and aggregate) supply functions are upward sloping. It makes intuitive sense to just say that if the price of a good (or service) rises, the producers of that good will produce more. But four years of economics has trained me not to trust my naive intuition. Instead, I want to set up a model and see what happens in that model. Then I want to carefully consider the relationship of reality to the model's assumptions.

So, let's start with a simple economy where all producers are in perfect competition, are operating at the maximum efficient scale, and no one is making economic profit. Hence, the supply and demand schedule for every individual firm looks like this:

P=Price, Q=Quantity
MC=Marginal Cost, ATC=Average Total Cost
D=Demand, M=Marginal Revenue

Next, we lower (raise) permanent tax rates so that in general, demand increases (decreases) due to income effects. Not all firms will experience the same effects. Some firms (those making normal goods, which have positive income elasticity) will see demand rise (fall); some firms (those making inferior goods) will see demand fall (rise), and some (those making goods with highly income-inelastic demand) will see little change in demand. Since most goods are normal, with income-elastic demand, we'll focus on the first category. In the short run, these firms experience the following, with D' being the new demand curve with lower tax rates, and D" the new curve with higher rates.

So, yes: quantity supplied increases (decreases) when the price increases (decreases). When prices increase, the firms make a short-run economic profit (labeled EP on the graph); when prices fall, firms experience a short-run economic loss.

Let me take a moment to check my assumptions.
  • Perfect Competition: The same behavior holds for monopoly and monopolistic competition with rising marginal costs (and all but the most rigidly doctrinaire Libertarian economist will admit that monopolies with falling marginal costs should be regulated by the government), so this is a useful simplifying assumption.
  • Maximum Efficient Scale: Not relevant in the short run.
  • No Starting Economic Profit: Usually realistic per se.
  • Mostly Normal Goods: Usually realistic per se.

The only dodgy assumption is the upward-sloping marginal cost curve. Because I'm investigating why market supply curves are upward sloping, assuming that marginal costs curves are upward sloping is to implicitly assume the consequent. I want an independent justification. Given that I'm analyzing the short run, we can increase only one factor of production, and labor is the easiest factor to change. So, firms need to pay their existing workers overtime to produce more (obviously increasing marginal costs), or they need to hire more temporary workers (in the short run, firms do not want to commit to a long-run increase in their permanent workforce). Temporary workers are more expensive and less productive, so marginal costs will increase. So I think this assumption is supportable.

However, economists assert that the upward sloping market supply curve is a long run curve, so we need to figure out what happens not just in the short run, but in the long run. That will be the topic of the next post.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Links August 31, 2014

Political Economy

Reading Hamilton From the Left (Bob Avakian makes a similar case in Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy)
Why Conservatives Should Read Marx
This Economy Is Ruined For Everyone: The "obvious" reading of this piece is that if working class people are screwed, so what, but when middle-class people are getting screwed, there's a real problem. That's probably the intention of the article. However, a deeper point can be made: if working-class people are getting screwed, sooner or later middle-class people will feel the fist of capitalist injustice deep in their colons.

Ferguson, MO

White privilege: An insidious virus that’s eating America from within
4 Weird Decisions That Have Made Modern Cops Terrifying
A Question with a 400 Year-Old Answer
What I've Learned from Two Years Collecting Data on Police Killings
7 Important Details Nobody Mentions About Ferguson
Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison
In Ferguson, Black Town, White Power (why a republic is not democratic)
St. Louis Police Killed Kajieme Powell Because They Were Following Insane Rules


Against Empathy

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Why I didn't study philosophy

When he's careful, Massimo Pigliucci can write some kick-ass philosophy. Unfortunately, he's often not careful. In his recent article, The return of radical empiricism, Pigliucci tries to attack scientism, a.k.a. "radical empiricism," but instead does nothing more than string together a series of logical and rhetorical fallacies, failing even to define his central term. I started a detailed rebuttal of Pigliucci's article, but it got too depressing. The article is just too arrogantly stupid, and it's incomprehensible that a professional philosopher could write such drivel.

