Monday, May 31, 2010

It can't happen here

Why, there's no country in the world that can get more hysterical—yes, or more obsequious!—than America. Look how Huey Long became absolute monarch over Louisiana, and how the Right Honorable Mr. Senator Berzelius Windrip owns HIS State. Listen to Bishop Prang and Father Coughlin on the radio—divine oracles, to millions. Remember how casually most Americans have accepted Tammany grafting and Chicago gangs and the crookedness of so many of President Harding's appointees? Could Hitler's bunch, or Windrip's, be worse? Remember the Ku Klux Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut 'Liberty cabbage' and somebody actually proposed calling German measles 'Liberty measles'? And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! Remember our kissing the—well, the feet of Billy Sunday, the million-dollar evangelist, and of Aimée McPherson, who swam from the Pacific Ocean clear into the Arizona desert and got away with it? Remember Voliva and Mother Eddy? … Remember our Red scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the O.G.P.U. were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimatize their children? Remember Tom Heflin and Tom Dixon? Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution? … Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition—shooting down people just because they MIGHT be transporting liquor—no, that couldn't happen in AMERICA! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours! We're ready to start on a Children's Crusade—only of adults—right now, and the Right Reverend Abbots Windrip and Prang are all ready to lead it!

— Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here
(via PZ Myers)

Let me add this:
[V]oice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

— Hermann Göring

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Free at last!

Free at last, free at last! Thank God almighty, I'm free at last!

Lost is over!

The first season was kind of interesting... Ooh! Mystery! But... after the pilot, the show moved slower than mollasses in January... on Quaaludes... while frozen in Carbonite. By the third or fourth season, it became clear that the writers were just making shit up as they went along. None of the characters had anything even remotely resembling a human or human-like motivation for doing anything: The characters would rather hatch a complicated and bizarre conspiracy rather than ask someone to pass the salt.

I held on until the end, because I just had to see how horribly awry this train wreck of a show could possibly go. And I was not disappointed: after six years of machinations, conspiracies, time travel, polar bears and woo-woo magic bullshit, Kate shoots the Man in Black in the back and everyone goes to heaven. It just doesn't get any stupider than that.

If you actually liked Lost (after the first or maybe second season), if you watched it for any reason other than horrified fascination and morbid curiosity about just how deeply a prime-time television show could descend into puerile stupidity, then you're a fucking idiot and personally responsible for the decline of Western civilization.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Negligent homicide

An autopsy of the US financial system: Accident, suicide, or negligent homicide?:
Many policymakers stress that the global crisis was caused by a series of unforeseen events and “suicidal” behaviour by market players. This column argues that this is a self-serving narrative. Policymakers designed, implemented, and maintained policies that destabilised the financial system in the decade leading up to 2006 – and were fully aware they were doing so. It is a case of “negligent homicide”.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Several blogs I read, notably Daniel Little's Understanding Society and Economist's View have been writing about the correlation between education, skill, and economic "progress".
It is widely accepted that human capital, particularly attained through education, is crucial to economic progress. An increase in the number of well-educated people implies a higher level of labour productivity and a greater ability to absorb advanced technology from developed countries.

Their view is, essentially, bullshit.

The point is not skill. I have skill. I'm literate, intelligent, well read, personable, presentable, and I can use a cash register and make change. I've been programming computers for 30 years. I can pick up new technology quickly (I learned C# and .NET in a couple of months, and the Rule Against Perpetuities in five minutes). I have management and executive experience. I've written successful grants. Yet I've been forced to the margins of the professional-managerial middle class. Today, I can't get an interview, much less an actual job.

It's partly because I didn't accumulate capital in my peak earning years. It's a lot easier to transition your way laterally in the middle class if you can buy your way in. That's pretty much nobody's fault but my own: I thought I could rely on skill and experience... which worked well for 20 years; the last 10, not so much.

It's mostly because I didn't accumulate status. I never got the "sexy" jobs at Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Sun, etc. And that's mostly because I don't have a college degree — indeed, I'm a high-school dropout. I'm simply not even considered for any middle-class job outside IT (and certainly not general management. I'm often excluded by actual regulation (I cannot, for example, become a paralegal or teach ESL). I won't even be considered for a position outside my exact paid skill set in the computer business (now long obsolete) even though I've taught myself a variety of IT-related skills, including network engineering and administration.

If the Western economy today were hungry for skill, they would be beating down my door. In my prime they actually were beating down my door: I'd put my resume on Monster at 9:00 AM and have 50 calls by noon... and a top 10% paying job the following week.

The point is not whether students learn skills in college (I'm sure they do). The point is not whether I should go back to school and get a degree (I'm reasonably happy farting around in the margins of the bourgeois economy).

The point is that the idea that it's nonsense that the world is hungry for skill, intelligence, judgment, leadership or any other actual intellectually productive skill. The world happened to really be hungry for computer skills in the 90's, and they sure as hell found me. If they were still hungry for skills, they would find me now. If the world were hungry for skills, the professional-managerial middle class would be doing well. It is not: It is (at best) stagnant and many formerly skilled professions have been nearly eliminated.

My profession is a perfect example. The economic driving force in the 80's and 90's was IT, especially software development. And it exploded so quickly that credentials and status didn't matter. And what happened? Ten million Chinese, Indians and Russians learned how to program, flooded the market, and the bottom dropped out. (Indeed, my last two middle-class jobs were managing Russian programmers for very... er... marginal enterprises.)

Skill is (relatively) easy. If we needed ten million brain surgeons, we'd have them in ten years... and they'd make $10/hour. But we don't need ten million brain surgeons, we need only a few thousand, so we can pick out the best of the best — and the luckiest of the lucky — and pay them beaucoup bucks. Capitalism pays on scarcity, not on value, not on skill, not on hard work.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for education (however you get it, and school works for a lot of people, just not me). It's a basic human right. But if we push everyone through high school, a high school diploma won't be worth jack shit economically. If we push everyone through college, a diploma and $2,95 will get you a latte at Starbucks. We just raise the bar: A JD and passing the bar is ho-hum: now you have to be in the top 10% of a good law school and network like crazy to get a good job as a lawyer.

Life is graded on a curve: we pick out the "top" 10%, call it "scarce", and condemn the "bottom" 90% for being "common". It doesn't matter what they do, what they know, what they produce. If everyone were as smart as Einstein, we'd pick out the top 10% of the "super"-Einsteins to live in privileged prosperity and the rest would toil in misery. (Look at the market for scientists. A handful get tenure and a few get Nobel prizes (and half of these are hacks); meanwhile an army of graduate students and post-docs toil in obscurity and poverty. And science is the closest thing we've ever had to a sensible and rational meritocracy.)

