Monday, November 30, 2009

A capitalist's response to Krugman

In his op-ed piece, Krugman calls for an emergency jobs program,
You might think, then, that doing something about the employment situation would be a top policy priority. But now that total financial collapse has been averted, all the urgency seems to have vanished from policy discussion, replaced by a strange passivity. There’s a pervasive sense in Washington that nothing more can or should be done, that we should just wait for the economic recovery to trickle down to workers.

This is wrong and unacceptable. ...

Failure to act on unemployment isn’t just cruel, it’s short-sighted.

Let me be blunt: Why should I care about the "cruelty" of unemployment? I kind of feel bad in a vague, abstract way, but I can live with that. Besides, suffering builds character, or so I'm told. As far as "short-sighted" goes, didn't Keynes say, "In the long run, we're all dead."

Here's the thing: I'm a big capitalist. I own shares in a lot of companies that produce things that every working person needs to consume (food, clothes, shoes, etc.) and things that the rich want (gold-plated cell-phones). I have enough money in the bank (and thanks, Obama, for protecting that money for me!) so that my family and I can live dripping in luxury for the indefinite future.

Why should I support an emergency jobs program? What's in it for me? Right now, I can get people to work for next to nothing. Sucking millions of people out of the private labor force is going to raise my labor costs. I'm willing to pay my people the bare minimum for immediate survival, and put them on an ice floe when their productivity drops. Raising the general labor cost isn't going to help me, it's only going to help my more sentimental, bleeding-heart competitors. And if I somehow did Grinch-like develop a heart, I'd just be undercut by some competitor who could resist your blandishments. And if millions of people are starving, that just raises the price for my food.

It's been a real grind for us enormously rich capitalists the last 50 years. Do you know how hard it's been to find domestic servants? And finding servants we can control and abuse at will has been literally impossible. This whole situation is a godsend. I can tell you, the next time I abuse and berate my servants for serving me coffee that's taupe instead of beige (Oh! the humanity!), they're not going to quit on me in a huff with generous unemployment benefits. What's the use of power if you can't use it arbitrarily and contrary to the will and well-being of the victim subservient?

You seem to think we're all in this together, that we have a mutual interest in creating a just, fair and equitable society in which every person can live in comfort and dignity. Bullshit. I became a successful capitalist the same way that anyone becomes a successful capitalist, the only way to become a successful capitalist. No matter how much I had, I craved more, I craved it with all my being. If you don't crave more, sooner or later you'll flinch and fall to someone who does. And the only way to get more is to take it from others: from the weak, the slow, the stupid and, most importantly, the sentimental.

Your talk of morality and ethics is laughably quaint and naive. I give my workers the most valuable gift of all: the gift of life. No one deserves to live, and if they can't serve me and my brethren, they won't live. It's not only naive but positively immoral for them to demand more.

Tell you what, I'm a generous man: I'll buy your morality. How does a million bucks sound? I'll even throw in a house in the Hamptons and an opportunity to rub shoulders with the real ruling class at cocktail parties. Not buying? You have principles? No problem. There are tons of people will will happily sell out without a second though, people just as eloquent and persuasive as you. If anyone actually starts listening to you, I'll just use the million to marginalize or discredit you. Above all you are not stupid, and martyrdom is stupid.

[Anyone who thinks the capitalist ruling class will draw back its hand when dealing with its enemies might want to have a conversation with Salvador Allende, Mohammed Mosaddeq or Huey Long, just to name a few - Ed]

Mr. Obama also knows where his self-interest is. He got to the White House on my money, and when he leaves the White House he'll live on my money. And if he's smart, he'll use my money to push his children into the real ruling class, so they can own the next president. Obama is no chump: He knows the Democratic party is there to take the fall for the ruling class when we make a mistake, to flim-flam the voters during a time of crisis and distract them from their real interests. And he's doing a magnificent job; we'll take good care of him when he's out of office, don't you worry.

Dr. Krugman, you'll never in a million years persuade me to give up my power voluntarily or stand idly by when my government, bought and paid for, tries to take it away from me. Moral arguments are useless: all morality comes from self-interest, and I know where my self-interest is. Do you? The masses of people can have sufficiency, comfort and dignity only by picking my pocket. They'll have dignity when they take power, and they will take power over my dead body, and the bodies of my well-armed, disciplined soldiers and police, who also know where their self-interest lies.

Rational self-interest and the capitalist class

Robert Reich complains about Wall Street:
Shame? If we've learned anything over the last year, it's that Wall Street has none. Ten months ago Wall Street lobbyists beat back a proposal to give bankruptcy judges the right to amend mortgages in order to pressure lenders to reduce principle owed, just like Wall Street lobbyists are now beating back tough regulations to prevent the Street from causing another meltdown. ...

Shame won't work. Only political muscle and courage will. Congress and the Obama administration should give homeowners the right to go to a bankruptcy judge and have their mortgages modified.
But if Wall Street doesn't have any shame, why should Congress and the Obama administration have any?

Reich is correct: Only political muscle and courage will work. But it has to be the political muscle and courage of the people, not the faction of the capitalist class that Obama represents.

In What is to be Done?, Lenin makes a fundamental point, a point ignored by most modern progressives: The government does not stand outside society, imposing some "Kantian" morality. The government is part of society, subject to all the same pressures of economic and political self-interest as the rest of society. It is just as delusional as belief in God to believe that the government can do what's "right" independently of the self-interest of its members.

Thus the progressives' dilemma: If the masses of people were organized and disciplined sufficiently to exercise political muscle and courage, there is no way they would tolerate the private ownership of capital: it is in the self-interest of the people to take away the economic rent that capital affords for the individual benefit of its private owners and appropriate it for social uses.

The appropriate of capital for social use is the essence of communism; everything else is the "how". If the people have sufficient political power to "regulate" capitalism, they have sufficient power to eliminate capitalism, and it is in their rational self-interest to do so.

"But," a person like Paul Krugman might argue, "we successfully regulated capitalism in the 1950's and 60's, to the mutual benefit of both the capitalists and the people."

Indeed we did, at least if we define "successful" and "mutual benefit" loosely enough to exclude black US citizens, to exclude women, and to exclude most of the rest of the world subject to our economic imperialism. (Keep in mind that the Civil Rights movement, the Feminist movement and the rebellion of middle-class youth directly against the Vietnam war and indirectly against the stultifying social conformity of the era marked the beginning of the end for New-Deal capitalism.) New-Deal capitalism was an improvement over Gilded-Age capitalism only because the latter set such a low bar.

But New-Deal capitalism is, as we have seen, not an evolutionary improvement. The sine qua non of an evolutionary improvement is that the it persists and becomes the new baseline. An improvement that eventually regresses to the status quo ante is not an evolutionary improvement. It might seem better, but it does not actually respond better to the only thing that matters in evolution: selection pressure. It is plainly apparent that New-Deal capitalism has been regressing to Gilded-Age capitalism since the 1970's.

Fundamentally, the New-Deal era resulted not from a fight between the working class and the capitalist class. It resulted from a fight between factions of the capitalist class; Roosevelt's faction successfully co-opted the political will of the people. The difference is subtle but important. The New-Deal era did not result in more power for the people themselves, it resulted in more power for a faction of the capitalist class, a faction that can be described only as somewhat less hostile to the interests of the people than their opponents.

Our "democracy" is structured to include only factions of the ruling class. We vest power in elected representatives for a period of years, which insulates their day-to-day decisions from political consequences. Supposedly, we do vest power to ensure representatives can "do the right thing" even when it's unpopular, but there's no such thing as the objectively right thing; the effect is to do what's in the interest of the capitalist ruling class when this interest is opposed to the people's interest.

Elected representatives have a standard of living greatly in excess of the ordinary person. This standard of living is not their own (we pay the President a paltry $200k modest (by capitalist standards) $400k/year); representatives achieve this standard of living through their office during their term, and after their term as a reward from the capitalist class in the form of speaking and publishing fees and directors of corporate boards.

The people are fundamentally alienated from their representatives. How often does the ordinary person actually interact with any of their representatives about public policy, even at the local level? All the communication between the people and their representatives is through institutional channels: the commercial media and polls. The only "voice" the ordinary person has is the vote, an extraordinarily low-bandwidth channel.

The effect of all of these factors is that the people have been trained for generations not to seize and hold political power for themselves, but rather to give their loyalty to some faction of the capitalist ruling class.

