Thursday, April 29, 2010

Political arguments

PZ Myers reviews an interesting study of political argumentation and strategy:
[W]hen you've got an argument going, and one side has the evidence but the other side has an inflexible certainty that the evidence is wrong, the inflexibles tend to distort the normal process of weighing the evidence and drawing reasonable conclusions — they suck in more uncommitted participants (called 'floaters') to their way of thinking, generating more inflexibles, strengthing [sic] the position of the anti-science side, leading to greater attraction to being wrong. The counter-strategy, suggested later in the paper, is to 'get more inflexibles' — winning over floaters so they drift over to your side has little long-term impact, it's far better to build a larger army of forceful advocates for your position.
Myers notes that the paper "is entirely theoretical, based on a mathematical model of human behavior" and therefore of limited usefulness. It's an interesting paper nonetheless, and [from the original paper]
The results she a new but disturbing light on Designing adequate strategies to eventually win public debates. To produce inflexibles in one's own side is thus critical to win a public argument whatever the rigor cost and the associated epistemological paradoxes. At odds, to focus on convincing open-minded agents is useless. In summary, when the scientific evidence is not as strong as claimed, the inflexibles rather than the data are found to drive the collective opinion of the population. Consequences on Designing adequate strategies to win a public debate are discussed.

Everything you wanted to know about the Pope...

Definitely NSFW

(via PZ Myers)

Blogroll and comments

I've trimmed my blogroll. I'm keeping only:
  • Blogs I read regularly
  • Blogs that I don't read, but I think are important
  • Blogs that link to me, unless I really dislike them.
I may have made a mistake. If you're linking to me and I'm not linking to you, I may not know about the link, or I may have deleted you in error (the mouse does slip from time to time). If you care, send me an email.

AFAIK, most site ranking algorithms ignore blogrolls. I almost never click blogs from other people's blogrolls. I conclude their utility is limited.

I've also turned off comments. Some blog authors like them and find them valuable, but I don't. As far as I'm concerned, there are three useful functions for blog comments: To build a community (e.g. Pharyngula), to correct errors of fact, and to conduct reasonable debate about complicated issues. I'm not interested in building a community, and I'm careful enough about the facts; if you want me to correct an error of fact, you're welcome to email me.

I'm interested in reasonable debate, but 95% of the people who disagree with me are either flat-out liars (e.g. Christians) or idiots (e.g. anarchists). There have been a few good exceptions, but not enough to be worth the trouble of the jackasses whining that I'm some sort of Maoist tyrant because I won't publish their stupid, argument-free dogma in the comments on my blog. Regardless of whether I'm correct or mistaken, it seems like I'm so far out of any ideological box that my opinions put seemingly reasonable people into a state of apoplectic rage or embittered betrayal. I just don't care that you don't like me any more because of what I said. I learned long ago that most people don't like me no matter what I say or do; if that's the result of a flaw in my character or intellect, it's one I'm powerless to correct.

If you don't like what I have to say, write about it on your own blog. If you do like what I have to say, write about it on your own blog. I don't pay much attention to links, so if you want me to respond, you'll have to email me.

You are free to republish without changes anything original I publish here, with attribution and a link. (For content I republish, you'll have to follow the licensing of the original author.) Of course fair use permits excerpts for several purposes, including critical commentary.

If you have questions or want clarification about something I've written, email me. Unless you tell me otherwise, I'll refer to you anonymously and paraphrase your comments. If you want to argue — with evidence and reasoning — that I'm wrong, email me. I'll anonymize and paraphrase by default, but if you give me explicit, specific permission I'll consider publishing your unedited argument as a post, with whatever attribution you specify.

If you want to tell me what a big jerk I am, you can email me. If it makes you feel better to get it off your chest, good for you. Remember, though, I assume unless proven otherwise that everyone thinks I'm a jackass, so don't expect me to be crestfallen that you personally think I'm a jackass.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Immigration and labor

A reader brings to my attention Joe Mostowey's essay on immigration and labor:
The illegal immigration problem is more accurately described as a labor problem.

In todays right-to-work era, free market, and what the market will bear pricing, it is only natural for employers, who have no loyalty to countries or communities to seek out the lowest priced labor possible.

They did this in the era before labor unions too. They imported Chinese to build railroads, Africans to pick cotton, poor Europeans to be laborers. ...

We already know that the Media, and Businesses have a vested interest in keeping the status quo, in keeping the flow of immigrant workers as high as possible to prevent the a rise in the cost of labor.

Until the worker in America realizes that as an individual he or she has no voice, no power and no future, the illegal immigrant will continue to replace him, will contine to lower labor costs and devalue the the only product he has -his labor.

Interestingly enough, Paul Krugman writes today on the curious politics of immigration:
[M]y take on the politics of immigration is that it divides both parties, but in different ways. ...

On one side, [Democrats] favor helping those in need, which inclines them to look sympathetically on immigrants... On the other side, however, open immigration can’t coexist with a strong social safety net. ...

Republicans, on the other hand, either love immigration or hate it. The business-friendly wing of the party likes inexpensive workers... [b]ut the cultural/nativist/tribal conservatives hate having these alien-looking, alien-sounding people on American soil.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Goddess of the market

Satyajit Das reviews Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns:
In “Goddess of the Market”, Jennifer Burns identifies the source of [Rand's] appeal. The very shallowness of her thinking that intellectuals dismissed was inherently attractive to a certain sensibility, especially adolescents. Her absolute values and intolerance are attractive to those who prefer a Manichean worldview.

I disagree, however, that
Rand’s popularity also derives from her correct insight that thriving societies are not possible without freedom, entrepreneurial abilities and innovation. This fact is most evident in China’s embrace of market economics to some degree.
This "insight" is not particularly profound; few "collectivists", I think, would assert that we want to do without innovation entirely. The question is how best to innovate, and how best to manage innovation. The financial innovations of the last few years, for example, have not proven particularly socially valuable.

I also disagree that "Rand never succeeded in creating a lasting legacy or political movement. The collective fell apart when she fell out with Branden." Rand's actual "cult" fell apart, but her legacy — as evidenced by the popularity of her books today as well as the adoption of key ideological themes, especially her take-no-prisoners absolutism, by the leadership of the radical conservative movement — lives on.

As Rogers notes:
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The genre artist

The Genre Artist:
Jack Vance, described by his peers as “a major genius” and “the greatest living writer of science fiction and fantasy,” has been hidden in plain sight for as long as he has been publishing — six decades and counting. ... [Vance is] one of American literature’s most distinctive and undervalued voices.
(via Frederik Pohl)

Philosophy of the LTV

The philosophy of the Labor Theory of Value is irrelevant to determining whether or not it's actually true: we must depend on empirical tests. However, the philosophical justification is important to understanding what the Labor Theory of Value actually says, and how it can be empirically tested.

The LTV starts with the observation that how human beings use our physical bodies over time is the only sort of decision or choice we can directly make; every other kind of choice (at least choices that have physical effects) results from our choice as to how to employ our labor. Since labor is the only thing we physically can make direct choices about, it seems at least plausible to hypothesize that the amount of labor will determine prices.