Colleges do, of course, teach people a lot of useful stuff. But teaching is a college's secondary economic function: their primary economic function is (aside from collecting economic rent on the middle class) to act as a filter, to keep the supply of college graduates artificially scarce relative to demand. And the demand is not for people with skill, it's for people who have college degrees, precisely because college degrees are scarce. When college degrees are common, the demand will be for graduate degrees, or class standing, or networking skill... or, more likely, for how much money your parents had. The demand will be for what is scarce because it is scarce.

It sounds irrational, but it's not (in a certain sense). This kind of elitism for its own sake emerges from the economic selection forces operating under conditions of primitive accumulation. But we're no longer under conditions of primitive accumulation.

The "problem" with evolution is that when selection pressures change, what was selected for by the previous pressures is still around. It's one thing for animals. Millions of individuals die off, species go extinct: if that's the way God wants it, who am I to criticize. But I must admit to considerably more sentimentality and much higher expectations for human beings. We can think about what we're doing, and how we relate to each other. And we can do better.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Race and wealth inequality

A $95,000 question: why are whites five [sic] times richer than blacks in the US?:
A huge wealth gap has opened up between black and white people in the US over the past quarter of a century – a difference sufficient to put two children through university – because of racial discrimination and economic policies that favour the affluent.

A typical white family is now five times richer than its African-American counterpart of the same class, according to a report released today by Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

White families typically have assets worth $100,000 (£69,000), up from $22,000 in the mid-1980s. African-American families' assets stand at just $5,000, up from around $2,000.
Doing the arithmetic correctly, though, seems to show that a typical white family is twenty times wealthier than a typical black family, up from eleven times wealthier in the mid-1980s.

Identity economics

Identity Economics:
When we examine people’s decisions from the perspective of their identities and social norms, we get new answers to many different economic questions. Who people are and how they think of themselves is key to the decisions that they make. Their identities and norms are basic motivations. We call this approach identity economics. ...

But with identity economics it all makes sense, and we gain an entirely new perspective on work incentives, not just in the military, but in all pursuits. In organizations that function well, employees identify with their work and their organizations. If employees feel more like insiders – a key purpose of military rituals – there is little need for incentive pay or pay-for-performance schemes. The military changes the identity of its recruits, inculcating in them values such as duty and service.
This seems to tie in with some of my recent thoughts about the role of principles — as opposed to rational "calculation" — in economic and political behavior.

(via Mark Thoma)

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment

The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment:
Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.
(via Yves Smith)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

What's the difference?

Q: What's the difference between an illegal immigrant and Sarah Palin?

A: One is dangerous, can't hold a job, has too many kids, and refuses to learn how to speak English.

The other is usually from Mexico.

How the financial system works

It is perhaps more damaging to the capitalist ruling class to treat them as objects of ridicule than to treat them as murderous bastards who consider the working class no better than chattel slaves.

(via Divorced one like Bush)

The Mohave Cross

This anonymous statement was received by the Barstow Desert Dispatch purporting to come from a friend of those who stole the Mohave Cross.

1. The cross in question was not vandalized. It was simply moved. This was done lovingly and with great care.

2. The cross has been carefully preserved. It has not been destroyed as many have assumed.

3. I am a Veteran.

4. A small non-sectarian monument was brought to place at the site but technical difficulties prevented this from happening at the time the cross was moved to its new location.

5. The cross was erected illegally on public land in 1998 by a private individual named Henry Sandoz. Since then the government has actively worked to promote the continued existence of the cross, even as it excluded other monuments from differing religions. This favoritism and exclusion clearly violates the establishment clause of the US Constitution.

6. Anthony Kennedy desecrated and marginalized the memory and sacrifice of all those non-Christians that died in WWI when he wrote: 'Here one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles — battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten.' The irony and tragedy of that statement is unique.

7. Justice Kennedy's words in particular and others like them from the other Justices caused me to act.

8. At the time of its removal there was nothing to identify the cross as a memorial of any kind, and the simple fact of the matter is that the only thing it represented was an oddly placed tribute to Christ. This cross evoked nothing of the sort that Justice Kennedy writes of, it was in the end simply a cross in the desert.

9. Discrimination in any form is intolerable, as is hatred.

10. Discrimination or hatred based upon religion should be despised by all Americans, and offering that this event was caused by hatred or malice is simply ignorance of the actual intent.

11. Despite what many people are saying, this act was definitively not anti-Christian. It was instead anti-discrimination. If this act was anti-Christian, the cross would not have been cared for so reverently. An anti-Christian response would have been to simply destroy the cross and leave the pieces in the desert.

12. We as a nation need to change the dialogue and stop pretending that this is about a war memorial. If it is a memorial, then we need to stop arguing about the cross and instead place a proper memorial on that site, one that respects Christians and non-Christians alike, and one that is actually recognizable as a war memorial.

13. If an appropriate and permanent non-sectarian memorial is placed at the site the cross will be immediately returned to Mr. Sandoz.

14. Alternatively, if a place can be found that memorializes the Christian Veterans of WWI that is not on public land the Cross will promptly be forwarded with care and reverence for installation at the private site.

15. In short this has happened because as Abraham Lincoln said: 'To stand in silence when they should be protesting makes cowards out of men.' Perhaps this was an inappropriate form of protest if so I humbly request your forgiveness and understanding for the actions that I have taken here.
(via, which also includes a concise background account)

(Salazar v. Buono)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Radicals and sectarianism

From the New York socialist movement's birth, sectarianism and dissension ate away at its core. Substantial numbers of SP members expressed deep and abiding dissatisfaction with the brand of reform socialism advocated by the party's leadership. To these left-wingers, constructive socialism seemed to stress insignificant reforms at the expense of ultimate goals. How, these revolutionaries angrily demanded, could the SP hope to attract workers if it did not distinguish itself from the many progressive parties, if it did not proffer an enduring and radiant ideal? How, the constructivists angrily replied, could the SP hope to attract workers if it did not promise them immediate benefits, if it did not concern itself with their present burdens?...

Through its own internal feuding, then, the SP exhausted itself. forever.... The story is a sad but also a chastening one for those who, more than half a century after socialism's decline, still wish to change America. Radicals have often succumbed to the devastating bane of sectarianism; it is easier, after all, to fight one's fellows than it is to battle an entrenched and powerful foe. Yet if the history of Local New York shows anything, it is that American radicals cannot afford to become their own worst enemies. In unity lies their only hope.

