Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Decency, like all moral words, has a fundamentally subjective and socially constructed meaning. Decency is we think it is, and what we think it is is a product of social interaction. But just because its meaning is subjective and socially constructed doesn't mean it has no meaning. It does mean something: although we might disagree about the specifics, we can tell what is decent and what is not decent.

I think, for example, that people have to live with no home is not decent. That they have to beg for food is not decent. That they are not permitted to work — when there is manifestly much work undone — is not decent. That we are killing black people in our own country and brown people in the Middle East is not decent.

Others might think, for example, that we take from those who produce more and give to those who produce less is not decent. I disagree,

No matter: the point is not what specifically is or is not decent, the point is that the word decency does actual work in drawing distinctions about the world.

Decency is more fluid than good. I've written earlier that "I shouldn't, but ..." is incoherent. Shouldn't means don't. If someone actually does something, then they necessarily think they should do it. If they say they shouldn't but they do, then they are lying, bullshitting, confused, or so neurotic that they need the services of a psychologist, not a philosopher. Decency, in contrast, is not so rigid. Should and shouldn't come after we weigh the reasons; considerations of decency come before.

We can say, "This is not decent, but reasons." And the reasons might (or might not) be good reasons. It was certainly indecent to kill Nazis by the millions, because mass murder is, I think, uncontroversially indecent, but hey, they were Nazis. (And, I think, the analysis is symmetric: I think the Nazis and Germans believed that murdering millions of Jews, Gypsies, communists, homosexuals, and Slavs was indecent, but hey, reasons.) Similarly, whether or not someone thinks the economic constraints justify the indecency, it seems relatively uncontroversial that the way we treat food animals is clearly indecent.

The goal of civilization, I think, is or should be that we create a society where we can not just always act rightly but always act decently. A goal of universal decency might be asymptotic, but we should always at least be moving closer, to make our necessary indecency always rarer and always more fraught.

What I meant in my previous post, then is not to argue some specific concept of decency, but to talk about an attitude towards how we construct and implement not only our notions of decency but also when we make exceptions to decency. Hence, even when I completely agree with some religious people's specific constructions of decency, I profoundly disagree with how they construct that notion: that thus and such is decent or indecent not because we happen to subjectively feel it is so, but because God has so informed. Similarly with a monarchy, oligarchy, or even a republic: even if I agree, thus and such is decent (or we should make an exception to decency) because the king, or the bourgeoisie, or our elected representatives have so informed us... based, of course, on information only they can see.

As I noted, the specific institutions of a democracy are important, but democracy is more than just a set of institutions: indeed, no set of institutions, however carefully crafted, can be democratic if the people do not have democratic consciousness: the consciousness that the people themselves decide what is decent and when we must act indecently. Not the king, not the elite, not the trustees (and not the Party): the people themselves.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Killed by police

Ed highlights the most egregious police killings of unarmed black people in 2015, starting with 12 year old Tamir Rice, killed by police Nov. 22, 2014, whose killers will not be prosecuted.

See ?Killed by Police for a list of 1,190 people (as of Dec. 29) killed by police in 2015.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Religion and democracy

A couple of interesting articles: In Why the Left Needs Religion, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig argues that religion as religion (not just people who happen to be religious) is an essential component to left organizing, citing Christian religious doctrines and practices that are frankly Marxian. In Not God’s Politics, Susan Jacoby disagrees with Bruenig, citing the... diversity... of religious ideology on the right and left, and the propensity of Christians to impose their religion on everyone, including non-Christians. Naturally I much prefer Jacoby, and while I know many Christians I'm happy to have as allies, it is because of their politics, not their religion. But I think there's a larger point that's deserves highlighting.

We on the left should not, I think, be too focused on implementing a particular political-economic regime, e.g. welfare capitalism, social democracy, democratic socialism, or communism. The regime does matter, a lot, but the regime is not the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue is to change how people see the world and each other, to change our political and social psychology. A particular political-economic regime might be the consequence of that change, or might be a means to effect that change, but a change in "human nature" must be the fundamental goal of the left. I don't mean to say we shouldn't think carefully about political and economic issue at the deepest level (I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the economics and finance of communism), but these issues are not at the deepest level.