The LTV assumes that all labor has equal "intrinsic" value. There are more or less valuable ways that someone can use her labor, and there are particular characteristics of individuals that allow them to employ their labor more effectively for some uses and less effectively for others. The point of the "equal value" premise is to say that an hour of Jane Doe's labor is not more valuable just because she happens to be Jane Doe — or more realistically, just because she's white or her parents were royalty, nobility or of a particular economic class. It does not contradict the LTV to say that because Jane Doe is smart, hard working, talented, charming, and sociable, she therefore can put her labor to more valuable uses than could the dull, lazy, obnoxious John Smith. It would contradict the LTV to say that because Jane Doe is smart, etc. her labor is intrinsically more valuable than John Smith's regardless of the uses to which they put their labor.

Note too that the LTV, by incorporating the notion of abstract labor time, does not make any assumption at all about the variability of individual characteristics that allow people to put their labor to more or less valuable uses. The abstract qualifier is empirically meaningful to the extent that we can independently measure these individual characteristics and correlate them both empirically and theoretically to different uses of labor. For example, we can to some degree independently measure "intelligence" and correlate these measurements both empirically and theoretically to labor of more or less value. ("intelligence" tests measure only very narrow and specific cognitive abilities, and the relatively small differences between ordinary human beings in what "intelligence" tests measure does not come close to explaining actual differences in pay. Bill Gates might be smarter than me, but it seems unlikely he's even a thousand times smarter than me.)

Note that the "Libertarian" theory that all differences in pay are necessarily or by definition due to different individual characteristics that afford higher-paid people the ability to put their labor to more valuable uses is an entirely different (vacuous and unscientific) theory, lacking the critical components of independent measurement and theoretical justification. A CEO making $10,000,000 per year has mystery qualities compared to a top research scientist making $100,000 per year: We "know" the CEO must have better qualities because he is paid more; we don't know he is paid more because he has different measurable qualities.

The rest of the LTV follows directly from the ordinary assumptions of the ideal free market of independent, self-interested, rational individuals making mutually beneficial choices. Of course, the ideal free market is itself an ideal theory: it makes a number of assumptions that don't actually obtain in the real world.

It bears repeating: The Labor Theory of Value (as well as the ideal free market) is not intended to be a complete explanatory theory. It is, rather, half of a reduced theory: Just as Newton reduced celestial and terrestrial motion to inertia plus gravity, the LTV reduces economic behavior to labor plus externalities. The empirical value of the LTV thus depends on being able to independently measure externalities, correlate externalities to economic behavior, and empirically demonstrate that without the externalities, prices would correspond directly to labor time.

Reasonably Suspicious

What "Reasonably Suspicious" really means.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Labor Theory of Value

The Labor Theory of Value (LTV) holds that the price of a commodity is determined by the amount of actual labor required to produce that commodity.

There are a couple of quibbles that can easily be addressed.

The LTV talks explicitly about price, not use-value. A commodity that takes twice as much labor to produce as another is not necessarily twice as useful or inherently valuable the other commodity. The LTV says only that if some item is actually traded for some other item (i.e. presuming the use-value of the items justifies the trade, and therefore makes them commodities), the relative magnitude of the trade will be determined by the amount of labor necessary to produce the items. If it's worth trading hats for shoes, and it takes twice as long to make a pair of shoes as to make a hat, then one pair of shoes will be traded for two hats.

All the quantities in the LTV are not individual but statistical quantities, and they are all relative to the physical means of production actually in use. "The amount of labor necessary to produce a commodity" is a statistical property of how much labor is necessary to produce all the shoes in a particular economy. Hence Marx explicitly qualifies his version of the LTV by talking about the socially necessary labor time.

All labor is not the same, even restricting "labor" to time spent producing commodities of known price and use-value. Labor differs in intensity, desirability, training, education and marginal utility* (i.e. the time spent making the first widget creates more use-value than the time spent creating the last marginally useful widget). Again, Marx explicitly qualifies his version of the LTV by talking about the abstract labor time. If, for example, it were half as desirable to make hats as shoes (perhaps because of the obnoxious fumes), then the abstract labor time necessary to create a hat would be twice the actual labor time, and one hats would trade for one pair of shoes. Similarly, because it takes an additional seven to ten years (and a considerable amount of labor) to train a physician, the abstract labor time of an hour of a physician's actual labor is also magnified.

Also, the Marginal Utility Theory of Value (MUTV) does not contradict the LTV. The MUTV specifies which statistical properties of labor time constitute the price.

These quibbles notwithstanding, the LTV is, of course, not even close to being true, at least not by itself. For example, it's implausible to believe that in 2007 more than ten times more labor* was required to build a house in Sunnyvale, CA than in Youngstown, OH. It's implausible to believe that a Macintosh computer takes twice as much labor to build as a similarly configured Windows computer.

The best way, I think, to view the LTV is as a candidate "ideal" theory in the same sense as Newton's First Law of Motion. Neither bodies on Earth nor celestial bodies ever travel in straight lines at constant velocity. In a similar sense, the LTV can be recast with the proviso: In the absence of external economic forces, the price of a commodity is determined by the amount of socially necessary abstract labor time necessary to produce that commodity.

Of course, simply saying that the LTV is an "ideal" theory does not make it true, any more than calling Newton's First Law of Motion an ideal theory makes it true. There are specific scientific techniques that we can bring to bear on ideal theories to gain confidence in their truth.

It's important to understand that Newton never observed an object traveling in a straight line at constant velocity. The "net force" Newton was most interested in, of course, was gravity. Newton never actually observed one body exerting a net force on another body. The First Law of Motion (inertia) is explicitly contradicted by observation, and its primary modifier (which turns inertia into an complete* theory) was also not observable. (Worse yet, Newton had no clue how one body could actually exert a gravitational force on another.)

*At least regarding celestial bodies, which aren't affected by air resistance and aerodynamics, and leaving aside General Relativity for the time being.

We cannot justify inertia on "philosophical" grounds. The elegance and aesthetic appeal of the logical derivation from first principles is irrelevant. The "obvious" or intuitive appeal of those first principles is irrelevant. How can we empirically justify the FLM and the theory of gravity?

If we simply "induce" laws of motion from celestial bodies and bodies on the Earth, we end up with one law of motion for Mercury, one for Venus, one for the Sun, one for the Moon, etc., etc. and yet another for bodies on the surface of the Earth. (Curiously, we have (not counting aerodynamics) only one law of motion for all objects on the Earth's surface.) But if we hypothesize "unobservable" inertia and gravity, we end up with one law of motion which takes two independently observable* parameters: mass and distance. We cannot simplify all the motions of the celestial bodies without assuming inertia and gravity.

*More-or-less observable (and more directly observable than inertia and gravity). Density does not vary that much, and we can get a reasonable estimate of mass and distance from apparent size.

(It is a separate philosophical issue whether this sort of substantial simplification is at all epistemically relevant.)

If we consider LTV as an "ideal" partial theory, can we do the same sort of thing? There are a number of scientific tools available to us for testing the LTV.

The first tool is a general correlation. Correlation is not causation, but lack of correlation falsifies hypothetical causation. And there is indeed an apparent general correlation between actual labor time and price: jet airliners require more labor time per unit than houses, which require more labor time than cars, which require than computers, which require more than hamburgers, which require more than jellybeans, and the money prices show the same inequalities.

We can eliminate or control for "external" forces: Houses might vary in price between Sunnyvale and Youngstown without regard to labor time, but the difference in price of two houses in Sunnyvale or two houses in Youngstown will correlate more strongly to the difference in the amount of labor actually required to build the houses. A computer shipped by (i.e. a non-location-dependent commodity) to Sunnyvale will have almost exactly the same price as one shipped to Youngstown. (In a similar sense, inertia is more directly observable for bodies moving in nearly frictionless environments at right angles to the force of gravity.) The difference in price of two Windows computers will be more correlated to the difference in actual labor time, as will the difference in price of two Mac computers.