— Elena Kagan, 1981 undergraduate thesis, Princeton University
(via Brad DeLong)

[Note: Princeton University has blocked the internet distribution of Kagan's thesis. The thesis is available from Princeton University for $54.60.]

A democratic victory in 2010?

Paul Krugman sees a glimmer of hope for the 2010 midterm elections. There are two reasons I don't share his optimism. First, one cannot be very optimistic in the first place about the possibility of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat: by its very nature, such an outcome is the essence of unlikely.

More importantly, in 1948 (to which Krugman compares the 2010 elections) the Democratic party was sincerely and publicly committed to the New Deal. Today's Democratic party does not, however, have a sincere and public commitment to anything but the most expedient "centrism". A narrow Democratic win in 2010 would definitely be embarrassing to the Republicans and might ease the worst of their batshit craziness, which is not the worst possible outcome.

Strongly exceeding expectations (a narrow victory where a severe loss was expected) can itself establish a mandate, but the Democratic party doesn't have anything to establish a mandate for.

Most Likely to Succeed

Most Likely to Succeed: How do we hire when we can't tell who's right for the job?
There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching.
(via Cracked)

Friday, May 14, 2010

The free market

The current financial calamity does not “threaten the key ideas” that have dominated economic policy in the United States and abroad for the past 35 years or so. By all empirical evidence it absolutely shreds the economic theology that prevailed and unhappily still underlies the effectiveness of the resistance to any meaningful remedial action by bankers, by other purveyors of financial services, and by their congressional and media agents. ...

Regulating the too-big-to-fail, for-profit service corporations would interfere with the free market – “distort” is usually the chosen word – and that would be bad. By definition.

Every time I see or hear the phrase “free market,” I have mixed feelings – a mix of anger and exasperation. Why? Because there is no such thing as a “free market;” there has never been any such thing, and never will be. What’s more: it is hard to believe that those otherwise intelligent people who prattle about “the free market” don’t know that. So it is easy to conclude that those who do use the phrase are simply monumental cynics or are suffering from an acute case of cognitive dissonance. ...

Richard Abrams, professor emeritus of history, UC Berkeley
(via Maxine Udall)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Right-wing Christians against net neutrality

Right Wing Christians Against Net Neutrality Want To Censor Your Internet:
In buying off opinion leaders to oppose net neutrality, [AT&T and other internet service providers] ended up needing to get into bed with right-wing christianists who want to censor the internet, thus trading away yet another basic aspect of what has made the internet successful. ...

It wasn’t until 2008 that the opposition to net neutrality began to be generated — as John McCain and other Republicans reversed their positions as they received large inflows of money from various broadband companies opposing net neutrality. The meme began to circulate on the right wing that net neutrality was a version of the Fairness Doctrine of the 1960s which mandated radio programs give time to opposing views when they spoke on controversial subjects. ... The Fairness Doctrine is not something that gets the blood of the average American boiling. But it does evoke a Pavlovian response among conservative activists and right-wing radio listeners. ...

[In a recent letter, Grover Norquist, Phyllis Schlafly, and other conservatives] came out in favor of censorship of the internet:
Net neutrality regulations also call into question how obscenity and other objectionable content on the Internet is treated. ... [N]et neutrality prohibits broadband service providers from ... preventing peddlers of child pornography from having unblocked access to every home Internet connection.
Net neutrality is about one and only one thing: preventing broadband service providers from using their monopoly position to collect "rent" from content providers. It's not even the point that abandoning net neutrality will affect marginal (and free) content such as this blog (although it will). Net neutrality will effectively transfer substantial profits from commercial content providers to the broadband provider, in much the same sense that the capital costs for printing and promoting books allows publishers to expropriate profit from writers*.

*Even with highly paid writers such as Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, the average return for just published writers is ridiculously low. Throw in the labor of good writers who never get published and hour-for-hour writers get screwed harder by the capitalist system than migrant farm workers.

Broadband is a "natural" monopoly, by virtue of enormously high capital costs necessary. Another effect of abandoning net neutrality will be to create a huge network effect: broadband providers will erect barriers to sharing traffic with each other. Which broadband provider an individual is connected to will dictate what content they can get at all, much less cheaply and quickly. If, for example, Revolution Magazine were available on Sprint, Sprint might not even bother to pay AT&T for the right to transmit that traffic. With antitrust laws weakening and enforcement lax, it's conceivable that just as we now have mostly single-newspaper cities, we could have single-internet-news cities: Fox News in Atlanta, MSNBC in Seattle.

None of the broadband providers have any economic incentive to support net neutrality. It's free money. They don't have to do anything, build anything, or learn anything of value to anyone else. All they have to do is stand in front of the bridge and demand a toll.

The big content providers will fight — they don't want to give away their money for nothing — but win or lose, Google, Amazon, Yahoo!, the major news outlets, etc. will still survive and make a healthy profit, so they won't fight with their lives on the line. The primary selection process will be against entry level businesses — especially providing high-bandwidth content — who will need an order of magnitude more capital just to pay AT&T to get enough bandwidth to survive.

Look for net neutrality to quickly erode over the next few years. There's no capitalist economic reason for it to survive.

Worst case scenarios

Bruce Schneier writes on worst case thinking. He's right, don't'cha know.

What's the worst that could happen if we implemented communism? We could, I suppose, all end up living in a totalitarian dictatorship, die in a zombie apocalypse or be subjected to Justin Bieber. That's also the worst that could happen if we keep capitalism, if we implement anarchism, Libertarianism, or Utopian socialism, or switch to the metric system.

One the one hand, we don't want to do things that have a substantial, foreseeable probability of severe catastrophe. Drilling for oil 18,000 feet into the Gulf of Mexico springs immediately to mind. On the other hand, we can't cower in our beds in fear of being struck by a meteor.

There are steps we can take to mitigate and virtually eliminate the possibility of the worst effects of most endeavors; there really are only a limited number of categorically Bad Ideas that no one should seriously consider.

Elena Kagan and secularism

The Secular Coalition for America has some disturbing news about Supreme Court nominee (?) Elena Kagan: She is apparently no friend of secularism and church-state separation. She referred to the dissenting opinion in Bowen v. Kendrick — for which she herself wrote an important memo — as "the dumbest thing I ever read" and "deeply mistaken."

The fundamental problem is, of course, not Kagan herself, but president Obama, who has repeatedly favored greater entanglement between religion, politics and government.

(Interestingly enough, I'm watching season 7 of The West Wing, which features a religious, secretly pro-life Democrat pandering to the pro-choice base campaigning against an atheist, moderate, pro-choice Republican pandering to the fundamentalist Christian pro-life base. I don't know whose hypocrisy to be more appalled by.)

