Saturday, June 24, 2017

The economics of queer representation in video games

Siggy at A Trivial Knot wonders whether capitalism is to blame for the lack of "good queer video games." He doesn't seem to think that capitalism is the cause; instead, he suggests a utilitarian cause: the cost of developing good queer video games exceeds the social benefit, so it doesn't make sense — from a utilitarian perspective — to spend the resources to develop queer video games or increase queer representation.

I don't play video games, and I'm not queer in any ordinary sense, so I don't know what a queer video game is nor what queer representation entails; the comments in Siggy's post suggest that these questions are not settled among people who know more than the exactly zero that I know.

I do know a few things about economics, so I want to talk about the economics. I will use the generic term queer video games for whatever it is that queer people would like to see in video games, and I assume that people who are interested in queer video games find the supply insufficient. Please note the heavy use of conditionals and the subjunctive.

I am also discussing the issue of theoretical capitalism. The actual world has many features that are absolutely contradictory to capitalist theory. For example, capitalist theory predicts that video games should market equally to men and women; video games target mostly men because sexism, and possibly do not produce queer video games because of a similar bigotry. We could dig deeper into the marginalization of women, people of color, queer people, etc. as a mechanism the capitalist ruling class uses to maintain its social and political domination, but I think these are features of ruling classes in general or exist in specifically capitalist societies for historical rather than theoretical reasons.

If Siggy's conjecture is correct, and the positive utility — by some good measure — of queer video games is outweighed by the disutility of opportunity costs, then I don't see utilitarianism as a "problem"; I think it is exploitative and morally wrong for any person or group to demand more utility from society than they return. If so, then queer people would no more be entitled to queer video games than I would be entitled to a trip to the Moon. We wouldn't need to look at economics at all.

However, utility is a very difficult concept to define and measure, which is the most legitimate criticism of utilitarianism. (I don't think it's a fatal criticism; philosophers have had for a couple of millennia considerable difficulty creating and supporting ethical definitions and measures in general. I think the most legitimate criticism of alternative ethical philosophies are that they oversimplify ethics and introduce assumptions at best dubious (e.g. Kant) and at worst outrageously class- or self-serving (e.g. Aristotle).) Thus I think it is more fruitful to look at how utility is defined and measured in a capitalist democratic republic, and examine under what alternative social constructions the production of queer video games might have positive net utility.

In examining Siggy starts with the problem of high capital costs coupled with low marginal supply costs. He finds that at least with regard to queer video games, this problem is not one of specifically capitalism. He is, I think, correct on this count. Absent substantial externalities, even a Labor Theory of Value Marxists such as myself would say that if producing any video game costs a million socially necessary abstract labor hours, then if consumers are not willing to collectively contribute at least a million hours in return, then the effort is at best wasteful and at worst exploitative.

As a side note, the problem of high capital costs — indeed of capital costs in general — and low marginal supply costs seems to me an enormous problem in economics that has been almost completely ignored in my undergraduate and Master's level education.* The definition of capital we use in my coursework — rent paid to households who own the physical means of production and lend those machines to businesses — is almost but not quite completely unrepresentative of how businesses actually operate.

*I've only taken courses in economics at two schools, but they're both accredited, so I assume my education is at least somewhat representative.

I don't want to delve too deeply into the capital/marginal cost paradox. See the Cambridge Capital Controversy, as best I can tell still unresolved, for some background. In Railroading Economics, Michael Perelman examines the first capital crisis of high capital costs vs. low marginal supply costs caused by the development of railroads in the United States in the mid 19th century, and mirrored substantially in the airline industry today.

Anyway... I don't think the lack of queer video games reflects anything about how capitalism in general solves the problem of capitalizing specifically high capital/low marginal cost production. But that doesn't mean that capitalism is not the cause of the lack of queer video games.

A more salient aspect of capitalism is how capitalism generally measures the utility of goods and services (or, more precisely, the utility of the socially necessary abstract labor time embodied in goods and services). Capitalism measures utility via the mechanism of profitable exchange value under enforced inequality of wealth and income. The utility of a good is its monetary profitability. A wasteful good (negative net utility) will probably be unprofitable, but an unprofitable good is not necessarily or even probably wasteful.