Better yet, we can independently observe "external" economic forces — geographical location, network effects, monopolies and monopsonies, etc. — and we can observe that two commodities with similar independently observable externalities will have similar "distortions" to the LTV.

Therefore we can conclude that the LTV + externalities has a similar empirical justification to inertia + gravity, and similar confidence is scientifically warranted in both.

Mutual self interest

On race relations, Brad DeLong calls himself an arrogant conservative:
But estates that are inherited come not only with assets, they also come encumbered with debts. If we are to be Americans--if we are to take up the wonderul unmerited gift, accept the marvelous entailed inheritance that is offered to us--we must take up not just the benefits and advantages, but also the debts that America owes from its past actions as well. To do otherwise--to ignore the debts while grabbing the goodies with both hands--is to show that we are not the true heirs of Benjamin Franklin and company. And chief among the debts that America owes from its past actions is the obligation to erase the marks left by slavery and Jim Crow.
This is not a bad position, of course, and the Burkean gift of our institutions is not a bad way of looking at our social obligations (not to mention a great way to hoist conservatives on their own petard). But the "liberal" point of view is equally valid and I think even more forceful.

It either is or is not in our mutual self-interest to see that every individual* in society maximally flourishes. The choice is very stark: If it is in our mutual self-interest, we ourselves will benefit if we accept the obligation to help others flourish, regardless of why they are not flourishing. If it is not in our mutual self-interest to do so, then it is in our individual self-interest to enslave (either literal chattel slavery or de facto slavery) anyone and everyone weak enough to be enslaved. Everything in between is either delusion or bullshit propaganda.

*Every individual, that is, who sincerely agrees that it is in our mutual self-interest etc.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Economic competition and selection

But Apple's success says something, I think, about 21st century economics: economic competition and success is almost nowhere predicated on the fundamentals of price and performance. Rather, it is about secondary economic factors: monopoly/monopsony, network effects, control of the regulatory process, bubbles and feedback effects. Competing on just price and performance is a recipe for a rate of return on capital enough only to cover its management costs.

To a certain extent, competing on secondary factors isn't all that bad: It means that we have (to a certain extent) solved the price and performance issues, and can turn our attention to more interesting activities. However, secondary economic effects are intrinsically limited. You have to be in the top 10% to be successful on secondary economic effects, and you are successful just because you're in the top 10%. The problem, though, is that not being in the top 10% means not just not succeeding, it means failing.

Selective forces are negative. Evolution does not occur unless some traits are eliminated from the population. A variation that is merely "better" will not change the population unless variations that are comparatively "worse" are selectively eliminated.

Competition on the fundamentals tends to select against the bottom. Since people need food, clothes, housing, medical care, etc. they can temporarily tolerate a certain degree of mediocrity. Selectively eliminating the bottom 10% of companies still pushes innovative evolution while preserving a lot of variation in the remaining 90%. However, competition on secondary factors — which are all about creating and maintaining artificial scarcities — tends to eliminate all but the top: i.e. the "bottom" 90%.

Evolution is about the dialectic between variation and selection. Neither one by itself is enough to drive evolution in the long term. "Too much" variation and "not enough" selection or "not enough" variation and "too much" selection ends up in stagnation. The result is — sooner or later — group selection. In biological evolution entire species die off or ecosystems collapse; in social evolution, sooner or later whole economies or societies collapse.

I don't think we can prevent a group selection event in the West. The only question remaining is what presently marginal economic and social ideology will survive the selection event and fill the vacuum caused by the collapse of Western capitalism. And I don't think there's any way to answer this question with any confidence. I don't think the "strongest" marginal system (fundamentalist Christianity or Islam, for example) has much advantage in the coming struggle: their very strength also makes it more likely that the dominant system will drag them down too. On the other hand, weakness is no predictor of success either.

I'm have no idea what I can do right now to even ameliorate the collapse or subsequent recovery. The best I can do now is just try to figure things out, post my thoughts, and hope they are of some value to coming generations.

Technological Stockholm Syndrome

Trey on Why Apple Sucks:
Apple has managed possibly the greatest marketing campaign in history, in which its customers are entranced by Apple’s perfection and innovation and inspired to be overly pretentious *ssholes. It also helps that the media is utterly infatuated with the company. Fact: If you own an Apple, you automatically gain at least 50 IQ points and suddenly the smell of your own farts becomes strangely pleasant and addictively sweet. ...

Granted, its products are innovative. The iPod was innovative, the iPhone was innovative, but the manner of upgrades/updates, pricing, and marketing are only misleading and deceptive for consumers, yet somehow everyone adores the punishment. It’s like an abusive relationship. Apple’s “planned obsolescence” or “forced upgrades” are glorified when they should be damned.
Personally, I stopped being impressed by computer technology sometime in the 20th century. I don't have any strong feelings one way or the other about Apple or Microsoft. I use MS/Intel computers because that's where the jobs were when I started as a programmer, and it's what I'm used to. If you use a Mac, and you're happy with it, good for you.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A fool's paradise

Heaven: A fool's paradise:
[T]he heaven you think you're headed to – a reunion with your relatives in the light – is a very recent invention, only a little older than Goldman Sachs. ...

Even some atheists regard heaven as one of the least-harmful religious ideas: a soothing blanket to press onto the brow of the bereaved. But its primary function for centuries was as a tool of control and intimidation. The Vatican, for example, declared it had a monopoly on St Peter's VIP list – and only those who obeyed their every command and paid them vast sums for Get-Out-of-Hell-Free cards would get them and their children onto it. The afterlife was a means of tyrannising people in this life. This use of heaven as a bludgeon long outlasted the Protestant Reformation. Miller points out that in Puritan New England, heaven was not primarily a comfort but rather "a way to impose discipline in this life."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A nice turn of phrase

"[O]nce again, the Obama team is going straight for the capillaries."

-- Paul Krugman
The two parties have combined against us to nullify our power by a ‘gentleman's agreement' of non-recognition, no matter how we vote ... May God write us down as asses if ever again we are found putting our trust in either the Republican or the Democratic Parties."

— W.E.B. DuBois (1922)
(via GDAEman)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Fucking indecisive liberals

Brad DeLong is indeed an ineffectual liberal, indecisive, and without the courage of his convictions.
I genuinely do not know how I come down on the substance of the case of John Yoo. On the one hand, the examples of Bruce Bartlett at the and of David Frum at the American Enterprise Institute have convinced me that academic freedom in America today is under more pressure and is more precious than I had thought.
Yoo is not being condemned because he thought bad thoughts or said bad things. He's condemned because he committed specific criminal acts as a official member of the United States Government, and because he's a terrible lawyer who does not adhere to the most basic and limited ethical and professional standards of the profession of law.

If liberals cannot get a good head of steam going against a actual war criminal, a man who has actually perpetrated crimes against humanity, then their claims they even can "reform" even the worst excesses of capitalism ring ludicrously hollow.

It was people like DeLong and other spineless, appeasing jackasses who turned me from a good middle-class liberal into a revolutionary communist. It was not the excesses of worst Randian capitalists, but the stupidity, ineffectuality, indecision and tepid complaints of their opposition that convinced me that only a real revolution has even a chance of success.