(And it's really interesting to watch the The West Wing as a communist. The show is, of course, one of the greatest paeans to American exceptionalism, imperialism and liberal capitalist elitism. I remarked to my wife, "This is what Clinton would have been like if he had a spine."

"Nonsense," she replied. "This is what Clinton would have been like if he'd been an actor in a TV show." As you can tell, my wife is much smarter than I am. It's instructive to note how strongly our political opinions are and have historically been shaped by fiction, where the author openly gets to re-write the facts of the world.)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Failure of demand

First, we have to understand the underlying nature of the problem: demand. People have to want stuff and they have to be able to buy stuff. (The producers also have to be able to collect the money, a problem (with several interesting solutions) for free software and free information in general in a capitalist economy.) The financial crisis in the current economy is caused by a failure of the second part of demand: people want stuff, but they can't buy it.

Capitalism prior to the Great Depression was driven primarily by production to make the working classes more productive*. There was tremendous pressure not only to use machines to make workers more immediately productive, but also to improve their standard of living to make them better workers overall and to support more workers. (Note that Marx was not incorrect in noting the poor quality of life of industrial workers in the mid-19th century; there was no "altruism" whatsoever in the capitalists drive to improve workers' standard of living. Utopian fuckwits notwithstanding, it still remains arguable, however, that the quality of life of pre-industrial agrarianism was even lower than under industrial capitalism. Secondarily, capitalist production created the professional-managerial middle class, which absorbed much of the luxury production afforded by improved productive efficiency.

*Per-capita consumption as a percentage of total production by the ruling class has fallen substantially from feudalism, and continues to fall. Contrast Versailles with the Hearst Castle and Bill Gates' home.)

The problem, becoming apparent even by Marx's time and underlying the recessions of the 19th century, was that the personal demand of the upper and middle classes was beginning to fail: they no longer wanted stuff. Contributing to this failure was the social attitude that created the capitalist ruling class in the first place (and which permeated to the middle class): a distaste for consumption in favor of saving and investment. The feudal ruling class consumed not only ostentatiously but proudly: they were, in their own eyes (and to some degree justifiably) turning what little surplus labor there was — surplus labor that couldn't be invested — into works of great art and beauty, which they (again to some degree justifiably) conceived themselves to be holding in trust for future generations. One reason why the capitalist ruling class arose as a distinct class — rather than the feudal ruling class simply embracing industrial production — was precisely because the capitalist attitude favoring investment over consumption afforded a much higher rate of industrial development.

This crisis of demand came to a head in the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent depression. The professional-managerial middle class (relatively large compared to early capitalism), whose individual desire to consume was saturated, tried to gain entry in the capitalist ruling class by exploiting loopholes in the stock market.

It is entirely incorrect to view the loopholes and weaknesses in the stock market in 1929 or the shadow banking system today as the problem that needs to be corrected. It's certainly a problem, but it's impossible to build a system with no loopholes or weaknesses at all, especially when there's any negative selection pressure that can be escaped by finding or creating loopholes. (Most simple systems work only because no one is actively trying to subvert them; the most well-designed complex systems fail even though no one is trying to subvert them.) At best, advocates of "regulation" are fighting the last war.

FDR's New Deal and Keynesian economics was the last, best hope to "rescue" capitalism from its own contradictions. It succeeded — at least for a while — because not only did FDR et al. improve regulations on the stock market and financial system, but also because it pushed a considerable amount of social demand — the ability to buy stuff — on the working class. Of course, the United States supplied this demand in no small part by creating the most powerful international economic empire in the history of the world, hyper-exploiting tens or hundreds of millions of foreign workers as well as tens of millions of American minority and illegal immigrant workers. Even so, without the demand of a huge chunk of the American working class, American imperialism would have faltered.

However, the New Deal and Keynesian economics did not address the primary selection pressure operating on members of the capitalist class: losing their money and being ejected from the capitalist class. Indeed the entry of hundreds of thousands of new members to the lower rungs of the capitalist class increased this selection pressure. It doesn't matter, for example, that there is a vastly expanded demand for shoes if you yourself cannot efficiently produce shoes: you'll still go out of business. The selection pressure remains, and to evolution it doesn't matter how you escape selection pressure; all that matters is that you do escape it.

"Efficiency" in capitalist economics has two* definitions: producing goods with less actual labor time ("good" efficiency), and producing goods with less actual labor cost ("bad" efficiency). One company that can produce 100,000 shoes a year with 100 workers paid $10/hour, is "more efficient" than another company that can produce 100,000 shoes with 75 workers paid $20/hour. There are always loopholes and weaknesses in regulations that mandate that workers be paid $20/hour; the companies that find and exploit those loopholes will escape selection pressures that will eliminate companies that don't find them or have some "moral" compunction against exploiting them. [see comments]

As long as there is labor cost selection pressure, the labor market will find ways to "fall downhill" to a market for labor power rather than a market for labor time, i.e. the price for labor will fall to its cost according to the law of supply and demand. All you can do with regulation is select against some particular methods of making the market for labor a market for labor power, and whatever you don't select against will end up being selected "for".

*Three, actually: the third is producing more (or better) goods for the same time/cost.

From the late 1940's to the 1970's, we had tremendous economic growth in the United States (and Western Europe). The vastly increased demand (ability to buy) afforded mostly by labor unions and government labor regulations eased selection pressure overall: with demand so high, even relatively inefficient producers were not selected against. The chief problem of the era (and we were lucky to have that problem) was convincing people to want to consume what was being produced. There also was a certain symbiosis between foreign and American workers. The hyper-exploited foreign were producing mostly raw materials and some technologically unchallenging manufactured products, such as textiles; American workers were producing more complex and technologically challenging products, such as automobiles and airplanes. Technological issues, especially shipping, worker education, and management, prevented "outsourcing" and made American workers more cost-efficient overall, despite a much higher unit cost.

But selection pressure was not absent: companies were going out of business and a lot of capitalists in the 50s and 60s failed and were expropriated. Even if only a small fraction of companies just looked for ways to reduce labor costs rather than labor time, that small fraction still escaped selection pressure more often than companies that didn't look for (or didn't find) ways to reduce labor costs. As evolution shows us, even a small reduction in selection pressure against a minority always* leads to that minority eventually dominating the population and often completely eliminating alternative variations.

*Almost always: there are some exceptions due to higher-level selection pressures.

