Saturday, July 28, 2012

Moral gymnasium

My dear Tavy, your pious English habit of regarding the world as a moral gymnasium built expressly to strengthen your character in, occasionally leads you to think about your own confounded principles when you should be thinking about other people’s necessities.

— George Bernard Shaw, Man And Superman

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (comic book edition)

the stupid! it burns! Marc Barnes…
deals with yet another New Atheist whose worship of his own intellect is in vast disproportion to his almost non-existent use of that intellect. Funny, patient stuff.

Seriously, what strikes me again and again about Internet Atheist culture is how, well, dumb these guys are who constantly trumpet their immense intellectual superiority. They can’t even get elementary facts right, much less construe the meaning of those facts.

What's Shea talking about? A fucking comic strip. It's not like comics ever deal in exaggeration, hyperbole, and other literary forms for comedic effect.

I'm sure Shea wouldn't mind if we drew inferences about all Christians from this comic.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (Worst. Religion. Ever. edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheism is the Worst Religion Imaginable
I have come to the conclusion that of all religions, Atheism is the worst, including all the others.

Atheism begins with the idea that we can know for sure that there is no supernatural power above our own. . . .

Atheism begins with the assumption that logic is the first thing. It continues by preaching that logic is all that is needed, and faith and belief are obsolete, along with hope and all other virtues derived from them. . . .

With no logical foundation for morality, Atheists still persist in using words like “good” and “bad”, “should” and “should not”. . . . “It doesn’t matter what you do. You will die and disappear. So do whatever you want to.” This is the thought that I think most Atheists have. . . .

Atheists have to borrow their morals from some other system. The prime candidate is the most superior religious system the world has ever seen, the Christian religion. [ETA:] After all, it’s the religion that gave us modern science and unprecedented wealth that was simply unimaginable even 50 years ago. [Thanks, Alex!] . . . Atheists treat Christianity like a buffet line. How they choose which bits to take and which to leave behind is beyond me. . . .

I scratch my head at the logical inconsistencies one must embrace to be an Atheist. I laugh inside when Atheists violate their own sacred law of logic to preach and argue in the public square. In the end, I pity them as little children. They are simply too immature to really think about what logic really is, and to learn how to apply it in one’s life.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Evolution, physicalism, and ethics

Yet again, Christians are arguing that evolution and/or physicalism structurally leads to some kind of ethical failure. See, for example, Tom Gilson: Does Atheism Have a Sexism Problem?:
But I say that atheism (especially as practiced by the New Atheists) does entail a constellation of beliefs, and among them are the evolutionary theory that life is for the winners, the survivors, the successful reproducers. Taken on an individual level, that could hardly discourage the attitude, “I’m going to be one of the winners!” Taken on a genetic level, it’s obviously not going to inhibit a man from misusing a woman. Taken on a group-selection level, it cannot prevent groups from employing whatever power they have as a group.

So if there is anything in atheism on a theoretical level to curb our tendency to abuse power, I don’t know what it is.
Gilson clearly ties evolutionary theory to moral failure.

There are a number of things wrong with Gilson's position. First, why should atheism or evolutionary science provide anything on a theoretical level to curb our tendency to abuse power? We don't expect such a curb with cosmology, biochemistry, or computer programming. Secondly, it's empirically unsupported: all the evidence points to atheists at worst acting just as ethically (and just as unethically) as believers. (At best, atheists are somewhat better: you won't find a Fred Phelps or a Rick Warren in the atheist community with anything like the prominence you'll find them in the Christian community.) Even if atheism does not in theory curb our abuses, that lack does not have any discernible effect on our behavior. Finally, atheists do not typically compare themselves to Christians by claiming that atheism curbs abuses; rather, we claim that atheism removes at least one support for abuses: atheists cannot claim that God wants them to abuse some group or one's subordinates.

Of course, it is equally true that Christianity does not provide a curb on abuses. At best Gilson (or any other advocate) can say that his own interpretation of Christianity provides a curb. But there is no way to say that any particular interpretation is authoritative: there is no objective way to differentiate between the truth or falsity of competing interpretations of any religion. At best, Gilson can say only that he chooses an interpretation of Christianity that is good by secular social standards; there's no substantive difference, however, between choosing a good interpretation and simply choosing to be good. Indeed, atheism criticizes the practice of making up ontological "just-so stories" to objectify one's choices; it is better, we say, to just describe one's choices as one's choices and leave it at that.