The fundamental struggle of the left is to inculcate the social psychology of democracy. We really like the word here in the United States; we are perhaps not quite so enthusiastic about the actual practice. Democracy is not about holding periodic elections, even with a comprehensive franchise and open candidacy. Democracy is not about letting people vote, it is about the people ruling. Elections are about people "choosing" our rulers; democracy is about people ruling themselves. Again, I want to say that although economic and political democracy is a regime, and requires specific kinds of political and economic institutions, the regime is not the fundamental, deepest, point; the deepest point is our social, cultural, political, and economic psychology, our consciousness.

Having sampled the Christian scriptures, the character of Jesus seems to me like a decent fellow.* But that's alarming right there: I have a favorable opinion of Jesus without believing for a second that the character or the narrative in which he appears has any sort of divine imprimatur. If you think Jesus is a decent character, why is that not enough to emulate him? What work does apotheosizing him do?

*I have much less familiarity with Islamic scripture. I wouldn't be surprised if apart from his egregious pedophilia, Muhammed (the man or the character of the narrator), given his time and place, was also rather decent. My point, though, is not the decency of the characters but the nature of religion.

The point of democracy, as an element of consciousness, is to act decently because we are decent; if we are not decent, we want to become decent.* If we act decently because some god demands we do so is to miss the fundamental point of democracy. More importantly, if we demand that others act decently not because they are decent, but because some god demands they do so, we don't just miss but actively undermine the whole point of democracy.

*What do I mean by "decent"? Good question. It's a vague word for a vague and complicated idea. I'll write more on this topic later.

One might argue that to persuade their readers to become decent is the Gospels authors' whole point, their real project. Perhaps so, but if that is their point, after almost two thousand years, they have decisively failed. And, I would argue, they have failed precisely because they have located the impetus to decency in the divine, rather than the human. I'm sorry, racist white European authoritarian neoliberal capitalism has captured a substantial fraction of nominal Christians, Christians who have in their homes an actual copy of the writings about the brown Middle-Eastern democratic communist, who say that what this brown Middle-Eastern democratic communist (supposedly) said is literally the most important thing in the world. If people actually believed what Jesus says, they would have greeted the writings of Marx with a collective, "Well, duh!" No, that's wrong: if people really believed Jesus, Christians never would have invented capitalism, and Marx would be known for his literary criticism. The fault is not in the content, so the fault must be in the location in the divine, not the human.

Democracy and communism are not about income equality or inequality. They are not about the Ministry of Planning or nationalizing the banks. Democracy and communism are about power, with the people taking power away from this or that self-selected elite, hereditary, economic, or theocratic, and wielding it themselves. Indeed, democracy is about abjuring power over others and privileging each person's individual power over him- or herself. By its very nature, no religion can ever give us that.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Science and philosophy: falsification

I'm simply going to state Karl Popper's claim and explain what it means. In further posts, I'll talk about the justification for his claim, and why we should care about the claim and its justification. If I feel like it, I'll talk about some weaknesses in Popper's case, and how they can be strengthened. However, that will require additional research that I would have to do in my copious free time. We'll see.

Popper's central claim is that a statement is scientific only if it is falsifiable. Note that this condition is necessary but not sufficient: a statement can, for example, be falsifiable and actually false, in which case it is not scientific. (Some might argue that Popper never says this, but it seems so trivial that if he really doesn't say so explicitly, it is uncharitable to believe he doesn't take it for granted.)

A statement is falsifiable if and only if there is an empirical observation that could in principle actually be observed that would render the statement false. If we do in fact observe a falsifying observation, then the statement is definitely false. However, if we bend over backwards to attempt to observe something that would falsify the statement, and we are unable to do so, we gain confidence in the truth of the statement; we can use probability theory (Bayesian or frequentist) to quantify our confidence. We can be certain that some statements are false, because we make a falsifying observation, but we can never be certain that any statement is actually true.

For example, take the statement, "Objects always fall when we drop them." This statement is falsifiable: if I drop something, and I observe it not falling, then the statement is definitely false. However, no matter how many times I drop something and observe it actually falling, I cannot be certain that things always fall when I drop them, everywhere on Earth for all time. The best I can do is say having observed things falling when I drop them many times, I have confidence in the statement, but if I were to ever actually observe a counterexample, then I would have to revise my theory.

