Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Stupid! It Burns! (atheistic fraud edition)

the stupid! it burns! Magicians Penn & Teller are atheistic frauds
As Cornelius Van til often said, “Unbelievers can count, but they cannot account for counting.” . . . But if every day is an atheist holiday, then every day is a day without God and a moral law to go along with it. There’s no one beyond me who will judge, so why should I care if I’m ripping people off in the name of ‘supernaturalism.’ Penn might find it wrong, but there is nothing in his worldview that says it’s wrong. . . .

As believers in evolution, they must believe that matter appeared out of nothing and life came from non-life. Penn & Teller would never claim that they could make a single molecule appear out of thin air, but they must believe that the birds, the bees, the trees, and you and me came into existence and evolved from nothing into a superheated, ultimately sterile chemical soup.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The insanity of the capitalist system

We have three economic problems right now in the industrialized, developed world. First, we have very high unemployment, especially youth unemployment. Second, we are worried in general about automation causing job losses. Third, we face a productivity crisis as the developed world's workforce ages and retires, and we have to support more people with fewer working people.

That all three crises exist is insanity, pure and simple: we have both too many workers and too few workers.

It reminds me of my crazy (and apocryphal) aunt: "I don't have enough money to live on!"

"Why not?" I ask. "You have a good-paying job."

"I have to save all my money, otherwise I won't have enough to live on."


One does not have to have a Ph.D. in economics to see the obvious answer: put people to work, which will increase productivity. We can increase productivity directly by producing more goods and services right now with existing capital. We can indirectly improve productivity by creating more capital (factories, stores, trains, airplanes, etc.), and by improving technological and human-capital productivity with education and training. It's blatantly obvious that we can dramatically increase productivity. If we could not, then it would be true that we are already not only operating our economy at full capacity, but that we are increasing productivity as fast as possible. We are doing neither.

The reason we are in this insane situation is simply this: a prosperous society cannot be controlled, subjugated, and dominated. The capitalist system was created to wrest political power from the feudal, land-owning monarchy. It has stayed in power by keeping the working class dependent and impoverished. The prosperity and improvement of the working class in the late 20th century was due to the temporary ascendance of the professional-managerial class, formerly the middle class under capitalism. But the professional-managerial class has been defeated by the capitalists. The capitalist class objects in principle to a prosperous society: prosperous workers believe that they deserve prosperity, autonomy, dignity, and life itself; prosperous workers believe that they have the right to a good life. The capitalist class believes that life itself is a gift given to the working class, that the working class does not live by right, but by the sufferance, sacrifice, and nobility of the capitalist class. Capitalists are happy enough, I suppose, to give the workers life, but it is insufferable ingratitude and presumption for the working class to demand a gift as a right.

We are not in a real economic crisis. In a real crisis, we would be facing some difficult trade-off imposed by physical circumstances: either trading off consumption now for investment to create consumption later, or trading off consumption by some for consumption by others. But shutting down factories, putting people out of work, and then saying we don't have enough for everyone is insane and immoral. And this is precisely what the capitalist class is doing right now.

We are not in an ordinary political crisis. In an ordinary political crisis, well-intentioned people have sharply differing opinions on public policy.

We are in an ideological crisis. The capitalist class has not only shown itself incapable of creating general prosperity, it has shown itself actively hostile to general prosperity. They are bent on creating conditions of general immiseration, because only a miserable population will be truly grateful to the capitalist class for giving them their lives, however "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" those lives might be.

It is time for something better.

Assets, cash, and IOUs

I'm not going to argue directly against Fabius Maximus's argument in Who lies to us the most? Left or Right? that the "Left" lies to us as much as does the right. The Democratic party is "Left" only in relation to the reactionary Republican party. In a sane world, even in a somewhat less insane world, the corporatist Democratic party would be fairly far to the right. And the last few posts share the theme that the American people are all a bunch of sheep. While that position has some validity, I usually find most commenters use that tone to insulate their positions from criticism: if you disagree, you are just rationalizing your passivity. It's tedious. I don't know that Fabius is doing so, but it's a battle I don't want to join.

But I do want to argue against one particular assertion:
The Federal government has spent every dime of the social security taxes, stuffing the Trust Funds with IOUs. These are nothing but an accountant’s convention (an IOU to yourself is not an asset), since even the government can spend money only once. When the system goes cash flow negative soon (see projections from the 2012 Trustees Report) the system changes from a source of income to a cost — a drain instead of a supplement to the Government’s income. Despite this clear reality, the Left dogmatically insists that Social Security is well-funded do to the security of the Trust Funds.

This analysis reveals a deep and fundamental ignorance of basic economics. Every financial assets, i.e. the ownership of any asset not under the owner's physical possession and control, is an IOU: the possessor of the asset has promised to surrender benefits accruing to the asset, as well as possession under certain circumstances, to the owner. All stocks, all bonds, all loans, all bank assets, every component of the economy more sophisticated than 18th century (perhaps even 16th century) capitalism, consists of IOUs. One might argue that Treasury bonds were a particularly bad asset, but the fact that they are "IOUs" is irrelevant.