But Gilson's worst error is completely misrepresenting evolutionary science. Evolutionary science is science: it describes what is true regardless of anyone's or everyone's beliefs or norms. It neither forbids nor compels any particular norm. Individual as individuals are not "winners" if they pass on their genes, nor are they as individuals "losers" if they fail to do so. All evolution says is that some individuals will pass on their genes more often than other individuals, and that differential reproductive success will have observable effects on the prevalence of genes — and the physical characteristics — of future generations. (Furthermore, all the vast physical and genetic variation of terrestrial life can be explained using this framework.*) Evolution happens regardless of what any individual does or what they all do.

*The actual mechanisms of genetic evolution and selection are, of course, complicated and subtle.

There is no particular reason, however, why any individual needs to consider the passing on of his or her genes to future generations to be a good thing and the failure to do so to be a bad thing. Of course, many individuals, Christians included, do in fact consider passing on their genes to be good, but there is no reason we should consider an individual who feels differently to be mistaken or reprehensible. Even if one were to consider differential reproductive success to be "good" in some normative sense, the outcome does not effect our judgment. In this framework, a "good" genome, by definition, is one that successfully reproduces, and a "bad" genome is one that fails to reproduce. Therefore, an individual who successfully reproduces is "doing good" by promoting a good genome, but an individual who fails to reproduce is also doing good by suppressing a bad genome. If a framework holds all all outcomes to be equally good, then framework is ethically meaningless.

Criticizing naturalism or physicalism, instead of a particular scientific theory, doesn't change the analysis. Naturalism is the idea that knowledge can be justified only by some sort of appeal to public observation and experiment rather than private revelation and opinion; physicalism is the idea that the physical world* is "all there is." Neither of these metaphysical ideas preclude by definition any particular ethical truth: they say only that any ethical truths must be, at some level, physical phenomena publicly knowable by appeal to observation and experiment. Ethical laws, just like physical laws, might be abstract objective qualities of the universe, knowable by appeal to observation. Alternatively, our ethical beliefs might be physical truths about our individual and social psychology, the outcome of the specific details of our biological and social evolution.

*The laws of physics are, like evolutionary science, complicated and subtle; the 19th century "materialist" idea that "all there is" is atoms in motion is charmingly naive.

Neither evolution, naturalism, or physicalism compel any particular ethical norms; at best, we can observe by evolution that any biological or cognitive feature that causes substantially lowered reproductive success, broadly defined, will not long persist. But no theory, scientific or metaphysical, says anything at all about what any specific individual should or should not do. All they say is that we cannot justify our ethical beliefs by appeal to private, unsharable claims about something outside the physical world. But why would we want to do that in the first place, unless our intent was to subordinate or exploit other individuals?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Labor and labor power

theObserver would like me to explain the difference between labor and labor power. So here you go.

According to the labor theory of value, economics in the broadest sense is the study of how human beings act on the natural, physical world to produce stuff we want. We define labor as an action that a) transforms the physical world and b) is instrumentally satisfying to the actor (the satisfaction gained by the product or outcome of the action, not the action itself, is the primary goal). Even picking an apple off a tree and eating it is labor: I am transforming the physical world by moving the apple away from its position on the tree to first my mouth, and then transforming it into mush by chewing it, and finally moving it to my stomach. Not only that, but I have to transform my own position towards the tree. The physical world is a given; the only thing human beings can do is choose how to act, how to allocate our labor.

In the narrower, modern, sense, economics is the study of how we labor specifically for the purpose of exchange, labor either directly performed for the benefit of someone other than the actor (services), or labor performed to create an object that will be given to someone else. Economists let the political scientists study slavery and psychologists study pure altruism; we study the processes by which people exchange their labor.