The interests of the capitalist class on the one hand and on the other the working and (today much more important than in the 19th and 20th century) the unemployed classes are fundamentally irreconcilable. There is only one finite, limited pie worth fighting for — the surplus labor of the working class — and there is no long-term meta-stable distribution of this pie. All the economic, social, and political feedback mechanisms lead eventually to either pure laissez-faire libertarian capitalism or communism.

A meta-stable distribution must have a robust mechanism for negative feedback: a successful attempt to increase an individual's share of workers' surplus labor would automatically create pressure to decrease that share. In much the same sense, tipping a roly-poly toy changes the distribution of forces in such a way as to push the toy upright again.

However, in capitalism, when an individual capitalist successfully increases his share of surplus labor, he has more power to affect the economic, social, and political systems to continue to increase his share. Microsoft and Bill Gates continues to be successful precisely because they have been successful in the past, not because they are inherently better at creating software (<cough> Windows Vista). We have only chance and providence to thank that Mr. Gates is predisposed to be more-or-less politically liberal rather than a gung-ho Randian.

Indeed the positive feedback mechanisms are whole point of capitalism, what caused its survival under the economic selection pressures in the 18th and 19th centuries during the struggle against feudalism. Capitalism causes exponential economic growth, which is possible only when positive feedback dominates without countervailing negative feedback. A substantial part of the political and social changes that capitalism effected were removing the negative economic feedback systems that evolved under feudalism. In Marx and Engels' words,
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.

The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

But no positive feedback system can go on forever. At some point nature will impose its draconian limits. We are human beings, we can foresee and respond to those limits, it is our choice whether we intelligently respect those limitations, or let nature impose them catastrophically.

All the mechanisms of capitalism concentrate wealth into the hands of owners of capital, regardless of the social and moral predispositions of the individual capitalists. A capitalist who forswears unlimited accumulation will eventually be defeated or absorbed by another who pursues unlimited accumulation. All the mechanisms of capitalism concentrate labor into the production of commodities, objects or services that can be exchanged for profit. But eventually we must turn our labor to the general good, to create conditions that cannot be commoditized: clean air, good health, leisure and actual happiness and satisfaction (unlike the transient pseudo-happiness of pure material accumulation, which trades a momentary rush for a greater emotional crash).

It is an open question whether capitalism represents an advance in any sense over feudalism; it may be that capitalism's only claim to success — vastly increased material productivity — affords only the opportunity for a proportionally larger population to live at the edge of starvation. But there's no going back; even if capitalism is an advance over feudalism, and even if capitalism does regress, it will regress into something very different from 17th century feudalism. But our task today is not to look backwards with regret.

Our task today is to take what we actually have — a mighty engine of material productivity — and choose to employ it in the benefit of the people. And the only way to do so is for the people themselves to decisively seize and hold economic, social political power, and forever destroy the power of the capitalist class. If we do not take up this task, we have nothing to look forward to but an ever-decreasing standard of living and eventually literal enslavement.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

War is just a racket

War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.

I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we'll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.

I wouldn't go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.

There isn't a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its "finger men" to point out enemies, its "muscle men" to destroy enemies, its "brain men" to plan war preparations, and a "Big Boss" Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism.

It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.

I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

— Major General Smedley Butler, USMC, 1933

[via Angry Bear]

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Is rational self-interest tautological?

Comrade PhysioProf claims that rational self-interest as an explanatory paradigm for human behavior is tautological:
At some level, no matter what people do it must by definition by in their self-interest, or else they wouldn't do it. I tend to see this as a reductio ad absurdum argument for the uselessness of attempting to explain human behavior in terms of individual's "interests".
I think Comrade PhysioProf is mistaken in this view.

We could, of course, formulate a truly tautological view of rational self-interest: simply label "whatever motivates people to act" as "rational self-interest". In much the same sense we could formulate a truly tautological view of evolution and physics. We could label "whatever causes changes to organisms over time" as "evolution". But that we can do so does not mean that we must necessarily do so.

We can't infer much from a label in isolation from what the label applies to. (Thoughts makes the same fallacy in a different direction by inferring specific incorrect philosophical ideas from the adoption of other elements of the label "materialist"). We have to look at the details of what the label actually applies to. If we want to look at the label "evolution", we have to look at the details of actual evolutionary theory as proposed by actual scientists.

It's impossible also to actually falsify a true hypothesis, theory or paradigm. Because evolution as a paradigm is on the whole actually true, it's unlikely that we'll actually observe anything that would falsify the paradigm (as opposed to falsifying detailed hypotheses within the paradigm). What's important, then is seeing whether a paradigm could in principle be falsified.

What is the theory of rational self-interest? It's the theory that people have ideas in their head about what's better or worse in terms of their own subjective experience. They imagine, plan and anticipate the consequences of various possible actions in terms of the quality of their subjective experience. They then choose the action among the imagined alternatives that they believe will produce the best subjective experience.

One of the things that distinguises a scientific hypothesis, theory and paradigm from a tautology or definition is that the antecedent and the consequent can be independently verified. Consider the canonical syllogism:

P1: All people are mortal
P2: Socrates is a person
C: Socrates is mortal

If we can determine that Socrates is a person and independently determine that Socrates is mortal, then P1, which can be rephrased as the condition "if X is a person then X is mortal", becomes a scientific hypothesis. P1 would be a tautology if we could not independently determine mortality, either by not being able to determine mortality at all,

P1: All people have souls
P2: Socrates is a person
C: Socrates has a soul

or by explicitly predicating by definition the determination of "person" on the determination of "mortality":

P1: All people are mortal
P2: Lazarus is not mortal
C: Lazarus is not a person

If some statement is really a scientific theory, then it should be possible to create and verify a null hypothesis, an inverse conditional. (We have to make the above conditional more specific to make its inverse observable.)

Hypothesis: All people are mortal with a lifespan not exceeding 200 years/if X is a person, X will die within 200 years of his or her birth
Contrapositive: if it's not the case that all people are mortal, etc., then some person will not die after 200 years.

We could in principle observe a person living for 200 years. When we observe a lot of people, billions of them, we actually observe all of them dying well within 200 years. Science being what it is, our observations do not deductively prove the hypothesis, they strengthen our confidence in the hypothesis. It might be the case that the trillionth person we observe does not die; it might be the case that there's some other reason — perhaps they're all hiding from us — we do not observe anyone living more than 200 years. But for all practical purposes, science is the best we can do, and the lack of absolute confidence is what makes science so much fun.

The theory of rational self-interest escapes definitional tautology because it excludes certain interpretations and, more importantly, excludes certain observations.

Ontologically, rational self-interest says, among other things, that we do not behave like traditional computer programs or Sphex wasps, nor, more importantly, do we behave like "Kantian" moralists. Empirically, the theory of rational self-interest says that we would see different observations if people did behave like traditional computer programs or Kantian moralists.

A traditional computer program — even running on an imagined computer with as much processing power as a human brain — does not act from rational self-interest. Let's say we program a very powerful computer to actively manage some horrendously complicated non-sentient physical process, such as turbulent flow. There's no way we can independently determine a computer's subjective satisfaction: we cannot ask it if is happy or sad. We can look at all the code and find nothing that can even remotely be described as subjective satisfaction. If a program does something odd, we can find the precise cause: Some line of code does the odd thing under specific circumstances. If we change only what the code does, not what it "wants to feel", we'll change the behavior of the program.

(I'm not saying that we couldn't program a computer to act from rational self-interest; I believe that's entirely possible, hence my qualification above of traditional computer programs. But we could tell both by looking at the source code as well as empirically examining the computer's behavior that it was the sort of program that acted from rational self-interest, rather than acting "sphexishly".)

More importantly, the theory of rational self-interest says that we do not act like "Kantian" moralists*. A "Kantian" moralist is someone who acts because some act is objectively good, without regard to any notion of the actor's own subjective satisfaction. If we "feel better" for doing the objectively correct thing, that's merely a happy accident. In just the same sense, we accelerate towards the center of the Earth at 10 m/s2, without regard to any notion of subjective satisfaction. If we "feel better" when we experience gravity — hardly surprising as we have evolved on a world where gravity is ubiquitous — that's merely a happy accident.

*Kant was a subtle (perhaps over-subtle) philosopher, and his moral theory is more sophisticated than the caricature that a lot of people, including many philosophers, attribute to him. But still, the trope is useful.

