Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The evolution of altruism by individual selection

Jerry Coyne reviews Michael Price's review of A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and its Evolution, by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. Basically (and I can't do justice to Coyne's comments), the evidence suggests that "altruism" as we actually see it looks like a standard evolutionary "arms race" between cooperators and would-be "free riders", which is explainable by individual selection.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Targeting and bullying

Well... maybe sometimes mockery does work. Grizwald Grim's earlier post was pretty damn stupid, but his latest post, Atheism in 2012: Double Standards & Hypocrisy is not stupid. He's still wrong, of course, but he's expressing a definite position on a controversial issue.

Grim is not certain, so let me clarify that I definitely do self-identify as an atheist (the big red A in the sidebar is a clue), and I self-identify as a New Atheist, because I have a lot in common with people such as PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins.

I cannot improve on Grim's presentation of his primary argument:
As the obvious common thread when referring to a group as atheist is their common lack of belief in a deity, the article is likely to lead one to believe that the inclusive group is being targeted because of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

As the cartoon series in question is (barely debatable) obvious mockery of the behavior and attitudes of the religious as observed by the cartoonist, and the cartoon uses characters from those religions to express that mockery - it's evident that the mockery is targeted on the basis of religious beliefs.

I'm of the mind that it's a double standard to target a group because of their religious beliefs and then rage against those that would target others because of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

I do not object to people targeting my beliefs because I am an atheist. I have never seen any atheist blog arguing that atheism should be immune to criticism, mockery, or ridicule for any reason, much less for the reason that the author has targeted atheism. For example, the Barmaid directly concurs: "I don't want my fundamental beliefs protected from attack or ridicule, thanks." I don't know of any atheist, or any New Atheist, who would disagree with this unequivocal statement.

Target away. Attack as best you can. Ridicule as much as you please. Criticize to your heart's content. Bring it on. As long as you stick directly and indirectly to words and ideas, take your best shot.

We do not object to targeting. We do not object to mockery, ridicule, or criticism. We do, however, object to threatened or actual physical coercion to suppress any speech (outside well-established legal boundaries, e.g. incitement, "fighting words", etc.). When an institution is in a position of authority over an individual, sanctions are inherently coercive. When an individual makes a credible threat of violence, or when an individual actually acts violently, that's coercion. And we object to coercion to suppress any speech, not just when the speech is targeted towards one particular group or another.

And atheists do not use coercion to suppress others speech. We do not threaten or use violence. We do not threaten or use official sanctions. The closest you'll find to atheists, secularists, or scientists using any kind of official sanctions is denying tenure or promotion to scientists promoting Intelligent Design, and in every case you'll find the denial of tenure or promotion was based not on the person's views, but on objective measures of their scientific competence.

Of course, atheist organizations do prioritize objecting to real offenses specifically against atheists. That's what special-interest organizations are for. Atheists do not expect NAACP or NOW to prioritize the interests of white male atheists. Prioritization is not just a matter of expediency; it also stems from the same philosophical roots as the judicial standing that only an actual (alleged) victim of a tort has standing to sue. Once the victim chooses to sue, the matter is up for social decision, but the victim is specially privileged over whether or not to put the matter in the social arena. But just because atheist organizations prioritize offenses against atheists does not mean that we object just because the perpetrator chose atheists as a specific target.

Grim happily modifies his earlier stance. He seems to retract his contradictory position that he supports the right to free expression on the one hand but will not protect it on the other, he instead explicitly supports an exception to the right of free expression, presumably enforced through legitimate legal means:
I accept the limited right of freedom of expression and will vehemently defend anyone's right to expression that doesn't infringe on other rights. Cross that line, start using it to infringe on the right of freedom of religion, and my support stops at the line.
Grim argues that mockery crosses that line:
Frequency and recurrence of such mockery starts to look like a campaign to to dehumanize a people because of their religion. If the campaign remains intact and escalates above mockery, you're well on your way to persecution on the basis of religious beliefs (or lack there of).
A position and an argument. Full marks!

But in today's context, mockery does not infringe on freedom of religion. One important feature of modern life is the social, political, and legal privilege afforded to religious belief. This social privilege, labeling a belief as "religious" exempts it from not only mockery and ridicule but also rational criticism, prompts much of the New Atheist agenda. In a truly secular society, where labeling a belief as "religious" would not afford it any special status, mockery might well be inappropriate. But so long as the religious wield real power on the basis of their religion, mockery is a legitimate social response.

Secondly, criticizing a belief does not dehumanize people, because beliefs are not ineluctable. To criticize an ineluctable characteristic such as race, sex, national origin, or physical "disability", tends to dehumanize a person because no person can ever change his or her race, sex, etc. But a person can change his beliefs, and the whole point of having a society, the Libertarian fantasy of "rugged individualists" notwithstanding, is to influence and change each others' beliefs. If your beliefs are indefensible, change them.

It's almost impossible to draw the line between mockery and legitimate criticism. I don't mean that there might be some gray area — that's true of almost every distinction — I mean that it's hard to come up with a definition that does not exclude any criticism. The response to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is a case in point. This book, which to my eyes is calm, reasoned, and nuanced, has been denounced as the worst sort of illegitimate, disrespectful mockery, and not just by religious believers. And as any reader of academic literature knows, the most savage insults can be couched in the most rarefied academic language. A ban on "mockery" seems like the essence of the slippery slope: it's not that there's some gray area, it's that it's all gray area.

Atheists do not object to offenses against atheists just because someone has specifically chosen an atheist to offend. Atheists and atheist organizations prioritize offenses against atheists because that's what special-interest organizations routinely do in a society, and because atheists have the most standing to object to offenses against atheists. We do not consider mockery or ridicule to be offenses; we consider, rather, the use of coercion, violence, threats, and official sanctions, to silence our well-established right of free expression to constitute offenses. Some atheists use mockery in no small part because of the social privilege of religious belief; mockery is a well-established political tool for opposing the dominant majority. Finally, it seems impossible to exempt mockery and ridicule from our notions of protected free speech. Grizwald Grim might find our tools objectionable, and he's free to object, but his arguments for silencing us simply fail.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (yet another omniscience edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheists Must Be Divine!
Dr. Chalmers discuss this saying,
"To be able to assert that there is no God, we must walk the whole expanse of infinity, and ascertain by observation that no evidence of God exists anywhere. Grant that with the narrow limits of our observation no traces or vestiges of Deity be found, does it follow that throughout all immensity a Being, with the essence and sovereignty of a God, is nowhere to be found?

Yes, God might me hiding behind the couch. Ho hum.

Freedom of expression

I usually don't bother to explain entries in The Stupid! It Burns!; any reader with a triple-digit IQ a Google PhD will immediately get it. But Grizwald Grim has politely asked me why I think his post is burningly stupid. He won't understand the explanation, of course — if he were intelligent enough to understand the critique, he wouldn't have posted something so stupid to begin with — but his request gives me an opportunity to heap additional abuse on someone whose stupidity is exceeded only by his self-opinion.

The most obvious feature of Grim's post is that he himself is acting like an insufferable prick. I don't mind prickishness; I'm often a prick myself, and I'm being one now. But Grim is an insufferable prick complaining about other people being insufferable pricks, which makes him a hypocrite. I, on the other hand, am being a prick because Grim is a hypocrite (as well as being stupid). Not only is Grim being a obvious hypocrite, he is (incorrectly) condemning others for being hypocrites. Just by itself, two levels of clueless self-parody is enough to earn him a spot on TSIB.

But Grim is not only a stupid, hypocritical prick, he also so deeply misunderstands bullying and the concept of rights that I wonder how he's able to find his mouth with a spoonful of soup.