In contrast, consider the statement, "God created the universe." The syllogism
  1. If God had not created it, the universe would not exist
  2. The universe exists
  3. Therefore, God created the universe
is certainly valid, and (2) is confirmed by observation. But the syllogism is not falsifiable: if no universe exists, we could not observe that fact. (We are part of the universe; if the universe did not exist, neither would we.) Therefore, the syllogism is not scientific: we could not in principle observe its falsity.

In principle, Popper's claim is very straightforward; in practice it's a lot more complicated. Most importantly, we cannot evaluate statements independently: all statements depend on a theoretical context, the larger structure of a scientific theory, the construction of our measurement devices, and the nature of language itself. Hence, we cannot isolate single statements for falsification; instead we can only falsify larger theoretical constructs. The best we can say if we observe something that falsifies a statement within a theoretical context, then something in the context (including the statement) is false, but we can't be sure precisely what part of the context (or the entire context) is incorrect.

For example, I'm watching the Feynman lectures. Feynman talks about observations of the moons of Jupiter that falsified Newton's theory of gravity. Instead of modifying the theory of gravity itself, scientists changed the theoretical context by adding the premise that the speed of light is finite, with a definite value.

But this ambiguity does not damage Popper's central point. Popper does not give us any guidance on how to fix problems, he merely claims that if it is impossible in principle to have this particular problem, i.e. impossible to observe something contrary to the theoretical context, then whatever it is you're doing, you're not doing science.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Science and philosophy: Introduction

What is "science"? What makes one endeavor scientific and another endeavor non-scientific?

It's tempting to say that science is what scientists do. It's a tempting answer, because different kinds of scientists do a lot of different things. The way biologists do biology is very different from the way physicists do physics; if they are very different, why is it legitimate to label both as "science" but label mathematics or philosophy as "not-science" just because mathematics and philosophy are very different from physics and biology. It's also tempting because we can say that science is just another social category; to talk about science abstractly risks the fallacy of reification. In much the same sense being "American" is just what people in the United States happen to do; to talk abstractly about some essential "Americanism" that would be true regardless of what any Americans actually did would be nonsensical reification.

A lot of people, myself included, think that, unlike Americanism, there really is something essential about science, something essential that would be true even if everyone who called themselves "scientists" didn't do it. Moreover, it's important to think and talk about the essential nature of science because science, done "correctly," has immense social value; done incorrectly, science is useless or harmful. Furthermore, what actual professional scientists actually do is a vastly more rigorous version of a general mode of thought, a mode that everyone should employ, at least about some of their ideas and behaviors.

Of course, there are no other modes of thought, modes that are not science, that also have value; I do not advocate "scientism" in the sense that science is the only valuable mode of thought.

If there really is something essential about science, then philosophers are better-situated than scientists to talk about it. Paradoxically, if there is something essential about science, then it is possible that scientists do things scientifically out of habit or tradition, without reflection or specific intention. They could be doing things scientifically, but doing those things not because they know those things are scientific, but just out of habit. It might also be true that because science, as actually practiced, is socially situated, scientists do specific things that might be irrelevant or contrary to what is essentially scientific because of their social situation. It could take an outsider to discern which of those things really comprise the essence of science, and which are just arbitrary habits or extraneous social behavior. For example, I've worked with a lot of scientists. Many of them have no idea what statistical tests do or how statisticians actually interpret them; they just click a button in Stata or Excel, and if the p value is less than 0.05, they publish. The statistics are essentially scientific; the choice of 0.05 (or any other specific number) as the threshold of significance is not essential to science.

Again, I don't wish to deprecate the social aspects of science: scientists are part of society, and they have to fit their practices to the larger social context. Still, if there is such a thing as what is essentially science, it is still important to discern what is scientific and what is social.

Philosophers are also well-situated to talk about the essential nature of science because when doing actual philosophy (rather than "philosopholgy," the study of the somewhat arbitrarily constructed canon of philosophy) are the least susceptible to authority and privilege. A philosophical work stands or falls on its argument, not on the reputation or privilege of its author. Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, for example, is "authoritative" on a version of Libertarianism not because he holds any particular power to define it, but because he makes good arguments (well, as good as can be expected) and has persuaded a lot of people that his version of Libertarianism makes sense.