Pigliucci is, unfortunately, not an exception: that's the problem that I saw in philosophy in general. I studied philosophy on my own for about ten years. I don't hold this study as evidence of any particular expertise; I just mean to say that I didn't make a completely uninformed decision. When I finally decided to go to college, I was originally going to study philosophy. But literally every philosopher I interacted with — just the ones I liked — displayed the same sort of arrogant stupidity when his (philosophy is almost thoroughly male-dominated) views were challenged. Sturgeon's Law is one thing, but the fetid stench of insufferable condescension and incompetence of even the best philosophers was simply too much to bear. So I switched to political science and economics. Even when economists are dead wrong, and even when they're doing their best to be mean to their opponents, they don't display the stupidity and ineptitude of a philosopher with a position and no argument.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Links Aug 22, 2014

Political Economy

The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race
Why Is It So Controversial to Help Poor Mothers Afford Diapers?
Syria in Revolt: Understanding the Unthinkable War
The Future of College? A brash tech entrepreneur thinks he can reinvent higher education by stripping it down to its essence, eliminating lectures and tenure along with football games, ivy-covered buildings, and research libraries. What if he's right?

Ferguson, Race, and the American Police State

White St. Louis Has Some Awful Things to Say About Ferguson
The time the cops pulled their guns on me
Love Me, Ferguson, I’m a Liberal: How liberals brought an anticommunist slur from America’s past back to life.
The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race
The Fire This Time: If poverty and racism persist, it won’t be long before there’s another Michael Brown, Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin
Socialism and the Repressive State Apparatus
The Day Ferguson Cops Were Caught in a Bloody Lie: The officers got the wrong man, but charged him anyway—with getting his blood on their uniforms. How the Ferguson PD ran the town where Michael Brown was gunned down.
This Is a Cop. In America. The disturbing trend toward secrecy in American policing
After A Traffic Stop, Teen Was 'Almost Another Dead Black Male'
Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit: The Neoconservative Origins of Our Police Problem
A Militarized Police, a Less Violent Public

Every Insanely Mystifying Paradox in Physics: A Complete List
Where academic philosophy went wrong

Monday, August 11, 2014

Getting the science right on GMOs

Contrary to the saying, all is not fair in love and war, especially when the war isn't literally a war, but a political struggle. There are things we shouldn't do, even if they seem helpful in the short run. Unfortunately, Kamil Ahsan, a PhD candidate in developmental biology at the University of Chicago, doesn't get it. In The New Scientism, Ahsan demands that scientists relax their scientific standards to help in the fight against the evil agricultural-biotechnology (ag-biotech) firms that are using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to exploit farmers in developing nations. Ahsan is wrong on just about every point: scientists and the scientific establishment are, by and large, not part of the problem. The truth has a liberal, even revolutionary, bias, but Ahsan's calumnies risk alienating one of the left's most valuable allies.

Ahsan sensibly worries that the vast amount of money from Big Pharma and ag-biotech firms is corrupting scientific inquiry. He is not alone. Simple Google searches* will reveal that these issues are being discussed inside the scientific community, in the pages of Scientific American as well as papers in PLOS and ISPUB, etc. Google Scholar reports about 1.5 million results (not all of them original papers) just in the scientific literature. Ahsan links to an earlier article, Llewllyn Hinkes-Jones's Bad Science: Free-market academic research policies have unleashed medical quackery and scientific fraud, forcing consumers to pay premiums for discoveries we’ve already funded as taxpayers, which competently and accurately covers both the economic and scientific problems of big money in science. Many of the links Ahsan himself provides show that the scientific community is concerned about this issue. For example, in the Nature article, GM crops: Battlefield, Emily Waltz investigates whether critics of studies suggesting saftey issues with GMOs "fight fair." There is a real problem, and a problem that requires deep public debate, but the scientific establishment is not a monolithic entity on the wrong side of the issue; there is considerable support in the scientific community for resisting the corrupting effects of money on scientific inquiry. Ahsan does not focus on this important issue. Instead he unleashes a barrage of calumny to discredit the scientific community and subordinate science to his own political agenda.