Bullying is coercion. Mockery and disrespect are not (for adults) bullying. Grim is correct: atheists are mostly immune to (legitimate) mockery precisely because we don't have many obviously stupid beliefs to mock. (Of course, that doesn't stop a lot of religious believers from inventing stupid things they think we do or ought to believe, and mocking those made-up beliefs. But that's grist for other TSIB posts.) Grim links to Paula Kirby's article, Worrying developments for freedom of expression in the UK, and highlights the case of Rhys Morgan, who, according to Kirby, "has apparently received veiled threats of expulsion or suspension from his school if he does not remove a Jesus & Mo image from his personal Facebook page" and has received threats of violence from his Muslim classmates. Morgan was not attempting to coerce anyone. He didn't harass anyone, he didn't threaten anyone, he didn't demand anyone be expelled or suspended, and he certainly didn't actually harm anyone. Morgan is, contrary to Grim's assertion, not a bully. And atheists in general do not engage in coercive behavior, except to insist on the ordinary social coercion to prevent harassment, threats, and overt violence prescribed by law.

Finally, Grim risibly completely fails to grasp the concept of rights. Regardless of their ontological origin — objective, subjective, or socially constructed — to accept a right is to accept a social obligation to protect that right. The connection between rights and protection is not just an entailment, it's an identity. So when Grim both asserts the right to free expression and in the same sentence implies that he will not protect those who exercise the right of free expression, he is blatantly contradicting himself.

When Grim says, "You're on your own when the consequences of being an insufferable prick come back to haunt you," he is essentially saying that if someone murdered a 17 year old for posting a cartoon on his Facebook page, he would give the murderer a round of applause instead of a lifetime in jail. I am a civilized person, so I will not harass, threaten, or harm Grim (and even this second post is at his explicit request), but I can with a clear conscience say that he is a stupid, contemptible, disgusting excuse for a human being.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Shit skeptics say

(via PZ Myers)


Thanks for the books, Eric! Wow! That means a lot to me.

They're going straight to the top of my reading list, and I'll post a review/reflection of each book when I finish reading it.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent. Specific and direct harm medically diagnosable even in early pregnancy may be involved. Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases, as in this one, the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved. All these are factors the woman and her responsible physician necessarily will consider in consultation.

— Harry Blackmun, Roe v. Wade

Real and financial economics

Part 1: What is "real"? (commentary)
Part 2a: Real microeconomics (demand shocks)
Part 2b: Real microeconomics (supply shocks)
Interlude: Real and financial economics

I come to economics and political science from an unusual place. I was a computer programmer for many years, and an avid reader of popularizations of science. When I'm thinking about science and engineering, I'm always keeping one eye on the physical. I'm always asking, "What does this have to do with what's physically happening?" I have to be especially careful about the physical as a computer programmer. I mostly worked on business information systems: my job was to help people track and control what was physically happening in their business. (I also had to worry about what was more-or-less physically happening with the bits and bytes.) We have to worry about what's physically happening with the economy, too. All too often, economics deals with money, but money — even hard money — is not itself physical. Money is still important, but it's not physical. It's not an end in itself.

Imagine that for a thousand years, everyone in the country (or the world) decided to consume nothing but the bare minimum necessary for physical survival (mud huts, rice and beans, etc.), work as hard as possible, and put all our (fiat) money in the bank to grow at compound interest. In a thousand years, would our descendents be fabulously wealthy? Of course not. Not only is it unclear what we would be working at, our physical productive capabilities would be geared towards producing only subsistence. The money in the bank would represent nothing real.

"Hard" money doesn't change anything. Imagine that for a thousand years we produced only subsistence goods, and with our extra time we all worked as hard as possible getting every possible gram of silver, gold, platinum, etc. out of the ground (we might even work on producing "hard money" by transmutation). Would our descendents be wealthy? Again, of course not: they would have a lot of yellow metal in vaults and the productive capability only to produce a lot of gold; they wouldn't have cars, televisions, cell phones, and they wouldn't have any more capacity to build such things than if we, their parents, had spent a thousand years masturbating.

To be wealthy in the real sense, we have to have physical goods and services that it gives us pleasure to actually consume. Money itself is not the end; money is the way we try to work out socially what physical goods and services to produce, and who gets to consume them. At a microeconomic level, how many lattes should we make? How many hours of yoga instruction should we provide? It's a trade-off: producing more of one means producing less of the other. We use money to try to balance the production of the two for maximum happiness. At the macroeconomic level, how much of our time and effort should we spend actually making stuff? How much should we spend investing, making factories, educating people, and improving our stuff-making technology? Again, these are trade-offs; we use actions such as monetary and fiscal policy to balance between consumption and investment.

If we lose sight of the underlying reality, of the physical production of goods and services, we enter the land of theology. Indeed, one economist I read (I can't recall which; JFGI if you're interested) calls this "theoclassical" economics. We do have to have a control system to manage a 300,000,000 person economy, and we do have to spend some time maintaining the integrity of the control system itself, but if we don't always think carefully about the effects on the real, physical production of goods and services, worrying about the properties of the control system itself is at best pointless and at worst mendacious.

(As an aside, and because I'll take shots at Ayn Rand whenever possible, it's notable that Rand has to handwave away the real economy to make her "strike" work. Without John Galt's perpetual motion machine and magic science, the strike would have failed: the strikers would have starved long before the lights of New York went out.)

As a more concrete example, think about what really happens when you put your money in the bank. It's not enough to say only, "Oh, the bank pays 2% p.a. interest, compounded quarterly." What's the underlying reality? Really, you are making a decision to invest rather than consume. If all goes well, your investment should make the production of goods and services more efficient: after a year, we will be able in general to produce stuff with less human time. Indeed, if all goes well, we should increase our productive capabilities by exactly 2%. That's why, if you invest rather than consume some amount of real stuff today, you should be able to consume 2% more real stuff next year: we have spent a year becoming more efficient at producing stuff.

One advantage of tying financial economics to real economics is that we can use the philosophy and all the tools and techniques of scientific examination to discuss the physical; we don't need to to descend into any "praxeology" bullshit.

Whenever you see an economist (or anyone else) talking about financial economics without referencing the underlying reality (or telling a false or unfalsifiable story about the physical economy), you should call bullshit. Does someone say that taxation, or debt, or fiat money, etc. is bad? These are just example of moving money around; they cannot be intrinsically bad or good, because money itself isn't real. Ask, "Under the current conditions, what are the effects of adjusting the control system (money) on the physical, measurable, scientifically examinable reality?" Always always always keep one eye on the physical.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Money for nothin'

For five years, I've been putting out some decent stuff — or so I think — here at The Barefoot Bum. I've never asked for anything before, but I have become an impoverished college student. So, if you like the content, feel free to buy me a book. Thanks!

Friday, January 20, 2012

The psychology of poverty

Despite the title, the habits John Cheese describes in The 5 Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor aren't really stupid. Human beings in any environment do not operate by "rational" thought, i.e. thinking through the consequences of every possible action in every situation, and picking the action that will result in the best outcome. Instead, people develop habits of thought, and then pick the most applicable habit to each situation and act accordingly. Rationality is, I think, more applicable to evaluating our habits: does this habit usually lead to a moderately good outcome; if it does not, the rational response is adjust the habit.

The habits that Cheese describes are, when you're poor, actually rational, in that they usually lead to a moderately good outcome, and the habits that middle- and upper-class people develop would typically be disastrous. When you're poor, according to Cheese, you're always facing critical-priority expenses. You don't buy a new dryer when it's on sale because your car needs a new transmission that month. The only thing you buy in bulk is food, because transaction costs (driving to the grocery store) dominate food shopping. (Also, I suspect that, like me, a lot of poor people buy prepared food because they work a lot, at physically demanding jobs; cooking takes time, energy, and attention that's already in short supply.)