The difference between "Kantian" morality and gravity is of course that we accelerate towards the center of the Earth even in those circumstances where we absolutely do not want to, where there's no correlation whatsoever between what we desire and how we behave when we're falling. And we do so even when we have sufficient time to deliberate and make an informed choice about whether or not to fall.

On the other hand, people never do what's right under those circumstances when they don't have some independently identifiable subjective feeling underlying the behavior. Even when a person acts against her immediate material self-interest — when, for example, they go back into a store to pay for a missed item — you'll always hear, "I would have felt bad if I hadn't." Similarly, when someone doesn't act according to what we consider to be an important moral principle, they usually don't have an elaborate philosophical account about why that principle is incorrect, they just don't personally care, they don't feel bad about contravening the principle.

These observations are true even of people who call themselves "Kantian" moralists, of people who say they do things because it's the "right" thing to do. Even among self-described "Kantian" moralists, there's always a perfect correlation between what they consider the "right" thing do and how they subjectively feel about doing the right thing.

Indeed it is the "Kantian" moralists who are guilty of definitional tautology: if it always feels good to do the "right" thing, then in what sense is doing the right thing independent of one's subjective state? How do they account for people who not to feel good doing the "right" thing?

Of course, all of the above is not to say that our subjective feelings are not enormously complicated, and operate on many levels of abstraction. It is simply to say that we can indeed independently determine how a person feels, even in complex, abstract situations, and how they feel is the best predictor of their behavior.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Rational self-interest

Hanlon's razor* says you should never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity**. But there's a related saying in economics: never attribute to stupidity what can be explained by rational self-interest. If people appear to be behaving stupidly, look for the underlying self-interest that you might have missed. Of course, people do behave stupidly, often en masse, so you won't always find an underlying rational self-interest, but you often will.

*Sometimes attributed to SF author Robert A. Heinlein.
**There's also Clarke's corollary: Any sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice.

It is becoming a trope in liberal and progressive economics and politics that the right-wing and the Republican party are acting stupidly, irrationally, that they have become literally deranged, even at the highest level. I believe, however, that this view is problematic.

Part of the problem is that there's a huge equivocation floating around the economics profession concerning the definition of "rational self-interest"; similarly in philosophy and ordinary conversation, there's a huge equivocation about "rationality". At minimum, rational self-interest in economics means that people always act to maximize their subjectively conceived self-interest, and while they may make errors and mistakes, on the whole they act effectively to maximize their subjective self-interest.

This definition seems metaphysical and unfalsifiable: however people are actually behaving, we can hypothesize some subjective self-interest that the behavior maximizes, and we conclude they are acting in their rational self-interest. We can, however, talk about subjective self-interest separately from specific behaviors: we can actually test hypotheses about rational self-interest.

For example, if a lot of people are buying Acme razors, which cost 50% more than the objectively identical Potzrebie razor, we could make any number of competing hypotheses about subjective self-interest that's causing the behavior. Most obviously, we might have missed some property of Acme razors that really is objectively superior to Potzrebie razors: perhaps they last longer, or are more effective at shaving a man's upper lip or a woman's ankle bone. It might be that using Acme razors confers social status precisely due to its higher price. Perhaps people simply don't take the name "Potzrebie" seriously, and don't have confidence in its quality. It might be simply that people are persuaded by the advertising so they simply feel better using an Acme razor.

The last case highlights the specific, technical nature of the economic definition of rational self-interest. It's not relevant in this context that Acme razors don't objectively make a person feel better than Potztrebie razors: they don't produce a closer shave, they don't reduce the frequency of nicks and cuts, they don't last any longer, they're not any more comfortable to use. What's relevant is that a choice of behavior produces a difference in subjective feeling; people are acting "rationally" by choosing the behavior that really does produce the better subjective experience.

The first equivocation, then, in the use of rational self-interest is equivocating between the objective properties of the choice and the subjective consequences. But objective properties are never anything more than a means to an end — indeed one means among many — to produce subjective experience. It's often the case that people do make choices that correlate to objective properties: fresh food is objectively superior to spoiled food, and people almost universally prefer unspoiled food. But there are cases where the subjective experience, and thus the choice, is not correlated directly to the objective properties of the choices.

Similarly in philosophy and ordinary conversation, there's a sense of "rationality" that means concerned exclusively with objective truth, ignoring or excluding subjective factors such as emotion. Again, there's no problem with this definition per se, but it's clearly inappropriate to apply this definition to motivation, which is fundamentally subjective.

In one sense, "rationality" just means the true correlation between behavior and and subjective outcome; in another sense, "rationality" means having objectively true beliefs about the real world. If a lot of people believe that Acme razors give a closer shave than Potzrebie razors, they are acting in their rational self-interest by spending more for Acme razors, but this rational self-interest is predicated on an irrational belief, a false belief about the world. There's no contradiction: we're just using the word "rationality" to mean different things in different contexts, an ordinary and routine use of natural language. The fallacy of equivocation comes in when we pick the meaning from the "wrong" context.

The second fallacy about rationality and rational self-interest concerns the nature of the self-interest. There are subjective desires that are easy to empathize with, and desires that are more difficult to empathize with, and desires no one wants to admit they empathize with. It's easy to dismiss an odd or unusual desire as simply non-existent, or attribute some odd behavior to a false idea about reality. But some people, to use Winston Rowntree's example, just like lounging about in unconventional clothing, and so they do: there's nothing at all irrational about their behavior in either sense.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Materialism and "empiricism"

Commenter Thoughts directs our attention to his (?) essay, Materialists should read this first. This essay is, however, problematic on a number of points.

In his essay, Thoughts points out a contradiction in materialism, inveighs at great length against materialism and its dogmatic adherents, and suggests the alternative of empiricism.

On one hand I can't object to a general exhortation against dogmatism and an irrational attachment to outdated ideas contradicted by modern observations. On the other hand, it's not at all clear that Thoughts intends only such a facile reading.

There is a notable difference between the ordinary, common use of terminology and its use by experts and professionals. If I gave you tickets to a classical music concert, you would probably not be too surprised to hear Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Vivaldi on the program, even though a professional musicologist would consider only one of those composers (Mozart) to actually be classical. You might even be unsurprised to hear Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein. (And if the tickets turned out to be to Cosi fan tutti, you might well object, "That's not classical music, it's opera!") Likewise, professional philosophers have a detailed taxonomy of philosophical ideas and writing. A professional philosopher may use "materialism" to denote something very different from what an ordinary philosophically literate person might mean.

Thoughts does not explicitly disambiguate what usage of "materialism" he intends, but his use of broad generalities to characterize materialists and their intellectual failings suggests that he's talking about the larger audience. However, he presents a technical philosophical definition: "Materialism is the belief that everything is due to matter and the flow of matter from place to place." This apposition of the general population with the technical meaning is suspicious: one might similarly criticize the Philadelphia Classical Music Appreciation Society on the basis of its name alone for ignoring Bach (Baroque) and Beethoven (Romantic).

Furthermore, for all the many denunciations of materialists' dogmatism in his essay, Thoughts does not give us any concrete examples. It's one thing to simply mention a bad argument for an incorrect position as a rhetorical springboard to a good argument for a better position, but when an author lays the anonymous denunciations on so thick as in this essay, a careful reader suspects a fallacy of the converse and an ad hominem argument. And Thoughts strengthens this suspicion with a description of his preferred alternative — "empiricism" — that is thin to the point of vapidity, consisting mostly of the banal exhortation that we should pay attention to the evidence and keep an open mind.

Also too his choice of alternative is curious in the context. Materialism (and "dualism" (technically dualistic idealism or mentalism) are ontological positions: they purport to describe how the world actually is. Empiricism is usually taken, however, as an epistemological position: a methodology to gain knowledge about how the world actually is. (Empiricism as an ontological position — that all that exists is perception — is if anything even more philosophically discredited than naive materialism.)

It is a matter of historical fact that materialism as a formal philosophy was developed in the 18th century and achieved wide currency in the 19th century as classical, non-relativistic physics made profound advances and especially as scientific biology demolished vitalism. As such, the formal definition of materialism, that everything can be characterized by matter and its interactions, or more popularly as that everything is matter in motion, reflects this early scientific view. It is also a matter of historical fact that since the development of materialism, modern science has made additional advances — notably Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics — which have changed our understanding of physical reality as much as did classical physics. Thoughts argues that these modern scientific advances fundamentally demolish materialist philosophy. But do they?