The Cat in the Hat

Literary critics are extremely weird people.
The Cat in the Hat was a Cold War invention. His value as an analyst of the psychology of his time, the late nineteen-fifties, is readily appreciated: transgression and hypocrisy are the principal themes of his little story. But he also stands in an intimate and paradoxical relation to national-security policy. He was both its creature and its nemesis—the unraveller of the very culture that produced him and that made him a star. This is less surprising than it may seem. He was, after all, a cat.

Every reader of “The Cat in the Hat” will feel that the story revolves around a piece of withheld information: what private demons or desires compelled this mother to leave two young children at home all day, with the front door unlocked, under the supervision of a fish? Terrible as the cat is, the woman is lucky that her children do not fall prey to some more insidious intruder. The mother’s abandonment is the psychic wound for which the antics of the cat make so useless a palliative. The children hate the cat. They take no joy in his stupid pet tricks, and they resent his attempt to distract them from what they really want to be doing, which is staring out the window for a sign of their mother’s return. Next to that consummation, a cake on a rake is a pretty feeble entertainment.

This is the fish’s continually iterated point, and the fish is not wrong. The cat’s pursuit of its peculiar idea of fun only cranks up the children’s anxiety. It raises our anxiety level as well, since it keeps us from doing what we really want to be doing, which is accompanying the mother on her murderous or erotic errand. Possibly the mother has engaged the cat herself, in order to throw the burden of suspicion onto the children. “What did you do?” she asks them when she returns home, knowing that the children cannot put the same question to her without disclosing their own violation of domestic taboos. They are each other’s alibi. When you cheat, you lie.
As far as I can tell, the critic is completely serious.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ship of fools

According to Mark Thoma, the Republican party is opposing finance system reform by positioning themselves as against the big banks. Similarly, "During the debate over health care reform, Republicans convinced a lot of people that they are the defenders of Medicare in their effort to stop reform altogether. The media did not seriously challenge this ridiculous claim, and now Republicans think they can keep playing the public (and the media) for fools."

The Republicans are correct, but Thoma is only half right. The Republicans are not playing the media for fools; the Republicans and the media are playing the public for the fools they actually are.

It is not in the interests of the capitalist owners of the media to tell the truth. The media are not being "fooled" by the Republicans; It's not in their interest to know or care what the truth even is (other than precisely and thoroughly knowing the truth about what will sell advertising.) The media's job — from the advertisers to the entertainment producers to the news room — is to bring viewers to advertisers. Period. If lies and phony controversies will do the job — and they do — that's what will get on the air.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Libertarian theorist

Q: What do you get when you cross a fundamentalist Christian with a Nazi?

A: A Libertarian

Libertarians are of course neither fundamentalist Christians (most profess atheism) nor Nazis (few wear toothbrush mustaches). But there's a similarity in spirit. The similarity to fundamentalist Christianity comes in the reliance on scripture "theory":
By theory I mean a proposition whose validity does not depend on further experience but can be established a priori. This is not to say that one can do without experience altogether in establishing a theoretical proposition. However, it is to say that even if experience is necessary, theoretical insights extend and transcend logically beyond a particular historical experience. Theoretical propositions are about necessary facts and relations and, by implication, about impossibilities. Experience may thus illustrate a theory. But historical experience can neither establish a theorem nor refute it. [emphasis original]
As to the similarity with Nazis, well...
[A] natural order is characterized by increased discrimination, segregation, spatial separation, uniculturalism (cultural homogeneity), exclusivity, and exclusion. In addition, whereas states have undermined intermediating social institutions (family households, churches, covenants, communities, and clubs) and the associated ranks and layers of authority so as to increase their own power vis-a-vis equal and isolated individuals, a natural order is distinctly un-egalitarian: "elitist," "hierarchical," "proprietarian," "patriarchical," and "authoritorian," and its stability depends essentially on the existence of a self-conscious natural – voluntarily acknowledged – aristocracy.
Seig Heil!

(And the difference between a right anarchist and a left anarchist is that a right anarchist is sincere and up-front; a left anarchist (at least one with a triple-digit IQ*) will pretend to be sad when he's enslaving or killing you.)

*It's possible that db0 is literally** a bird-brain.
Learn it. Use it. Make it your friend.

(via Brad DeLong)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Engels and democracy

Brad DeLong smugly notes that Engels was wrong about the progression of democracy and the imminent failure of capitalism. Even assuming DeLong is correct (he's an honest person and a better scholar than me; I'm willing to take him at his word), so what?

Everybody who's ever had a great idea has been wrong — egregiously, totally, often unjustifiably wrong — about something. Newton missed the wave theory of light; Darwin missed Mendellian genetics; Einstein didn't buy quantum mechanics. Freud was pretty much wrong about everything, but psychology is still a science.

DeLong might have a point to the extent that some present-day communists and socialists fetishize and treat 19th and early- or mid-20th century writers if not as actual prophets then as authoritative. Anyone who studies science, however, knows that you have to try a lot of bad ideas to find the good idea — you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince — and there's no way of telling beforehand what will work out in reality and what won't.

I'm a poor scholar, and I cannot support my opinion with chapter and verse. But there's a "spirit" that runs through Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao and many other anti-capitalist writers of the 19th and 20th century, a spirit that seems supported and substantiated by the evidence we see today.

All economic, political and social relations are material relations; they are not ideal relations. It is fruitless to search for abstract social, political and economic relations that are in any sense true independent of the specifics of material reality. This point is born out by general philosophical investigation: we simply have no epistemic basis for abstract ideals.

The specific institutional characteristics of capitalism as a set of economic relations made capitalism well-suited (to a degree) to the physical economic realities in the 18th - 20th centuries. Those same characteristics make it poorly suited to the physical economic realities of the 21st century.

That we are presently in a profound economic depression that is uncontroversially caused by capitalist institutions. We knew beforehand which characteristics of which institutions would cause this depression and we knew how to prevent it. And today we know how to correct it, but we are refusing to take the necessary steps.

We know that for decades the many academic economists have not merely been mistaken but actively self-deluded. We know that for decades our "democratic" political process — elected and appointed political offices, the civil service, the "independent" judiciary and the press — has become corrupted and barely even retains the appearance of popular representation or the public good. We know that despite being far and away the wealthiest and most productive nation in the world, the vast majority of Americans are the least well-educated, least scientifically literate, have the poorest health and health care and are the most politically and socially deluded of the citizenry of any modern industrialized nation.

The "spirit" of Marx and Engels holds — regardless of their specific mistakes — that capitalism cannot be reformed from "within" by using the social and economic institutions adapted to capitalism. There is no better test of this hypothesis than the sincere and temporarily successful attempt to reform capitalism from within with the American New Deal and European income-redistributing socialism. If capitalism could be reformed from within, it's difficult to imagine two more comprehensive reforms.

And yet both reforms are in danger of actually failing; the European reforms are proving a little more resilient than the American, but when Greece blows up Europe is in for another profound hit. The reforms are failing not because they were insufficient, not because of unanticipated circumstances. They are failing precisely because the capitalist ruling class has turned every effort at its disposal towards subverting and overturning the reforms, precisely because they do in fact work, because they do in fact transfer some political and economic power away from the capitalist class to the working class.

We know that mere "regulation" cannot check the excesses, inefficiency and evils of capitalism. We know that one way or another we must socialize the ownership of capital. We know that one way or another we must radically transform our political and social relations.