What Cheese means by "stupid", I think, is that when poor people suddenly become slightly less poor, it's hard to abandon the rational habits they learned and developed to survive poverty, but have become counterproductive in their new environment. But that's more-or-less how habits have to work; the propensity to behave in a certain way that is easily abandoned will not serve as a survival strategy, especially under stress.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (freedom edition)

the stupid! it burns! This gem doesn't really capture the point of Atheists are Bullies; it's hard to figure out the author's actual point, much less the quality of his support. But wow.
You are completely entitled to freedom of expression. However, if you use that freedom to be an insufferable prick - you're on your own when the consequences of being an insufferable prick come back to haunt you. So don't come crying to me to help protect your freedom of expression. If that's how you're going to use it, as far as I'm concerned you don't deserve it.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (16 things edition)

the stupid! it burns! 16 Things Atheists Need Christians to Know is definitely not stupid. I include it  because 90% of the stupidity I highlight here comes when some Christian (and occasionally Muslim) does not understand one or more of these points. Add in the Establishment Clause (the prohibition on the government establishing a religion is in the Constitution precisely to exempt individual decisions from the will of the majority) and you get 99% of the stupid.

To paraphrase:
  1. "Atheists are atheists"
  2. Don't capitalize "atheist"
  3. We're not angry at God
  4. Deep down, we're still atheists
  5. "'You're such a nice person! I can't believe you're an atheist!' is not a compliment'
  6. There really are atheists in foxholes
  7. "How can our lives have any purpose without God? One word: chocolate."
  8. We're not going to believe "just in case"
  9. Let's dispense with the questions we both know are stupid
  10. We didn't "turn our backs" on God
  11. Yes, we've heard about Jesus
  12. You won't miss us when you get to heaven
  13. Yes, we know we can't prove there's no God
  14. Yes, we can be moral without God
  15. Either you're a member of a persecuted minority or you're part of the dominant majority. Pick one.
  16. Christianity used to be a persecuted minority; now that you're in the majority, how do you want to treat other minorities?
There will be a quiz on this every Tuesday.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Real Microeconomics (supply shocks)

Part 1: What is "real"? (commentary)
Part 2a: Real microeconomics (demand shocks)
Part 2b: Real microeconomics (supply shocks)

In the last post, I talked about real "demand shocks", when we want a lot more of something than we can presently produce. There are also real "supply shocks". A supply shock happens when something becomes considerably more expensive: given some set of resources, we can produce less of something we want or need than we could yesterday, with no compensation in the production of other things.

But what do I mean by "more expensive"? I'm talking about real economics, economics without money. The only resource we can arbitrarily change is how we spend our time. We cannot just arbitrarily make decide to have more iron: if we want more iron, human beings have to spend time digging it out of the ground. (We might also spend time creating machines to dig it out of the ground, or we might choose to use up some of the labor "embodied" in an already created digging machine to dig up iron instead of copper or uranium). So, by more expensive, I mean producing something requires more labor* than before, labor that has an opportunity cost, that could have been used to produce something else.

*Strictly speaking, socially necessary abstract labor time.

Real supply shocks tend to "creep"; in this sense, "shock" is kind of a misnomer. (In economics, "shock" just means something exogenous, i.e. in some sense outside the normal economic system.) We don't wake up one morning to find that hats suddenly take twice as much labor to make as yesterday. Rather, the real cost — the labor — tends to inexorably increase over a long period of time.

Oil is a good example of a supply shock. We believe (IIRC) we have in the last century extracted about half the oil that's in the ground. The problem is that we've already extracted the oil that's "easy" to get to, and increases in our productivity are starting to fall behind the increase in difficulty in extracting the rest of the oil. We're not going to "run out" of oil; oil will just take more and more labor time to extract, until the oil that's left is so expensive it will be used only for those things we really really want.

In a similar sense, agriculture before the industrial revolution was in a state of creeping supply shock. As the population grew, more and more land had to be put into food production. The problem is that we used the most productive and fertile land first; additional land was less productive than new land. This caused the average labor time for a given quantity of food to rise over time. Improvements in technology and the production of capital could not keep up with the loss of productivity, to the point where food production was a severe constraint on population growth. This sort of constraint is not pretty: people tend to actually starve to death.

Of course, supply "shocks" don't have to be crisis producing. As we create more capital, which makes labor more productive, and as technology improves, it requires less labor time to make most goods and services, which reduces the opportunity cost in terms of making goods and services that cannot have improvements in productivity. (One cannot, for example, greatly improve the productivity of live performances of classical symphonies.)

One interesting comparison of real economics vs. financial economics is that "positive" supply shocks (which can be abrupt), where the labor cost of something decreases, cannot produce a crisis in real economics, but can produce a crisis in financial economics. Curious.

Can we deduce supply and demand curves

Can we deduce the the supply and demand curves in terms of opportunity cost assuming only declining marginal utility of consumption? (I.e. without assuming increasing marginal labor cost of production.)

I think it can (and perhaps it's already been done), but I haven't seen it done and I don't think I yet have all the right mathematical tools to derive it. Perhaps a reader who has better math than me could help?

Declining marginal utility of consumption means basically that to obtain the first widget, which takes three hours* to produce, I might forego the last doodad, which takes one hour to produce. To obtain the second widget I will not, however, forego the second-to-last doodad, but I might forego the last thingamabob, which takes two hours to produce.

*of abstract labor time

Given fixed marginal labor time of supply (it takes x hours to produce one more of any good at any quantity) but declining marginal utility of consumption, what is the overall equilibrium price of each good in an economy?

Feel the LOVE!

16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist won her lawsuit removing from her public school a banner containing a prayer.

Here's what Christians have to say in response.

Can you feel it? Can you feel the love?

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (entitlement edition)

the stupid! it burns! Fake Economist Ben Stein Sues Company for Discriminating Against Global Warming Deniers
Ben Stein ... has sued Japanese electronics firm Kyocera for violating his "freedom of religion" by not hiring him as a pitchman because he denies the reality of global warming.
(It's not quite as cut and dried as Gawker makes out to be: Stein alleges that there was a valid contract in place.)

(via PZ Myers)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

An honest question?

Recently, a commenter on another blog (lost in the mist of bygone days) chided me for labeling an "honest question" with "The Stupid! It Burns!" I never found out specifically what question he was referring to, but I assume it was this one: And Atheists Want What?: "What do atheists hope to accomplish in the world? ... I can’t see any other motivation that can come from believing that the physical world is all there is or ever will be other than complete selfishness and narcissism."

Now, to most atheists, especially atheists who have been talking with religious people about religion, it's obvious why this is not an honest question. It's possible that religious people cannot understand why this is not an honest question. But on the off chance that there's some religious person reading this blog who is genuinely confused about whether this is an honest question, let me explain.

First, because the original post offers an answer, the author is by definition not asking an honest question; he is asking a rhetorical question to make an assertion. My response is directed toward his assertion: atheists are motivated only by complete selfishness and narcissism. He can couch his assertion in all the weasel words he wants; his underlying meaning is clear. Not only is the assertion rude by virtue of its obviously falsity, it is more rude precisely because it is framed as a question. If you're going to ask me a question, shut up and let me answer. It is not only intellectually but socially rude to cut me off and offer your own answer.

More importantly, the author asks a question that I should not have to answer. I don't in any way have to justify acting like a civilized, socialized person in a civilized society. The author is essentially saying, how dare I act in a manner he finds socially acceptable!

Look, if you're a Christian (or Muslim, or whatever) apologist, I expect you to be an idiot and/or asshole, and I expect you to see yourself as a reasonable, nice person. The problem is not that you're a Christian (your private delusions are none of my business) the problem is that you're an apologist for a transparent fraud; your social identity has become intimately bound up with complete bullshit. People who keep their delusions private, who are not so insecure that others who don't swallow their brand of bullshit drive them crazy, do not become apologists.

Ron Paul and liberals

So... about Ron Paul challenges liberals?... Go read the conversation yourself, because I'm not going to respond directly to it.

One of the most difficult decisions in my life was to abandon my self-identification as a liberal (in the modern, social sense) and a member of the Democratic party. Because I want to exercise what little power I have, I still vote (which irks many of my communist friends), but I don't consider the electoral system to be particularly important. Without the partisan self-identification, I no longer really buy into the apocalyptic visions of what will happen if the other guy actually wins. Sure, I think Barack Obama is a better President than John McCain would have been, but the country did not descend into permissive chaos because Obama won, and I don't think the country would have been a totalitarian dictatorship if McCain would have won, nor do I believe it would if Romney (or, heh, Gingrich) wins in 2012.