If one objects to the Social Security Trust Fund (SSTF) holding financial assets in general, the SSTF could hold physical assets. But the government does hold a lot of physical assets: roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, etc. That the SSTF holds government bonds creates an ownership stake in those physical assets. And indeed the excess Social Security taxes that I and the rest of the Baby Boomers have been paying since the 1960s have gone, in part, to (indirectly*) creating those assets.

*Strictly speaking, the government itself doesn't actually "pay" for anything (in the sense that the government doesn't have to spend its finite, limited, store of cash to obtain what it wants. The government just demands what it wants and prints the cash to pay for it. Thus, taxes do not actually pay for government spending. However, government spending takes resources away from consumer spending at full employment, and the United States economy was at more-or-less full employment continuously from the end of the Second Imperialist War to about 2001. Taxes pull private demand out of the system (as well as create demand for cash), so that government spending does not create excess inflation, changing who has to trade off consumer demand for government demand. But when I have to give up something (private goods) to get something (public goods), we can my taxes legitimately "paying for" public goods.

The alternative to holding financial or physical assets is holding cash. However, cash is also an IOU, and it's the worst IOU to hold, both from a macroeconomic perspective and from the perspective of the holders. Cash has no intrinsic use-value; even "commodity" money can be money only because it has no use-value. (Can you eat an ounce of gold? Wear it or burn it to keep warm? Use it to take you to the liquor store?) Cash is an IOU that is (abstractly) a demand against all of society.

But cash, unlike other financial assets, is demand in the complete abstract. When Alice invests, she trades the demand to which her cash entitles her to Bob, in return for a promise from Bob that sometime in the future, he will give Alice some of the demand to which he is then entitled. The demand is still being demanded in the present. But when Alice holds cash, she is simply not demanding what she is entitled to demand, and not allowing anyone else to use that demand in the present. Holding cash reduces aggregate demand. It does not make sense to produce more than we consume. It is very expensive in real terms to build up unsold inventory. When we do not consume all that we produce, we must reduce productivity. Holding cash therefore reduces the real production of goods and services.

Of course, we need some cash: cash is the circulating medium of the economy. It's the job of the government — and only a government can do that job — to ensure that we have just enough cash to keep everything circulating but ensure that not too much cash is stored. Cash is very much like blood: it moves economic demand around, just like blood moves oxygen and nutrients around. Holding cash is like holding deoxygenated and nutrient-free blood: it creates only the illusion that real value has been stored. In reality, we cannot store actual value. All we can do is increase productivity, and consume what we produce.

My generation paid more in Social Security taxes than our parents and grandparents consumed. We sacrificed some of our demand, our right to consume goods and services, to have more when we retired, and this sacrifice fell disproportionately on lower-income workers. We put the decision about how to actually use that demand in the hands of what passes for a democratic decision-making process. Some of that money was spent poorly, but a good fraction was spent increasing productivity and increasing the supply of public goods. True, had that sacrifice been used more wisely we would be even more productive and enjoy more public goods, but without our sacrifice, our economy would not be as productive as it is today. To simply dismiss our sacrifice as worthless paper is both economically illiterate and morally reprehensible.

We do have a real economic crisis looming: We must continue to increase (or, at the very least, maintain) the standard of living of all Americans when a diminishing fraction of them are working. There are only two possibilities. We can impoverish a substantial fraction of our old people, so that working people can maintain their own standard of living (the standard of living bequeathed upon them in part by we who worked and paid excess Social Security taxes from 1960 to 2010), or we can raise productivity so that the fraction of people working can support their parents and themselves in civilized comfort.

The capitalist ruling class does not want to raise productivity. We are at about the maximum productivity that capitalism can support; increase productivity and the rate of return on capital will fall precipitously. The "debate" over "entitlement reform," at a time when banks and businesses are intentionally holding cash and retarding investment and growth in productivity, at a time when we are leaving millions of young people — the young people we need to become productive to support us — uneducated and alienated from all but the most menial economic participation, at a time when the only economic "growth" is financial services and goods and services for the 0.1%, shows that capitalism has become morally and economically bankrupt.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

theObserver on Do the ends justify the means?

In Do the ends justify the means? theObserver replies to my earlier post of the same name. See my post for our earlier comments.

theObserver begins with a concise, accurate summary of my position:
Larry explains that although all three constructions are problematic, he has come down in favor of the pragmatic view. Deontic ethics suffer from unsolvable epistemic problems while a mixed view only introduces the weakness of both deontic and pragmatic ethics without resolving either. Pragmatism on the other hand offers the possibility of making justifiable decisions through analyzing the outcomes and learning through our knowledge of cultural evolution. Furthermore the meta-ethics of pragmatism contains less ontological entities making analysis more straightforward and consistent.

Note that I typically use pragmatism as a rough synonym for consequentialism. I want to differentiate my ideas from deonticism or essentialism (an actions has an intrinsic moral value independent of its effects) on the one side and expediency on the other (an action can be judged completely on the basis of their short-term or some other limited subset of its effects.)

theObserver has a number of objections. First, he objects that pragmatism is still complicated. It's hard to know the effects, and it's hard to analyze the effects we do know. Second, he also objects that there are some ethical ideas, such as "[g]lory, honor, nationalism, even democracy and liberty" that we cannot, because they are not ends, pragmatically analyze. Third, he complains that pragmatism as recognizes that people can have "bad" preferences, but a meta-ethical system should not simply recognize but systematically fix bad preferences. These objections, however, do not seem to undermine pragmatism in any important way.