And that is the fundamental spirit of Marx and Engels, as true today as it was in the 1840s or 1890s. The capitalist institutions exist not to assure the well-being of all humanity, but quelle suprise to maintain and preserve capitalism and the privilege and power of the capitalist ruling class. We might not know what alternative institutions to put in place — in much the same sense that Darwin did not know the actual mechanics of heredity, and his speculations were almost entirely mistaken — but we do know that the capitalist way is nearing its end.

To steal from Lincoln: "The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise -- with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Quotation of the Day

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.

(From The Ghost of Bobby Lee via PZ Myers)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Free market capitalism and systemic contradictions

Gonzalo Lira notes that "Critics of free-market capitalism, especially of the Marxist persuasion, love talking about its 'systemic contradictions'."

I am not a critic of "free markets". First of all, the critical markets under capitalism — especially the "market" for capital itself — are not free; they do not even resemble free markets. The markets for goods and services are also not free, neither actually nor effectively: the "market" for goods and services is just a secondary market for the use of the capital required to produce them. The only effectively free market is the market for labor power. Only the market for labor power does what a free market is supposed to do: drive prices to their costs. Only the market for the labor component of goods and services consumed is actually free.

The crucial systemic contradictions in capitalism come from not from the concept of a "free market" but rather the private ownership of capital. To criticize capitalism on the basis of the "free market" is like criticizing Christianity because it has an ethical system, rather than criticizing Christianity because its ethical systems enormously privileges the clergy and the ruling class du jour, and they conceal this enormous privilege by blatant lies.

The free market is fundamentally a Good Idea, in much the same sense that a complex social ethical system that encourages people to "sacrifice" their individual benefit for their mutual benefit is a Good Idea. A free market simply says that, absent a compelling reason otherwise, people should individually choose what to consume or not consume, individually choose what to produce or not produce, and individually choose whether or not to make specific trades between what they produce and what they wish to consume. The opposite is absurd: people should not ordinarily be told — even by a truly democratic process — what to consume, produce or trade. But — unlike capitalism — when they do individually choose to what to produce, they must do so not for their exclusive private benefit, but also for the mutual benefit of everyone in society.

Simply calling an economic system a "free market" system does not make it one in actual reality, and capitalism is not a free market system. The market for everything is fundamentally dominated and made un-free by the private ownership of the capital required to produce everything. Even raw services are dominated by education, credentials and certifications, which require capital to obtain. The capitalist ruling class maintains the economic privilege of the professional-managerial middle class by artificially restricting free entry (and exit) to the capital necessary to obtain education and credentials, thereby securing the middle class's self-interest in maintaining the enormously larger privilege of the capitalist ruling class.

Any socialist who even mentions free-market capitalism without at least putting scare quotes around "free-market" is buying into and promoting capitalism's fundamental lie: that capitalism represents freedom and its opponents reject freedom. It is more accurate for socialists to note that since the market for capital cannot be free, it must be socialized in order to make other markets effectively free.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Repudiating debt

Is Debt Repudiation a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? "George Washington" quotes a number of economists and political writers who argue that it's a good thing to repudiate consumer and mortgage debt, allow the banks to go bankrupt, and nationalize the financial system.

In general, an enterprise that to survive needs a bailout or other direct support from the government has ceased to be be a private business and has become a public trust, an endeavor that must not only be regulated by the government (it is arguable that even private citizens may legitimately be mere regulated by the government), but subject to its direct control. If the people are paying the piper, it is we who should call the tune.

The downside is that our present government is not presently very accountable to the people. Under today's circumstances, nationalizing the banks would just substitute one unaccountable bureaucracy for another. However, even under our capitalist pseudo-democracy, the government has at least the appearance — and possibly some actual substance — of public accountability. It is clear that private capitalist corporations have zero public accountability: they are explicitly and intentionally run not for the benefit of the people but solely for the benefit of their shareholders and executives, who have an obvious interest in looting the people.

Keynes and Trotsky

Brad DeLong quotes John Maynard Keynes' 1933 essay Trotsky On England (a response to Trotsky's book Where is Britain Going?):
Granted his assumptions, much of Trotsky's argument is, I think, unanswerable.... But what are his assumptions? He assumes that the moral and intellectual problems of the transformation of Society have been already solved--that a plan exists, and that nothing remains except to put it into operation.... An understanding of the historical process, to which Trotsky is so fond of appealing, declares not for, but against, Force at this juncture of things.... All the political parties alike have their origins in past ideas and not in new ideas and none more conspicuously so than the Marxists. It is not necessary to debate the subtleties of what justifies a man in promoting his gospel by force; for no one has a gospel. The next move is with the head, and fists must wait.
Much as I admire Keynes, he utterly fails to make his case.

Keynes first snarks on Trotksy's admittedly florid rhetoric. (E.g. "These bombastic authorities, pedants, arrogant and ranting poltroons, systematically poison the Labour Movement, befog the consciousness of the proletariat, and paralyse its will.") Keynes goes on to observe, "How few words need changing, let the reader note, to permit the attribution of my anthology to the philo-fisticuffs of the Right." Keynes position here presages the modern "moderate" religious critique of the New "militant" atheists as "just the same" as religious fundamentalists. But Keynes misses an important point in this comparison. The right, in 1933 as well as today, uses emotional rhetoric as a substitute for genuine intellectual understanding; Keynes admits that Trotsky at least backs his own emotional rhetoric with an intellectual analysis worthy of criticism, "The second half [of Trotsky's book], which affords a summary exposition of his political philosophy, deserves a closer attention."

Keynes is not above emotional rhetoric of his own: "[Trotsky] is just exhibiting the temper of the band of brigand-statesmen to whom Action means War, and who are irritated to fury by the atmosphere of sweet reasonableness, of charity, tolerance, and mercy in which, though the wind whistles in the East or in the South, Mr. Baldwin and Lord Oxford and Mr. MacDonald smoke the pipe of peace." That Keynes himself uses emotional rhetoric does not necessarily justify its use, but the commonality of emotional rhetoric makes it irrelevant as a basis to draw distinctions; it would be just as meaningless to observe that the Bolshevik and the Fascist equally walk on two legs. It is trivial to observe that any partisan and advocate believes however passionately he is correct. The antidote to fanaticism is not indecision or nihilism; the antidote to fanaticism is knowledge and judgment. Set aside the passion: Is Trotsky correct?

(In much the same sense, both the New Atheists and religious fundamentalists believe they are actually correct and their opponents not merely honestly mistaken but deluded, willfully ignorant and/or intentionally dishonest. The issue is not that it's inherently or necessarily wrong to believe one's opponents are deluded: people really are at times deluded or dishonest. The issue is: who (if anyone) really is deluded and dishonest? The "moderate" religious and accommodationist atheist critique fundamentally rests on the belief that there is no underlying truth to any controversy, only a plurality of opinion.)

Keynes accurately and succinctly represents Trotsky's political philosophy as the following propositions: [all the elements are direct quotations from Keynes' essay]
  1. The historical process necessitates the change-over to Socialism if civilisation is to be preserved.
  2. It is unthinkable that this change-over can come about by peaceful argument and voluntary surrender. Except in response to force, the possessing classes will surrender nothing. ... The hypothesis that the Labour Party will come into power by constitutional methods and will then “proceed to the business so cautiously, so tactfully, so intelligently, that the bourgeoisie will not feel any need for active opposition,” is “facetious” – though this “is indeed the very rock-bottom hope of MacDonald and company.”
  3. Even if, sooner or later, the Labour Party achieve power by constitutional methods, the reactionary parties will at once Proceed to force. The possessing classes will do lip-service to parliamentary methods so long as they are in control of the parliamentary machine, but if they are dislodged, then, Trotsky maintains, it is absurd to suppose that they will prove squeamish about a resort to force on their side.
  4. In view of all this, whilst it may be good strategy to aim also at constitutional power, it is silly not to organise on the basis that material force will be the determining factor in the end.
Keynes admits that Trotsky makes at least a valid argument: "Granted his assumptions, much of Trotsky’s argument is, I think, unanswerable. Nothing can be sillier than to play at revolution – if that is what he means." Keynes instead criticizes the soundness of Trotsky's assumptions.