If we take the terms of 18th and 19th century philosophical materialism literally, with matter meaning specifically atoms and motion in the specifically Newtonian sense of change in an atom's position in absolute space over absolute time, then of course materialism is at least in some sense incorrect, or at least naive. But we must ask: do people today who can reasonably be described as materialists subscribe to this view of physical reality? Do they actually "deny observation" to preserve their view? Is the view of physical reality as "matter in motion" essential to materialism? And most importantly, how much does our modern understanding of relativity and quantum mechanics actually change the philosophy of materialism?

One should always be skeptical of an opponent's description of an opposing philosophy. Wikipedia describes several notable philosophers and scientists as "scientific materialists" (presumably falling in the category of materialists that Thoughts criticizes), including Daniel Dennett, Willard Van Orman Quine, Donald Davidson, John Rogers Searle, Jerry Fodor, and Richard Dawkins. If Thoughts wishes to make his charge stick that materialists deny observation and ignore well-established modern physics, we should expect the support of citations and quotations from at least the most notable advocates of materialism. It might be the case that Thaddeus Hicklehooper* of Muncie, Indiana has a naive and out-dated view of physical reality, gleaned from his C- in Introduction to Philosophy at the Adult Learning Annex, but who cares?

*Not a real person

Thoughts' choice of critique of materialism is also puzzling. He critiques materialism not on the obvious grounds that reality is more complicated than atoms moving and bouncing around, but on the basis of a specific interpretation of time:
If everything is due to the flow of matter and time is like the succession of frames in a motion picture [emphasis added] then at every instant reality is a frozen three dimensional pattern, like a single frame in a movie.

Materialism does not allow the transfer of information from the past to the present except as recorded data so the frozen instant is all that exists in the materialist paradigm. The instant is frozen because there is no time for motion to take place at an instant.
Note how Thoughts apparently extends the definition of materialism in the bolded passage. This particular view of time is certainly not part of the stated definition of even 18th century materialism, and Thoughts offers not even an argument why we should consider this definition essential to materialism. And indeed this definition seems not only unjustified but perverse: if we consider materialism to be matter in motion, then motion must be an intrinsic property of material reality; viewing time as a succession of frozen images denies motion as an intrinsic property. Furthermore, the assumption of a continuum is a fundamental part of classical (and even non-quantum-mechanical relativistic) physics; if instants in time are "frozen", there must be not only infinitely many of them, but this infinity has to be the same cardinality of the real numbers. A lot of our prosaic intuitions simply fail even at the "lesser" infinite cardinality of integers. And of course it's astonishing to suggest that philosophers, scientists, and ordinary philosophically literate people have been for three hundred years unaware of Zeno's paradox until an anonymous blogger has brought it to our attention.

It is also surprising that Thoughts lumps physicalism in with materialism. [see comment] Thoughts correctly disambiguates materialism from physicalism. But pPhysicalism is precisely the technical philosophical term denoting the "modernization" of 18th and 19th century materialism to a modern relativistic and quantum mechanical scientific understanding of physics. If materialism in the technical sense is matter in motion, then physicalism is the sole existence of "physical substance", whatever the physics du jour proclaim that is the nature of that substance. (Physicists today considered this "substance" to be a collection of relativistic quantum mechanical fields.) Worse yet, the distinction between materialism and physicalism is a technical distinction in professional philosophy; it would be perverse to insist that ordinary people make this fine distinction, or to infer only from their terminology that they necessarily and essentially rely on an outdated view of physical reality.

And indeed the fine details of physicists' ontology are not necessary to materialism. The essence of materialism is not what can be deduced from a specific ontology, but rather the rejection of idealism and dualism, an essence specifically noted by Wikipedia, materialism
is different from ontological theories based on dualism or pluralism. For singular explanations of the phenomenal reality, materialism would be in contrast to idealism and to spiritualism.
In his essay, Thoughts actually notes this essential contrast: philosophers "have split into two main groups," materialists and dualists. The essential property of philosophical materialism is its monism, not the specific details of physics.

And, while they profoundly change our view of physical reality, the truth is that Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics don't much change philosophical views that rests on a classical understanding of reality. Relativity and quantum mechanics don't even change a lot of science; wide swaths of scientific and engineering endeavors can safely ignore relativity and quantum mechanics, including a lot of astrophysics, orbital mechanics, and even electronics (while transistors do depend fundamentally on quantum mechanics, most electrical engineers ignore the quantum underpinnings and work at the level of classical approximations of their emergent behavior). Newtonian classical physics might be a "special case" of relativistic quantum mechanics, if by "special case" we mean 99.999..99% of observable phenomena.

Even the 0.000.01% of "edge" cases of relativity and quantum mechanics don't affect our materialistic philosophy much. Relativity doesn't change anything important; if anything it reinforces materialism: time and space are now interactions of matter; they don't sit "outside" matter, actually eliminating a puzzling dualism within material reality. And the only aspects of quantum mechanics that pertain to a materialistic philosophy are the Copenhagen interpretation, which simply denies that science has anything to say about ontology whatsoever, and the role of the observer in quantum mechanics. But the first is just cowardice — quantum mechanics does have something to say about ontology; it's just too weird and counter-intuitive for many people, including many scientists, to believe. And the role of the observer is pure speculation; we have absolutely no evidence to prefer any special role of "consciousness" to more prosaic, materialistic (or "physicalist") views such as the Many Worlds or Transactional interpretations.

Finally, Thoughts exhortation that, "The problem of how we can experience anything will require a scientific rather than an ideological approach," falls flat. Even the relatively naive 19th century view of materialism is the result of a scientific understanding of reality, and the philosophy easily survives modern scientific knowledge just by tweaking the specifics of what we consider "substance" to be. Materialism hardly requires a massive denial of observation or a dogmatic rejection of the relevance of "any cosmology after 100 AD."

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Except for the wars and the torture and the assassinations and the extraordinary renditions and Guantanamo and Bagram and the tax cuts and the deficits and the cover-ups and the bailouts of rich bankers and ignoring Katrina victims and gay-bashing and doing nothing about unemployment and letting millions of people lose their homes and coddling CEOs and propping up dictators, Obama is awesome

Ted Rall

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Love and sacrifice

In Catholic school as vicious as Roman rule
I got my knuckles brusied by a lady in black
And I held my toungue as she told me, "Son,
"fear is the heart of love"
So I never went back

I Will Follow You Into The Dark, Death Cab for Cutie

In his comment to Dagood's post God’s a Big Human, commenter OneSmallStep asserts that God's love does not "humanize" god. I'm not at all interested in whether anyone's imaginary friend is or is not human, or can or cannot be humanized. I'm much more interested (and appalled) by OneSmallStep's assertion that God's love expressed as the sacrifice of Jesus (presumably per John 3:16) "matches the definition of love we all have."

This assertion is arrant nonsense. OneSmallStep's definition certainly does not match the stated definition of love that atheists have, it does not match the stated definitions most non-Christians have (neither Islam, Buddhism nor Hinduism place much theological importance specifically on sacrifice, especially a deity's or supernatural power's sacrifice to humanity) and, if we look at people's actual behavior, does not match even Christians' definition of love, at least as applied to other human beings.

Love is of course a very complicated set of emotions, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and ethical standards. But we can extract obvious commonality from observations of human behavior: love is characterized by trust, cooperation and mutual benefit. I've been married for almost six years now: I love my wife and she loves me. Before I met my present wife, I raised two children: I love them and they love me. Yet in any larger sense, I've sacrificed nothing to either my wife or my children. It is certainly the case that in every way, economically, materially, and emotionally, both my wife and I are much better off than we would be alone. To a certain extent, I made economic "sacrifices" to raise my children, but that sacrifice was not to them, it was a trade of a lesser value to a greater value of my own: my self-image and self-esteem. They certainly had no choice in the matter, and whatever I gave up for my own does not place any sort of obligation on them, not even for gratitude. Whatever love we feel for each other has nothing to do with what I sacrificed to raise them, and everything to do with the trust, cooperation and mutual benefit we gain from acting as a family.

Indeed most civilized, healthy people consider the connection between sacrifice and love in ordinary human life as at best creepy and neurotic (e.g. the stereotypical (and misogynist, racist and false) "Jewish mother" who manipulates her children with guilt) and at worst literally insane (e.g. people who commit suicide "for love"). Few think (and no one should think) that a battered wife sacrifices her own physical well-being for her "love" for her husband (she does so out of fear), and no one would or should admire her if she actually did so out of "love".