I don't see the first problem as a problem at all: I don't claim that pragmatism is a silver bullet. I would see as valid the objection that pragmatism is complicated only if the alternatives were simpler and at least just as valuable as, if not better than, pragmatism. But, as I write in the original post, while certainly simpler, deonticism is considerably worse than pragmatism, because it gives us no systematic justification for moral values at all. Remember, a truly deontic moral system must evaluate the moral value of actions independently of their effects. We must, somehow, justify a prohibition against murder independently of the dead body. Once you reject "God says so," or "The chief says so," it's hard to get a handle on how to justify deontic ethics without somehow importing a pragmatic analysis, as theObserver does in his evaluation of Stalin. So, yes, pragmatism is complicated. We can't just predict of all the effects in infinite time and space, precisely evaluate them, and do a rigorous benefit-cost analysis to come to a concrete, deterministic judgment. But once we know where the messiness, imprecision, and differences of opinion lie, we can start to apply all the intellectual tools we have developed to make improvements.

Second, we can judge some ethical ideas pragmatically, and if we cannot judge some others, so what? Does the social construction of democracy, for example, as best we can judge lead to overall positive or negative outcomes? If positive, then it is a useful social construct; if negative, it is a candidate for modification. Is liberty itself a positive or negative outcome? If it seems that sometimes liberty is positive and sometimes negative, then it's worthwhile to analyze why that would be so. And suppose we cannot just cannot evaluate "honor" in a pragmatic way. Perhaps, then, it is simply not an ethically important idea. It cannot be a criticism of pragmatism just that pragmatism is not deontic; such a criticism would simply beg the question.

I don't quite understand theObserver's third point: "If a pragmatic meta-ethical framework consistently allows "bad" preferences for outcomes then we must alter our meta-ethical framework to fix the problem." The phrase "allows 'bad' preferences" seems vague here. First, any meta-ethical system must account for the existence of both good and bad somethings. That pragmatism says that sometimes people have preferences for outcomes that most other people would consider bad, it's doing the job that any meta-ethical system must do. Second, no meta-ethical system by itself solves any ethical conflicts. People use meta-ethical systems to evaluate situations and guide their actions. Thus, retrospectively applying pragmatism and seeing that the outcome of some choice was bad, because (presumably) either the actors did not apply a pragmatic framework and act to effect the best foreseeable outcome, or they did the best they could with limited human knowledge, would not seem to undermine the analytical framework.

This third objection arose in the framework of a specific case. In his comment, theObserver seems to imply that pragmatism was a sufficient justification for Stalin's evils (accepting arguendo the alleged existence, magnitude, and motivation of those evils): "Thus in post-war France, philosophers like Sartre were able to welcome Stalin’s slaughter and the show trails because they showed, perversely, the great cause was worth fighting for." As I remarked in a followup post, Ethics, meta-ethics, death, and killing,, theObserver here is not even alleging a pragmatic justification, neither for Stalin nor Sartre.

So, fundamentally, theObserver's critique here seems to be that pragmatism does not give us easy, "plug-and-chug" answers to ethical problems; true, but why should we expect easy answers? Pragmatism is not deonticism; indeed: it is different. And the philosophy pragmatism is not itself a moral actor. Of course not; no philosophy is. I think pragmatism easily withstands theObserver's challenge.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Incentives: Defining and classifying incentives

My economics professors are typically surprised that I call myself a communist, especially since I tend to do very well in their classes learning capitalist economics. They really shouldn't be that surprised; Marx and Lenin make the case that the problems of capitalism are inherent to the theoretical structure of capitalism itself, and nothing in three years of undergraduate education — and by the end of this semester, I will have completed all the courses in basic capitalist theory — have led me even to suspect Marx and Lenin might be wrong, at least about the nature of capitalism.

Yesterday, my professor discovered, to his astonishment, that I really was a communist. He's cool with that (all of my professors, even the Libertarians and Republicans, have been cool with my communism), but he wanted me to think about one concept: incentives. He didn't make any argument explicitly, but I think the underlying argument is that capitalism has a complex and powerful set of institutional and systemic incentives, and these incentives have been the primary social cause of the massive industrialization and overall increase in the material standard of living that capitalism has achieved over the last 200-300 years. If we do away with those systemic incentives, we risk backsliding into the inertia, complacency, and inefficiency of the pre-capitalist era. Is that what I really want?

Marx and Lenin have, I think, adequately covered the problems with capitalism's systemic incentives. Briefly, by rewarding the accumulation of money and capital, capitalism requires ad hoc incentives (mostly government stimulus) to increase consumer spending when the economy has accumulated excess capital relative to aggregate demand. Ad hoc incentives can happen, but they are weaker, temporary, and don't have the self-reinforcing character of systemic incentives. The welfare state is an attempt to create systemic incentives (mostly fiat money, social transfers, and continuous government deficits) but the capitalist class will never give up its implacable opposition to the welfare state. They have been making gains against the welfare state for forty years, until it lies in tatters today. But that's not the issue: as bad as capitalism might be, communism could be worse.

But how do incentives actually work?

An incentive is a social institution that encourages some or all citizens to do what they would not do without the incentive (or discourages some or all to not do what they would otherwise do).