Because of the way selection pressures work within the capitalist ruling class, no amount of regulation or "artificial" constraints on the capitalist class will ever be effective in the long (i.e. 30-40 years) term. We would literally have to regulate with the power, knowledge and benevolence of an deity* to successfully overcome the selection pressures inherent in the capitalist system.

*It should be noted that no such omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent deity actually exists.

In the New Deal years, while the upper middle professional-manager class was struggling — often successfully — to enter the capitalist ruling class, the working class and lower-middle class were storing some of their new ability-to-buy demand into housing and pensions. Naturally, when labor costs started to decline — i.e. actually working was creating less ability-to-buy demand — ability-to-buy demand devolved to first pension funds and then home prices, producing the bubbles of the 21st century. When these bubbles were exhausted (in the space of just a few years each), ability-to-buy demand completely collapsed.

To a certain extent, this stored demand was simply stolen through chicanery and outright fraud. It makes a certain amount of sense to look for ways this chicanery and fraud can be prevented and eliminated, and it seems that a lot of "progressive" economists have focused their entire attention on this effort. But the fundamental problem is that there was an opportunity for these areas of stored demand to be stolen in the first place. Two conditions are necessary for anything to be stolen: the stolen property must of course exist, but more importantly it must be placed at risk by its owners. No matter how much gold there is in Fort Knox, it's not going to be stolen from there. It's very difficult to take someone's house when it's paid for (or they have enough ability-to-buy demand to maintain their mortgage payments): if you want to steal someone's house, you have to convince them to put it at risk by taking out a mortgage they can't pay for. Because ability-to-pay demand on the basis of wages was declining for the working and lower-middle classes, that's exactly what they did: take out second mortgages and home-equity loans on their more-or-less paid-for (or being paid-for) houses. And they more-or-less "rationally" had to do so: because their mortgage payments were tied to their incomes (and their pensions tied to the health of the companies), had they not propped up overall ability-to-pay demand by tapping their houses, they risked losing their jobs (predicated on supplying that demand) and their houses anyway. Because of the fundamental nature of the capitalist system, the working class and lower-middle class was in a "damned (tomorrow) if you do, damned (today) if you don't" double bind.

In a purely engineering sense, any competent, honest and caring economist could design a system that would maintain aggregate demand, keep full employment, and guarantee a dignified standard of living to everyone on the planet. Throw in the scientific, engineering and technical knowledge we already have, and we could probably support ten times as many people as we have, all with dignity and a reasonable level of comfort. Even I myself could probably make a decent attempt, with my amateur and half-assed understanding of economics and physical science.

Figuring out how to design an economic system is not the problem. If we had a reasonable level of good will and common desire, I can't see that it's really even as technically or intellectually challenging as designing a computer operating system. The problem is that we don't have good will. Even if 90% of the capitalist ruling class had even a little Keynesian good will and common cause with the working and middle-classes, they would be eliminated by the other 10% of Randians long before they could actually implement any economic system that was good for everyone. They partially succeeded in the 1940s only because a "perfect storm" of circumstances diminished the power of the proto-Randians (i.e. there was a "group selection" event) leaving them in a position of temporary advantage. But the proto-Randians weren't completely eliminated; more importantly, the fundamental selection pressures didn't change: the selection pressures that afforded a Randian attitude (improved cost-efficiency, not time-efficiency) a relative advantage didn't change.

To be honest, drilling down to the evolutionary pressures on politics and economics isn't all that comforting. One imagines, per Marx, that somehow the working class can directly exert selection pressure: they certainly appear to have the raw power to do so. But they do not appear to have the political and psychological will to do so, and a century of communist and socialist agitation and propaganda failed to make this will pervasive in the working class: FDR and the Keynesians threw the working class a bone in the 1940's, and they couldn't run away from communism fast enough. The massive anti-communist propaganda in the 50's and 60's had a lot to do with the outcome, but even the best propaganda cannot succeed where there isn't fertile ground in people's minds for its ideas.

With all due respect to many of my friends, whom I like and admire greatly (and even many people I consider to be well-intentioned jackasses), the radical anti-capitalist (communist, socialist and anarchist) movement is entirely ineffectual and meaningless. Even the capitalist liberal and "progressive" left appears almost completely unable or unwilling to exploit the catastrophic — and frankly egregiously stupid — blunders of the Randian capitalist right.

We're running out of options, and running out of time. All I can see is a literal mass extinction of most human societies, perhaps of all humanity. Even if some are left standing to rebuild the world, the "victors" will mostly be selected by pure chance, not by any intrinsic moral virtue.

Rearranging the deck chairs

Partly because I got interested in communism, which draws novel and deep connections between economics and politics, and partly to understand the current financial crisis and subsequent depression, I began reading a lot of capitalist economics blogs, including Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and others.

When I first started reading them, the authors seemed to be looking deeply at the fundamental economic, political and sociological underpinnings of the crisis. Lately, however, most of them (with the exception of some posts at naked capitalism) seem to have just given up, talking about the nitty-gritty details of the financial reform bills in Congress and the bailout of the Greek economy. Even Krugman, who's fairly pessimistic about Greece (as well as Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Spain, who are headed for similar trouble) seems to have just stopped looking at why our economy and financial systems are in trouble. At worst, they're arguing over the new arrangement of chairs on the Titanic, over the color of the band-aid on our gaping economic wounds; at best they're pessimistically noting that band-aids won't help without really talking about what would help.

There are a few exceptions, but lately I find myself skipping over most of the economics blogs I read. Ho-hum, another critique/apology for the not-even-half-assed Congressional finance reform bill or Greek bailout.

Engineers and philosophy

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Click on the comic and mouse over the red dot at the end for the usual SMBC bonus.

10 worst riots in American history

A reader alerts me to this interesting article detailing the 10 worst riots in American history.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Social networking

I am not an active member of FaceBook, MySpace, LinkedIn or any other social networking site. I do not play any MMORPGs. I do not have an active account on any message board, discussion board or any other conversational forum. I do not use Skype, AIM, ICQ or any other chat program. There may be some remnants of past activity in these areas, but I no longer check them.

I have this blog, an email account (that sufficiently clever readers of this blog can find), and a phone.

If you try to friend me, or buddy me, or whatever it is that's done at these sorts of places, I'm not ignoring you: I'm simply unable to respond. Either I don't have an account (as best I can tell, FaceBook does not require an invitee to have an account), or I've long forgotten the password and I'm disinclined to retrieve it.