In real economics, we try to exclude the study of money. Either we abstract money away by dividing nominal values by price levels (e.g. we divide nominal GDP, total dollars exchanged, by price level in dollars; the dollars unit is cancelled) or we try to completely ignore money. Once we have excluded money, we are left with no unit to calculate costs except labor. So if we want to look at the real cost of a pair of shoes or a computer, we say it takes three hours of labor to produce a pair of shoes and sixty hours of labor to produce a computer. That's the total amount of labor, including, for example, the time it takes to make a shoe factory or all the factories necessary to make a computer, divided by the number of shoes or computers these factories will produce. The real absolute cost of something is the total amount of labor necessary to produce it.

There's a complication, of course: not all labor is exactly equivalent. Some labor is more-or-less intrinsically easier than other labor: an hour typing on a computer in an air-conditioned office is easier than an hour cleaning a hot, stinking sewer. Furthermore, not everyone is equally efficient: some people or companies can produce a shoe in only two and a half hours. Hence Marx introduced the concept of "socially necessary abstract labor time." This qualification becomes important down the road, but for our purposes now, we can make the simplifying (albeit unrealistic) assumption that all labor is exactly equivalent.

It is easy to see, then, that when we exchange commodities (goods and services), we are going to exchange them on the basis of equivalent absolute labor cost. If it takes sixty hours to produce a computer and three hours to produce a pair of shoes, then people will exchange one computer for twenty pairs of shoes. If Mike wants thirty pairs of shoes for his sixty-hour computer, then I'm just going to use sixty hours of my time to build my own computer instead of ninety hours of my time to make thirty pairs of shoes. In a more complex environment, I might not be able to produce a computer, but Alice will, and she will charge only twenty-five pairs of shoes to undercut Mike. Then Bob, Carol, Dave, etc. will get in on the action, each undercutting the other until the price has dropped to twenty pairs of shoes.

(There's also real relative cost, a.k.a. real opportunity cost, which is basically what we have to give up to get something else. An hour spent making shoes is an hour that cannot be spent making computers: we have to give up some computers to make shoes, and vice versa. But the real relative cost affects only the quantity of various commodities produced; it does not affect the real absolute cost, or that commodities are exchanged at equivalent real absolute cost.)

Workers are people, and people have to eat. They have to drink. They have to wear clothes. They have to live in houses. They have to rear children, who will become the next generation of workers. All these things have a cost. It requires a specific amount of labor labor to produce food, store clean water and transport it to people, create clothes, build houses, and educate children. The labor required to make all of these things comprise the total real absolute cost of living.

It seems clear that the total absolute cost of living per day in labor hours is substantially less than the number of hours a person can work in a day. If it were not, we would be living at a subsistence level. The difference between the cost of living and the total number of hours a person actually works in a day is the surplus value of labor.

In a capitalist economy, workers produce and exchange a particular commodity. But they are not producing and exchanging their labor directly as a commodity. They are, rather, producing and exchanging their ability to perform labor, what Marx labeled their labor power. There's a real difference between these two things. The cost of labor itself is the labor itself; labor is the cost. But the cost of labor power is the cost of living, which is substantially less than the number of hours of labor that cost of living makes available.

In a perfect market, the difference between labor and labor power wouldn't make much difference. The cost of labor power would simply act as a real floor on the quantity of labor produced: it could not be less than the number of workers times the absolute real cost of labor power. But there's no such thing as a perfect market: all the qualities* of a perfect market are unrealistic. Economists assume them to make the basic analysis more tractable, to isolate and describe, in some sense, the "essence" of one important force in economic behavior. It is one thing to make unrealistic assumptions to isolate some important force; it is quite another to assume that the ignored complications don't actually exists. And the essence of capitalism intentionally and systematically violates the assumptions of the perfect market.

*"Perfect market information, No participant with market power to set prices, No barriers to entry or exit, Equal access to production technology."

Capitalism, which is in essence the private ownership of the means of production, entails that there is privileged, unequal, access to production technology (the means of production) as well as barriers to entry in the capitalist class. There is a higher real cost, absolute and relative, for workers and their children to enter the capitalist class than for capitalists and their children to remain in the capitalist class. Furthermore, nominal (money) issues become important; capitalists have two substantial short-term monetary advantages. A capitalist will not die if his factory is shut down for a month; a worker will die if her income is absent for a month. Additionally, because there are many fewer capitalists than workers, capitalists have a much easier time colluding, and therefore becoming a cartel of price-setters. Thus when money is involved, the negotiations between capitalists and workers structurally and systematically push money wages down to the cost of labor power, rather than the absolute cost of labor.