I suppose that under extraordinary circumstances, if my tail's in a crack, I would probably sacrifice my life to save my wife or children... I might even, out of "love" for humanity, sacrifice my life for a stranger. But such a sacrifice would be an act of desperation. It isn't love, not really, and it's certainly not the definition of love. As much as I love my wife, I don't want to sacrifice anything for her benefit. I could, in theory, make the "ultimate sacrifice" and commit suicide, but I don't think my wife would consider that an act of love: indeed she would be well-justified to consider it an act of hatred and violence towards her. Even if I made suicide look like an accident so she would gain considerable material benefit from my life insurance, she would consider it more loving for me (and better for her) to stay with her in poverty than kill myself for her wealth.

The narrative becomes even more absurd when we consider the "sacrifice" of Jesus in the context of the whole Bible. First, it's not really that much of a "sacrifice": death has no meaning for a deity. Secondly, the sacrifice was entirely gratuitous: an omnipotent deity by definition cannot act out of desperation. And the sacrifice was to "atone" for a "original" sin that's nothing more than a blatant frame-up. No, the resurrection of Jesus has to be seen even within the context of the Christian narrative (absent, of course, the "faith" a Christian must bring to that narrative) as nothing more than an opportunity for Yahweh to awe the masses with a cheap magic trick. OneSmallStep would have us belief that the definition of love that everyone has is exemplified by a deity sacrificing itself to itself to atone for a sin it itself engineered. This definition is not just perverse, it's completely ridiculous.

So why elevate sacrifice, at best a peripheral, accidental and extraordinary component of love, to its very definition? And why, as does OneSmallStep, blithely attribute this definition to everyone?

Guilt is a powerful human emotion, and one of the most powerful for manipulating others into doing what you want. If you can elevate sacrifice to the definition of love then you can on the one hand use sacrifice to create obligations, and on the other hand you can justify demanding other people sacrifice themselves: You're not working twelve hours a day and living in poverty? You must not love your employer.

In a follow-up comment, OneSmallStep tries to use war as a justification for his definition of love:
Our definition of love -- how we define love -- includes an aspect of sacrificing objects or even people of value (and I would say that we have instances where we do "sacrifice" people of value. Wars, for instance, if people encourage their family or friends to fight for a greater good). I'm not focusing on the morality or lack thereof of the parent sacrificing the child, I'm simply focusing on how the element of sacrifice ties to the definition of love.
(Notice how sacrifice becomes not the definition of love that everyone has, but an "aspect of" or "tied to" the definition.)

But more importantly, and more shockingly, the effect of this exposition is not to justify love in terms of war, but to justify war in terms of love. Wars are never fought "for the greater good", they are and have been from time immemorial fought to settle disputes between factions of the ruling class du jour. (We didn't, for example, fight the Germans in the Second Imperialist War because they were killing Jews, or the Japanese because they were massacring the Chinese. We fought them because they were trying to expand their colonial power at our expense. That we happened to rid the world of a few of the world's many nasty characters was just a bonus.)

We can see the fundamental and unavoidable danger of "moderate" religion. I've been reading OneSmallStep's commentary on Thoughts from a Sandwich for quite some time, and overall he (?) seems like a reasonably nice person, although — quelle suprise — somewhat fuzzy of thought. To be a "moderate" of any religion, one must buy in at least somehow to that religion's core narrative. But all religions are rotten to the core; a supernatural or "faith" justification for any principle is necessary and has any long-term legs only when that principle lacks rational support. And principles without rational support achieve persistence in any society only when those principles allow the ruling class to exploit, oppress and abuse the ruled class.

Convincing the policymakers

In order to make substantive changes to economic policy, Paul Krugman notes the obvious: "you have to ... convince current policymakers that it’s the right answer." But Krugman is being a little naive: people — policymakers included — rarely if ever do the "right" thing just because it's the right thing to do. If you want to make changes, you to convince the policymakers that those changes are in their material interest. There are two sets of policymakers: the very rich and the elected government. So we have to ask: what precisely are the material interests of these policymakers?

People tend to construct their interests in widening circles, from their individual interests to the interests of their families, work organizations, localities, nations, and regions. They also widen their construction of interests laterally to their church or religion, their profession, their social class and (sometimes) their economic class. And members of the capitalist class seem to have been especially effective at acting in their own economic class interests.

It's a mistake, I think, to see group identification as a "sacrifice" of one's personal interests to the interests of the group. First, a group isn't "really real"; doesn't have interests of its own. A group interest is some abstraction of the interests of its members.

The simplest abstraction is merely some interest that is predominantly shared by the members of the group, especially where individuals self-identify with the group explicitly on the basis of some interest. The group of poker players, for example, are all interested in — surprisingly enough — playing poker; the members of the Motion Picture Association of America are all interested in enforcing, preserving and extending intellectual property rights.

Another, more complex abstraction is mutual benefit. There are interactions where it's always in each individual's immediate benefit to one thing, but it's to both individuals' greater benefit to do the opposite but only if both individuals do the same thing. If I buy a TV from Crazy Eddie, it's in my "immediate" benefit to give him counterfeit money whether or not he gives me a real TV. Likewise, it's in Crazy Eddie's immediate benefit to give me a box with bricks in it whether or not I give him real money. This analysis means that all exchanges are of counterfeit money for empty boxes. Compared to that outcome, it's to our increased mutual benefit to exchange real TVs for real money. Compared to mutual betrayal, mutual cooperation is not a sacrifice: it's an increase in benefit. Each party must "sacrifice" only the illusory benefits of asymmetric betrayal (i.e. where one person cooperates and the other betrays).

One reason I suspect that group identification is strong in humans is precisely that group identification affords mutual cooperation for mutual benefit. It does so by changing the game, by imposing an immediate penalty — loss of group membership — on asymmetric betrayal. The dominant local strategy for each person becomes to cooperate, since asymmetric betrayal loses the more valuable group identification for the smaller immediate benefit. Group identification can evolve — it doesn't need to be planned — and group selection is much more important in social evolution than it is in biological evolution. (Although I'm hardly an expert in evolutionary biology, I suspect that we'll find that group selection plays an important part in inter-species competition.)

What are the interests of the rich?

I recently read Burn Rate, by Michael Wolff, a fascinating inside look at the Internet tech bubble of the late 1990s. In one passage Wolff, the CEO of an Internet startup, has a conversation with his primary financial backer. To paraphrase, the backer exhorts Wolff to go for a personal payout of about $30,000,000, because the people who settle for a payout of only $15,000,000 are "dead". They have enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, but they don't have enough money to make large-scale investments: they cannot become members of the true ruling class. Membership of the ruling class isn't about consuming more; I doubt that even Bill Gates actually consumes more than about $500,000/year (and people who do consume more are parvenus intent on rejoining the working class). Had living well been his only goal, he would have retired and cashed out at $15 million, instead of accumulating three orders of magnitude more money, three orders of magnitude more status and power in the ruling class. No one gets into the ruling class without the burning desire to accumulate and exercise power, and those who do manage (usually by birth and inheritance) to get in without that burning desire soon fall out of it.

(It's also worth noting that the easiest and most common way of accumulating enough money to join the ruling capitalist class is to get that money from someone already in that class. It's very difficult (but not impossible, as several televangelists have demonstrated) to get that much money directly from the working class: the working class is the source of the ruling capitalist class's wealth, and pretty well sewn up.)

It seems fairly obvious that the dominant personal and immediate family interest of the members of the ruling capitalist class is the accumulation and exercise of economic power. The accumulation and exercise of any sort of power is generally a zero-sum game. It's neither in the immediate self interest of any member of the capitalist class to improve the overall state of the economy, nor is there any sense of mutual benefit by mutual cooperation. In much the same sense, it's not in football coaches' immediate or mutual self interest to increase the overall score of a game: a 2-0 win is better than a 41-72 loss.

So clearly, Krugman cannot have the members of the capitalist ruling class in mind: the only sense that the capitalist ruling class acts in its mutual self interest is to prevent, discourage and suppress threats from other classes to their own class rule, and there's no immediate danger of any kind of socialist or working class revolution. (The only immediate danger to the capitalist ruling class is that posedd by Christian theocrats, but the capitalists are handling that danger by co-option and "corruption".) Krugman can have only elected officials in mind.