I don't accept the narrative of intervention. In the abstract hypothetical, I think that intervention can be right, but I think that modern states in the West are interested only in interventions that will enhance the power and prestige of one or another of the factions of the ruling class; the supposed moral benefits are at best a happy accident and at worst — and usually — a cynical lie.

Before the scales fell from my eyes, I was a liberal, but the Democratic party has abandoned all the reasons I personally was a liberal. I don't need Ron Paul to tell me that. That Ron motherfucking Paul could challenge liberal ideology is astonishing. Really: do we really need Ron Paul to challenge the War on (some) Drugs (used by some people)? Do we really need Ron Paul to challenge indefinite detention without trial of American citizens on US soil, a (barely) covert war in Iran, assassinations, censorship, massive government secrecy, etc. ad nauseam? Apparently we do, because no other candidate for President (and come on, the Presidency is where the action is) is talking about these issues. If Obama were a Republican (and thus white), but doing all the same things he's doing for all the same publicly stated reasons, I can't see but that the Democratic party intelligentsia would be up in arms.

Part of self-identifying as a revolutionary communist is the idea that I can no longer tolerate the choice between getting worse quickly and getting worse a little less quickly. The first rule of sales is that you do not try to coerce the prospect's decisions. Instead, you frame the questions so that you benefit no matter what the customer decides. You never say, "Buy this product!" You never ask, "Would you like to buy this product?" You always ask, "Would you prefer the basic or premium version of our product?" or, "Would you like the product in red or blue?" If you're in the showroom with a good salesperson, you will buy something no matter how you answer the salesperson's questions. The only way to escape without buying something is to break the salesperson's frame. The entire idea of republican "democracy" (democracy by elected trustee representatives) has been, in both theory and practice, to frame the question of governance so that the common interests of the ruling class are always preserved. When those common interests are fundamentally contrary to the interests of the people, the interests of the people will not be a viable electoral choice.

Of course, I don't think Ron Paul really is breaking the underlying frame. He simply represents a marginal faction of the capitalist ruling class that does not want to use particular measures (centralized government finance, foreign intervention, and a drug-war-justified racist/misogynist police state) to advance and secure its interests. Instead, I think, Ron Paul and the faction he represents prefer centralized private finance outside even token public control, isolationism, and a poverty-justified racist/misogynist police state. Ron Paul is not, I think, challenging the modern ruling-class narrative that we should have some sort of police state, but challenging even the present justification for the police state seems profoundly uncomfortable.

I don't think liberals in general are in favor of a police state. I think, however, they are willing to tolerate a police state, as long as police and military oppression doesn't much affect people like themselves. They will tolerate a police state as long as the dominant conservative/Republican faction of the ruling class doesn't use the police against the liberal/Democratic faction, as long as the police state is used only to maintain the common interests of both the liberal and conservative factions, i.e. remaining the ruling class. Of course, the intelligentsia of both factions are not above using the other party's "police state" tactics as a rhetorical tool, but it's apparent that concern for civil liberties is, as far as the intelligentsia is concerned, only that: a rhetorical tool, not an actual principle of governance.

I abandoned liberalism not because I stopped holding liberal principles, but because I saw all too many self-described liberals apparently supporting — or not condemning — politicians who did not hold my liberal principles. I don't think that's because liberals are bad people, but because the liberal intelligentsia is part of the ruling class and their middle-class supporters. I don't think they're terribly bad people because of that, but I'm not going to play that game myself anymore. I am opposed to the ruling class in general, so worrying about my insignificant part in choosing a faction of the ruling class is a waste of my time.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Ron Paul challenges liberals?

This is an interesting conversation. I'm not sure what to make of it, or even what parts to excerpt to give an overview of the story.

Why Ron Paul challenges liberals, by Matt Stoller
Progressives and the Ron Paul fallacies , by Glenn Greenwald
Debunking the “Ron Paul Cares About Civil Liberties” Myth
Glenn Greenwald is an asshat for his support of Ron Paul.
Democratic Party priorities, by Glenn Greenwald
Ron Paul has two problems: one is his, the other is ours, by Corey Robin
Naked Capitalism, “A Home for All Sorts of Bircher Nonsense”, by Matt Stoller
Ron Paul Challenges Liberals - or Maybe Not, at Angry Bear

Ohio parents plead guilty in son's cancer death

Ohio parents plead guilty in son's cancer death
The parents of an 8-year-old Ohio boy who died of cancer in 2008 have pleaded guilty to attempted involuntary manslaughter in his death.

Monica Hussing, 37, and William Robinson Sr., 40, face up to eight years in prison each; sentencing is scheduled for February 16.

"They thought the kid had swollen glands," John Luskin, Hussing's Cleveland-based attorney, told CNN on Tuesday.

From time to time, the boy's parents would notice a lump on his neck, but it would come and go and did not appear to bother him, Luskin said.

The parents never sought a diagnosis for their son, William, who was suffering from Hodgkin's lymphoma, CNN affiliate WJW reported.

They did not have much money, struggled to make ends meet and "were doing the best they could," Luskin said.
This is our world.

(via SouthernFriedInfidel)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Principles of democratic communism

Democratic communism begins with a truly democratic state*, with constitutional limitations on its power and checks and balances. The democratic communist state consists of three major institutions. The people and their delegates set policy. The civil service implements policy. The judiciary ensures that policy and its implementation is reasonable, lawful, and constitutional. Unlike the modern republican** state, there is no separate executive; although the civil service implements policy, it does not have the same policy-making powers employed by republican presidents and prime ministers.

*I mean "state" as those institutions with a collective monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.
**I mean "republican" in the sense of a state where the people elect
trustee representatives; trustee representatives have the authority to act in secret, are not immediately accountable to the people, and can use their offices for economic, social, and political privilege.

The people comprise all citizens, as defined by the constitution. No citizen may be involuntarily excluded from participation except for medical incapacity and by due process of law. Where practical, the people set policy by direct democracy. Where direct democracy is impractical, the people appoint delegates to act on their behalf. Delegates must act transparently: they may not keep any secrets from the people. Delegates are immediately accountable: a majority of the people whom a delegate represents may at any time recall that delegate. Delegates cannot accumulate or exercise privilege: their pay is fixed by law and must not exceed ordinary workers' wages, and delegates cannot accept any other direct or indirect economic compensation during or after their services as delegates.

The civil service implements policy. The people cannot act directly; they must direct the civil service to implement a policy. The civil service cannot implement any new policies or procedures without explicit, public approval from the people. The civil service must act transparently: they cannot keep secrets from the people except where information affects a criminal investigation in progress (and the information must be made public when someone is charged, when the investigation is abandoned, or after a fixed period of time), or when the information would give immediate tactical advantage to a hostile or potentially hostile foreign state. The civil service must be independent of the people: the people cannot arbitrarily affect the promotion or retention of anyone in the civil service. The people can intervene in the civil service only when a member of the civil service is insubordinate, when he or she refuses to carry out the policy of the people when it is possible to do so. All of the people's interventions must be by due process of law. A member of the civil service can be internally fired, demoted, or have his or her pay reduced only by due process of law.

The police and the military are special branches of the civil service. The police are responsible for actually coercing people within the geographical boundaries of the country; the military is responsible for protecting the geographical boundaries of the country from foreign actors. All* citizens must serve, and only citizens may serve, as "on the ground" members of the police and/or the military (i.e. patrol officers and private soldiers), under the supervision of officers who are members of the police or military civil service. The person who actually holds the baton or the rifle must be a citizen. It must always be an affirmative defense for insubordination by a citizen than an order is illegal, unconstitutional, or immoral; if a citizen asserts such a defense, his or her case must be heard by the civil judiciary and in no case may an officer implement summary justice.

*Exceptions for religious or moral reasons are a topic for future debate.