Fundamentally, the question is this: how do capitalists make a profit? What does that profit really represent? Profit is, in nominal terms, the difference between the money collected from consumers (who are typically workers) and the money paid to the workers. We would have to get into monetary economics to find out where the extra money comes from (debt), but it real terms, what does that money represent? Money is demand, but what real thing does that money actually demand? In Marxian terms, the "extra" money represents a demand on the surplus value of labor, the labor performed by the worker that is not necessary for his survival and reproduction.

Also see The Labor Theory of Value

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (sexual harassment edition)

the stupid! it burns! Monkey See, Monkey Do:
Atheist women complaining they're being sexually harassed at atheist conventions. . . .

[M]ost of the atheist women I've encountered throughout my life ought to be flattered that any guy would want to "harass" them in the first place. They're not known for their womanly femininity, if you know what I mean. As my aunt's brother Kermit use to say, "Someone’s done fallen out of the ugly tree and hit every branch coming down." . . .

Yes. I realize that could be taken as a mean-spirited, generalized stereotype. . . .
Ya think?
Second. When it comes to the atheist men, we're not necessarily dealing with suave, debonair gentleman dressed for success. Its [sic] mostly a room full of scruffy, ponytail guys with borderline Asperger's. . . .

Of course, this makes me wonder if what we have happening at these conventions is a bunch of goofy guys trying their socially awkward best to pick up women. The women don't necessarily want to be picked up because … well … They’re socially awkward atheist guys who are going to bore you to death about Larry Niven. It's the classic, if the guy is a weirdo it's sexual harassment; if he's attractive, he's flirting. . . .

And we have bonus stupidity from the lone commenter:
I'm still waiting for Atheists to explain why sexual harrassment [sic] is wrong. . . . I know they can't possibly.

(via reader Ben Wallis)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (denying the evidence edition)

the stupid! it burns! Why Do Atheists Deny The Big Bang?
[Atheists] decline to offer their criteria for evidence of God, so that anything that the apologist offers can be dismissed just as quickly as it was proposed. ... But when evidence does arise, they will not only reject the philosophical conclusion that it leads to. They will reject the evidence itself, without giving pause to even the most valid scientific credentials. When the alternative to theism is to abandon scientific naturalism and endorse irrationality, that this precisely what the skeptic will do. ... [T]he atheist does not acknowledge the evidence acknowledged by the scientific community, namely, the Big Bang.

We don't? I'll be damned. I must have missed the memo.

Lots more stupid in the article.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Monday, July 09, 2012

Who said it?

Who said this?
[A]s long-term institutions, I am totally against dictatorships. But a dictatorship may be a necessary system for a transitional period. At times it is necessary for a country to have, for a time, some form or other of dictatorial power. As you will understand, it is possible for a dictator to govern in [an ideal] way. And it is also possible for a democracy to govern with a total lack of [idealism]. Personally, I prefer [an ideal] dictator to democratic government lacking in [idealism]. My personal impression. . . is that in [country with a dictatorship] . . . we will witness a transition from a dictatorial government to [an ideal] government . . . during this transition it may be necessary to maintain certain dictatorial powers, not as something permanent, but as a temporary arrangement.

Note: I've obscured the author's ideal form of government to make it more interesting to guess.

Read Corey Robin's post for the answer.


The following is the text of a speech to the Humanists of Colorado on Sunday, July 8, 2012


That’s the unemployment rate: 8.2%. If we count the underemployed and “discouraged workers,” it’s 14.9% . In May of 2007, the unemployment rates were 4.4% and 8.2%, respectively.

In case you didn’t notice, the recession was over in June of 2009. Yeah. Three years ago, I suspect a lot of the people currently unemployed, more than half of whom have been unemployed for more than 15 weeks, and some for over 100, may not have noticed.

We know how to fix this. It’s not rocket science, just basic capitalist macroeconomics. And yet we choose not to.

Our vaunted “free press” is an obvious joke. The courts have gutted the constitutional rights of actual human beings while expanding them for corporate “people.” We have the right to speak freely and peaceably assemble, as long as we do it in our own homes with the shades down or in fenced-off free-speech zones miles away from an audience.