Keynes does not criticize any of Trotsky's explicit assumptions. Instead, he introduces two enthymemes (hidden assumptions). First "[Trotsky] assumes that the moral and intellectual problems of the transformation of Society have been already solved--that a plan exists, and that nothing remains except to put it into operation." To a certain extent, Keynes is correct on this point. The communists of the early 20th century really did believe — mistakenly — they had worked most everything out, and all that remained was to put it in practice. Furthermore, this overconfidence by itself caused many subsequent catastrophes in the implementation of communism in the Soviet Union and China.

On the other hand, every human endeavor starts with a degree of overconfidence: If we knew in advance of the difficulties of even the most limited human endeavor, we would never attempt it. And no political philosophy or attitude — conservatism and wishy-washy indecision as well as radical change — has avoided catastrophe, as Keynes should know, with the First Imperialist War and the horrors of colonialism fresh in his mind. Again, I don't intend to justify catastrophe as acceptable; we should always do everything in our power to avoid it. I merely note that catastrophes will in fact occur despite our best efforts, even if we are entirely passive and refuse to act. The argument that any radical change might lead to an unforeseen catastrophe is not an argument, especially when conservatism and the status quo demonstrably leads to a foreseeable catastrophe or is actually in the midst of catastrophic failure.

Keynes should not be viewed as offering constructive criticism to the communist movement; we should not view him as saying, "Hey, you guys are right, just don't get too cocky." Keynes is explicitly and proudly an apologist for the capitalist ruling class and an advocate of Labour party-like reformism (in its own way a radical transformation of laissez faire capitalism). Keynes essentially condemns Trotsky's position because it is well thought out. One cannot help but imagine that were the reverse true, Keynes would criticize socialism for being fuzzy and vague.

Keynes draws an unwarranted inference: because socialism allegedly "solves" the problems of the transformation of Society, it is therefore a "gospel", unalterable and, more importantly adhered to dogmatically. But Keynes does not discuss any points that establish a "gospel": Trotsky does not criticize the Labour party for deviation from the Marxist party line; Keynes chooses to describe Trotsky's objective criticism of the Labour party: that they are, for example, objectively mistaken in their belief the capitalist ruling class will accept the outcome of the parliamentary process to the detriment of their class interests. Trotsky might or might not be correct (I of course think he is correct). But Keynes does not criticize Trotsky for being mistaken; he does not even assert that the capitalist ruling class would indeed accept a parliamentary outcome detrimental to its interest. He instead criticizes Trotsky for coming to a conclusion, without examining or criticizing how Trotsky comes to that conclusion. One cannot help but see Keynes as not merely advocating caution, but celebrating indecision.

The question is not whether early 20th century communists were overconfident. The question is whether communism in general and Trotsky's political philosophy in particular falls apart without this overconfidence. But Keynes does not quote anything by Trotsky that depends substantively on overconfidence; the most just and accurate identification of overconfidence is a peripheral (but still valuable) criticism of communism, not a substantive criticism.

Keynes introduces a more problematic second enthymeme: "[Trostky] assumes further that Society is divided into two parts – the proletariat who are converted to the plan, and the rest who for purely selfish reasons oppose it. [emphasis added]" But Keynes immediately contradicts himself: "He does not understand that no plan could win until it had first convinced many people, and that, if there really were a plan, it would draw support from many different quarters." Keynes has barely drawn a breath after saying that Trotsky believes the proletariat, who presumably constitute "many people", are already converted to the plan, before asserting that Trotsky does not understand that many people must first be convinced.

More importantly, Keynes implies that Trotsky advocates implementation of a plan without first convincing many people and the implementation of a plan that has not drawn support from many different quarters. (And we must ask: which quarters? Must we predicate our support of socialism on the bourgeoisie and "higher" elements of the middle class who will be expropriated and lose considerable economic, political and social privilege without compensation?) Instead, Keynes asserts that Trotsky means to impose socialism by force over the objections of the majority.

But Keynes refers to nothing in support of this view, and indeed there is nothing in the communist canon that supports this view. Keynes instead describes Trotsky as advocating force not against the majority of the working class to convert them "by the sword" to socialism, but against the minority of the capitalist class who will seek to maintain their privilege by force if a rigged parliamentary system fails to do so. Keynes does not bother even to assert — much less argue — that the capitalist class has not rigged the parliamentary system in its favor; he does not bother even to assert that the capitalist class will not use force to maintain its privilege if its rigged parliament fails. If we accept Trotsky's explicit assumptions — we can conclude that Keynes accepts those assumptions by not controverting them — then force is no less necessary and acceptable against the capitalist ruling class as it is against any common criminal who seeks private advantage at the expense of mutual benefit and the well-being of society.

Female moral superiority

Female moral superiority a dubious basis for reform:
[T]he Catholic Church, international financial institutions, or any other enterprise run by men would... derive immense benefits from the inclusion of more women in positions of power. However, they would benefit not because women are nicer, more inclined to work and play well with others, and more devoted to the common good but because, by excluding half of humanity from the halls of power, you are depriving yourself of the services of half of the capable, smart people in the world.

Friday, April 09, 2010

The stupidest people on the face of the planet

Evolution, Big Bang Polls Omitted From NSF Report:
In an unusual last-minute edit that has drawn flak from the White House and science educators, a federal advisory committee omitted data on Americans' knowledge of evolution and the big bang from a key report. The data shows that Americans are far less likely than the rest of the world to accept that humans evolved from earlier species and that the universe began with a big bang.

They're not surprising findings, but the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF), says it chose to leave the section out of the 2010 edition of the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators because the survey questions used to measure knowledge of the two topics force respondents to choose between factual knowledge and religious beliefs.

The economics of dueling

The economics of dueling [pdf]:
Recent historical research indicates that ritualistic dueling had a rational basis. Basically, under certain social and economic conditions, individuals must fight in order to maintain their personal credit and social standing. We use a repeated two-player sequential game with random matching to show how the institution of dueling could have functioned as a costly but incentive-compatible means by which individuals could demonstrate their good faith dealings by defending their "honor".
Fundamentally, the authors show how a Prisoner's Dilemma-type game is transformed to a win-win (overall) game through the use of coercion.

While dueling is technically not a "state-imposed" solution, the practice requires larger institutionalized social constructions. Specifically, legal enforcement against ordinary murder must be knowingly (although implicitly) relaxed.

Also, dueling is viable (in a game-theoretic sense) only in fairly restrictive circumstances. Outside the parameters the authors describe, other solutions are more effective and less costly.

(via Bruce Schneier)

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Pas d'ennemis a Droit, Pas d'amis a Gauche

What does the phrase "Pas d'ennemis a Droit, Pas d'amis a Gauche" mean? My superficial French would translate it as, "No enemies to the Right, no friends to the Left", but French is a subtle language with a lot of idioms and equivocal words.

A little help?