Of course one reason is simply social. If it's just an asshole move to exclude queer video games, and capitalism does not do all that much to restrain assholes, then I guess capitalism might be at least an indirect cause.

One way that queer video games could have positive net utility but still be unprofitable is because the people who want these games have disproportionally less money to pay for them. If we measured utility less unequally, we might have more queer video games. If so, we could say that capitalism was indeed the cause of the lack of queer video games.

Another mechanism is if queer video games have substantial positive externalities, i.e. they offer substantial positive utility to people who don't actually buy them. For example, queer video games might contribute to greater acceptance and less social oppression of queer people, which would have positive utility not only for queer people who do not play video games but also for people such as myself, who would see greater acceptance as a definite social positive. Again, because capitalism is notoriously bad at pricing externalities, we could then locate capitalism as the cause.

Yet another mechanism is lack of differentiability. If no one is willing to pay money for a queer video game, i.e. buy a game they wouldn't otherwise buy just because of its queerness, then there's no incentive to spend even a little extra to include queerness. Alternatively, companies might reason that if one person does it, everyone will do it, and no one will have a marginal benefit. If they believe this "arms race" will equalize before any improved profit can be generated, especially if they think there might be a short-term backlash which would depress profitability in the short run. Again because under capitalism firms must concentrate on differentiation that is hard to replicate, a different way of allocating capital and conducting business might give a different result.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Scientism and philosophy

As I wrote a little earlier, the charge in commentary to this Existential Comics cartoon (the cartoon itself is fucking hilarious) that New Atheists (who have, as far as I can tell, been defunct as a movement for nearly a decade) are leading the charge against philosophy is without merit. The assertion that scientism "is closely tied to movements like the so-called 'New Atheists'," is so patently false that I would be very much surprised to find that the author has read a single book published by or often referenced by New Atheists, much less Googled the social discussion that comprised the meat of New Atheism as a political movement to erode religion's social privilege. The charge of New Atheists' "scientism" was a canard foisted by religious fundamentalists, and I spent the better part of my decade as a New Atheist activist refuting the charge. But as the saying goes, a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its pants, and the author finds it easier believe the lie than to dig for the truth. But there are deeper flaws in the author's argument that have nothing to with New Atheism.

The author deftly couples a straw man with the fallacy of the excluded middle. The straw man is "scientism", and the author seems to know it's a straw man:
Rhetorically, [proponents of scientism] tend to say that non-empirical ideas have no way to guarantee they are true, so are pointless to talk about. This is a rather ridiculous point to make, since their entire movement is based around spreading a certain set of non-empirical, philosophical norms, which they apparently don't feel it necessary to open up to criticism. [emphasis added]
Of course it's a ridiculous point to make. If you're going to attribute a ridiculous point to someone, I think it's at least intellectually negligent if not actually dishonest to not actually, you know, support the attribution with sources and quotations. To be honest, I haven't seen anyone propose this point of view since the logical positivists themselves dismissed the idea as obviously untenable in the 1920s.

(And in what sense does anyone refuse to open up anything to criticism? What does that even mean? As best I can tell, if you publish something, then you're opening it up to criticism right there. The author him- or herself is, you know, actually criticizing... well... something. I'm not sure what the author is criticizing, other than Christopher Hitchens', Sam Harris's and Richard Dawkins' outrageous sexism, a criticism roundly shared by no small few New Atheists, myself included. Ironically, the author states, "Please send your hatemail to" I suppose this is the epitome of opening up to criticism.)

The author seems to propose that "scientism" is the only alternative to somehow embracing philosophy, which is nonsense. First, I don't even know what either the author or the critics he cites actually means by philosophy. Does the author mean some Platonic Ideal of philosophy? What academic philosophers actually do? The philosophical canon? Regardless, there are a lot of ways to criticize philosophy in any sense without committing to scientism: one could believe there is more than just empirical science, but whatever that is, philosophy isn't it, or philosophy is not an effective way of investigating it.