We know how to fix this; we choose not to.

All but our wealthiest primary and secondary schools are becoming warehouses. Our universities are running on slave lab… er… “adjunct” faculty, and have become factories for converting student loans into administrators’ salaries, graduating masses of unemployable debt peons.

We know how to fix this; we choose not to.

Our roads are crumbling. Our bridges are falling down. Public transportation is falling apart. We have fewer police officers on the street, fewer firefighters putting out fires, fewer teachers educating our children.

We know how to fix this; we choose not to.

Of all the countries in the world, the United States has the largest proportion of our population in prison, 730 per 100,000. Just to compare, Cuba imprisons 510 per 100,000.

We did pass RomneyCa… er… ObamaCare, and surprisingly enough, the Supreme Court didn’t overturn it, but that’s only one small half-victory. Besides, the Transportation Security Administration was already providing free prostate exams.

Our problems are not “working out the details” kinds of problems. We know how to fix our problems. We choose not to. And we choose not to precisely because we are a capitalist country, precisely because it is the capitalists who are making the choices.

The alternative is communism.

I want to talk about Marx’s critique of capitalism, and why we have good reasons to believe that our problems really are intrinsic to capitalism. Next, I want to tell you what communism is, and, more importantly, what it is not. Finally, I want to talk about some basic ideas for how communism might really work out in practice, right here, right now.

Maybe the problem is that we’re just not doing capitalism right. Maybe we just need “better capitalists.” Maybe we don’t need revolutionary changes; maybe we just need to fix some things we’re doing wrong. Well, Marx didn’t think so, and he wrote the three volumes of Capital showing that capitalism is inherently defective. His critique rests on two fundamental points: the labor theory of value and the falling rate of profit.

The first of Marx’s key insights was to take seriously the labor theory of value, originated by Adam Smith and David Ricardo. We are, Marx said, trading our labor, either directly through services or “embodied” in tangible goods. Therefore, goods and services will (in the ideal case) trade at the socially necessary abstract labor time. If, under the physical conditions in some society, it takes five hours to produce a coat, and fifty hours to produce a computer, then one computer will trade for the equivalent of ten coats.

Note that socially necessary is a key component of Marx’s definition. If it normally takes fifty hours to produce a computer, but it takes me personally a hundred hours to produce a comparable computer, I’m not going to get twice the going price. On the other hand, if it normally takes a hundred hours to produce a computer, but it takes me personally only ninety hours, then yeah! I’m going to get the full hundred hours’ price… at least until everyone else figures out how I’m making computers in ninety hours. Economists call this the “producer surplus.”

(This is, by the way, an example of a kind of inequality that communists don’t have to worry too much about, precisely because it sorts itself out naturally.)

Before Marx, workers were thought to be trading their labor. But this posed a problem for Smith and Ricardo: where does profit come from? If a worker works for twelve hours, and receives in compensation stuff that required twelve hours to produce, there’s nothing left for the capitalist to invest or consume. Marx’s key insight is that workers do not trade their labor; they trade their labor power, the ability to perform labor. And labor power has a cost: the socially necessary abstract labor time to feed, clothe, house, etc. the workers to enable them to work, as well as to allow them to pop out and rear new baby workers.

The cost of labor power is less than the labor afforded: it takes less than one day’s labor to create one day’s labor power. The difference is the surplus value of labor. And the surplus value of labor is the source of profit. That’s all that’s left over to be profit, real profit; that’s all the capitalist can consume or invest.

By the law of supply and demand, the price of labor power should be at the point where the demand equals the marginal cost of labor power. This means that there’s enormous economic “gravity” pushing workers, who are “free” to sell their labor power on the “free” market, to make about the bare minimum of what it costs them to just live and reproduce.

The second of Marx’s insights was to discover the principle of the falling rate of profit. Marx first divides capital into two forms. The first is constant capital, the physical stuff, machines, buildings, raw materials, electricity, etc. necessary to make a commodity. The second is variable capital, the workers and the labor power the capitalist transforms into the labor to use the machines to transform the raw materials into commodities. Machines themselves don’t work; people use machines to work. Marx calls the ratio of constant capital to variable capital the organic composition of capital.