In this series, I will be talking about the philosophy of science as a philosopher. I claim no special privilege to define the essential nature of science, or even to establish that there is such a thing as an essential nature of science: my work, like all philosophy, stands or falls on the persuasiveness of my arguments.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Chamberlain inequality

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, noted anarchist/libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick argues that patterned distributions of income necessarily violate the principle of free exchange. Nozick supposes that there is some "patterned" distribution of income, i.e. some distribution that is objectively determinable. For example the notion of strict equality of income I've been writing about is certainly objectively determinable: I do not need to examine people's subjective preferences to determine what their incomes are, just the number of hours they actually work. He then supposes that a large number of people subjectively choose to freely pay Wilt Chamberlain (a famous basketball player of the 1960s) some money. Assuming enough people freely choose to do so, then Chamberlain will have much more money than the patterned distribution mandates. Thus, the patterned distribution forbids people from making choices that seem unproblematic.

There are a number of possible responses to Nozick's problem. The most obvious (but perhaps least intellectually satisfying) is to declare it a pseudo-problem, akin to the Omelas problem: the problem contradicts our moral intuition only because it makes deeply counterfactual assumptions about the world, but our moral intuitions are shaped by how the world actually is. Why would anyone want to just give Wilt Chamberlain money? Remember, almost all people who have very high incomes due to fame (athletes, musicians, actors, etc.) are embedded in industries that are paradigmatic of market failure. Even if there might be some good reasons for market failures, sports, popular music, movies, television, etc. are oligopolies and monopsonies, very far away from the perfect competition that is the core of the moral justification for capitalism. In our current system, the basis of our moral intuitions about economics, people don't freely choose to just give people like Chamberlain money, they "freely" choose to exchange their money for a good in a monopoly-controlled market; we cannot easily conclude that, absent these monopolies, they would choose to just part with their money (their share of the social product) out of benevolence or admiration.

Although the choice seems implausible, it is not impossible that people really would choose to voluntarily give their money away to admirable strangers. Thus, another resolution to Nozick's problem is to simply relax the pattern. The patterned distribution sets boundaries on the distribution of income, but permits deviations within those boundaries. Hence, my construction of nearly strict equality, which permits deviations from equality that satisfy certain criteria: deviations (1) are completely voluntary, (2) cannot accumulate, and (3) self-correct in the long run.

With certain boundaries, Nozick's problem fits neatly into these criteria. First, if people freely choose to give someone money (not as a condition of exchange), then doing so clearly fulfills condition (1). Second, a prohibition against absentee ownership means that even if Chamberlain did receive a lot more money than most people, he would have to spend it, which would eventually return the distribution to equality; Chamberlain could not use the extra money to secure lasting economic privilege.

The third criterion is more difficult to satisfy. On the one hand, if people really were willing to give someone like Chamberlain money, then people are going to want to do the same thing; removing the barriers to competition that are manifestly present in modern society will tend to reduce "Chamberlain inequality" over time. However, top quality "superstar" athletes (and popular musicians and actors) seem extremely rare: I don't think the NBA is limiting the number of superstar athletes, and people seem to derive a lot of pleasure in watching the very best ply certain trades. No matter how much money we give to "superstars," by definition there can be only a few.

But notice here that "superstars" violate the fundamental capitalist paradigm that high prices serve as a signal to incentivize entry and return a market to perfect competition: we cannot have a perfectly competitive market in "superstars," however much money we give them.

I suspect that in practice, Chamberlain inequality will persist the longest, and perhaps forever. Still, if we at least enforce absolute freedom (i.e. people do not exchange but give superstars money), and prevent accumulation and absentee ownership, we could tolerate Chamberlain inequality for a long time without terrible consequences.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Why education does not fix poverty

Why Education Does Not Fix Poverty:

  1. [H]anding out more high school and college diplomas doesn't magically create more good-paying jobs
  2. [H]aving more education does not necessarily increase people's productive capacity
  3. [P]overty is really about non-working people: children, elderly, disabled, students, carers, and the unemployed

Garbage and gravitas

Garbage and Gravitas: Ayn Rand was a melodramatist of the moral life: the battle is between the producer and the moochers, and it must end in life or death.