Elected officials are, like capitalists, motivated by the zero-sum accumulation and exercise of power, but their method of obtaining power is different from the capitalists'. In a capitalist "democracy", the working class occasionally gets some voice in the exercise of power: to gain power (at least for now) a politician must convince millions of people to drive to a polling place and pull the lever next to her name.

We can assume that professional politicians at the national level are generally those most skilled at winning elections (or employ those who are most skilled): if there were anyone more skilled, they would have won the election. So to convince the elected policymakers to make some change, you have to convince them that supporting the change will help them win elections (or, having won elections, allow them to more strongly exercise their acquired political power).

The working class does benefit to some extent from overall improvements in the economy: jobs, employment, work, standards of living are not zero-sum games, they are usually positive-sum games, where the natural dominant strategy is cooperation for mutual benefit. However, to influence elections, the members of the working class must think of themselves as a class, with class interests. Lacking much individual power, having power only in numbers, they must also act in concert, with a certain level of organization and discipline*.

*While "authoritarians" frequently invoke the value of discipline as justification for authoritarianism, the fallacy does not lie in the value of discipline itself, but in their connection of discipline to authority.

But if the working class did conceive of itself as a class, with class interests, and if they were capable of enough organized and disciplined action to influence elections (even under the rigged capitalist "democratic" system) to their class benefit, then they would have sufficient power not just to extract concessions from the capitalist class, but to take over completely. But of course the capitalist class does conceive of itself as a class, it is itself disciplined and organized, and they fully understand that their mutual interest in preserving their own class as the ruling class.

It's going to be very difficult to convince policymakers to do the "right" thing, to choose the "correct" answer; the difference between the "right" and "wrong" answers (according to Krugman's conscience and preferences) is at the very least irrelevant (and may be contrary to) to the immediate and medium-term self interest of the entire ruling class, moneyed and elected. The only long-term threat to the ruling class is a socialist revolution, but the ruling class does not seem to consider this threat sufficiently serious to implement general economic reform — even Obama has primarily limited himself to preserving the status of owners of financial capital and making only token efforts for the working class in the ludicrously small "stimulus" (primarily targeting the professional-managerial middle class) and his woefully insufficient (and actively misogynist) "universal" health care plan.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Dialectical Materialism, part 1

Marx's economic analyses were anticipated by earlier capitalist economists such as Smith and Ricardo, and his identification of the class struggle was hardly novel. Dialectical materialism is the absolutely fundamental element of communism, and (although he didn't label it as such, using the term "historical materialism") Marx's greatest contribution to general and political philosophy.

Dialectical materialism is most sharply contrasted with idealism, both explicit and implied, in the sense of the objective existence of ideas fundamentally independent of and distinct from the material reality of (intuitively) rocks and trees or (scientifically) the intrinsic, irreducible properties of quanta and quantum fields.

Examples of explicit idealism can be found in Plato's philosophy as well as Hegel's dialectical idealism, the direct precursor to Marx's dialectical materialism. A more subtle, implied form of idealism can be found in many people's — including many scientists — ideas about natural physical laws, the idea that physical laws have an independent existence from material reality. There exists a law of gravity, and the law of gravity itself actually exists independently of actual material things attracting each other. (To be fair, most practicing scientists do not worry deeply about or get too attached to the fine details of philosophical ontology, nor do they really need to do so. For their practical purposes ontological fuzziness is just as useful as informed skepticism.)

When we start talking about specifically political philosophy, the distinction between idealism and materialism becomes very important. According to the precepts of dialectical materialism, we have to re-think 99% of our discourse on political and ethical philosophy as at the very least using unwarranted and confusing idealistic metaphors and at worst being arrant bullshit.

Much of Western political and ethical philosophy consists of the search for the "correct" ethical and political principles. What are the correct set of property rights? How much freedom of speech should we have? Who should own the means of production? When do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?

From a materialist viewpoint, these questions are at best metaphorical and at worst nonsensical. Ethical and political principles are not in any sense material entities (except as they exist as arrangements of neural properties in people's heads) and have no properties, such as correctness or goodness, independent of some physical, material representation. These questions can be interpreted as different kinds of metaphors: What kinds of property rights will lead to some desired outcome? What are the historical material causes of the collection of ideas in people's heads and in law books that we refer to in the abstract as "freedom of speech"?

Metaphor is fine for literature. An explicitly, consistently and more-or-less precisely defined metaphor becomes an unobjectionable label. But political philosophy is not literature, and its use of ill-defined, imprecise and poorly-understood metaphors does little to advance our understanding.

Paul Krugman gives us an excellent recent example of using an idealistic metaphor in political philosophy:
I’m also fairly conventional on how economies should be run. Self-interest is still the best motivator we know – or more accurately, the only consistent motivator. So I’m for market economies. But I’m for market economies with strong safety nets, with adult supervision in capital markets, with public provision of goods the private sector does badly (like basic research and much of education.) An idealized New Deal is about as far as I go.
If you construct "self-interest" in a reasonable, materialistic way, Krugman is correct that it is indeed the "best" motivator. I'm pleased that he's "for" strong safety nets, adult supervision and public provision of some goods. But how does self-interest motivate these activities? If he thought self-interest (or material factors) could motivate safety nets, etc., he wouldn't introduce these ideas with a "but". They are idealistic principles, presumably, that we "should" aspire to independently of and in some sense contrary to* our self-interest.

*Independence is vacuous if it cannot be contrary. If two things are always correlated, they are not actually independent, even if we can somehow speak of them separately; if two things are always correlated, then speaking of one is always speaking of the other. I cannot, for example, talk (informally) about satiating hunger "independently" of eating food... at least not until we invent neural implants that can directly affect our subjective mental states. And even then, I cannot talk even formally about my feelings of hunger independently of the neural states that represent those feelings.

We can see another example of Krugman's idealism in his book, The Conscience of a Liberal. Just the title betrays his idealism: the principles he expounds are matters of conscience, to be adopted because they are themselves "good" principles. He extols the virtues of New Deal regulated imperialist finance capitalism. As capitalism goes, New Deal capitalism was pretty good, and pretty good even for the capitalist class. He talks in a very abstract, indirect way about its instrumental goodness, but mostly in terms of other ideals, such as stability and distribution of income. He can't really talk in detail about the material effects of New Deal capitalism, since New Deal capitalism offered only the most marginal benefit in terms of the measurable, material well-being of billions of people: tens of millions of Americans and Europeans and a billion people in the exploited third word living in desperate poverty. (You're now just malnourished instead of actually starving to death! Yay capitalism!)

Furthermore, he does not talk about the causal history of the New Deal, and he doesn't explore deeply the causal history of the thirty-year erosion of the New Deal from the 1970's to the present. I'm not pretending I can read his mind, but I get the impression reading the book that he believes the New Deal sprang Athena-like from the mind of FDR and (to some extent) John Maynard Keynes, and its erosion was due to nothing more than inexplicable, irrational perversity.

Dialectical and historical materialism (if we take historical materialism to be dialectical materialism applied to political philosophy) purports to explain these phenomena in a rigorous, detailed, systematic and, above all, scientific way.

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

The Paranoid Style in American Politics, By Richard Hofstadter, Harper’s Magazine, November 1964

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).

[via Brad DeLong]

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Commenting, free speech and open debate

I don't much like to blog about blogging, but db0's recent Jr. High tantrum prompts me to speak. It's notable that db0 didn't complain about my "censorship" when I banned idiot creationists, uptight philosophy sophomores or torture apologists. He's hardly acting out of high-minded principle; he's just pissed that a) he personally was banned and b) that we used to be friends, kind of, and we aren't anymore. And his assertion that I'm not interested in the "facts" is ludicrous; I rejected his comments precisely because they didn't contain any actual facts. And even though db0 has known for a while that I advocate a role for the state in communism, it's only when he personally has been offended that he slanderously labels my position "Maoism".

(He might be drawing an inference from my reporting on and opinions about the controversy between Sunsara Taylor and the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago, but that no more makes me a Maoist than it does PZ Myers. I'm reporting on the controversy because I think Sunsara is right and the EHSC is wrong, and because Sunsara is my friend. I refuse to self-identify even as a Marxist, much less a Maoist, and I have never advocated substantial compliance with "Mao Zedong thought". That I might have some positions in common with Mao doesn't make me a Maoist any more than vegetarian, teatotalling nonsmokers are Hitlerists.)

But there's a larger point here.

I and no other blogger has any obligation whatsoever under the principles of free speech and open debate to publish any comment. I have no obligation to even respond to any comment other than one that corrects a provable error of fact.