*pharmaceutical/biotechnology industry influence on science

Ahsan asserts that the scientific community absolutely refuses to legitimize criticism: "To [the scientific establishment], any criticism of this historical narrative [of the "march of technological improvement despite the opposition of a supposedly anti-science public"] is tantamount to wholesale opposition to science." But Ahsan does not cite any criticism of this supposed "historical narrative" and does not cite any response to such criticism. Without support, Ahsan is simply poisoning the well. Ahsan follows with a nonsequitur fallacy: "[D]efenders of science lump together global-warming-denying conservatives, anti-GMO activists, and grassroots environmental activists, treating each as disturbingly anti-science. This simplistic analysis is rooted in the arrogant assumption that science is somehow above criticism — indeed, that it’s above politics entirely." The conclusion simply does not follow from the premises. Furthermore, Ahsan does not provide support for the premise that "defenders of science" really do lump these groups together, and Ahsan makes no mention in his article of the vague category "grassroots environmental activists." Simple assertions without evidence not only fail to persuade, they seriously undermine the author's credibility.

Ahsan seems incapable of an honest reading of anyone he disagrees with. For example, he cites Michael Shermer:
But try telling that to Michael Shermer, who, writing in Scientific American, sees in every critique of corporate behavior an anti-science temper tantrum: "Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs . . . in which the words 'Monsanto' and 'profit' are not dropped like syllogistic bombs. . . . The fact is that we've been genetically modifying organisms for 10,000 years through breeding and selection."
Try as I might, bending over backwards to be charitable, tilting my head and squinting, Ahsan's interpretation does not have anything to do with the quotation he interprets. Shermer is not talking about every critique, he is talking about one specific attitude, dropping the words "Monsanto" or "profit" like "syllogistic bombs." Shermer juxtaposes these "syllogistic bombs" with a scientific statement; presumably he intends to mean that those who criticize Monsanto ignore or falsely deny that GMOs are ubiquitous and long-standing, not that Monsanto is a model of corporate social responsibility. There are many other examples where Ahsan labels the legitimate back-and-forth of critical inquiry as arrogant obstinacy. Ahsan clearly cannot engage honestly with disagreement.

Ahsan conflates three distinct issues. The first is scientific: are GMOs safe? Can we eat them? Do they have negative effects on the environments and the ecosystems where they are grown? The second is economic: what are the effects of the business practices of ag-biotech companies that are providing GMOs, especially to low-income farmers in developing nations. The third is an issue of political strategy. As documented in several of the links Ahsan provides (e.g. Nina Fedoroff's Scientific American article, Can We Trust Monsanto with Our Food?), anti-GMO activists claim that GMOs are harmful; scientists consider these claims entirely without scientific merit, indeed anti-science. These issues are obviously interrelated, but they are still distinct.

It is one thing to allege that because of the corrupting influence of ag-biotech money, scientists are getting the science wrong on GMO safety. But this is not Ahsan's focus. Instead, Ahsan asserts that because Monsanto and other ag-biotech corporations exploit developing-world farmers, the scientific establishment should therefore, and for that reason only, not label anti-GMO activists, who are struggling against this corporate exploitation, as anti-science:
A rigid defense of “the science” prevents scientists from recognizing that Monsanto monopolizes seed production, dictates market prices to the exclusive benefit of rich farmers, drives the emergence of superweeds, allows the spread of transgenes to wild crops in other countries, and uses the state to boost its profits.

Acknowledging these facts should produce a thorough rethinking of the politics of GMO research and the ethics of GMOs. It should prompt a response to anti-GMO activists that doesn’t cast them as malevolent and anti-science, or conflate the movement to label GMO foods with celebrities who refuse to vaccinate their children. [boldface added]
This passage is the crux of Ahsan's thesis. If Ahsan really believed the problem was that money is corruption of science, then he himself would be defending "the science"; instead, he attributes problems directly to the defense of "the science." He asserts we should not consider the scientific claims of anti-GMO activists on their scientific merits, but on their political merits. Essentially, Ahsan is not decrying the corruption of science, he is lamenting that the wrong side has corrupted science, and hopes that the correct side will do so, indeed that the scientific establishment has an obligation to corrupt its standards of evidence and analysis in the service of the left.