Update: According to commenter gdeb, the phrase should read, "Pas d'ennemis à Droite, Pas d'amis à Gauche," and literally means exactly as I guessed. It's apparently a metaphor for uncompromising partisanship and factional loyalty.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Faith and Facts

Two-Faced Trust:
Trust can work two ways, as faith (a belief based on the insubstantial, the future and other truths placed offstage) and as considered belief based on onstage facts and past experience. Like many troublesome English words, these ideas are opposites, but they share the same short and slippery designation. Call them, for this essay, faith-trust and fact-trust. ...

Now secrecy, prevarication and promise breaking are, sadly, all necessary elements of governance, whether good governance or bad. Use of force is an essential part of police practice, and religious practitioners work in a realm between worlds, where confidentiality and metaphorical, story-based thought are central, and divine logic can appear to run counter to the worldly.

Given these necessities, how are we to differentiate honest stewards and good guardians from plutocrats and well-spoken thugs? And how, in self-defense, do we detect and detach ourselves from the injurious objects of our faith-trust?
A good distinction, but why should we consider secrecy, prevarication and promise-breaking as necessary elements of good governance?

Monday, April 05, 2010

Screwing with unemployment

Capitalists find a new way to screw workers. In other news, Earth orbits Sun.

(thanks to an email correspondent)

Financial regulation

In general laws and regulations work only when the prescribed behavior is in most everyone's mutual self interest. When everyone is better off doing something than they would if nobody did it, laws compelling people to do it will work. For example, because everyone is better off respecting ordinary personal property rights than they would be if nobody respected property rights, laws against theft will work in the long term. (Laws and regulations are necessary when, if most everyone is better off doing something, a few people can get an even larger advantage by not doing it.) In other words, laws and regulations are effective and necessary when the underlying situation is a Prisoner's Dilemma.

The finance industry would seem to be a classic Prisoner's Dilemma. It seems that everyone would be better off with a financial system where everyone is reasonably honest, prudent and realistic about things like the value of assets, the risk of transactions than if nobody were honest. From 1940 to the mid-1970s, the finance industry was heavily regulated, and the regulations did not become almost completely ineffective until the 1990s. (It's not the only or even the primary cause of the crisis, but the 1999 repeal of the provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act (thanks, President Clinton!) separating commercial from investment banking is a notable event.) While heavily regulated, finance and banking were consistently profitable, and for six decades we avoided an internal collapse of the banking and finance system, and weathered several external shocks (notably the 1982 Latin American debt crisis and the 1997 Asian financial crisis). The worst internal crisis of the financial system was the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s-1990s (caused directly by regulatory failure), but the crisis was not severe enough to threaten a 2009-like collapse of the financial system.

Even though the mutual advantage of financial regulation seems clearly apparent, and the mutual disadvantage of deregulation equally apparent, the finance industry and capitalist ruling class lobbied for decades to weaken, remove and undermine financial regulation. And, when they were successful, they almost immediately drove the global financial system into catastrophic failure. And even now, in the face of catastrophic failure, the consensus in the entire political infrastructure (i.e. both the Democratic and Republican parties) that represent the capitalist ruling class is against tough financial regulation.

Why? It's not like the bankers have no idea of mutual self-interest. They haven't been lobbying for the right to use violence as a means of competition. Bank of America knows that the "selfish" power to take over Mom & Pop corner bank by force of arms is not worth losing the mutual benefit of never having to fight an all-out war with Citigroup. But it's clear that the capitalist ruling class does not consider financial regulation to be in its mutual self-interest.

To a certain extent, there's a problem with international banking. The US government can regulate only American banks, and regulations establishing mutual interests work only when everyone is regulated; if a few can exploit others' cooperation without penalty, mutual cooperation just becomes mutual being-a-sucker, and it's in nobody's interest to cooperate. But the entire West had highly regulated banking, and there were effective mechanisms in place to punish countries that didn't effectively regulate their banks. The effort to overturn and undermine financial regulate was an international effort. (Indeed, the capitalist ruling class has embraced internationalism far more thoroughly and effectively than the working class.)

If effective financial regulation that demonstrably affords stability, consistent economic growth and capitalist privilege is not seen as in the mutual interests of the members of the capitalist ruling class, we must examine more closely what they conceive their own interests to be. We must ask: what is the political character of the capitalist ruling class?

A football game is a zero-sum game. One team wins, one team loses. It doesn't matter how well or how "honorably" you played, winning is winning and losing is losing.

When a receiver beats a cornerback in the end zone, and has a high probability of catching the game-winning touchdown pass, the cornerback has an obvious self-interest in shoving the receiver so he cannot catch the pass. In a direct, immediate sense, the cornerback won't do so because if he did, he would be almost certainly face a pass interference penalty: the immediate drawback of the penalty outweighs the advantage of preventing the catch. The question, however, is why does the cornerback consent to the existence of the penalty in the first place?

To some extent, it's in the teams mutual interest to disallow pass interference: if one team's cornerback can push the opposing team's receiver, then the opposing team's cornerback can push the one team's receiver. If we look at Rawls' "veil of ignorance", before the game neither team knows on whose cornerback and receiver the game will depend. But that's only part of the story.

Before the game, it's possible that the coach knows the other team's receivers are generally more competent than his own cornerbacks, and the other team's cornerbacks are more competent than his own receivers. Even with the "veil of ignorance", the coach knows that generally, the pass interference penalty will hurt his own team more than the opposition; he would have a higher probability of winning the game if the penalty were not enforced. Since football is a zero-sum game, there's no scope for an evaluation of mutual self-interest; there's no value (at least in the immediate sense) to "playing well", only winning (even "winning ugly") or losing.

It's true in general that from the coach's immediate perspective, there is no such thing as mutual benefit in any sense. All rules and regulations impose a pure loss on the coach, by requiring him to make extra effort to not just win in the most efficient manner possible, but to win according to the rules. If pass interference is allowed, then he doesn't need to spend resources training his cornerbacks to protect against the pass without interfering with the receiver.

Rules and regulations in football work not because they are in the mutual interest of the coaches (who are typically charged with actually winning games) but because they are in the mutual interest of the owners. The owners are less interested in winning games per se; they are more interested in making a profit by entertaining the audience. The owners of the St. Louis Rams are not particularly pleased by losing fifteen out of sixteen games in 2009-2010, but they will still make more profit because the rules of football make games more entertaining than if there were no rules at all: no one is going to pay (at least not for long) to watch a mob of 22 enormous guys in a free-for-all, even if the Rams' players could consistently win such a fight. In other words, the owner is better off losing an entertaining game with rules than winning a boring game without rules.

This mutual interest would still hold even without the artificial separation between coaches and owners interest (or even between the coaches and players). If all the coaches owned their own teams, their own interest would still be to entertain the fans, and they would be better off banding together, creating mutually beneficial rules and punishing teams that broke those rules. The mutual interest permeates the entire structure: even though they lost most of their games, the players still earn a nice salary and have the opportunity to improve or be traded to better teams, the coach will get some good draft picks this year, the owner still made buckets of money.

But imagine if everything else were the same, but at the end of the season, the team — coach to water-boy, but not the owners — that won the Superbowl received absolute power for a year, and everyone on the losingest team in the NFL were literally taken out and shot. People would still play football, but suddenly, the mutual interest of an entertaining system of professional football would be outweighed by the individuals' interest gaining absolute power and in not dying, even though an entertaining system of football would remain in the owners' interest. We would then expect that the coaches, players and staff would do everything in their power to overturn and undermine all the rules of football. Every rule affects some people more than others, and the mutual interest of entertainment is of no value to a dead man.