As I see it, there are five kinds of incentives. (Keep in mind that I am more-or-less arbitrarily defining labels, and I find discussions about whether or not I use the "correct" labels or "correct" definitions to be tedious. If you want to criticize arbitrary definitions, it's interesting only if you critique them at a more sophisticated level.)

First, there are psychological incentives, which individuals use to reconcile conflicts within their own minds. For example, some people generally have an internal psychological conflict between their desire to lose weight and their desire to eat. Some find it helpful to create psychological incentives, such as the social solidarity offered by organizations such as Weight Watchers, to reconcile these conflicting psychological desires. Although we can and do use many psychological incentives in a political sense, such as raising excise taxes on tobacco to reduce smoking, I don't see these kinds of incentives as being of primary interest in talking about large scale political-economic institutions such as capitalism and communism.

Second, there are natural incentives. We do not need social incentives to encourage people to do what they usually want to do. We do not, for example, need to incentivize people to eat food or come in out of the rain. People will do these things on their own. These incentives seem trivial precisely because we don't need them, but they have some meta-ethical significance, which I'll discuss later.

Third, there are coercive incentives. If, for some reason, a dominant minority wanted to get the majority to do something the majority had no natural desire to do. We would have to have some sort of social incentive if, for example, we wanted people to cut off their left pinky fingers. These incentives also seem trivial, because why would we want to encourage people to do what they just don't want to do? But these definitions also have meta-ethical significance.

Fourth, there are negotiated incentives. If I want something from you, I have to offer you something you want more than you want what I want. For example, if I want you to give me a bicycle, I have to give you a case of beer, which you want more than you want the bicycle. Since trade can make both parties better off, and since people by definition naturally want to be better off, people will naturally want to trade; there's a natural incentive at the abstract level to offer negotiated incentives at the concrete level. Since there's an abstract natural incentive to trade, we don't need to do much at the institutional level to support the idea of trading.

Fifth and finally, there are game-theoretic incentives. When there is a natural incentive to do something, but doing it works only if (most) everyone does it, then we need to create game-theoretic incentives so that people can trust others to do it. The concept of the promise is the most obvious game-theoretic incentive. When we can use promises as negotiated incentives, we can achieve a lot of long-term benefits that are extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, without promises. However, promises work only if (most) everyone keeps her promises, and there are short-term natural incentives to break promises. If I promise to give you a case of beer tomorrow in exchange for a bicycle today, we get a benefit — i.e. it is more efficient for me to use the bicycle today than for you to use it — that we couldn't get without the use of promises. However, once I have the bicycle, I have a short-term natural incentive to renege on the promise of beer tomorrow. If even a few people don't keep their promises, the whole edifice of using promises collapses, and we lose the benefits of using promises.

So when we create game-theoretic incentives to keep our promises (such as the possibility that men with guns will come to my door, take possession of the promised case of beer, and give it to my neighbor who gave me the bicycle) we are not saying we need to be forced to keep our promises. We know rationally that keeping our promises has rational benefit. Instead, we are saying by adopting game-theoretic incentives that we are committed to keeping our promises, that we are eliminating the possibility of free-riding on the system; in other words, we use game-theoretic incentives to establish trust. And we require political-economic institutions to establish precisely these kinds of game-theoretic incentives.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Stupid! It Burns! (yo mama edition)

the stupid! it burns! In "
God Haters Part Deus, The New Pantheon
," Alexander McNabb unleashes a torrent of abuse and insult on the hapless New Atheists:
My first writing on the subject of “New Atheism” and its vulgar, stupid adherents provoked a sort of predictable outrage you’d expect from a people un-accustomed [sic] to intellectual criticism. Most of the responses displayed the typical poor reading comprehension, lack of philosophy, and general absence of critical thinking skills I’ve come to expect from Vulgar Atheists.
Read on to find quite a lot of rather eloquent abuse; as for philosophy, and critical thinking skills, not so much.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Another way to look at the national debt. More comforting, less scary.

Another way to look at the national debt. More comforting, less scary.
One of the great oddities of history is why nations adopt policies that were so obviously doomed to failure, or even disaster. . . . So it is with the US government debt. We have all heard the warnings. As the debt grows, so do the volume of those saying not to worry. The economists of the Keynesian mainstream provide one form of comfort (fix the deficit later). The economists of the Modern Monetary Theory school provide another form (debts don’t matter, until they cause inflation or a currency collapse). A third groups a more vague form of comfort, such as “Another way to look at the national debt” by Zachary Karabell. . . .

Fabius Maximus' critique of Karabell's article is interesting, but more interesting are his* own opinions about the debt:
[G]overnment debt (eg, 30 year Treasury bonds) are not currency in any meaningful form. .They vary in price (currency is the standard of measurement). More importantly, although the government can convert debt into currency by printing money (ie, monetization) the process is not automatic. It is a political decision to do so, inflating away the value of the loans.

Which brings us to the key issue: we do not owe the debt to ourselves. We owe it to people and institutions, many whom great political power — and will exert it to see that they’re paid in real money. . . . The 1% are the creditors of the nation, both public and private debt. The late 19th deflation served their interests well, crushing the economic and political strength of the small farmer, craftsman, and merchant classes — debtors crushed by the increased value of their loans in real terms. The rise and bursting of the housing bubble and the great recession had a similarly beneficial effect for the 1%.