Because surplus labor is the source of profit, only variable capital actually provides a surplus. Constant capital is like the price of admission: owning it allows you to get into position to expropriate the surplus value of workers’ labor, but all a capitalist actually gets to actually expropriate is the surplus value of the workers he or she directly employs.

Over time, however, because capitalists are always vying with each other in the short term to reduce prices and capture that elusive producer surplus, there’s a strong pressure to increase constant capital and reduce variable capital. Once a capitalist starts producing more commodities with fewer labor hours, he’s left with less total surplus labor, the source of his profits. His profits therefore fall.

Marx predicted that capitalism strongly favors the accumulation of capital in the short term. Therefore, the organic composition of capital overall would rise at an exponential rate, rates of profit would fall, and finally capitalists would simply stop investing. But a large part of the economy depends on investment; when you just stop investing, you depress the economy. People, especially the people who were formerly making a lot of capital and are now unemployed, stop buying, which reduces the need for capital even further. The positive feedback cycle that leads to the exponentially rising accumulation of capital becomes a negative feedback leading to the destruction of capital, leading to the downfall of capitalism.

And that’s exactly what happened. In his book, Railroading Economics, Michael Perelman describes how, in the middle of the 19th century, the railroads developed a high organic composition of capital, i.e. a high proportion of constant, physical capital to variable, human capital. You have to have a huge investment in constant capital – locomotives, cars, tracks, switches, not to mention coal, oil or diesel etc. – to run a railroad. It was great for the first railroads; in the short term the producer surplus temporarily overwhelmed the falling rate of profit, but as more and more people built railroads, the actual price of moving a ton of wheat or coal fell to the marginal cost, just fuel and labor, completely ignoring capital investment as a sunk cost. Therefore, people stopped making railroads, throwing a lot of people out of work, and leading to the Long Depression of 1873-1896.

The Long Depression was the end of pure “laissez faire” capitalism. In order to counteract the falling rate of profit, the capitalist class had to find a way to at least partly socialize the ownership of capital… without, of course, letting the working class in on the deal. So we’ve had trusts and cartels, state-sponsored capitalist imperialism, finance capitalism, etc. Not to mention a couple of world wars with millions of people killed and a lot of destruction of physical capital. All of these methods work… for a while… but they all fall victim to the same problem in the long run: overproduction of capital, falling rate of profit, depression, unemployment, and human misery.

This is not an accidental feature. It’s “baked into” the very structure of capitalism: the structure of capitalism as the relentless accumulation of capital, overinvestment, and overproduction. In the end, individual capitalists must squeeze every minute of surplus labor from the workers, not because they’re all heartless, rotten sociopaths, but because some of them are heartless, rotten sociopaths who lead the race to the bottom.

Capitalism has had its chance. It got us out of the poverty of feudalism, and yay! But for more than a hundred years, it has failed to take the next step, to create a world where justice, security, and prosperity are the birthright of more than a privileged few. It’s time for an alternative.

The alternative is communism. Before I tell you what communism is, I want to tell you what it isn’t.

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” That is the essence of communism, right? If you read Ayn Rand, in her chapter on the Twentieth Century Motor Company in Atlas Shrugged, or if you listen to Thomas M. Magstadt, who wrote my Intro to Political Science textbook, you might think so. By definition, the first thing that a communist government must do is to completely break the connection between the labor people put into the system, and the goods and services they receive from it. It’s a system that, without the enforced equality and deep social bonds of a hunter-gatherer economy, practically begs to privilege parasites and free-riders. But it’s a myth. Before I explain this myth, I want to debunk a few others.

First, it seems obvious that we’re not Russians or Chinese. We’re not Cubans; we’re not Albanians, and we’re not North Koreans. Communism is a fully human construct: there’s no scripture, no prophets, no stone tablets. We don’t have to do everything that the Russians and Chinese did, even the parts that contradict the other parts. In real life, political economy is enormously complicated, and very dependent on the particular historical circumstances of particular places and times. We no more need to be exactly like the Soviet Union in the 20th century to be “communists” than we need to be exactly like the 18th century England of Adam Smith to be “capitalists.” If Lenin, Stalin, or Mao did something we don’t like, we don’t have to do it. We can do communism our way.