The chief conflict in Rand’s novels, then, is not between the individual and the masses. It is between the demigod-creator and all those unproductive elements of society—the intellectuals, bureaucrats and middlemen—that stand between him and the masses. Aesthetically, this makes for kitsch; politically, it bends toward fascism.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Nearly strict equality

Strict equality can be achieved only in a world of abundance, a world where everyone can have all the ordinary material things they want, and we allocate extraordinary things (trips to Alpha Centauri) by democratic means. But, lacking a world of abundance, I advocate nearly strict equality.

Nearly strict equality starts with strict equality: everyone receives exactly the same hourly wage, and contributes exactly the same absolute amount of labor to the common good (i.e. pays a flat tax*). That people can choose to work a different number of hours is not considered a deviation from strict equality: it is merely a particular trade-off between consuming leisure and consuming the physical social output.

*Wait, what? A flat tax? A flat tax coupled with absolute wage equality is not regressive.

Nearly strict equality permits deviations from strict equality that (1) are completely voluntary, (2) cannot accumulate, and (3) self-correct in the long run.

If all jobs pay the same hourly wage, then it is possible that given free choices, people will resist doing some jobs that they find less desirable than others. There are structural ways to allocate people to jobs, but by far the easiest way to convince people to do undesirable jobs without complaint is to simply pay them more. Note that under nearly strict equality, pay differentials are not proportional to social status; indeed, "low-status" jobs would probably pay more.

Structurally, we can separate jobs into three categories:

  1. Highly desirable jobs: the supply of candidates exceeds the social demand for the work
  2. Ordinary jobs: the supply of candidates is just about equal to the social demand
  3. Undesirable jobs: demand exceeds supply

For highly desirable jobs, we create an effective quota: limit entry to those jobs, so that the actual supply at the equality wage matches demand. We must, of course, have a democratic way of limiting entry, but I take a truly democratic form of government for granted. Since the point is to restrict excess supply, limiting entry will not produce monopolistic pricing.

For undesirable jobs, we could just say, "Well, you have to have some job, and all the desirable and ordinary jobs are taken, so here's your shovel, go clean out the sewer." But such a system would, I think, create resentment; more importantly, it would, I think, enable a strong structural "force" creating a permanent underclass of people (e.g. "untouchables"/dalits) who are forced to take these undesirable jobs. Such a force would be absolutely incompatible with communism.

Instead, we create a fourth category: "default" jobs. These default jobs are low-skilled, low-intensity, low-status, and relatively unproductive: jobs such as sweeping streets or delivering newspapers. Basically, these are jobs where a person can show up, pretend to work, and make a living. These jobs would probably have limited hours, enough so that people can live decently and pay their taxes, but not so much that they could ever have a lot of stuff. These jobs really exist first to just support the hard-core stoners and slackers (it's cheaper to just buy them off than to try to oppress them into working hard: prisons are expensive). Second, these jobs provide those who have ambitions to highly desirable jobs that are not amenable to pre-qualification, such as musician or actor; people can work these default jobs, and do whatever it takes to become recognized in their chosen field. Many will fail — by design — but they will not starve or freeze.

Most importantly, however, default jobs make accepting undesirable jobs completely voluntary. Given this pool of "default" workers, we then (democratically) increase the hourly pay of undesirable jobs until enough people from the default category voluntarily accept those jobs. Thus, this differential in pay becomes completely voluntary: no one will starve or die because they refuse to clean sewers or mine coal.

To prevent accumulation, first, we deprecate savings in favor of credit. You can put money in the bank, but there's no interest on saved money (except under special circumstances), so differential income does not accumulate into privileged wealth.

Second, we implement progressive taxation for those making above the equality hourly wage: the more you earn per hour, the greater the proportion of your pay that is collected in taxes. This essentially raises the price to consumers for undesirable work. (Because undesirable jobs are completely voluntary, it is the after-tax wage that encourages people to accept these jobs.) We then have a structural incentive to make those jobs less undesirable, probably by automation, which fulfills the third criterion: long-term self-correction.

I will address the "Wilt Chamberlain" argument in my next post.