It is not the scientific establishment but Ahsan himself, with breathtaking hypocrisy, who is arrogant, obdurate, and resistant to criticism. The truth is simply this: scientific criticism should be scientific. Moral, political and economic criticism should be moral, political, and economic. Neil deGrasse Tyson makes this point crystal clear:
If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling non-prerennial seed stocks, then focus on that. If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that. But to paint the entire concept of GMO with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing -- and will continue to do -- to nature so that it best serves our survival. That's what all organisms do when they can, or would do, if they could. Those that didn't, have gone extinct extinct.

In life, be cautious of how broad is the brush with which you paint the views of those you don't agree with.
We gain nothing and risk much by distracting the conversation away from the corruption of scientific inquiry, a conversation that can only help the left, towards a insistence on rigid short-term political loyalty. Shame on Ahsan for writing this piece, and shame on Jacobin for publishing it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A real space drive?

If this pans out, and the preliminary results are encouraging, we may actually have a working space drive that will put the whole solar system within reach: Nasa [sic] validates 'impossible' space drive [link fixed].

Either the results are completely wrong, or Nasa has confirmed a major breakthrough in space propulsion. . . . British scientist Roger Shawyer has been trying to interest people in his EmDrive for some years through his company SPR Ltd. Shawyer claims the EmDrive converts electric power into thrust, without the need for any propellant by bouncing microwaves around in a closed container. . . .

[L]ast year . . . a Chinese team built its own EmDrive [ and confirmed that it produced 720 mN (about 72 grams) of thrust, enough for a practical satellite thruster. . . .

[A] US scientist, Guido Fetta, has built his own propellant-less microwave thruster, and managed to persuade Nasa to test it out. The test results were presented on July 30 at the 50th Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland, Ohio. Astonishingly enough, they are positive. . . .

A working microwave thruster would radically cut the cost of satellites and space stations and extend their working life, drive deep-space missions, and take astronauts to Mars in weeks rather than months.

See also 10 questions about Nasa's 'impossible' space drive answered [link fixed].

Who knows: I might live at least to see people explore the solar system!

Saturday, August 09, 2014

More religious bafflegab

I don't have much to say about this article: Sam Harris: You Are My Data, because Matt Sheedy, a PhD candidate in religious, spends 1700+ words saying nothing but that religion is complicated. Duh. This is probably the one thing that really irritates me most about religious studies majors and theologians. They literally do nothing else but use thousands (or tens or hundred of thousands) of words to say nothing more than that religion is complicated, and that people who aren't (soi-disant) experts in religion just should just STFU and GBTW. I'm sorry, but the role of experts isn't to shut up the laity; their job is to educate. Don't tell me what religion isn't; tell me what it is, and back up your assertions with real scholarship and science, not empty bafflegab.

I rarely agree with Sam Harris, but at least the man tells us what he thinks and why he thinks it, something I've never seen, heard, or read any religious person — expert or layman — do in any honest, sincere way.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Thoughts on rent control

miller does not find the article I recently linked to, Rent, Rent Control, and Economic Rents, especially convincing. He has two criticisms. First, showing that rents rise when rent control is relaxed does not prove that rent control does not disprove economists' claim that rent control increases rents. Secondly, he cites his personal experience that rent control does cause problems, notably causing voters to erect barriers to entry to protect their housing values. Both of these are legitimate criticism that deserve answers.

I want to start by noting, as mentioned in the article, that economists do not consider rent control as just an example of an undesirable price ceiling, but as a canonical example. There are many other potential examples, such as gas prices in the 1970s, or Nixon's wage and price ceilings, but economists haved picked rent control as the example as the best teaching tool to show that price ceilings are socially undesirable. Thus, we can look at the article first as criticizing this pedagogical choice. If removing rent control in typical, real-world situations does not typically result in increasing social welfare, but merely transfers surplus from consumers to suppliers, then it is a poor pedagogical tool, akin to trying to teach gravity by having students think about the behavior of airplanes (which do not, of course, fall when you drop them). In this regard, I think the authors succeed.