Economics were, are, and probably always will be tools of the 1%; economists are their handmaidens. . . .

[T]he money we borrowed has been largely squandered. Foreign wars, building a vast domestic security system to defend against non-existent threats, and gifts to the 1% and their corporations. Easy credit often leads to poor spending. Now that $6 trillion of spending is gone along with the winter’s snow, and only the debt remains.

*"Fabius Maximus" is a genderless collective pseudonym for the blog authors.

Fabius is both incorrect and correct. In purely economic terms, he is incorrect: the debt by itself is not much of a problem. We can have a pretty much arbitrarily high debt without reducing our production of real goods and services. Of course, we have spent real human time and energy on stuff we do not want — wars and the police state — instead of producing more real goods and services or affording people more leisure or work choice, and that real spending, however we account for it, is definitely an economic problem. But that we have accounted for that real waste (and some useful stuff too) by arbitrarily labeling it as "debt" is not an economic problem.

In political terms, Fabius is mostly correct, but the debt is as much a symptom of a deeper political problem as it is a political problem in its own right. Debt is not how the 1% gets its power, debt is how the 1% exercises its power. By calling the exercise of their power "debt," they are evoking our very deep cultural values of reciprocity and fairness. But of course there is no actual reciprocity or fairness in our dealings with the 1%.

Consider the King who passes a law saying that he wields absolute executive power. The problem is not the law itself; the problem is that the King can pass such a law. All the King is doing is being explicit about what is already true. In a similar sense, the national debt is just the 1% saying, "We demand $6 trillion of real goods and services." The demand itself is a problem, of course, but the underlying problem is that they can make that demand, and make it stick.

To deal with the debt by refusing to use the government's power to arbitrarily demand real goods and services to stimulate the economy in a recessionary gap is to simply cede veto power to the 1%. And to simply try to pay back the debt is again playing into the hands of the 1%. They're more than happy for the 99% to cut back consumption and government spending (and to correspondingly cut back production) so long as their own relative political power is not compromised.

Our problem is not extraordinary mismanagement of our economy, and the national debt is not a symptom of extraordinary economic mismanagement. It is, rather, a symptom of our political system, which has been and continues to be intentionally and explicitly designed to privilege the capitalist ruling class. As their political mismanagement grows, either the people will become dissatisfied and rebel, or they will undertake a catastrophic adventure. And then our institutions will change, hopefully for the better.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Political failure modes and Invaders from Mars

Political failure modes and the beige dictatorship:
For a while I've had the unwelcome feeling that we're living under occupation by Martian invaders. (Not just here in the UK, but everyone, everywhere on the planet.) Something has gone wrong with our political processes, on a global scale. But what? It's obviously subtle — we haven't been on the receiving end of a bunch of jack-booted fascists or their communist equivalents organizing putsches. But we've somehow slid into a developed-world global-scale quasi-police state, with drone strikes and extraordinary rendition and unquestioned but insane austerity policies being rammed down our throats, government services being outsourced, peaceful protesters being pepper-sprayed, tased, or even killed, police spying on political dissidents becoming normal, and so on. What's happening?

Here's a hypothesis: Representative democracy is what's happening. Unfortunately, democracy is broken. There's a hidden failure mode, we've landed in it, and we probably won't be able to vote ourselves out of it.

Invaders from Mars
"Voting doesn't change anything — the politicians always win." 'Twas not always so, but I'm hearing variations on that theme a lot these days, and not just in the UK.

Why do we feel so politically powerless? Why is the world so obviously going to hell in a handbasket? Why can't anyone fix it?

Here's my (admittedly whimsical) working hypothesis ...

Basically, Stross's hypothesis is that the world is run by amoral, sociopathic, amnesiac corporations with no loyalty to anything but their own immediate self-interest. Read the rest.

(via Fabius Maximus)

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Too many PhDs?

Here's the thing... I'm about 50 years old, I'm an undergraduate in college, and I want to get a Ph.D.

I'm also a communist. If you told me that the entire capitalist ruling class had decided to Go Galt and move to Mars, I'd be thrilled... and not in the least bit worried. As long as it's reasonably democratic, I have no problem per se with the government exercising control of economic activities.

I'm also an economist (in training). Capitalist or communist, we have to make trade-offs. I always try to think, "What will this cost?" Not in money, but what real stuff do we have to give up to get something else.

I also really like Mike the Mad Biologist, and I think his work is generally of excellent quality.

So I sighed when I read this article: The Overproduction of PhDs and the NIH’s Failure of Governance. In this article, Mike observes that there is an "overproduction" of Health Science Ph.D.s, which is driving down wages, eroding job security, and worsening working conditions. According to Mike, the NIH (National Institutes of Health) has both the power and the responsibility to correct this situation.

I'm a worker. I'm going to be one of that surplus of PhDs (In political science, not Health Sciences, but the problem goes all through academia). I'm a communist. But there is one thing I've learned from capitalist economics that I am firmly convinced of: restricting the supply of anything is the worst possible way to protect the working class. Restricting the supply of people in some profession, especially the high capital professions such as medicine, law, and academia, is not a way to protect the working class. It is, instead, almost always a way to keep the members of some profession privileged above the working class.