The principles of freedom of speech and open debate are served by everyone being able to have the same sort of platform that I myself have, and blogs are indeed free from Google, Wordpress and others. Some people want to publish and respond to a wide variety of comments, good for them. Some, such as Andrew Sullivan, don't publish comments at all. Some, such as Paul Krugman, publish comments but the author rarely responds. Some, like PZ Myers, restrict only spam, but the social milieu tends to suppress certain points of view. All of these models are perfectly legitimate from the perspective of free speech and open debate.

Some venues say or imply they want open debate, but don't actually afford open debate. But their sin is hypocrisy and dishonesty, especially when they conclude that their hypocritical "support" of open debate proves by omission the substantive failure of opposing positions; they do not sin against free speech.

I'm very open and explicit that I don't want comments and that I moderate them arbitrarily. If you think I'm wrong about some point, you're perfectly free to criticize me on your own blog in whatever terms and in whatever manner you please. I won't send you a DMCA takedown, I won't lobby to have your blog banned, suppressed, put behind an adult content filter or removed from an aggregator. I won't even suggest to my readers not to read your blog. (I don't know about your readers, but if mine aren't adult enough to make their own decisions about what to read or not to read, I'm not much interested in keeping them.)

This blog exists, though to publish my arguments, my thoughts, my opinions, my speculation. It is, openly and by design, all about me. You have no more right to publish your thoughts here, even in the comments, than you do to sleep on my couch. And the fact that I reject comments that I find repetitious, stupid, trivial, without substance, rude or that just happen to irritate me on a bad day doesn't make me an enemy of free speech or open debate.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Still not interested... Jr. High School drama. I tried to handle it privately, but to no avail.

The problem is not that db0 disagrees with me. I published his disagreement. The problem is that he's just plain stupid not nearly as intelligent or perspicacious as he thinks he is, and I lack the patience and mental calmness to deal with other people's arrogant mediocrity.

Oh, and he's a liar too: I've never called myself a Maoist.

Imperialism and finance capitalism

Krugman on Finance mythbusting, third world edition:
Since the early 1980s there have been three big waves of capital flows to developing countries.

The first wave was to Latin American countries that liberalized trade and opened their markets in the wake of the 80s debt crisis. This wave ended in grief, with the Mexican crisis of 1995 and the delayed Argentine crisis of 2002.

The second wave was to southeast Asian economies in the mid 90s, when the Asian economic miracle was all the rage. This wave ended in grief, with the crisis of 1997-8.

The third wave was to eastern European economies in the middle years of this decade. This wave is ending in grief as we speak. ...

...there’s no striking evidence that capital flows have been a major source of economic success. [emphasis added]

2010 midterm elections

Sayeth the prophet:
Because [Republicans] aren’t interested in actually governing, they feed the base’s frenzy instead of trying to curb or channel it. So all the old restraints are gone.

In the short run, this may help Democrats, as it did in that New York race. But maybe not: elections aren’t necessarily won by the candidate with the most rational argument. They’re often determined, instead, by events and economic conditions.

In fact, the party of Limbaugh and Beck could well make major gains in the midterm elections. The Obama administration’s job-creation efforts have fallen short, so that unemployment is likely to stay disastrously high through next year and beyond. The banker-friendly bailout of Wall Street has angered voters, and might even let Republicans claim the mantle of economic populism. Conservatives may not have better ideas, but voters might support them out of sheer frustration.
Did I call it or did I call it?
The Democrats will probably take the White House and Congress in 2008 no matter what they do, but they've handed the Republican party enough ammunition and control over the political narrative that the 2008 administration and Congress will be completely ineffectual. The Republicans will take Congress in 2010 and the White House in 2012.

I made a number of other predictions in that post. Let's see how I'm doing so far (remember, the original was written before the current depression).

Specifically we will see from the 2008 Democratic government:

Continued occupation of Iraq: Check
Military hostilities against Iran: Not yet
Corporatist control of the mass media: Check
Loss of more primary manufacturing capacity: Check
Erosion of the middle class: Check
Collapsing housing prices: Big Check
Devaluation of the currency: Not yet, but inevitable
No substantial change to the employer-insurance health care system: See below
More working Americans without health insurance or adequate health care: Missed this one; see below
More concentration of wealth in the top 1% and even more in the top 0.1%: Check
More erosion of basic constitutional civil liberties: Check
Update: more erosion of abortion rights: Check

We will not see:

Repeal of FISA or its amendments: Check
Repeal of the Military Commissions Act: See below
Restoration of habeus corpus: Check
Universal or even near-universal health care: See below
Cessation of torture as military and police policy: Maybe; See below
Any substantial action on global warming: Check (so far)
Ratification of the Kyoto treaty or any comparable international action: Check
Any high-level member of the Bush administration being held to criminal account: Check (with the possible exception of Scooter Libby, which was pure tokenism)

Health Care: It looks like some form of "universal" health care may pass; I really didn't think the Democrats would get even this far. On the other hand, it's about the weakest, half-assed "universal" health care imaginable, and women's reproductive rights have not only been ignored but actively rolled back. Krugman is cautiously optimistic but only because he believes something is better than nothing; and the most one can say about this plan is that it's better than nothing.

Military Commissions Act: The MCA was found unconstitutional. Technically it was not "repealed", but I did expect the Supreme Court to uphold it.

Torture: While there's no evidence that the military under the Obama administration is actually torturing people, Obama has gone out of his way not to abjure torture as at least a policy option.

Still and all, not too shabby a predictive effort for a guy without access to Lexis/Nexis.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Barack Hoover Obama

Barack Hoover Obama: The best and the brightest blow it again by Kevin Baker:
Three months into his presidency, Barack Obama has proven to be every bit as charismatic and intelligent as his most ardent supporters could have hoped. ... Obama’s failure would be unthinkable. And yet the best indications now are that he will fail, because he will be unable—indeed he will refuse—to seize the radical moment at hand.
According to Baker, Obama more closely resembles Herbert Hoover than Franklin Roosevelt. Hoover was a Republican, though; If Obama fails as spectacularly as Hoover (for the same reasons that Hoover failed: not being quite radical enough in a situation that demands radical action) his failure will only strengthen the Republican party.

[via Brad DeLong]

Friday, November 06, 2009

The power of the industrial proletariat

According to Angry Bear, United States "service employment is about 112.5 million versus 11.7 million in manufacturing." This number should not encourage those socialist organizations counting on the industrial proletariat (i.e. manufacturing workers) as the forefront of a revolution.

Conditions do change.

Ownership and privilege

Ownership, all ownership, is privilege. Privilege derives from the roots privi-, private and -lege, law: privilege is, either literally or metaphorically, private law. My wife and I own a car. Therefore there is a private law letting the two of do things with my car that no one else can do. She and I are legally permitted to drive it to the store whenever we please; you and everyone else are legally prohibited from doing so. She and I don't have this privilege "because of" our ownership; our ownership is this privilege.

An obvious corollary is that just the simple fact of privilege is not necessarily bad. It's not necessarily good, either: we have to look at the details of each particular privilege — how it is obtained, who has it, to what it is applied, and most importantly its effect on the well-being of actual human beings — to come to an informed judgment on the desirability of that privilege.

All ownership, all human privilege, is to an important degree socially constructed. While I physically possess my car, physical possession is not the be-all end-all of ownership. If my neighbor were to merely appropriate my car, a large body of armed, uniformed police would (at least if I caught them on a good day) come down on his ass like a ton of bricks. This propensity of the the police to enforce this kind of ownership is a social construction: they do so because of ideas, ideas in people's heads, ideas written down in statutes and legal precedents, and the ideas about how to use those written-down ideas to focus the coercive activities of the police. These social constructions are not objective in the sense of mind-independent: if all of the relevant mental properties were to vanish, the social construction would vanish in the same sense that a house built of legos vanishes when you disassemble the house.

There are two kinds of privilege: direct and indirect. Direct privilege is like my ownership of my car. Indirect privilege is some consequence or emergent property of a direct privilege. A supervisor is directly privileged to dismiss his subordinates; it's a privilege because his subordinates cannot dismiss their supervisor, neither individually nor en bloc. This direct privilege gives rise to various indirect social privileges: in many environments a supervisor can, for example, be rude or obnoxious in ways that subordinates cannot, without fear of reprisal. This is an indirect privilege because we don't explicitly construct the privilege of supervisory rudeness; it is a consequence of and emerges from the direct privilege of firing.