The judiciary defines and implements due process of law. The state may exercise violence only with the specific assent of the judiciary: an individual, for example, may be arrested only with approval of a judge and imprisoned or otherwise coerced only after a judicial trial. Where prior approval of coercion is impractical (e.g. "exigent circumstances"), the judiciary must in every case exercise specific post hoc review. In general, "due process" must include the ordinary western standards: an impartial judge, a jury of citizens, an adversarial process with guaranteed competent legal representation of all parties, publicly declared and objectively determinable legal standards, general applicability of laws to all people, and the prohibition of ex post facto laws and "bills of attainder".

A judge may also act as an inquisitor (as both judge and prosecutor, without the presumption of innocence) against any delegate of the people or any member of the civil service reasonably suspected of illegal activity or official malfeasance.

Judges must be generally acceptable and independent. No single faction of the people may ever completely control the appointment or promotion of any judge. Judges may always sanctioned, punished, or impeached for illegal conduct, but no judge may be arbitrarily removed from any single case during its process. No judge may be arbitrarily sanctioned for his or her legal actions or decisions in any case. Judges responsible for the review of other judges' actions must serve fixed terms and cannot be arbitrarily removed from office during that term. Judges primarily responsible for evaluating the constitutionality of laws must serve lifetime appointments.

The constitution specifies the organization of the state, described above, and creates specific limitations on the actions of the state. The specific limitations should include those presently implemented in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution* and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, with the specific exception that protection afforded property be construed as protection of physical objects in the immediate possession and use of an individual.

*If the constitution specifies a unitary state, then provisions of the Bill of Rights pertaining to the separation of powers between the federal and state governments would be inapplicable.

The people and their delegates, the civil service, and the judiciary, operating under the restrictions and with the legitimacy of the constitution, comprise the state.

The state may regulate the conduct of individuals using violent force. All regulation must take the form of generally applicable laws, with objectively determinable standards, acting forward in time. No law may explicitly or implicitly single out any individual or group of the people for applicability, except where membership in that group is voluntary. All coercion must have the primary purpose only of preventing recurrence of prohibited behavior by an individual (or guaranteeing future compliance of required behavior) or ensuring compliance in the future, and efficacy of these purposes must be objectively determinable.

The state is responsible for all monetary and fiscal policy, and may not delegate the creation or implementation of monetary and fiscal policy in any way, in whole or in part, outside the state. The civil service may reject monetary or fiscal policy if there is reason to believe that policy would result in any nominal deflation, or nominal inflation in excess of 50% per annum. The civil service may delay for additional review any monetary or fiscal policy that would result in excessive inflation less than 50% p.a., but must comply if the people or their delegates affirm the policy.

The state is also entirely responsible for the management of financial capital. Only the state may provide money, property or any other valuable consideration for any future consideration in excess of the nominal value of the consideration. In other words, only the state may loan money at interest or provide capital with an expected future dividend or value in excess of the original nominal value*. The state may arbitrarily loan or invest money to one or more citizens to facilitate economic activity. When the state provides for private economic production, the group of citizens must internally manage the production democratically, with all participants enfranchised. The state may also directly engage in economic activity. If the state directly engages in economic activity, it must reasonably capitalize private individuals to engage in the same activity, and ensure that private individuals can compete fairly with the state's operations.

*De minimus, the state does not care if one person lends another $20. For larger amounts, if, for example, one person lends another $1,000, the lender may demand only $1,000 in the future.

The state must employ any individual who requests employment, at wages sufficient to raise a family in civilized dignity and comfort, but without excessive luxury, if two adult individuals work full time. An individual may receive request as many working hours as he or she requests, up to reasonable physical limitations. The state has arbitrary discretion over whether to provide employment less more than the hours necessary to provide civilized dignity and comfort to a single individual.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (kitchen sink edition)

the stupid! it burns! In Atheism's DISTURBING Doctrines and tenets... plus videos!, P. P. Simmons offers everything in the realm of the stupid but the kitchen sink. Some highlights:
Atheists repeatedly deny that atheism is a religion. That is a classic delusion. ...

Since atheism teaches that humans are nothing more than animals, it would be completely acceptable for one human being to eat another if it was a matter of life and death. ...

At least one atheist with whom I had extensive conversations with, publicly lamented his own personal use of painkillers and antibiotics because he felt he was doing a disservice to the religious doctrine of evolution. By keeping himself alive he felt he was hindering the process of natural selection and he wished he could sacrifice himself to the process rather than artificially maintain his existence. ...

The apologists of Atheism use incredibly harsh tactics to put unbelievers in their place. They use their time in indoctrination mills to nurse from the breast of elitism and embrace the illusion of intellectual superiority while ingesting the talking points they will later use on people like me. ...

These apparent [atheist] victories are signs of the soon return of Jesus Christ to the earth. It is part of the "strong delusion" and "great falling away" that must happen before His coming. ...

The key word in that entire definition [of liberalism] is the word "unrestricted". Atheists want to live without moral or social boundaries dictated to them by a greater moral authority. In their defeated minds God doesn't exist so his statutes are meaningless. ...

The doctrine of liberalism has led to the modern holocaust of abortion, the destruction of the traditional family, the enslavement of the entire western world due to liberal governing practices leading to unfair taxation, and the degradation of the human condition due to the removal of the restrictions that kept us intact. ...

What would I do if I was faced with the choice of starvation or cannibalism*? That choice will never be a part of my life. In my existential paradigm, there is always the God option. I would pray. I would expect one of three or more or a combination of things to happen. Either God would rescue me out of the predicament or He would provide me with food to eat or probably a combination of both. A third option would be a supernatural sustaining of the body until help arrives. Let me make one thing perfectly clear. Death for the Christian is a sweet release. [emphasis added]
*Simmons seems to have a big hangup about cannibalism.

And just when you thought it couldn't get stupider, along come commenter Piltdown Superman with this gem: Atheists, according to Piltdown, "pretend that they are the brightest bulbs in the cutlery drawer."

(via Alex B.)

The Conservative Reaction

The Conservative Reaction, by Corey Robin (you should be reading his blog too):
Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument for why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty; agency, the prerogative of elites. Such was the threat Edmund Burke saw in the French Revolution: not merely an expropriation of property or explosion of violence but an inversion of the obligations of deference and command. "The levelers," he claimed, "only change and pervert the natural order of things."

Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (temporary edition)

the stupid! it burns! Poor Temporary Atheists
According to the Bible, atheists go to hell when they die to wait in torment for the Judgment of the Great White Throne and the Lake of Fire. In hell the atheist knows that the God of the Bible is real and that he is accountable to him for his angry rejection of Christ. A man who knows that God has put him in hell for his sins is no longer an atheist. He may still hate God and rail against Him, but he can no longer deny the existence of God! ...

Poor temporary atheists. Voltaire, Robert Ingersoll, Christopher Hitchens, and a host of others called themselves atheists while they were alive, but the moment they died, they ceased being atheists. We Christians should put markers on their graves that say, ‘No longer an atheist!’

Saturday, January 07, 2012


Santorum? Santorum. Santorum!

Democracy and ideology

The sine qua non of democracy as an ideology is the principle that the majority, just because it is a majority, sometimes has the right to coerce* the minority, and a minority never has the right to coerce the majority. We can then distinguish democracy from ideologies that hold the majority qua majority never has the right to coerce the minority, and from ideologies that hold that some minorities sometimes have the right to coerce the majority.

*Or "initiate" coercion, even though adding the concept of initiation creates more problems than it solves.

What makes ethics and political science interesting is that we can consider many different questions at different meta-levels, i.e. levels of generality and different levels of abstraction. The concept of free speech makes a particularly clear example. Suppose Andrew (a minority of one) is saying something that most people (the majority) dislike (e.g. "Kill all the redheads!"). We can look at the specific person and his specific speech, or we can look at people in general and speech in general. The question, "Should we permit Andrew to say, 'Kill all the redeads!'?" is a special case of "Under what circumstances should we tell people not to say what they please?" The majority may have very different opinions without contradiction at different meta-levels. At the specific, concrete level, the majority might have the opinion that Andrew's speech is objectionable, but at the general, abstract level, the majority might have the opinion that people should say what they please, even if it is specifically objectionable. Thus we can conclude that even if there were some institutional arrangement that prevented the majority from coercing Andrew (or even coerced the majority into giving Andrew some sort of platform for his speech), it would not be a case of the minority (the members of the institution) coercing the majority, but rather the majority at the abstract coercing itself at the concrete level.