But I want to take a closer look at price ceilings in general. In general, economists talk about consumer and producer surplus. For consumers, this surplus is getting some good or service for less than they would have paid. I really love beer, for example. I would spend \$5 on the first beer of the day, but all my beer costs \$0.50. For my first beer, I'm getting \$4.50 of "surplus." For producers, the surplus is the difference between the marginal cost and the price. The brewery can make some of its beers for only \$0.45, so they're getting \$0.05 of surplus on those beers. (They sell a lot more beer than I drink, so that the \$0.05 adds up quickly.) We show this concept like this:

The shaded areas represent "surplus", a.k.a. "welfare", benefits that the consumers and producers get "for free". It is generally accepted that, absent externalities (people who gain or lose who are neither producers nor consumers of the good) and transaction costs (costs paid by the consumer that do not benefit the producer), the point where the (marginal) supply and demand curves meet, the market price, represents the price and quantity that maximize total welfare (consumer surplus + producer surplus).

Rent control is commonly modeled as a price ceiling, where the government arbitrarily sets a price for a good below the market price.

The canonical model of a price ceiling looks like this:

Here, the government has set a price ceiling, Pc. Because we don't force firms to produce at a loss, firms produce a smaller quantity if they can sell only at the price ceiling. Some of the welfare is redistributed from producers to consumers, but more importantly, some trade is just lost; welfare just vanishes. This lost welfare is labeled "Deadweight Loss" is the graph. At higher prices, producers are willing to produce goods, and consumers are willing to buy them, but the price ceiling prevents these welfare-generating trades. Economists see this loss of welfare as a Bad Thing, and thus argue against price ceilings.

Note too that at the restricted quantities, enough consumers are willing to pay a lot more, the "black market price" (Pb), than even the market price. This willingness can lead to illegality and corruption. Also, at the price ceiling, a lot more consumers are willing to buy (Qb) but cannot. Price ceilings can lead to a lot of problems all around.

But, like all economic graphs, the graphs above lie: specifically, they make assumptions about the supply and demand curves that are not always (indeed rarely) true, notably that they have a slope of about +/-1. I argue that in many cases, in the short term, the absolute value of slope of the supply and demand curves for rental housing is much larger than one, i.e. both are relatively inelastic.* The reason is that in the short term, i.e. holding the level of capital constant, we cannot build new buildings (since new buildings represent new capital). Thus, when there is increased demand, all we can do is use labor, a lot of labor, to rehabilitate the few older buildings back into economic use. Furthermore, there are cities, such as New York or San Francisco, where people will pay a lot to live there, especially at the margin (i.e. a new person coming to the city will pay a lot to move there). Hence, a small shift in the demand curve, such as when Google decides to add a thousand new engineers, whom they can pay enough to cover any rent increases, can have a dramatic impact on the market.

*Note that unless we're using a log scale, the slopes of curves do not directly represent elasticity, which is percentage change in the dependent variable per percentage change in the independent variable, which depends not only on the slope but the level. But slope is a pretty good proxy for elasticity.

I look at rental markets like this:

(Note that my graph is too small to show the short run quantity, which is between Qe and Qlr.)

Here, a small shift in the demand curve, from D to D' causes a large increase in the short run market price. I'm obviously oversimplifying here: e.g. not all rental housing is alike, but I think the graph gets the basic point across.

There is a perfectly good neoclassical economic argument that the government should do something here; the market, by itself, is insufficient to achieve the socially optimal outcome. The story includes the enormous transaction costs associated with moving, especially to a different city. The story goes like this: Google hires a thousand engineers, causing a shift in the demand curve. Rent goes to Psr, pricing a lot of people out of the rental market, people who could afford to pay the long run rent, Plr, and the city fills up with people who can afford to pay the short run rent. In the long run, rent decreases to the long run level, but people who could have paid that rent are long gone. Hence we incur wasteful transaction costs because of the short- and long-run disparity in rent. The government could prevent these wasteful transaction costs by imposing a price ceiling on existing rents (where no additional cost is necessary to bring the property into service), letting them rise to the long-run level, but not to the short-run level. New residents, who can afford it, pay the short run price in the short run, but eventually pay the long-run rent. This is, essentially, what most rent control regimes actually do.