I make no judgments: if you use these sorts of media, good for you. They don't work for me, however, so I don't use them.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Preference and utility

Maxine Udall
attempt[s] to draw a distinction between utility maximization, which is what economists have tended to assume best describes consumer behavior, and preference maximization, which is more likely to be what consumers are actually doing when markets fail, information is faulty, prices are distorted away from marginal social cost, or uncertainty (i.e., risk) cannot be or is not managed efficiently. [Economists] have tended to use the two terms as synonymous. I think the distinction is important. If preferences do not map accurately to something that can objectively be called utility, there is no guarantee that market allocations are efficient in any meaningful sense of that term.

She means this question not in its indirect, instrumental sense, but in its direct, primary sense: are there preferences we in some sense ought to have:
[John Stuart] Mill implies that there is some objective state of the world that corresponds or “should” correspond to human happiness. Were we rational, it is the state of the world we would prefer to that characterized by satisfaction of irrational, short-term pleasures.
Udall refers to Mill's famous quotation
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
I think Udall is not correct. Trying to figure out what any philosopher "really" meant is at best an exercise for scholars (and at worst an exercise in futility); I'm neither a scholar nor a mind-reader, so I won't speculate on what Mill was thinking. It's useful, though, to apply an "epistemic test" to assertions: if you are going to assert the truth or falsity of a proposition, we must ask: how do you know — or how in principle would you know [see comments] — that it's true or false?

Mill's assertion might or might not be ontologically true, but is it epistemically determinable? Can we — even in principle — know it's true? If we cannot — even in principle — know it to be true or false, affirmation or denial of Mill's assertion becomes (at best) a religious statement. But there's no substantive ambiguity, vagueness or epistemic uncertainty about what Mill is comparing*. Mill is not saying, for example, that it's better to be an unhappy diamond than a happy emerald: even if it were the case that diamonds and emeralds secretly could be happy or unhappy, we have no way of telling the difference.

*Mill does not go to great lengths precisely defining his terms. We could probably write several graduate theses in philosophy investigating all the plausible meanings of his terms, and find that some combinations make no sense and some sensible combinations are clearly false or implausible. (And that's if we're honest philosophers; the dishonest and perverse philosophers will assume Mill is authoritative and draw false or improbable conclusions.) The point, however, is that an ordinarily imaginative person can, I think, come up with an interpretation that does make sense, and plausibly at least appears to be true.

We can unobjectionably know that Socrates is in some sense "unsatisfied" and the fool "satisfied" by ordinary observation and scientific inference. Because our inferences specifically refer to Socrates' and the fool's mental states, "satisfied" and "unsatisfied" are therefore subjective. Furthermore, everything else being equal, being "satisfied" is better than being unsatisfied. Mill, of course, is explicitly not holding everything else equal: he's drawing a distinction by comparing Socrates to the fool — another distinction we can unobjectionably know — and his "better" clearly applies to this distinction.

Granting that Mill is not making a vacuous comparison, Mill's comparison apparently cannot be a subjective comparison. It's obvious (or at least we're we're uncontroversially granting the premise) that satisfied is subjectively better than unsatisfied. Since we're making a comparison contrary to the obvious subjective comparison, to avoid contradiction it must be objective, n'est-ce pas?

The epistemic question, though, is how do or would we know that it's better to be Socrates unsatisfied than a fool satisfied? Are we using a epistemic methodology that pertains to subjective truths (truths about people's mental states) or objective truths (truths about the physical world other than of people's mental states)?

We could, for example, ask Socrates.
"We know, Socrates," we might say, "that you're dissatisfied."

"That is most assuredly true," he might reply.

"And that man over there, he is a fool and moreover completely satisfied."

"There cannot be any doubt you are again correct."

"And yet, if you could lose all your knowledge and wisdom, and become the fool, you would not want to do so, even if thereby you would become dissatisfied."

"I must agree without reservation!"

Likewise, if we asked the fool, Mill assumes he would not prefer to become wise at the cost of losing his satisfaction. Both answers seem unobjectionably plausible. But if we try to know whether it's better to be Socrates unsatisfied by just asking and accepting the answers as authoritative, we are inquiring into their mental states; we are determining their subjective preferences. Socrates prefers to be wise; the fool prefers to be ignorant. To simply say that Socrates' answer is "objectively" authoritative because he is wise would just beg the question*. (Mill does not, of course, fall into this obvious fallacy: he draws an objective distinction between Socrates and the fool: Socrates in some unobjectionable sense knows "what it's like" to be both foolish and wise, and is in a position to make the comparison; the fool, however, does not know "what it's like" to be wise.) The key here is accepting even Socrates' answer as authoritative: the mere utterance of the statement is in itself evidence of some truth. (Some truth: a statement is not authoritative evidence that the specific content of the statement is true).

*In much the same sense, Christian apologists assert — correctly, I suppose — that if you actually believe in God, then you will prefer to believe in God. The question-begging is a little more obvious in this case.

We cannot directly observe mental states. When we make assertions about a person's mental states, we are engaging in a scientific process [see comments]: First, we have a general model: people have mental states of various content, and those mental states cause them to act (considering speaking as a speech act). Their actions (including utterances) are evidentially authoritative: any theory about their specific mental states must necessarily account for all their actions. If our theory fails to explain some action, we cannot dismiss the action as irrelevant; we must change the theory. (Note that authoritative (i.e. required to be admitted to evidence) does not mean veridical (the content accurately describes reality). If a person says, "I don't like ice cream," and we later observe him eating ice cream, we might infer his statement was not veridical, but we cannot infer that his statement is not authoritative and can be ignored. We have to update our theory of his mental states to account for why he would lie. But he still in fact did lie, we need to explain the lie, and the statement is still authoritative.

We ask Socrates if he is dissatisfied, and he agrees. We ask him if the fool is satisfied; again he agrees. We ask him, "Will you take the blue pill and become a satisfied fool?" He refuses! "It's better to be wise and dissatisfied."

We must infer a set of mental states from these actions. He might, of course, simply be lying: He might not be dissatisfied in any sense; he might not actually think the fool is satisfied, or he might be lying about not wanting to take the blue pill. But this seems like an over-elaborate theory: We have to theorize not only that he's lying, but that he would want to lie. If, for example, he wanted to take the blue pill in secret, he knows (and we know, and he knows we know, etc.) that we would quickly discover he had taken the blue pill and his secret would be exposed.

Is there an alternative interpretation that's simpler? Generally, if a person acts, we infer that the action satisfies some preference; if a person refuses to act, we infer they prefer the status quo to the outcome of the action. We thus infer that Socrates prefers to be "dissatisfied", i.e. he is in one sense satisfied that he is in another sense dissatisfied.