Obviously, ethics and politics gets a lot more complicated when we try to reconcile our abstract opinions with our concrete opinions, especially when some of the abstract opinions take generations to construct. C'est la vie. We have seven billion people on this Earth, in a complex, interdependent technological society. If you want to kill five or six billion of them, and revert to a simple, agrarian society, feel free to try... and I'll feel free to try and stop you. Hard problems are indeed hard, but I have no patience for simplistic, moralistic ideologies.

At the ideological, theoretical level, democracy defines legitimacy as being grounded in some majority opinion. At the practical level, however, all societies can be viewed in some sense as "democratic". If, for example, the majority of the people were to assent to being ruled by an emperor with near-absolute power, then we could say that the emperor's decisions were fundamentally grounded in some majority decision. The emperor obviously cannot rule without an army, and the people must be willing to join, feed and socialize with the army. The emperor must have substantial popular support to rule. Thus "democracy" acts not to differentiate actual societies, but rather to differentiate between the underlying narratives of different societies. In two different hypothetical societies, we might have the same emperor, the same laws, the same army and police, the same territory, but one society has a democratic narrative and another a non-democratic narrative: in the former, the emperor rules because the people want to be ruled by an emperor, that emperor; in the latter, the emperor rules because e.g. the god(s) have chosen him to rule.

We can look at any ethical or political ideology as a "lens", as the underlying theme of the narrative we use to justify the use of coercion. We can construct a narrative of any society using any ideological theme. The narrative might be... strained... but it can be made logically coherent. (If Christianity can be made logically coherent, and it can, anything can be made logically coherent.) That we can narrate any society in terms of any ideology does not, however, mean that ideology is entirely useless. We can, most obviously, look for the strains in the narrative. If some ideological justification for an institution or social practice appears rococo, over-complicated, or just plain weird, narrating a society in terms of that ideology makes that strain explicit and a candidate for amendment. Alternatively, an ideological narrative will highlight areas where the ideology itself seems undesirable or absurd; it is, for example, absurd to construct Libertarianism to the extreme of permitting a person to sell himself into chattel slavery*. Ideology is not useful for distinguishing between societies, but ideology is very useful for directing the future evolution of a society.

*I want to be clear: I think that most self-identified Libertarians would not take Libertarianism to the extreme of permitting slavery (at least not publicly). The objection that the "purest" form of Libertarianism would permit slavery is a weak political objection; it is an objection only to claims of the absolute, objective truth of Libertarianism.

Assuming all societies construct a democratic narrative (and almost every human society in the 21st century does so), we can use democratic ideology to differentiate between societies in practice by determining to what degree the will of the majority directly influences public policy, i.e. the legitimate exercise of coercion. We can construct a completely democratic narrative for an emperor or monarch, but it is of course a very indirect form of democracy: the will of the people does not have any direct effect on public policy, and the acceptance of a particular monarch is infrequent and passive. A republic (such as the United States) is more directly democratic than a monarchy: the government is chosen more frequently and more actively than in a monarchy, and chosen more directly on the promised policies of the candidates. But a republic still interposes the will of the electors between the people and actual public policy. An Athenian* or town hall democracy is about as direct as possible.

*Ignoring, of course, women, slaves, and immigrants.

More democracy is not necessarily better. We intuitively feel, as in the example of free speech above, that simply putting every individual decision to a simple majority vote would not result in a society that we want to live in. An intellectual must I think, not advocate the purest form of any political ideology, but carefully and intelligently examine the ideological narrative of various societies to identify strains and absurdities; her task is to make not a "purer" society, but a better society. Indeed, I myself identify as a communist precisely and only because I (presently) believe that communism is not the purest but the best way to institutionalize a democracy.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (missing piece edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheists have a piece missing
Most people who believe in God don’t do so because they have been convinced by the cosmological – or any other – argument for his existence. They simply believe, using the same faculty of belief that allows them to believe in such things as the reality of the material world around them, the reality of the past, and the fact that minds exist other than their own. It is an a priori knowledge founded on evidence that is internal to the believer. ...

That is the bit that is missing or deliberately suppressed in atheists: the ability to know God exists. It’s a shame, really.

The Stupid! It Burns! (peer-reviewed edition)

the stupid! it burns! Where’s the Evidence? Why the New Atheists Fail to Prove their Case
One of the most widespread claims amongst new atheists is that all religion is harmful. ... Given that these sorts of claims are backed up by appeals to science, reason and logic it behooves us to hold these conclusions to very high standards when analyzing them. ... Yet, there have been no scientific findings concluding that all religion is poisonous, that belief in supernatural entities leads to harm or that it infects people like a virus. ...

Case and point: How can Dawkins, Greta Christina or Sam Harris claim that the Dinka tradition of Africa is harmful? They’ve probably never heard of it, let alone conducted any sort of anthropological or sociological studies to determine the degree of harmfulness it poses to its members or others. Dawkins claims “I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence.” I’d love to see the data and research he’s gathered to reach such monumental conclusions about religion. Has he investigated the Japanese religion Tenrikyo? The Korean tradition Wonbulgyo? Have any of these atheists been to Iraq or Iran to interview any Mandeans? Do these atheists ‘know’ in some scientific way that the traditional mythological beliefs of the Inuit of the polar regions were harmful or led to more harm? Is Native American spirituality really child abuse? I can just see it now: “Atheists Launch New Campaign to Eradicate Native American Religion.” Oh, wait that campaign has already been tried.

Update 5 Jan 2012: Scofield has apparently deleted his essay. Google has it cached for now, and I have my own copy.

Update 27 Jan 2012: The article is back up here. As best I can tell, all the original quotations appear in the current copy, but I haven't checked it thoroughly.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (moral edition re-re-...-redux)

the stupid! it burns! Do You Trust Atheists?
Try this: Go to a Christian forum and see how people talk. Then go to a forum like Raving Atheists and see how people talk. Atheists not only have no moral foundation, their behavior quickly deteriorates as a result. It is not injustice that makes public opinion of atheists what it is—it is the fact of the situation.

I'm surprised he doesn't mention Stormfront.

Monday, January 02, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (miraculous edition)

the stupid! it burns! If God Was Real, He’d Prove Himself To Atheists!
What’s really miraculous is the belief that miracles are impossible. On this point the heathen is the real priest of our age, the great mystic who baffles the common people with inexplicable revelations from Holy Science. “Pigs cannot fly,” he says.

“Why not?” the ignorant Christian rejoins.
“Because of the laws of physics.”
“What are those?”
“Laws we make based on common occurrences. Because pigs have not flown every time we’ve observed them, we can safely assume pigs never fly.”
“But pigs flying would be an uncommon occurrence.”
“So what you’re saying is that the uncommon occurrence of pigs flying is impossible because commonly, pigs do not. That which is unlikely is impossible, because it is unlikely.”
“Yeth.” The atheist inexplicably developed a lisp.
“What is it that makes a pig go on not-flying?”
“You must not like quantum physics.”
“No, I do. After all, I am an atheith.”

The Labor Theory of Value

This essay was first submitted to Economics 201-400, at the Community College of Denver, on 6 Dec. 2010.

What determines what quantity of one thing will fetch some quantity of another thing? Why is the price of a pair of ordinary shoes, a shirt, or a loaf of bread the same in every store? Why should bread be $2.50 a loaf and shoes $25 a pair and not vice-versa? Philosophers since Aristotle have inquired into economic value and prices. Beginning with Adam Smith and David Ricardo, economists have tried to understand the exchange value of commodities in terms of the embodied human labor, the Labor Theory of Value. Karl Marx improved the Labor Theory of Value, identifying the source of non-wage factors in surplus labor, and making explicit the fundamentally statistical character of the theory. There are issues with Marx’s theory, however. The most serious issue, the transformation problem, demonstrates that Marx’s theory conflicts with the assumption that capitalists will allocate their capital to achieve a uniform rate of return across all industries, including those that produce both final and intermediate goods. The transformation problem, however, itself requires assumptions that are at best suspect, especially under global equilibrium conditions. While these issues render Marx’s theory insufficient to predict money prices in the short term, we can look at the Labor Theory of Value in a paradigmatic sense, to make issues of political economy explicit and inform normative economics.