Second, there's a political economy argument. We do not live in a laissez faire political economy; we live in a capitalist political economy, where people who own capital have political control. Furthermore, residential real estate is fundamentally different from an ordinary firm. The present value of any business is the discounted expected income stream of the business. For example, if my business runs a profit of \$100000 per year, and I discount future income at 2.5% per year, then the value of the business is $100000*∑↙{n=0}↖∞ (1-0.025)^n = $\$4 million. A normal business (like a sandwich shop or automobile manufacturer) has to actually be operating to have an expected income stream; the expected income of a closed sandwich shop is 0. However, real estate does not have to operate to have an expected income stream. An occupied and an unoccupied building have about the same value. A building owner can realize the value of his building just by borrowing against it (and paying minimal maintenance costs) rather than letting nasty tenants poop in the toilets. In a depressed economy, buying a building and leaving it empty is a viable investment scheme, as long as few enough people actually do it.

Building owners, then, have a double incentive to enact supply limits (shortages), both market-based and just by taking property off the market, to essentially make the long-run supply curve match the short-run supply curve, essentially creating a quota (which works the same as a price ceiling, except the producers expropriate surplus from the consumers).

Again, rent control can mitigate this market failure both by limiting the incentive to create shortages and by forcing buildings to be occupied to be valuable.

So... that, I think, is why rent control is a bad illustration of a quota, and why rent control is a Good Thing when both demand and supply are highly inelastic in a particular market.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

The power of religion

As Reed and Taleb note, something about "religion" (which they do not define analytically) is especially effective at establishing "interdicts," i.e. near-absolute prohibitions,* over multiple generations. But how? The authors are silent about this crucial point. Because this is a blog and not an academic paper, rather than trolling all their references, I will attempt a common-sense analysis.

Meaningful interdicts, that is, prohibitions against doing things people would otherwise do. We do not need any kind of social structure to interdict dropping a bowling ball on one's own foot.

In a purely secular world, we have three general methods of establishing social and legal norms: individualism, elitism, and democracy. Individualism obviously cannot establish any meaningful interdicts. Secular elitism can, of course, establish interdicts, but they are hard to maintain without an enormous, poverty-inducing project of coercive maintenance. Democracy requires less coercion, simply because norms generally have some basis in the majority, so dissenters are, by definition, (and unlike under secular elitism) always outnumbered. But democracy requires negotiation and compromise, which leads to moderation, which Reed and Taleb assert is inferior to interdiction. Given opinion on anything is statistically distributed, only the rare interdicts could be favored by anything other than a small minority.

So what accounts for this undefined religion's exceptional ability to enforce interdicts? Clearly, according to Reed and Taleb, it has something to do with God: "People can understand the notion of God, not unexplained rules, interdicts, and categorical heuristics." (222, quoting Taleb in Silent Risk). But what? Again, the common-sense answer seems to be that if people are convinced they will go to Hell if they violate an interdict, they won't do it. This social construction has the feature of overwhelming force without the need to actually exert that force. Even if people are not convinced a literal Hell, it's still a good idea to refrain from doing that which the creator of the universe, in His just and loving wisdom, wishes people to refrain from. Being convinced in this way, however, leads inescapably to the importance of the epistemic basis of religion.

Religion must be thought of as both true and known for it to have its effects. If I am not convinced we know that God exists and that we know God wants us never to do something, the specifically religious establishment and maintenance of interdicts collapses. In the opposite sense, I observe (at least overtly) legal regulations that are not to my taste precisely and only because I know the United States government exists, and I know how they want me to regulate my behavior.

We can quibble around the edges. It might not, for example, be coherent to say that God exists; "existence" is too narrow a concept to fit God. But that's a side issue. The crux of the biscuit is knowledge. We know that something God something, and we know that because something God something, we should not do X. And, of course, if we say know something, we necessarily believe it to be true.

Michael Robbins seems makes the connection. Robbins claims that the Enlightenment project fails to provide a "ground", i.e. coherent first principles, for a moral system; by opposing the Enlightenment to Christianity, he seems to implicitly claim that Christianity succeeds in providing a ground for its moral system. Even accepting arguendo this implicit claim as true, the claim itself begs us to investigating this ground. Robbins correctly says, "There is a real question of why anyone should agree with you" about morality, presumably a better reason than force. This real question applies to beliefs labeled as "religious" as much as they do those labeled as secular. But that's just what an epistemic basis is: a consistent method to come to agreement using reason. We cannot strip out the epistemic basis from religion and still call it religion, at least not if the word "religion" is to retain a nontrivial meaning. Religion is not just a set of practices, it is a set of practices with a specific kind of epistemic basis: a basis in knowledge about God.