Capitalist economists say they don't like quotas, and they're right. Quotas always have negative overall economic effects, and their positive effects are limited to privileging one class of producer to obtaining economic rent.* Even if we have good social reasons to allocate economic rent to some class of producers, implementing a quota on production is the most ineffective way to give rent to those producers. There are two social reasons to intervene in the market determination of the quantity of anything: either we want more of it or less of it, but the market cannot hit that social target because of physical or game-theoretic externalities. It is far more effective, however, to use subsidies, taxes, or penalties. The problem is most obvious when we want more of something: using a quota to drive rents to the producers does not cause an increase in production because we have, ya know, placed a quota, an artificial limit, on production.

*If you want a wonky micro explanation of how this works, feel free to ask.

A quota on academics would, by definition, restrict the number of academics, which is contrary to our social goal of improving human capital and increasing scientific research. Furthermore, when you have a quota, money, not merit, becomes increasingly important in deciding who gets in and who is excluded. If we say we want to graduate only 1,000* PhDs per year instead of 10,000, then the 1,000 will be chosen not on the basis of who will most effectively advance science (even if we could predict that, and I don't think we can), but on the basis of who can generate the most profit for whoever maintains the quota. The trade-off of a quota is we assign privilege and rent to a subset of the producers, and we give up expanding production. This a trade-off that (outside of quotas for the capitalist class itself) that capitalists themselves do not want to make, so academia is moving towards a superstar system, which still privileges a few but does not restrict the industry overall.

More importantly, communists should also reject a quota system. All a quota system does is assign privilege to some producers while retarding the social goal of increasing production.* Instead, if communists** see that more people want to join academia than can productively join academia, then we have to look at the real trade-off: what do we give up by having those people become academics instead of doing something else? Having people do the work they want to do is a primary social goal of communism; it counts directly on the benefit side of the benefit-minus-cost equation. So we add (a) the benefit of people doing the work they want and (b) the product of that work, and we subtract (a) that these people are not producing something else and (b) the capital they need to do their work is not employed to produce something else. We capitalize the occupation until the marginal benefit equals the marginal cost.

*In a transitional communist economy, a.k.a. Lenin's "socialist" economy
**It bears repeating that if the social goal is to retard production, then taxation is vastly more efficient.

It's also extremely important to understand that in a transitional communist economy, wages will be relatively lower for occupations that a lot of people "naturally" want to pursue, and relatively higher for occupations that few people "naturally" want to pursue. If you want to make a lot of money in a communist system, you do not seek out high status, high prestige occupations: it is precisely because those occupations have high status and prestige that a lot of people naturally want to do them. Instead, if you want to make a lot of money, take the dirty, dangerous, uncomfortable, and difficult jobs. If you want to sit in an air-conditioned office, read papers, have a lot of 18- to 23-year-olds call you "Professor," and see your name in print, you're not going to make a lot of money. If you want to make money, go clean the sewers.

One of the reasons I don't like to call myself a "socialist" is that too many people who do call themselves socialists seem to take the capitalist paradigm and institutions for granted, and look for narrow solutions to narrow problems withing that paradigm. Low-level workers unable to make rent? Increase the minimum wage by a dollar. Too many PhDs, MDs, DDSs, JDs? Close a few graduate departments, medical schools, dental schools, and law schools and keep these privileged classes privileged. But these soi disant socialists are just squeezing the balloon. All too often the pressures of the capitalist system prevent any solution (and the pressures of capitalism are going to inevitably erode the economic privilege of academics). Even if they do actually fix one problem, and the pressures of the capitalist system itself move to something else. Improve manufacturing workers' wages? Service workers' wages go down: the profit, the surplus labor, has to come from somewhere. I categorically reject these kinds of reforms, the kinds that improve the condition of some workers at the expense of others.* Thus I call myself a communist: I want a revolution that improves the condition of all workers.

*There are some reforms, such as eliminating the exclusion of women, people of color, queer people, differently-abled people, etc. from the privileged classes of capitalism, that are important enough to overcome the theoretical objection that these benefits will come at the expense of of privileged straight white Protestant men. My only argument here is that diversity in the capitalist ruling class is an laudable first step, but I would go farther and eliminate all privilege.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Libertarian mugged by reality

Libertarian Mugged by Reality
Alex Beinstein was, like many other a fidgety and overconfident undergraduate who’d sought my company in this way, considerably to the right of center—a libertarian, he told me. . . . Later, as these kids sometimes do, he got back in touch. But something had happened in the interim. That something, in fact, seems to be happening a lot: kids I knew who were conservatives when they lived in the ivory tower were now liberals. The real world has made them that way.

Thanks, Scott!

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Stupid! It Burns! (personal relationship edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheists Want You to Have a Personal Relationship with “Reality”
Atheists are always trying to be clever but rarely are. Their new advertising campaign carries this line:

“Atheism: A Personal Relationship with Reality.”

What’s real in a materialistic, evolutionary, and amoral worldview? These atheists are begging the question. That is, they are assuming what they first must prove. They are assuming there is no God, that God is not real. Their idea of reality is godless.