Second, communism is not all about absolute equality. In 1961, Kurt Vonnegut wrote the satirical story, “Harrison Bergeron,” depicting a society where, by the use of various handicaps, such as weights for the stronger and blaring radios for the smarter, everyone was literally the same in every way. Communism does not mean making everyone “the same” in every way. People differ in talents, tastes, abilities, preference, and that’s great. Communism means only that our differences never justify exploitation, however obfuscated or rationalized by claims of economic necessity.

Third, communism is not all about a centrally micromanaged economy. This myth has a little more grounding in fact. When Russia and China adopted communism, they were desperately poor and barely industrialized. Russia had been devastated by two brutal wars: the First Imperialist War (World War I) and the Civil War (sponsored and supported by the West). They were a country in ruins, and they faced the certain prospect of a resurgent Germany bent on conquest and genocide. China had inherited a feudal, subsistence agricultural society that had been suffering periodic famines for all of recorded history.

Both countries had to catch up fast or face colonization, subordination, or extinction. They chose the same method that the United States chose to prosecute the Second Imperialist War: a centrally planned and micromanaged economy. And, to no small extent, their strategy worked. Both Russia and China went from poorly-industrialized victims of colonialism to world powers, and they did so in just a few generations.

It’s also worth mentioning that all capitalist corporations (as well as all capitalist governments) centrally plan their internal economies; none, as far as I know, internally use marked-based economics. And in the United States, of course, only a small nomenklatura, popularly known as the “one percent,” set most high-level economic and financial policy.

A communist country can decide to create a centrally planned economy (as can a capitalist country), but that’s not the essence of communism.

I’ve told you a lot about what communism isn’t. With apologies to Rabbi Hillel, I can tell what communism actually is while standing on one leg.

Communism is: “the workers own the means of production.” The rest is commentary.

But the commentary is interesting: how specifically can communism work?

Communism is to capitalism what democracy is to monarchism and feudalism. Under monarchism and feudalism, individuals owned political power. If the people went to the King and said, “Sorry, but we just don’t like how you’re running the kingdom,” the King would reply, “So what? The kingdom is mine. I own it.” Today, of course, we have (to some degree) socialized political power. The people, at least in theory, own the political power, and they permit individuals to exercise that power. Indeed, in November, we may very well tell President Obama, “Sorry, but we just don’t like how you’re running the country.” And if so, he will, mirable dictu, actually step down and hand over power to Mitt Romney. The Presidency – all the government – is ours, we own it, and we choose who gets to use it. There are three elements to making communism work: workplace democracy, government management of the macro-economy, and real political democracy.

First, workplace democracy means that the workers literally own the means of production. If you work at a business, a factory, a restaurant, or a store, you are a part owner of that store. You and your fellow workers democratically control that business. It’s not like capitalist ownership, though: you can’t just stay home and deposit your dividends. If you don’t show up – or if your co-workers don’t think you’re doing your job – you need to go find someplace else to work. And if the workers make bad decisions, well, the business will go bankrupt and they all have to find new jobs. It was, after all, Lenin’s original slogan: “All power to the soviets,” the worker-owned collectives.

Second, we need large-scale macroeconomic coordination by the government. We still need money, and money has been a creation of the government since the beginning of recorded history. We need to allocate money for investment, and give people a way to save and borrow. The only time the banks in not only the United States and the rest of the Western world have ever been anything but totally corrupt was from after the Great Depression to just before the Savings and Loan debacle under Reagan. During that time, banks were so heavily regulated that they might as well have been government agencies. This is an innovation of capitalism that I think communism can heartily endorse.

Another macroeconomic task the government can do is implement capitalist economist L. Randall Wray’s concept of the employer of last resort. The government will employ at a basic wage everyone who is willing and able to work and unable to find a better private job. This will, by definition, always keep unemployment zero by definition, and act as an “automatic stabilizer.” When the private economy is doing well, people leave the basic wage jobs for better-paying jobs in private businesses; when the private economy is doing poorly, the government uses the excess labor to create public goods, keeping people’s demand high enough to allow the private economy to recover.