It's plausible that "satisfied" can have a range of meanings, especially when translated to logically rigorous terminology: many words and phrases have this property. Furthermore, we also know in general that the human emotional apparatus is very complicated and multi-layered: People can have preferences about the real world (including their own bodies; they can also have preferences about preferences ("meta-preferences"), preferences about other people's preferences and their satisfaction, preferences conditioned on other peoples preferences ("If you want to see Die Hard I'd be happy to join you, but if you don't want to see it, I wouldn't go on my own account") and so forth.

So Mill's statement seems to draw a comparison contrary to only a superficial or first-level mental state; there might be meta-states — just as subjective as first-level states — that explain the discrepancy.

If we want, on the other hand, to establish an objective truth, we cannot take the mere utterance of a statement to itself be authoritative. Even the wisest person can be mistaken on a matter of objective truth: one sense of "objective truth" is a truth a wise person can be mistaken about. Whether or not Isaac Newton says that light is a particle, for example, has nothing at all to do with whether light actually is a particle. We can simply dismiss his statement as irrelevant: we don't necessarily* need our theory of light to explain why Isaac Newton said it was a particle.

*Given that Isaac Newton knew a thing or two about physics in general and optics in particular, we might want to explain his statement, but we don't have to. If, however, he argued from evidence that light was a particle, we would have to consider the evidence he used in his argument to be authoritative.

To establish an objective truth, we must establish a methodology that even a fool can follow and come to the correct answer. Indeed, we call Socrates wise in the first place precisely because he can instruct us fools into wisdom... and we want him to do so.

In a similar sense, one does not need to be a physicist to understand that objects in a gravitational field accelerate at a constant rate regardless of their mass. Rather one becomes a physicist by understanding (among other things) how objects behave in gravity. If we are going to say the fool's preference to remain foolish is mistaken, we must also say we can somehow instruct the fool to the truth. If we say a person is a fool because he prefers to remain foolish, we are again begging the question.

We can persuade the "fool" such as Newton who believes light is a particle that it is really a wave* by showing him the evidence. Is there evidence we can show the satisfied fool that he should in any sense prefer to be a dissatisfied philosopher? We could, of course, make him a philosopher and ask him again (and presumably he would answer as Socrates), but this "solution" just begs the question. We have "magically" changed his preferences and mirable dictu! we discover his preferences have changed. Not the most compelling argument, but I don't think there's a better one. Indeed, Mill's statement rings true precisely because people generally fell satisfied at an abstract meta-level to be as wise as they are, even at the cost of superficially or low-level dissatisfaction that would go away if they were less wise.

*Yeah, yeah, I know: quantum mechanics.

In short, even if we accept Mill's statement as definitely true in some sense, we cannot simply infer that there are actual objectively true statements about the preferences we should have. The explanation of meta-preferences and the general complexity and multi-level account of preferences, emotions and mental states (well-supported by independent evidence) adequately explains Mill's statement.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Five cheap magic tricks

5 Cheap Magic Tricks Behind Every Psychic:
  1. Don't strain credulity
  2. Stick with one trick
  3. Have more than one way to do the same trick
  4. Tell everyone they can do it
  5. Include a disclaimer

Wrestling with ghosts

If you are going to turn every class into a wrestle with the ghosts of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nozick, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher, you will look silly unless you first make sure your students know who you are wrestling with, and why your struggle is such a desperate one--why their arguments have force and power...

Brad DeLong
I agree with DeLong that you have to not only thoroughly understand your opposition, but you also must by necessity acknowledge when "their arguments have force and power." I don't say that anyone should pull their punches criticizing and condemning the capitalist ruling class, but unless you acknowledge and directly challenge not only their weakness but their strengths, an intelligent, skeptical listener will justly dismiss the criticism as unacceptably biased.

I don't think he's correct when he says,
The problem is that these nineteen year olds [college students] are from the upper-middle class of twenty-first century California and are at base do-gooder meritocrats deeply suspicious of large greedy corporations that repeatedly and recurrently try to sell them junk that they don't really need. They have not only not been programmed by the ideologies of neoliberal market capitalism and classical economics, they barely know that they exist at an ideological level.
The alternative explanation is that they have been so deeply programmed that they don't know they've been programmed; they think these ideological positions are matters of objective truth.

Remember: just that a nineteen year old can consider himself a do-gooder meritocrat indicates they've already swallowed the capitalist ruling class narrative, that the capitalist class is intrinsically better. In more-or-less objective terms, a nineteen year old has not actually achieved any merit. (With very few exceptions, at best her parents have overcome the mostly social, political and financial obstacles to obtaining adequate primary and secondary education.) The idea a nineteen year old can have any inherent qualities whatsoever that even impose an obligation or duty to society is itself profoundly ideological, and profoundly wrong.

And this is, I think, a fundamental problem with the capitalist left. The capitalist left agrees with the right that the capitalist class intrinsically deserves to rule; they disagree only on the rights and responsibilities of that rule.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Political cash

Top Recipient of Political Cash from BP, Goldman Sachs, Defense Contractors AND Healthcare Giants: Barack Obama

If you're surprised, you're even stupider than you look.

Why aren't there more terrorist attacks?

Bruce Schneier asks, Why Aren't There More Terrorist Attacks?: If terrorism is so easy,
why aren't there more terrorist attacks like the failed car bomb in New York's Times Square? ... After the enormous horror and tragedy of 9/11, why have the past eight years been so safe in the U.S.?

There are actually several answers to this question. One, terrorist attacks are harder to pull off than popular imagination -- and the movies -- lead everyone to believe. Two, there are far fewer terrorists than the political rhetoric of the past eight years leads everyone to believe. And three, random minor terrorist attacks don't serve Islamic terrorists' interests right now.

Math and English

(click on the comic for the usual SMBC bonus)

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Tuesday, May 04, 2010


[T]he proper function of spies is to remind those who rely on spies that the kinds of thing found out by spies can’t be trusted.

Malcolm Gladwell
(via Bruce Schneier


I suspect that not even evolutionary biologists pay enough attention to the fact that in any evolutionary process, selection is a fundamentally negative process. Natural selection in evolution does not select for, it selects against.

The usual narrative of evolution is that some heritable variation (such as a mutation) gives an individual a reproductive advantage. The individual's descendants inherit that advantageous variation, and because it is indeed advantageous, the variation comes to dominate the gene pool of the population. Not a bad story, and it gets the gist across, but it's missing an important component of the story: what precisely do we mean by "reproductive advantage"? The straightforward intuitive meaning isn't bad, but it misses important subtleties, especially when we want to intelligently direct evolutionary processes, such as social evolution.