The last paragraph describes how the capitalist ruling class sees the world. Win, and you win nearly absolute power for life; lose, and you're taken out and shot. Stuck in the middle and you have the chance of rising to the top but you're terrified of falling to the bottom. Losing means not just not winning, but facing the prospect of being ejected from the capitalist ruling class, a fate — in the minds of the ruling class — literally worse than death.

The capitalist ruling class is not directly interested in creating and maintaining a robust, stable, well-functioning economy. At best, a functioning economy is a means to an end, but if they can use other means to gain personal power and avoid death, they will use all their considerable cleverness and power to actually employ those means. The stakes are just too high — in their minds — to relax and seek mutual benefit. No mutual economic benefit is worth giving up the opportunity for nearly absolute power nor worth risking death.

In much the same sense, monarchs, royalty and the nobility during feudalism did not have a direct interest in international peace and a well-functioning political state with a contented and prosperous population. Political stability was sometimes in their indirect interest, but overall, the lure of absolute power and the risk of ejection from the feudal ruling class meant that if they could keep or enhance their power through political instability, brute-force oppression or war, they would do so. No attempt at mere "regulation" was ever successful in the long term; the propensity for the feudal ruling class to pursue their own interests at the expense of the people's was not substantially affected until the feudal ruling class was simply eliminated and political power socialized (to some extent) in capitalist pseudo-democracy.

In a similar sense, finance regulation cannot work in the long term unless and until the ownership of finance capital is socialized, until the capitalist ruling class — built on the private ownership of finance capital — is eliminated and financial power socialized in democratic communism.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Society of Individuals

Daniel Little summarizes Norbert Elias' The Society of Individuals, which opens:
The relation of the plurality of people to the single person we call the "individual", and of the single person to the plurality, is by no means clear at present. But we often fail to realize that it is not clear, and still less why. We have the familiar concepts "individual" and "society", the first of which refers to the single human being as if he or she were an entity existing in complete isolation, while the second usually oscillates between two opposed but equally misleading ideas. Society is understood either as a mere accumulation, an additive and unstructured collection of many individual people, or as an object existing beyond individuals and incapable of further explanation. In this latter case the words available to us, the concepts which decisively influence the thought and action of people growing up within their sphere, make it appear as if the single human being, labelled the individual, and the plurality of people conceived as society, were two ontologically different entities.
An interesting read.

The coming financial crisis

There's yet another financial crisis coming.

According to Gonzalo Lira, the Obama administration is attempting to reproduce the solution to the Latin American banking crisis of 1982.

During the 1982 crisis, banks with large loans to Latin America became technically insolvent, because the value of the loans declined substantially due to actual or potential default. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker effectively turned a "blind eye" to the banks technical insolvency while forcing them to renegotiate and write down (or off) their bad assets. By 1984 the banks had eliminated bad debts from their balance sheets and grown their way back into solvency. Had Volcker insisted on immediately restoring the banks' solvency by forcing them to sell assets at "fire sale" prices, there would almost certainly have been a severe general economic recession.

The Obama administration is attempting to replicate this approach. On April 2, 2009, the Financial Accounting Standards Board suspended rule 157 (presumably with the approval of the Obama administration and Securities and Exchange Commission), which requires that assets be accounted for at their market value. There's some justification for temporarily suspending this rule: As in 1982, there's some value in temporarily allowing technically insolvent banks to continue operations when there's a large, systemic decline in asset values. (It seems more sensible to simply allow the banks to operate while technically insolvent, rather than cover up the insolvency, but sometimes it's easier to game the system one way rather than another.)

However, a critical component of Volcker's 1982 strategy was pressuring the banks to actually adjust their balance sheets to reflect the decline in the value of Latin American debt. While the Obama administration has given the banks some "breathing room" by allowing them to cover up their insolvency, they have not also pressured the banks to clean up their toxic assets.

Worse yet, the banks are using the supporting funds provided by the Congress and the Federal Reserve not to actually invest in productive or socially useful activity, but rather to trade amongst themselves and create yet another speculative bubble:
Instead of being banks, since March of ’09, the Big Six US banks have effectively become hedge funds. They have been trading themselves into profitability. Worst of all, these banks qua hedge funds have been making money by trading with each other. Price-to-earnings ratios bear this out—their general upward trend, across sectors and industries, even as the economy has been severely weakened, is indicative of a speculative bubble. A massive bubble—the kind that makes the Hindenburg look puny.
It's all paper profits, and sooner or later this newest bubble will burst.

It doesn't have to be as dramatic or extensive as the bursting of the housing price bubble. Unlike 2008, the economy is today on the ropes: one more hard punch and we'll be down for the count, in another Great Depression... a depression that will be blamed on the Democratic party, leaving only the Republicans as a supposedly "viable" alternative.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Paper entrepreneurs

The Paper Entrepreneurs Are Winning Over the Product Entrepreneurs:
The paper entrepreneurs are winning out over the product entrepreneurs.

Paper entrepreneurs — trained in law, finance, accountancy — manipulate complex systems of rules and numbers. ... Product entrepreneurs — engineers, inventors, production managers, marketers, owners of small businesses — produce goods and services people want. They innovate by creating better products at less cost. ...

Our economic system has become so complex and interdependent that capital must be allocated according to symbols of productivity rather than according to productivity itself. These symbolic rules and numbers lend themselves to profitable manipulation far more readily than do the underlying processes of production.

It takes time and effort to improve product quality, exploit manufacturing efficiencies, develop distribution and sales networks. But through strategic use of accounting conventions, tax rules, stock and commodity exchanges, exchange rates, government largesse, and litigation, enormous profits are possible with relatively little effort. ...

If we are to increase the economic pie, we will need to redress the balance of entrepreneurial effort. Which strategies will stimulate more paper, and which more product?

Interestingly enough, Reich wrote this piece in 1980.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The ACLU doesn't want my money

Apparently, the ACLU doesn't want my dirty atheist money:
[T]he American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi has rejected a $20,000 gift [from the American Humanist Association] intended to underwrite an alternate prom replacing one canceled by a local school district after a lesbian student demanded that she be allowed to attend with her girlfriend. ... "Although we support and understand organizations like yours, the majority of Mississippians tremble in terror at the word 'atheist,'" Jennifer Carr, the fund-raiser for the A.C.L.U of Mississippi, wrote in an e-mail message to Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the humanist group.
Not that I have any money to donate right now, but when I do, I will respect the ACLU's wishes and donate elsewhere.

I urge other atheists and humanists to likewise find more willing recipients for their donations.

Update: The ACLU has apologized to the AHA:
A staff person at the ACLU of Mississippi made an error in judgment in sending an e-mail to the American Humanist Association expressing concerns about accepting its donation and sponsorship offer. To our understanding, MSSC has not made a decision regarding the acceptance of this funding and sponsorship offer. The decision is up to MSSC. The American Humanist Association has been made aware of the error, and the ACLU of Mississippi has expressed its apologies to the association for that error and the sentiments expressed in the e-mail.

The sentiments expressed by the ACLU of Mississippi staff person in the referenced e-mail do not reflect the views of the ACLU of Mississippi or the National ACLU in any way. The ACLU remains a stalwart defender of freedom of belief and expression for all.
So they're off my shit list. I suspect that a strong, vigorous and proportionate reaction to the original offense was important in securing the ACLU's response.