Finally, we need to have truly democratic government. This is probably the most difficult step. Today there is no such thing as a true democracy, where the people make the decisions; what we have are democratic republics, where the people elect those who make the decisions. A republic is an improvement on a monarchy, but its problem that the elected officials are always captured by the capitalists. A republic embodies what Marx called “the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” which doesn’t mean a literal dictatorship, i.e. one absolute ruler, but rather a government that is the creation of the capitalists and protects their interests. What we need instead is “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” again, not a literal dictatorship, but rather a government that is the creation of the workers and protects the interests of the workers.

It’s kind of difficult to have three hundred million people vote every time we want to decide whether to allocate investment to a grocery store or a coffee shop. The key to a truly democratic government is delegate representation, rather than trustee representation. In delegate representation, the model of the Paris Commune, which Marx wrote about in The Civil War in France, representatives are always immediately accountable to their constituency. The constituency can change the delegate’s vote or can immediately recall the delegate. Delegates must, therefore, operate under absolute transparency. Furthermore, delegates must maintain strict avoidance of conflict of interest: it should never be possible for a delegate to ever get as rich as we allow private people to get.

The devil is, of course, in the details, which I don’t want to get into for a couple of reasons. First, I’m running a little short on time. But more importantly, communism means democracy, which means that you will have to work out the details. I, and others like me, can help out, which is why I’m presently studying economics and political science, but you, the working people of the nation and the world will need to make the decisions on exactly what kind of business, society, and government we want.

In conclusion, I want to address the quotation I mentioned earlier, “From each according to his ability,” etc.. The easiest way is to simply quote Marx in context, from his Critique of the Gotha Programme.

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor . . . has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly -- only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is not the method of communism, it is the goal. And it’s a goal hardly unique to communism.

For example:
I see us free . . . to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue – that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.

That’s not Marx or Lenin; that’s John Maynard Keynes, widely considered the founder of modern capitalist macroeconomics, writing in 1930 in his short work, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.

I’m a communist because that’s the kind of world I want. And I’m a communist because I do not believe capitalism get us the rest of the way there.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (down with Myers! edition)

the stupid! it burns! P. Z. Myers can, I'm sure, defend himself more ably than I could. I'm just here to shake my head yet again at the stupidity and assholiness of the human race, atheists (this time) included.

PZ McCoy
PZ Myers is an intelligent man who has said some profound things; however, one must wade through all his prate and twaddle in order to find it. . . .
Bud seems to object to
all the sharp-tongued polarizing drivel that PZ uses in an attempt to maintain his popularity. . . .

The problem with PZ's popularity is that he doesn't represent freethought. . . . Freethought Blogs is PZ's attempt to herd the cats. But PZ Myers represents what PZ Myers believes, and if you disagree, then you are no longer in the club[*]. . . . What's worse is that other well-intentioned bloggers have followed suit, drawing battle lines and demonizing those with whom they disagree.
*The link does not lead to anything that Myers himself wrote.
This was (and is) the damage caused by Elevatorgate. One of the biggest problems with Elevatorgate was the polarizing effect it had. . . . Rebecca Watson herself had such hubris** that she thought she could villify [sic] Richard Dawkins and lead the non-theistic community in a revolt against him because of what he said about her. . . .
**Surprisingly enough, this link fails to lead to anything that Watson wrote.

David Futrelle, aka "ManBoobz," did the same thing to me*** not too long ago, labeling me and drawing his battle lines, turning me into the enemy, causing the most devoted and mindless of his devotees to drive the monster out of their village. All because I had an opinion he didn't care for. Instead of advocating freethought, they're just the McCoys looking for some Hatfields to fight, and if they can't find any, they'll make some up. . . .
***Again, not linking to anything that Futrelle wrote. What are the odds?
Allow me to challenge your thinking and force you to apply logic and reason in an attempt to overcome your cognitive biases, and I've done my job. I won't demonize anyone for simply having a difference of opinion. We can disagree on this or that and still be on the same side when it comes to the issues we all hold dear: critical thinking, science advocacy, human rights, justice, freedom, compassion, and equality.

Too bad you don't do any of those things, Bud.

I would have, of course, reproduced any arguments and evidence that Bud had introduced, but there weren't any.

Sigh. Sometimes an atheist is someone with only one fewer stupid idea than a theist.