But the most serious charge the author lays is that opponents of philosophy use their opposition to preserve existing power structures: "The real goal is often just to draw a border around what we should or shouldn't question, because they don't want any of the fundamental aspects of society to change." Certainly the real goal of all people everywhere who have privilege is to exempt their privilege from criticism. And certainly atheism is no cure for the protection of privilege, as Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins obviously show.

But it is odd to single out a movement — not just a few clueless, albeit famous, jerks — that had the intention of taking religion, something substantial, perhaps even fundamental, inside the border around what we shouldn't question and spending a decade trying to move it outside that border as people who "don't want any of the fundamental aspects of society to change. [emphasis added]" And it seems odd to single out a movement that included professional philosophers, not only Daniel Dennett but also (just off the top of my head) Stephen Law and Nigel Warburton, as being somehow fundamentally anti-philosophical.

I like philosophy. I haven't read as much as the author, but I have read more than my fair share, and I've taken a few philosophy classes in college. I'm obviously not an expert, but neither am I entire ignorant, and I'm certainly not at all hostile to philosophy. But, with perhaps the exception of Marx, philosophy is while not the last thing that defenders of the status quo need to worry about, it's pretty far down the page. I decided not to study philosophy in college precisely because while I find it enjoyable, I did not see any way to contribute anything at all I found valuable. I did not see any room in academic philosophy, not even the tiny room I've carved out for myself as a college economics instructor, to affect society, to fight oppression, or even discover the truth, whatever that may be.

I'm not saying that philosophers have any more obligation to fight oppression — or even discover the truth — than anyone else. I don't think classical music will fight oppression, but I have nothing against professional classical musicians. And I don't think I'm absolutely correct when I fail to see anything in philosophy that socially useful; I say only that after at least a non-trivial search, as a person of ordinary intelligence, I didn't find it. So when I see someone saying that the only reason, or at least the primary reason, to criticize philosophy is to adopt an obviously ridiculous position to preserve the status quo, I ain't buyin' it.

A final (?) note on New Atheism

Before I actually went to college to study economics, political science, and mathematics, I was strongly considering studying philosophy. Repeated contact with academic philosophers cured me of that notion, not because I thought that philosophy itself was useless but because I found academic philosophers to be uptight and annoying. There are no small few problems in economics and political science, but I would rather have lunch with an economist than a philosopher. And there's more math in economics; I like math.

I really like Existential Comics because the author is most decidedly not uptight and annoying. The author makes philosophy entertaining and fun, and he or she is a pretty good Marxist. Seriously: go read the comic from the beginning.

However, the commentary on today's comic is kind of annoying. It reduces New Atheism, a movement I was a part of for a decade, to a caricature. Like any good caricature, it has an element of truth, but only an element, and misses a lot of the complexity of the movement and the positive gains we made.

The New Atheist movement was a phenomenon of the late 1990s and 2000s; by the early 2010s it was defunct as a movement. I don't know anyone today who calls him- or herself a "New Atheist"; I don't remember PZ Myers having used the term for many years now.

The author of Existential Comics justly calls out Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens* for their anti-feminist bullshit. But as thousands of New Atheists have been complaining since 30 seconds after The End of Faith was published, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens were not in any way, shape or form leaders of the New Atheist movement. The New Atheism movement by its very nature did not and could not have leaders. Sure we liked The End of Faith, The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and Breaking the Spell, but we also criticized the errors and weaknesses of these books. They were at best starting points, not ideological foundations.

*The author also mentions Neil deGrasse Tyson, but as far as I know, Tyson has never identified as a New Atheist. Curiously, the author does not name another noted New Atheist author, professional philosopher Daniel Dennett.

New Atheism was a movement primarily dedicated to demolishing the social, economic, and political privilege of religion. New Atheism was about criticizing religion as a popular phenomenon, not confined to dusty tomes with a readership in the high tens. The books mentioned above were important not because they codified any ideology (in contrast, say, to Marx, who, for better or worse, actually codified and established a lot of communist ideology). There is nothing in any of those books (except perhaps some cognitive science in Breaking the Spell) that would surprise any denizen of the Internet Infidels Discussion Board (atheist or religious). They were important because they were popular: they challenged the taboo against criticizing religion in public, and they got away with it.