They are also assuming that there is an entity called “personal.” The world’s most powerful computer is not a person. An atom is not a person. Two atoms do not make a person. A group of atoms is not a person. So do trillions of atoms make a person? What is it about all these additional atoms that makes matter a person?

The article goes downhill from there.

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Stupid! It Burns! (mythical edition)

the stupid! it burns! In 10 Myths About Atheists?, Tom Hoopes rebuts Amanda Marcotte's "10 Myths Many Religious People Hold About Atheists." Boldface indicates Marcotte's myths, which Hoopes quotes; regular typeface indicates Hoopes' rebuttals. All of Hoopes rebuttals are stupid, but I'll quote only those that are burningly stupid. All other emphasis and links are original.

"Myth" 2: "Atheists are just angry with God. . . .

I don’t know if we religious folks consider atheists mad at God. I think that atheists just don’t want to let God be God. If God is God, and we are not, then we won’t understand him any better than my 4-year-old understands me; in fact we will understand him far less. Atheists want God to be small enough to fit into their heads. But that would be no God at all.

"Myth" 3: "Atheists are aggressive and rude." . . .

Now, we can grant her that not all religious believers are polite . . . But I’ll take the hit for that small number of religious countries, and apologize for them, just to be magnanimous. And she can take the killings perpetrated by atheist regimes in the 20th century, which produced a mountain of body-bags that dwarfs millennia of religious killings.

"Myth" 4: "Atheism is a white dude thing." . . .

I will flat-out agree with her here. The Chinese atheists who slaughtered whole families and drove the Church underground were not “white dudes.” Nor were the Mexican atheists who shot priests and hung little boys. Atheists have a proud multicultural tradition indeed!

"Myth" 5: "Atheism is just a faith like any other." . . .

We have a world that is ordered, beautiful and features life-forms much more complicated than a cable TV. It doesn’t take faith for me to posit a creator; it is just a logical deduction from the evidence. But atheists say it was created by an unusually robust landslide. "And, um, lightning. And maybe a geyser spurting at just the right moment. And, like, a tornado type thingy," they quickly add. . . .

"Myth 7: "Atheist lives are bleak and lack meaning." . . .

But no one claims that atheists don’t party hard enough.

What we claim is that, while they party, they are soulless growths reacting to random stimuli on a cold piece of rock hurtling through the darkness of empty space, trying desperately to distract their attention from the abyss of emptiness that will annihilate them a moment later when they die. . . .

"Myth" 10: "Atheists are out to destroy Christmas." . . .

In other words, "War on Christmas? Don’t be silly! We just want Christmas to have no legal rights in our nation’s ubiquitous public institutions! Or at Target either, while we’re at it." . . .

In other words: "Destroy Christmas? Don’t be silly! We just want to desecrate it, profane it and make it an entirely arbitrary expression of personal tastes!"

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Peter Dorman on the S-word

According to Peter Dorman's The S-word (Socialism), Capitalism suffers from four flaws. First, Dorman complains that capitalism emphasizes extrinsic motivation over intrinsic motivation; we cannot do without some extrinsic motivation (people need to do what needs to be done, regardless of what they want to do), but we should be moving towards increasing intrinsic motivation (people doing what they want to do). Second, Dorman asserts that capitalism entails a lack of equality. We are not, of course, all the same, and perfect equality is unobtainable (and undesirable), but we could be much more equal than we are today. Third, Dorman claims that capitalism seems to erode the sense of social control over our lives. Markets are one form of social control, and for some things, like making the right kinds and numbers of shoes, markets are probably the best form of social control. But there are a lot of things, such as global warming, that markets are failing badly to control. Finally, capitalism necessarily creates a small privileged class, the 0.01%, that command most of society's resources. Most reforms seem to founder on the opposition of this class. Dorman believes there are good arguments for both incremental reform and wholesale revolution to address these problems of capitalism. There is, he asserts, a continuum of levels of change; but there are qualitative as well as quantitative differences as we increase the scope of change. I concur mostly with Dorman's evaluation; I differ with him only in that I do not think capitalism can be reformed.

Of course, for those of us such as myself who have abandoned the idea that capitalism can substantively change, the argument for revolution looks a lot stronger. The top 10-20% or so control almost all of the social surplus. It is they who make the vast majority of decisions about what and how much we will produce; the bottom 80-90% are just trying to stay alive in the world the capitalist rule. No social reform will succeed that fails to offer one faction in the top 10-20% a substantial advantage over their intra-class rivals; a reform that threatens, even obliquely, the fundamental social authority of the capitalist class to rule absolutely, e.g. financial regulation, will be ruthlessly and violently suppressed. Our society will decline in liberty, well-being, autonomy, and dignity until we completely destroy the authority of those who own money. Indeed, to my mind, the question is not if we will smash their authority, but when.

But there's a more important question even than when: who will take power from the capitalist class? Bad as they are, the capitalists are not the worst class ever to rule the world. Those who protect the capitalists against their most obvious extra-class opponents, the socialists and communists, risk empowering the fascists and theocrats, who have power bases nearly immune to rational inquiry. The fascists and theocrats can be defeated, but only when the intelligentsia are united against them. If capitalism had a hope of surviving and not destroying itself, that would be a good argument for supporting capitalism despite its flaws, but when it is clearly degenerating, it is time to find and argue for a new system.