Marx himself did not first propose the Labor Theory of Value. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith connects labor to price. According to Smith, “The value of any commodity, therefore, to the person who possesses it, and who means not to use or consume it himself, but to exchange it for other commodities, is equal to the quantity of labour which it enables him to purchase or command. Labour, therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities” (par. 1). Although Smith identifies labor as the source of value, he fails to identify the historical labor indirectly embodied in commodities, such as the labor necessary to make a worker’s tools and equipment. To Smith the exchange value of a commodity is the immediate labor saved by the exchange; if buying a commodity will save one person two hours of labor, the exchange value would be two hours of labor, or the equivalent in money. While a useful approximation, the immediate exchange value becomes too imprecise and variable to construct a quantitative theory.

David Ricardo performs a more thorough accounting in Principles of Political Economy: “The exchangeable value of the commodities produced [is] in proportion to the labour bestowed on their production; not on their immediate production only, but on all those implements or machines required to give effect to the particular labour to which they were applied” (par. 19). But Engels still observes that traditional economics fails to give a satisfactory explanation for the distinction between wages and actual labor: If the exchange value of an hour of labor is an hour of labor, then how can wages – just the value of labor in money form – afford the owner of capital any opportunity for profit? If wages are less than the actual value of labor, why are they less? How do we calculate how much less?

In Capital, Karl Marx improves the Labor Theory of Value by formally separating the notions of labor and labor power. Labor is the actual labor performed by a worker; labor power is the cost to make that labor available, essentially the cost to feed, clothe, house, and entertain the worker, as well as providing for the next generation of workers. In any economy generating a surplus, the cost of labor power, i.e. the labor necessary to feed a worker, will be less than the labor made available by that labor power. Wages are therefore a function of labor power, but the exchange value of a commodity is a function of the actual labor required to produce that commodity (ch. 6). We can conclude then that the difference between labor and labor power, the surplus value of labor, is the ultimate source of profit.

Marx also makes clear that the exchange value of a particular instance of a commodity is not related to the total amount of labor embodied in that instance. “Some people might think that if the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labour spent on it, the more idle and unskilful the labourer, the more valuable would his commodity be, because more time would be required in its production” (“Capital” pt. 1 ch. 1 par. 14). The exchange value is instead related to the socially necessary labor embodied in the commodity as a class, which Marx clearly describes as a statistical property: The individual unit of labor “is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour-power of society, and takes effect as such; that is, so far as it requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on an average, no more than is socially necessary” (“Capital” pt. 1 ch. 1 par. 14). For example, 

The introduction of power-looms into England probably reduced by one-half the labour required to weave a given quantity of yarn into cloth. The hand-loom weavers, as a matter of fact, continued to require the same time as before; but for all that, the product of one hour of their labour represented after the change only half an hour’s social labour, and consequently fell to one-half its former value. (“Capital” pt. 1 ch. 1 par. 14)

It is thus clear that the exchange value derives from some statistical property of the actual labor embodied in all the instances of a commodity as a class.

            Finally, Marx introduces the two distinct notions of abstract labor. The first notion is human labor abstracted from the particular task a worker performs. “Neither can [a commodity] any longer be regarded as the product of the labour of the joiner, the mason, the spinner, or of any other definite kind of productive labour. . . . All are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract” (“Capital” pt. 1 ch. 1 par. 10). But Marx also realizes that even in this sense of abstraction, not all labor is created equal. “One man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement” (“Gotha” pt. 1). Environmental factors also affect intensity. It seems obvious that ceteris paribus an hour doing physical labor standing in a sewer would be more “intense” than an hour sitting in an air-conditioned office.

The Labor Theory of Value has considerable philosophical appeal. Smith and Ricardo seem to treat other factors of production – profit, rent and interest – as sui generis, having their own distinct character and contribution to exchange value unrelated to human labor. While these factors contribute to immediate prices, it is difficult to understand how mere ownership – distinct from the administrative or supervisory labor the capitalist, landlord or banker might perform – can itself create value in the same sense that labor creates value. In a society without a class structure, without a distinct class or group of owners, the same competitive forces that equalize prices would ensure that no individual as owner of the equipment, land or money he used directly in his own production could say that the ownership by itself contributed more than just his own labor to the exchange value of the product. All individuals have to trade is their individual time and effort, either directly (“I scratch your back; you scratch mine”) or indirectly by embodying their labor in commodities. The non-wage factors of production would seem, philosophically, to be just social constructions to allocate the surplus value of labor.

As philosophically appealing as Marx’s Labor Theory of Value might be, it suffers from considerable problems as a descriptive theory. A good descriptive theory, especially a reductive theory, requires that the reduced elements be independently determinable. Marx’s Labor Theory of Value fails to the extent that it purports to reduce the competitive market price of a commodity – including labor power as a commodity – to any independently determinable quantity of embodied labor. In this sense the Labor Theory of Value predicts that the market “discovers” the exchange value of a commodity, the socially necessary abstract labor embodied in that commodity. However, the market itself directly affects the socially necessary abstract labor embodied in the commodity in a number of ways.

            Unlike any other commodity, labor power is instantiated in human beings. A shoe or a steel girder as a commodity has no preferences, needs or wants of its own; it thus cannot object to being sold at cost. Human beings, on the other hand, do indeed have preferences, needs and wants; they are strongly motivated to act on those subjective properties. Hence the cost of labor power feels a “force” tending towards disequilibrium not present in any other commodity. As Marx notes:

The number and extent of [the labourer’s] so-called necessary wants, as also the modes of satisfying them, are themselves the product of historical development, and depend therefore to a great extent on the degree of civilisation of a country, more particularly on the conditions under which, and consequently on the habits and degree of comfort in which, the class of free labourers has been formed. In contradistinction therefore to the case of other commodities, there enters into the determination of the value of labour-power a historical and moral element. (“Capital” pt. 2 ch. 6 par. 10)

Although Marx does go on to say, “In a given country, at a given period, the average quantity of the means of subsistence necessary for the labourer is practically known” (“Capital” pt. 2 ch. 6 par. 10), we cannot expect the price of labor power to move toward equilibrium with the same alacrity as other commodities.

Another problem is that market prices do not just emerge from the socially necessary abstract labor time embodied in a commodity; market forces directly affect the labor embodied in a commodity. Marx’s simplistic formulation, “The labour-time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production” (“Capital” pt. 1 ch. 1 par. 14), requires substantive revision. Even absent non-wage factors, we see that a shift in just the demand curve, with no changes to technology, individual efficiency, or any other specific characteristics of supply, still changes the statistical properties of the cost of supply, and therefore changes the socially necessary labor time necessary to supply the commodity. When demand falls, the incentive is not to arbitrarily eliminate suppliers of a commodity, but rather to eliminate the suppliers with the highest marginal cost. Similarly, when demand rises, we do not add “average” suppliers; we must add new suppliers with a higher marginal cost. Thus while the socially necessary labor time is still strictly meaningful – regardless of the demand, the marginal cost of supply at equilibrium and the average cost of supply are real costs – we cannot determine the socially necessary labor time independently of market forces.