But the whole point of New Atheism was that it did not depend on noted authors. If the critique against religion had been confined to The God Delusion, there would not have been such a thing as New Atheism. New Atheists such as myself were certainly inspired by these books, but New Atheism consisted of thousands of bloggers, discussion board participants, and other contributors to internet media who criticized religion in public. The whole point of New Atheism was to make atheism ordinary.

As best I can tell, New Atheism stopped being a movement in the early 2010s. There are a lot of reasons, but I think most of the reasons were consequences of our enormous success. We made atheism so respectable that anybody could be an atheist. You didn't need to be smart, you didn't need to be courageous, you didn't even need to be a particularly good person. The neckbearded fedora-wearing atheist trope is funny precisely because today, atheism is about as intellectually and socially challenging as not liking football. I don't actually know any neckbearded fedora-wearing atheists (and I know a lot of atheists), and I suspect the trope exists just as a stereotype mocking socially awkward men.

In the early 2010s, PZ Myers fought a losing battle against "Dictionary Atheism", arguing that atheism entailed a humanistic ethic of social justice. He failed, I think, precisely because we had done our work too well (not that it was a particularly tough intellectual job). The truth is that you don't need to hold any particular ethical stance to be an atheist; you need only realize that the truth claims made by religious people are just nonsense; from there, you can go a lot of places: Marxism, bourgeois liberal progressivism, Randianism, Republicanism, neoliberalism, whatever. It is one thing to push for one ethical ideology or another, but trying to restrict atheism to one particular ethical ideology is bound to fail.

The work of New Atheism was not without its flaws. From its beginning New Atheism comprised primarily older white middle-class straight cis-men. It was never about social justice in general. Although many New Atheist authors highlighted the misogyny and racism of traditional religions, it was never really about feminism and anti-racism. But in its heyday, New Atheism was also not about preserving traditional patriarchal and racial hierarchies. We picked one pillar of racist* patriarchy, i.e. religion, and chopped away, subjecting its social privilege to ruthless criticism. And we won, at least to the extent that religious privilege is no longer taken for granted nor exempt from public criticism — at least not among white middle-class straight cis-men. Other groups will, I think, have to tackle the issue of religion in their own communities themselves, sadly without any more support from privileged groups than for any other issue. But that's not because we were fighting for our own privilege, but because we were no more able to generalize the fight against one form of oppression that affected us as any other struggle taken up by dissident members of the elite. We didn't go too far; we didn't go far enough. But we did go somewhere.

*And capitalism: I came to communism through not only atheism but specifically New Atheist activism.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

All worked up and nowhere to go

All Worked Up and Nowhere to Go: The ever more futile politics of left protest

The Trump administration has rekindled the internal hysteria that Fisher warned against [e.g. in Exiting the Vampire Castle]. And though it was heartening, the first wave of solidarity marches and general actions is now fading into memory; we’re left with a familiar hostility, a recurring bad faith that so recently has smeared greater minds and gentler hearts than my own. The economic ambitions of the so-called “Sanders Effect” appear to have waned, and the focus has predictably turned to the glittering, bilious spectacle of Trumpism. Just as Trump remade politics as television, we’ve allowed political action to mimic the spiteful, futile patterns of online bickering: our fellow anti-capitalists betray us all by enjoying or creating the wrong art, reading the wrong articles, championing the wrong theories, or even laughing at the wrong jokes. The left is at once flailing and sclerotic. Afflicted by a vague autoimmune disorder, we cannot even retain what little power we have, nor do we have any institutions capable of doing so; thus, we are able to smack only those within arm’s reach of us—ourselves. Meanwhile, the bigger and stronger the right gets, the more insular we become, single-mindedly obsessed with purifying our own ranks and weeding out the problematic among us. Of course, the left requires large portions of the problematic and disparate working class to sign on, but the range of acceptable comradely thinking is becoming ever-stricter, and “deviants are sacrificed to increase group solidarity,” as the artist Jenny Holzer warned. . . .

More than Twitter-style rhetoric, amputated “strikes,” and academic posturing, the left needs radical, militant unions with a political vision beyond the protection of their own rank and file. When the Muslim ban was declared, the drivers of the NYTWA immediately turned to their union, because they know it’s how they fight; that’s what unions need to be.