Commenter cornucrapia challenges the element of the privilege of the owners of capital over the owners of labor power as an essential feature of capitalism*,**. He offers an alternative definition:
Capitalism - an economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, esp. as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth.
He and I are saying the same thing, though: individuals have ownership over capital, and therefore they have some sort of privilege. But what kind?

*This is exactly the sort of conversation I want to have on the blog. We concede nothing of substance to each other out of "respect", but show each other the respect of each assuming the other is a sincere, honest, well-intentioned person eager to discover the truth.

**It's important to note too that capitalist privilege is socially constructed and separate and distinct from commodity relations: commodity relations do not directly and inevitably entail capitalist privilege.

The direct privilege is, of course, the ownership of capital. Capital comes in two forms. First, there's physical capital: the machinery, tools, buildings and other physical things employed in the production of some commodity. There's also the labor capital, all of what what the capitalist must pay to the workers before the commodity is produced and finally exchanged for some price. This ownership is the direct privilege of the owner to produce what he pleases, at the rate he pleases, and exchange the products with whom he pleases for the price he pleases. But what of the indirect privileges this ownership?

First, a production surplus must be concentrated to employ as capital; a surplus equally distributed to the population will mostly be directly consumed. Second, capital is physically necessary to produce the physical things all human beings need — food, housing, clothing, etc. — to survive and prosper.

We must take a closer look at cornucrapia's definition of capitalism, specifically: "[O]wnership of the means of production ... [is held] chiefly by private individuals or corporations." In a trivial sense (and one I'm confident cornucrapia does not intend) ownership of everything is by physical necessity invested in individual human beings. What else could own things? Dolphins? Orangutangs? Rocks? Trees? The Pythagorean Theorem? Cornucrapia (and those establishing this definition of capitalism) must intend something more specific.

The above definition explicitly compares individual and corporate ownership with cooperative and state ownership. Capital also must be concentrated to be effective. We can therefore reasonably interpret this definition in two ways. First, capital is owned by individuals and corporations in its concentrated form; it is not owned by all of those individuals who have physically contributed their personal surplus to the creation of the capital. All working people (and almost all people work, or can and want to) contribute a productive surplus that can be concentrated into capital, but under capitalism as defined, all working people do not "cooperatively" own the capital.

By contrasting private ownership with state (or governmental) ownership, the above definition makes a substantive formal separation between the organ of socially acceptable direct physical coercion (the state or government) and the ownership of capital (the private capitalist). This element exempts the owners of capital from being coerced by the government. Nobody likes to be coerced (even the police loathe those who police the police), and in a perfect world we'd like to rely on voluntary cooperation, but we need some form of coercion (at least under present conditions) for people to act in their mutual benefit instead of their individual benefit*. Therefore, a corollary to this definition is that capital is employed for the individual or private benefit of the owners, without regard for the mutual benefit of everyone in a society.

*This is a very subtle point of ethical philosophy. Read my essays on ethics, Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism, and the Prisoner's Dilemma.

The products of capital and industrial production are necessary to for most everyone to survive; at today's levels of technology non-industrial production can support only only a fraction of the present population. By definition, the owners of concentrated capital can produce and exchange these products as they please, exempt from social controls. It therefore follows that the owners of capital have indirect privilege over the very survival of the population, and there is no systematic compensating privilege for the workers, the owners of only their own labor power.

Thus the individual, private ownership of capital creates a de facto indirect privilege of the capitalist class.

Automation, unemployment and the market economy

Could Advancing Job Automation Technology Cause Structural Unemployment?:
[A] very large percentage of jobs are, on some level, essentially routine and repetitive in nature. ...[A]s both hardware and software continue to advance, a large fraction of these job types are ultimately going to be susceptible to machine or software automation. ...

It seems to me that, as automation penetrates nearly everywhere, there must come a "tipping point," beyond which the overall economy is simply not labor intensive enough to continue absorbing workers who lose their jobs due to automation (or globalization). Beyond this point, businesses will be able to ramp up production primarily by employing machines and software--and structural unemployment then becomes inevitable.

If we reach that point, then I think we also have a serious problem with consumer demand. If automation is relentless, then the basic mechanism that gets purchasing power into the hands of consumers begins to break down. As a thought experiment, imagine a fully automated economy. Virtually no one would have a job (or an income); machines would do everything. So where would consumption come from? If we're still considering a market (rather than a planned) economy, why would production continue if there weren't any viable consumers to purchase the output? Long before we reached that extreme point of full automation, it seems pretty clear that mass-market business models would become unsustainable.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Communism and individual rights

In his retrospective of communism, Fred Halliday writes:
… underpinning these three ideas – “state”, “progress”, “revolution” – lay a key component of this legacy: the lack of an independently articulated ethical dimension. True, there was a supposedly ethical dimension – whatever made for progress, crudely defined as winning power for a party leadership, and gaining power for a, mythified, working class – was defended. However, the greatest failure of socialism over its 200 years, especially in its Bolshevik form, was the lack of an ethical dimension in regard to the rights of individuals and citizens in general, indeed in regard to all who were not part of the revolutionary elite, and the lack of any articulated and justifiable criteria applicable to the uses, legitimate and illegitimate, of violence and state coercion. That many of those who continue to uphold revolutionary-socialist ideals, and the potential of Marxist theory, today appear not to have noticed this, that they indeed reject, when not scorn, the concept of “rights”, is an index of how little they have learned, or have noticed the sufferings of others.
Halliday is simply wrong here. If he were making an empirical case, if he were to say that historical communist governments lacked an independently articulated ethical dimension, that these historical governments crudely defined an ethical dimension only of winning power for a party leadership, etc. — and if you cherry-pick the empirical data — he might have a point. But at the theoretical level, about the ideas underpinning "state", "progress" and "revolution", he's just wrong.

Before we can actually refute Halliday's position, we have to understand it: a difficult task. What precisely does he mean by the "lack of an independently articulated ethical dimension"? What is an "ethical dimension"? Why does it need to be "independently" articulated? And what does Halliday believe an ethical dimension be independent of?

Halliday clarifies his position, referring to "the lack of an ethical dimension in regard to the rights of individuals and citizens in general, indeed in regard to all who were not part of the revolutionary elite, and the lack of any articulated and justifiable criteria applicable to the uses, legitimate and illegitimate, of violence and state coercion." It is seems clear here that Halliday is speaking primarily about a legal system and the underlying philosophy of law: the law is is nothing more or less than explicitly articulated criteria applicable to the uses of governmental coercion.

All well and good: there's much to legitimately criticize in formal and philosophical communist legal systems. But it would be simple nonsense to imply that these flaws stemmed from a lack of theoretical concern for the well-being of individuals, an ethic limited to "winning power for a party leadership, and gaining power for a mythified working class." And the idea of winning power for a party leadership as an instrument of achieving human well-being goes only as far back as Lenin. Indeed there is little talk at all about revolution (and how to achieve it) in the earliest days of Utopian socialism, to which Halliday presumably refers to by socialism's 200 year history. Halliday must (if we are to interpret him charitably) mean by "rights" something not really directly related to human well-being and how to achieve it.

Chris Bertram interprets Halliday as claiming that communism promotes a (bad) Consequentialist ethic in unstated contrast to a (presumably good) Deontic ethic. But deontic ethics are at best a shortcut to consequentialism under limited, imperfect information and at worst a delusion.

Betram notes that Western, capitalist, ethics are just as philosophically consequentialist as communist ethics, theoretical or historical. (Which is not to say that those thoroughly indoctrinated into and accepting of Western judgments of consequence would agree with theoretical or historical communist judgments.) John Stuart Mill, for example, makes an entirely consequentialist argument for freedom of speech in On Liberty: we ought to have freedom of speech because such freedom will help us get at the truth*, and merely speaking an incorrect or reprehensible idea causes only trivial damage. A strictly deontic argument for freedom of speech would hold that freedom of speech is good regardless of the consequences; even if someone could call up Cthulhu by uttering magic words, we should not prevent him lest we abridge his freedom of speech.

*We don't have to make any argument at all for the value of truth: no one wants to be deluded or lied to.

On this interpretation, Halliday criticizes communism for failing to buy into the delusion that there are such things as deontic individual rights. This argument has no more power than the Christian argument that we should believe a God exists — even if no God actually exists — so that the fear of punishment in the afterlife will keep us moral.