A more accurate and direct narrative of evolution is that there is no selection-for, there is only selection-against. Some individuals have — for various reasons — a reproductive disadvantage; they fail to create descendants to inherit their individual variations. A specific variation can confer a reproductive advantage only indirectly, by changing the environment so that lacking the specific variation directly entails a disadvantage. A variation dominates the population's gene pool only when its competitors are selected against.

The selection-against narrative makes the creationist objection that, "If human beings are descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" more obviously fallacious, A naive or superficial grasp of the selection-for narrative makes this objection plausible, but the selection-against narrative makes the answer more obvious: because nature did not select against monkeys nor did nature select against humans; nature selected against that which we do not see.

Another somewhat less naive example is Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini's book, What Darwin Got Wrong (reviewed by Ned Block and Philip Kitcher as well as PZ Myers). I don't want to excuse the authors — they're professional intellectuals, and they shouldn't allow themselves to be misled by superficialities — but it seems clear to me that a narrative of negative selection would make their thesis more obviously incorrect.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini argue that
Darwinists say that evolution is explained by the selection of phenotypic traits by environmental filters. But the effects of endogenous structure can wreak havoc with this theory. Consider the following case: traits t1 and t2 are endogenously linked in such a way that if a creature has one, it has both. Now the core of natural selection is the claim that phenotypic traits are selected for their adaptivity, that is, for their effect on fitness. But it is perfectly possible that one of two linked traits is adaptive but the other isn't; having one of them affects fitness but having the other one doesn't. So one is selected for and the other "free-rides" on it.
The follow this critique up with a deeper philosophical critique. As Block and Kitcher describe
... Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini think that problems about selection-for are omnipresent... [b]ecause they envisage a vast space of properties and expect proponents of natural selection to discriminate among all the rivals. Not only is there a property of being-a-melanic-moth, there is also a property of being-a-melanic-moth-and-smaller-than-Manhattan. These properties are not only correlated in the world’s actual moth populations, they are correlated universally. Maybe it is impossible, even with the most rarefied genomic technology, to build a moth bigger than Manhattan. If so, the correlation between these properties could not be broken. How then could there be a sense in which one of the properties—being-a-melanic-moth—rather than the other—being-a-melanic-moth-and-smaller-than-Manhattan—caused the increased reproductive success?
Block and Kitcher would have us simply shrug off this object (nobody really cares whether nature is selecting for being-a-melanic-moth or being-a-melanic-moth-and-smaller-than-Manhattan), but even a definite error can be an opportunity to learn.

Block and Kitcher accept the narrative of selection-for, but they seem more flexible about its interpretation.
Natural selection, soberly presented, is about differential success in leaving descendants. If a variant trait (say, a long neck or reduced forelimbs) causes its bearer to have a greater number of offspring, and if the variant is heritable, then the proportion of organisms with the variant trait will increase in subsequent generations. To say that there is “selection for” a trait is thus to make a causal claim: having the trait causes greater reproductive success.
But a narrative of selection-against makes Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini argument more obviously invalid. We don't have to distinguish between selecting for being-a-melanic-moth and being-a-melanic-moth-and-smaller-than-Manhattan, because nature is not selecting for anything. Rather, nature in this case is selecting against getting eaten by a bird (before leaving descendants). It happens to be the case that being-a-melanic-moth (or perhaps being-a-melanic-moth-and-smaller-than-Manhattan) exempted individuals from this selection-against.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini philosophical critique just doesn't apply to a selection-against narrative. A selection-for narrative makes what is being selected for ambiguous; it's easy to see, however, in a selection-against narrative that nature is selecting against being-eaten-by-a-bird and being-eaten-by-a-bird-and-smaller-than-Manhattan (and being-eaten-by-a-bird-and- anything else). There's no ambiguity we have to shrug off.

If you want to understand why different outcomes occur in different evolutionary scenarios, look for differences in the negative selection pressures.

Consider three modes of negative selection in a population with a fixed food source. There's never enough food for all the individuals in the population. Some individuals will starve (before they reproduce): nature will select against those individuals and their heritable characteristics. Under ordinary circumstances, without any relevant variation, this selection is random: some individuals are just "unlucky" and don't happen to find enough food. But random selection is still selection, and over time it will from time to time happen to be the case by pure chance that all or most of the individuals with some variation will happen to starve by accident. Thus the competing variation(s) will dominate the population even though there is no causal reason why the dominant variation is "better than" the eliminated variation. Selection-for creates a mystery; selection-against provides an explanation: sometimes shit just happens; given enough time, shit will just happen.

In the second case, consider a variation that appears to provide a "reproductive advantage": individuals with this variation are faster, smarter, stronger or whatnot, and more likely to find food... specifically food that, but for their "advantage", other individuals would have eaten. This variation will (probably) dominate the population, but it will do so not because it's advantageous, but because the competing variations have become disadvantageous: individuals without the variation are disproportionally selected against.

Consider the third case: a variation that gives individuals access — even a little — to an alternative food source. In this case, the individuals have a reproductive advantage — if they fail by chance to eat the primary food source, they might not starve and be selected against — but this advantage does not create an immediate corresponding disadvantage in the rest of the population: all the food that was available to individuals without the variation is still available. The outcome in this situation is unclear precisely because we don't know what negative selection-against will actually operate: we have to look more deeply into the situation to identify how nature will select against individuals.

The selection-for narrative does not really distinguish between these situations. Why does some particular trait dominate the population? Because it was selected for. Why was it selected for? Using a selected-for narrative encourages the adaptationist fallacy: we don't know that just because a trait dominates the population it therefore confers a reproductive advantage. We can simply invert the question: the trait was selected for because it wasn't selected against, which encourages the question: why wasn't it selected against. But that's still not quite the correct question. We want to ask: what was selected against, and why? The selection-for narrative leads us down a winding mental path with many pitfalls; the selection-against narrative leads us by the nose to the correct question.

Clarity and precision are important in their own right, but there's a more compelling reason to stress the negative nature of selection in evolutionary processes. Human societies also evolve — dialectical/historical materialism is evolution — and although the low-level mechanisms obviously differ greatly (people do not transmit ideas and beliefs to their children through their DNA) the abstract mechanisms of heritable variation and negative natural selection still apply. If we are to "intelligently" affect our social evolution, we must understand how evolution actually works, and the negative character of selection becomes critically important.

UTA: I don't want to minimize the importance and subtlety of forces other than selection: e.g. mechanisms of heritability and variation as well as accidents large and small. My point is that to understand how selection operates in an evolutionary system, you have to look at what is selected against, not for.

Saturday, May 01, 2010