Religion, i.e. claims of knowledge about God, is by definition private. Some human beings have special, privileged knowledge that is denied to most other people, regardless of their "intelligence" (broadly defined), diligence, or time commitment. Joseph Smith had his golden plates and seer stones. Christians have Jesus Christ, the son of God, and those who (supposedly) knew Him personally, Islam, of course, has Muhammed. All of these people claim knowledge that is completely inaccessible to me, regardless of my intelligence, diligence, or time. I cannot say anything about any religion except by starting from a foundation of private, privileged knowledge. Contrast religion with science: no scientist ever claims private knowledge. "Brilliance" in science consists of seeing the world in a new way, but once that way is found, everyone can see the world that way. Even the most recondite science requires only ordinary intelligence, diligent study, and hard work to independently confirm — or reject, if the science is wrong. Religion affords no such independent confirmation or rejection.

Robbins is correct on another point: "MacIntyre shows that Kant, Hume, Smith, and Diderot failed to provide justifications for their moral philosophy." (I disagree with the Robbins' opinion that their failure was "because of their historical backgrounds, grounded in Christian morality." I believe this interpretation is both false and misses MacIntyre's point.*) To his list we can add Bentham (who explicitly treats utilitarianism as self-evident) and Mill. It is important to understand that these moral philosophers fail on epistemic ground: there is no consistent, objective basis for us to know their first principles are true. However, religion not only fails on this basis, but explicitly fails. Religion says explicitly that I cannot know the truth of scripture (or authoritative interpretation). I cannot see the golden plates; I cannot know Jesus Christ personally; Allah does not talk to me the way he talked to Muhammad. Even if I were convinced that the authors of some scripture did have private knowledge (in the same way I can convince a colorblind person that I have "private" (to him) knowledge about color), I still do not know myself the actual truth of any scripture. Religion fails by definition, on its face, the test that Kant etc. fail "deeply." If we are to (justly) criticize these thinkers on deep examination, then religion must therefore fail on the most superficial examination.

*Yes, I've read After Virtue.

Atheist tend to criticize "superstitious" beliefs such as the literal flood, six-day creation, Adam and Eve, Muhammad's winged horse, etc. for two reasons. First, lots of people, tens or hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people really do believe these stories are literally and factually true, and their belief that these stories are literally true really does justify and explain their objectionable behavior. (If religious moderates believe these stories are not literally true, and belief in their literal truth really does cause objectionable "fundamentalist" behavior, then why would they criticize atheists for making an argument they agree with?) But, perhaps more importantly, we talk about these stories because of the long-standing maxim in law and morality, "false in part, false in whole." Once it has been shown that part of an account is false, the whole account can no longer be relied on as facially valid, veridical, or authoritative. (For example, because I myself have made mistakes, you should not take anything I say for granted; you should go out and see for yourself.) If we find a single error in a sacred text or authoritative interpretation, then the claim to private knowledge is completely and utterly destroyed. "Sacred texts" can still have value as what they really are, works of entirely human literature with no more private epistemic authority than Lord of the Rings, but the notion that they are a foundation of private knowledge is complete and utter nonsense.

I believe that moderates publicly criticize atheists (for agreeing with them!), and at least mute their public criticism of "fundamentalists" precisely because they wish to preserve scripture as a foundation for private knowledge about morality. At least the "fundamentalists," especially the inerrantists, are at least honest. They believe their scripture is absolutely true in every respect (or so they say, even though the most devoted literalist and inerrantist has to fudge a bit around the edges), and really is private knowlege. The moderates, I think (for they are emphatically not explicit on this point), believe that their scriptures really are private knowledge, even though they accept that some parts are not literally true. Their position is fatally flawed, and I think they know it at some level, so they simply say the epistemic basis of their moral philosophy is irrelevant, that it is naive and unsophisticated to even look at it, much less examine it critically. I think that most religious moderates are not intentionally being dishonest and hypocritical, but I think they really are being dishonest and hypocritical with themselves. And, as Feynman says, the easiest person to fool is yourself.