            This characteristic means that the efficiency of labor, a component of abstract labor, is also dependent on demand. The only way to compare efficiency across different forms of labor is to compare an individual laborer’s productivity to the socially necessary labor time for the commodity as a class. If the socially necessary labor time for producing a widget is 10 hours, and a particular laborer can produce a widget in 8 hours, then her productivity is 10/8 x 100% = 125%. But if the socially necessary labor time falls to 9 hours, then her productivity falls to 10/9 x 100% ~ 11% even though nothing about the quality of her own work has changed.
Furthermore, while it’s intuitively appealing that the environmental conditions of some labor can affect the intensity or desirability of the labor, it is difficult to independently measure these factors quantitatively. Yes, working in a sewer might obviously be less desirable than working in an air-conditioned office, but by how much? One tenth as desirable? One half? Ten percent? We have to rely on market forces to quantify these subjective factors. We cannot predict the market price based on the environmental conditions; we must, rather, infer the environment’s effect from the market prices.
The transformation problem is perhaps the most serious problem affecting the Labor Theory of Value. Succinctly, the capitalist mode of production consists of using the production of commodities to convert money into commodities, and commodities into more money. The capitalist wants to realize a profit on the total amount of money he invests in an enterprise, regardless of what that money is spent on. If the surplus value of labor is the only “true” source of profit, then the capitalist could realize a profit only from the direct labor inputs to production; the surplus value of labor embodied in the rest of the inputs, especially physical capital and intermediate goods, has already been extracted by the suppliers of those inputs. Samuelson notes that Marx’s Labor Theory of Value predicts that profit should act like a value-added tax; the “added value” consists of the surplus labor at each stage of production. But in the capitalist mode of production profit actually acts like a turnover tax, where each stage of the production process incurs a “tax” on the entire value transmitted, not just the value added. Samuelson shows that these different ways of looking at profit result in different slopes for the wage component of the production possibility frontier (p. 409). It is mathematically impossible to model a constant turnover tax as a constant value-added tax; they might have the same total cost, but their allocation cannot be transformed to individual industries. The transformation problem alone thus decisively renders the Labor Theory of Value insufficient as a short-run predictor of market prices in a capitalist economy.

It is not clear, however, that the transformation problem decisively rebuts the fundamental premise of the Labor Theory of Value.

            Wikipedia attempts an analysis of the transformation problem using the Deer-Beaver-Arrow model, but the analysis has several flaws; it simply assumes a constant rate of return on capital, with no deeper justification. A more careful analysis is required.

            Let us first consider a very simple two-product economy, consisting of the production of Deer and Beavers, each of which require only direct labor. We can assume that all labor is homogenous: Any person may turn her hand equally effectively to the production of Deer or Beavers, and she is free to do so. We can also assume that supply curves are horizontal, perfectly elastic; the marginal cost remains constant and demand determines only the quantity supplied. We can make these assumptions without loss of generality: All the properties that complicate microeconomic analysis – comparative advantage, rising marginal cost of supply, land allocation – affect the equilibrium price, a real labor cost that (absent non-wage factors) determines the socially necessary labor time for the production of a commodity. We can assume that to reach some equilibrium, the individuals have made all available Pareto optimizations, and we have settled on some definite socially necessary labor time necessary to meet demand. It is clear in this case that the relative price of Deer and Beavers is the relative socially necessary labor time embodied in their production. Changes in demand curves will change only the relative quantities of Deer and Beaver produced at that relative price.

            To this model, we will add a “capital” good, Arrows, which make the production of both Deer and Beavers more efficient. As a capital good, we might conjecture that Arrows would earn a rate of return, over and above their labor cost. But where does this rate of return come from? If we hold to our original assumption, that labor is homogenous and each individual can freely allocate her labor, then a rate of return implies that labor spent making Arrows returns more than labor spent hunting Deer and Beavers, even using Arrows. In this case everyone will “bid” for the privilege of making Arrows until each individual becomes indifferent to how she spends her time, implying a zero rate of return over and above the labor cost. Far from disproving the Labor Theory of Value, simple equilibrium analysis under free market assumptions seems to disprove the capitalist mode of production!

Samuelson concludes from a more sophisticated analysis of the Labor Theory of Value and the transformation problem that the Labor Theory of Value is essentially a restatement of “bourgeois” money-based economics: 

Although Capital’s total findings need not have been developed in dependence on Volume I’s digression into surplus values, its essential insight does depend crucially on comparison of the subsistence goods needed to produce and reproduce labor with what the undiluted labor theory of value calculates to be the amount of goods producible for all classes in view of the embodied labor requirements of the goods. The tools of bourgeois analysis could have been used to discover and expound this notion of exploitation if only those economists had been motivated to use the tools for this purpose. (p. 422)

Even though the Labor Theory of Value fails as a short-term predictor of prices in a growing capitalist economy, it does put at the forefront the fundamental dependence of economics on the particular characteristics of labor and labor power. By making labor central, the Labor Theory of Value actually does discover what Samuelson implies traditional analysis could have discovered but did not. Taking a labor-centric view of economics thus has significant implications for not only how economics affects our political decision-making, but also how we should actually conduct economic analysis.

            An important consequence of a labor-centric view of economics is that profitability is not intrinsically good. Profit is not “real”; it is, rather, a disguised form of surplus labor. To determine whether some profit is good, we have to look at where it comes from and where it goes. Profit that comes from a real increase in labor productivity is better than profit that comes from a reduction in the price of labor power. Profit that goes to expanding our physical, human and technological capital is better than profit that goes to the extravagant consumption of the capital-owning class. A money-centric view of economics does not make clear the source, destination or justification of profit; a labor-centric view puts these characteristics in plain sight.

            Although labor power has unique historical and moral characteristics, it is still in many important senses a commodity, one that workers exchange with capitalists in a competitive market. As a commodity, labor power is subject to the same market forces as any other commodity, forces that tend to move the price of any commodity to its socially necessary cost. Thus we cannot count on the “invisible hand” to raise the price of labor power and distribute the productivity of society to those who do the actual work; raising the price of labor power – if we choose to do so – must therefore be a social decision. In just the same sense allowing the invisible hand to lower the price of labor power is just as much a social decision. Money-centric economics, however, allows us to obscure the social nature of this decision, making it seem the outcome of “inexorable” economic forces.

            Finally, the Labor Theory of Value argues that the principal efforts of economists should be turned to understanding and measuring the role of labor in the economy. Statistics about the labor embedded in individual products, the labor available to the economy as a whole, as well as the price of labor power should receive as much or more attention as the Dow Jones Industrial Average and nominal Gross Domestic Product. The Labor Theory of Value implies that every measurement of real economic activity should be stated somehow in terms of labor and labor power. Indeed the Labor Theory of Value suggests that money itself, i.e. nominal economic measurement, should explicitly refer to some property of labor.

The tools are there; we need a shift in emphasis. In 1845, Marx wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it” (“Feuerbach”). What we do not measure, we cannot optimize; what we do not discuss, we cannot change. We must explicitly discuss and make central the role of labor and labor power in our economy if we want to improve the conditions of the billions of people who spend their time working.

Works Cited

Engels, Frederick. Introduction. Trans. Frederick Engels. Wage Labour and Capital. By Karl Marx. Ed. Frederick Engels. 1849. Marx/Engels Internet Archive (marxists.org). Web. 6 Dec. 2010. 

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Ed. Frederick Engels. Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. First English Edition ed. Vol. 1. Moscow: Progress, 1887. Marx/Engels Internet Archive (marxists.org). Web. 6 Dec. 2010. 

Marx, Karl. "Theses on Feuerbach." Marx/Engels Selected Works. Trans. W. Lough. Vol. 1. Moscow: Progress, 1969. 13-15. Marx/Engels Internet Archive (marxists.org). Web. 6 Dec. 2010. 

Ricardo, David. "On Value." On The Principles of Political Economy, and Taxation. 1821. Project Gutenberg, 31 July 2010. Web. 6 Dec. 2010. 

Samuelson, Paul A. "Understanding the Marxian Notion of Exploitation: A Summary of the So-Called Transformation Problem Between Marxian Values and Competitive Prices." Journal of Economic Literature 9.2 (1971): 399-431. EconLit. Web. 2 Nov. 2010. 

Smith, Adam. "Of the Real and Nominal Price of Commodities, or of Their Price in Labour, and Their Price in Money." An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 1776. Project Gutenberg, 1 June 2002. Web. 6 Dec. 2010. 

"Transformation Problem." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2010. .