In the post, Dorman claims he is agnostic about specific social structures, but the character of social structures and institutions are precisely the sort of thing we need to be thinking about. It is all well and good to say that we want more intrinsic motivation, more equality, more social control, and a less differentiated class structure, but how can we construct our social structures and political-economic institutions to actually deliver those objectives? Fundamentally, I am trying to figure out how we can construct our social, political, and economic institutions to most effectively deliver what Dorman and I both want.

The Great Libertarian Crusade to Save Western Civilization

the stupid! it burns! Allen Small, tireless crusader for Truth, Justice, and The American Canadian Way, reveals the latest shocking news presaging the Downfall of Civilization As We Know It. Make sure you're sitting down, and set your drink down before reading farther, because you may momentarily lose control of your voluntary muscles.

Yes, it's true. Stock up your shelters, oil your guns, and gather your children, because according to Small, Canada will soon be abandoning the penny. It's a complicated concept, so be sure to read Small's post, as he shows not one but two graphics illustrating the subtle mathematics of rounding charges to the nearest nickel.

The dangers to Our Sacred Way of Life are manifest and dire. This may be your final warning before the Communists take over and destroy our Precious Liberties forever.

The influence (and lack thereof) of religion on society

Paul Bloom talks about the social psychology of religion.

(via Yves Smith

Interesting talk. The three big findings:
  1. Religion is associated with moral goodness and personal happiness
  2. Religion is not associated with moral goodness
  3. The good and bad effects of religion are not associated with specific religious beliefs: "all that matters is religious community."


In "A World Of Choice," chapter 1 of No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart (via Brad DeLong), Tom Slee shows that the simple aggregation of individual choices can lead to socially undesirable outcomes: outcomes that the individuals exercising their choices themselves see as undesirable. How can this be? The answer is, fundamentally, externalities: everyone's choices affect everyone else's outcomes. Alice's choices affect Bob and Carol's outcomes and choices, Bob's choices affect Alice and Carol, and Carol's affect Alice and Bob. The simplest model of the tension between individual and collective choices is the Prisoner's Dilemma, but Slee shows that much more complicated games can exhibit the same tension. (Yoram Bauman also has a good example using pollution as an externality.) What's important about the Prisoner's Dilemma and Slee's example is that the externalities in both are intrinsic parts of the game. Either we must have true collective decision-making, or we must accept the apparently undesirable outcomes of purely individual decision-making as a consequence of the principle.

Collectivism, i.e. collective decision-making, means that a social group makes a single decision as a whole. The advantage of collectivism is that externalities, both physical externalities such as pollution and game-theoretic externalities like those from the Prisoner's Dilemma, can be included and addressed in the collective decision. The disadvantage of collectivism is that the social decisions are never consensual. Some people will always dissent from the collective decision. In Slee's case (go read it, it's not that long, and I'm too lazy to summarize), some people will not find the variety of the downtown department stores or the experience of walking downtown to be desirable; they are happier overall with only Wal-Mart than they were with only the two downtown department stores. Collectivism is also subject to institutional capture, where some minority gains a disproportionate influence over the collective decision-making process. The analysis of individualism and collectivism is non-trivial.

As noted above, even in a majoritarian system, the long-run collective benefit of the majority will almost always operate to the detriment of some minority. On the one hand, this oppression of the minority is not always bad: clearly, the collective decision to prohibit murder and rape oppresses the interests of killers and and rapists, and most people are fine with that outcome. To simply assert the absolute categorical injustice of the majority imposing its will on a minority contradicts our intuitions and expectations about justice. On the other hand, absolute majoritarianism contradicts strong intuitions and expectations about the value individualism and even eccentricity. There's some wiggle room there: we can have a majoritarian approval of a general principle that leads to specific outcomes that the majority would disapprove of. For example, the majority approves of the general principle of free speech even if the majority would disapprove of some specific outcomes, such as blatantly racist speech. Still, we cannot wholly escape the tension between the benefit of the majority and the benefit of the minority and individual.

Institutional capture is another problem with collectivism. A collective decision must be enforced with actual and threatened violence, and those within the institutions of enforcement can more easily gain influence over the decision-making process itself. Because enforcement is always directed to the specific, to charge the majority themselves with direct enforcement blurs or erases the distinction between the general and the specific necessary to protect the minority and individual. The problem of institutional capture underlies, I think, the main thrust of anarchism: the value of collective decision-making is outweighed by the tendency of the "state," i.e. the set of cooperating institutions with a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, to capture the decision-making process for the disproportionate or exclusive benefit of the members of those institutions. Like the tension between the majority and minority, we cannot avoid tension between the institutional and majoritarian.

Both anarchism, left and right, as well as intentional institutionalization of a minority in the collective decision-making process are untenable. Even stripped of their vagueness, hypocrisy, and internal contradictions, left- and right-anarchism are impossible simply because people spontaneously institutionalize the use of violence; the "state" did not drop down from outer space to oppress humanity. Minority institutionalization, whether of the minority capitalist ruling class of large property owners or of a bureaucratic and intellectual elite such as a Communist Party is certainly possible, but it is inevitable that those individuals who form the elite will make decisions that, at first disproportionally and later exclusively, benefit only themselves. There is no simple, easy way to cut the Gordian knot of politics.