Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Jack Vance and Economics

Jack Vance died today.

I love his work, and I enjoy his trenchant and mordant satire of economics, sociology, and anthropology. Apparently, Henry does as well: The Spirit of Market Capitalism in Master Twango’s Establishment at Lutic

Damsel in distress

Damsels in Distress: Part 1 - Tropes vs. Women in Video Games
by Anita Sarkeesian

Part 2
(Note: Sarkeesian explores some realistic, gruesome, and emotionally charged violence in videogames)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Testing math notation

If $ax^2+bx+c=0$ with $a≠0$, then: $$x={-b±√{b^2-4ac}}/{2a}$$


Embarrassing atheists... and theists

Again... almost but not quite burningly stupid. New Atheism as an Embarrassment to Atheists repeats the usual canards against the New Atheists. Rather than quote or paraphrase all the stupidity in the article, let me just lay down some obvious truths.

What is New Atheism?

The New Atheists are atheists who directly confront religion as a negative social institution. That's pretty much it. There are critieria — to be a New Atheist you have to be an atheist, and you have to directly confront religion — but there's no dogma.

The New Atheists usually define the sort of "religion" to which we object as institutionalized supernaturalism. Supernaturalism is holding definite propositional (true/false) beliefs about reality that cannot be empirically proven; when an institution uses its power to pressure its members to affirm the supernatural beliefs, then you have a religion in the sense that we criticize religion.

Not being completely stupid, New Atheists understand that, like most other words in natural languages, people use the word "religion" (and other associated words, such as "god") to label a of things to which we do not object (or that we object to for different reasons). It is one of the laziest straw-man/equivocation/uncharitable fallacies to generalize an argument directed towards one use of a word to the word's alternative uses.

New Atheists are not out to convert anyone. We do want to convince people that religion is indeed negative, but we measure our success or failure by the quality of our arguments, not by a count of warm "converted" bodies. Arguments being what they are, and people being who they are, we cannot convince everyone. We are happy to look at counterarguments, but it's tedious and unproductive to simply note that some people, even some atheists, are unconvinced.

The degree to which religion is negative is a matter of controversy within New Atheism. It's actually very rare to see any New Atheist assert that religion (properly defined) is completely negative, and it's rarer to a New Atheist assert that religion is the only social negative. I can't think of any examples off the top of my head, so I haven't cited any; I observe that literally everyone criticizing New Atheists, in general or specific individuals, for asserting that religion is completely negative or the only negative never offer valid citations. (They usually cite Dawkins, who has explicitly disclaimed both positions.)

Unlike most religions, New Atheism does not have any kind of institutional structure. When you have an institutional structure, when a member of the institution acts (or speaks) in some particular way, and the institution does not effectively condemn that action, then it is reasonable to infer that the institution approves of, or at least tolerates the action. Because there is no New Atheist institutional framework, this analytical method is inappropriate. If you want to make generalizations about New Atheists, you have to do the difficult academic work of searching for pattern in many examples, and looking honestly for counter-examples. Or, you can just criticize individuals, which is easier; if your criticism is valid, it is useful. If it's stupid, it's still valuable, just not in the way you might expect.

Non-problems in New Atheism

There are several reasons why Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. are just not a problem for atheism in general and New Atheists in particular, but the most compelling reason is that there's no there there.

First, there is a lot of evidence that Hitler was actually religious, fusing Christianity, pre-Christian Northern European polytheism, and German Romanticism, and inventing some of his own religious bullshit to add to the mix.

Contrary to the assertion in "New Atheism as an Embarrassment," there is no evidence whatsoever that atheism per se has motivated any socially organized violence, even legitimized violence (e.g. law enforcement, self defense, etc.). All cases of politically legitimized secular persecution of clergy and religious worship has been where religions and clergy posed a threat to the legitimacy of the regime.

Establishing and maintaining legitimacy is an enormously complicated topic in political science. There are a lot of interesting arguments about how governments do and do not — and how they should or should not — establish and maintain their legitimacy, but atheism is an issue only when governments establish legitimacy on supernatural grounds.

Problems in New Atheism

There are a few real problems in New Atheism. First, it really is dominated by a lot of privileged old white middle-class capitalist men. To a certain extent, that many prominent New Atheists have considerable social privilege is inescapable: people with privilege have a much easier time challenging social norms precisely because they have privilege. The lack of leadership among New Atheists makes it both easier and harder to be inclusive. Easier, because there's no institutional framework that can exclude women, people of color, queers, communists, etc. Harder, because there's no institutional framework that can fast-track inclusion.

The issue of misogyny is more important. In the last year or so, as atheist women (e.g. Greta Christina, Rebecca Watson, and dozens of others) have pushed for full inclusion in the general atheist community, they have faced an astonishing backlash of the worst kind of slimy, reprehensible harassment by people who call themselves atheists. Lacking an institutional framework, there is no way to "officially" exclude these assholes. They are being fought, however, and socially excluded as best we can. But misogyny is hardly unique to atheism; as slimy and disgusting as the misogynist atheists are, to my knowledge no atheist has thrown acid in a woman's or girl's face, nor assaulted, kidnapped, or murdered any women or girls, nor implemented any form of institutionalized political oppression or persecution of women. Even at their worst, atheists seem to have at least a bit more self-restraint than many theists. Maybe it's just that the misogynist assholes don't have institutional and political legitimacy, but the strong opposition to misogyny, a strength of opposition seen in few institutionalized religion, is precisely what is blocking political legitimacy.

The Fundamental Asymmetry

There's a fundamental asymmetry between theism on the one hand and atheism in general and New Atheism in particular on the other. Religions are, by definition, institutions. Religions claim guidance from a typically perfectly just, perfectly loving, omniscient and omnipotent deity. Religions claim special authority for specific individuals to learn, understand, and communicate the deity's moral demands. In contrast, New Atheism is not institutionalized. We claim guidance only from finite, imperfect human reason, using minds which we know have all sorts of biases inherited from our evolutionary past. New Atheists claim no special authority: our arguments are out there for all to see; there's no hidden knowledge that can specially legitimize any individual's argument. Almost all the arguments against New Atheism that are not just flat out lies and bullshit usually assume that we are institutionalized, that we do claim the sort of divine certainty that many many religious believers and leaders do indeed claim, and that some individuals, such as Richard Dawkins, have some fundamental epistemic and moral privilege. These kinds of criticism are nothing but projections of religions own fundamental flaws on a group of people who categorically reject those flaws. When theists project their own hangups on us, they do nothing but embarrass themselves.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Religion vs. academic freedom

It's not quite burningly stupid, so it doesn't get the tag or the icon, but New Atheists Attack Academic Freedom is pretty close.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wrote a letter to Jo Ann Gora, president of Ball State University, complaining that BSU professor Eric Hedin inappropriately mixes religion and science in his "Boundaries of Science" honors science class. The author of "New Atheists Attack Academic Freedom" (NAAAF) asserts that because there is no formal complainant, the FFRF's complaint is nothing but a publicity stunt. Furthermore, because the complaint addresses theistic evangelism in the classroom, the FFRF is being hypocritical because they do not address evident atheist evangelism in the classroom. The author of NAAAF concludes that because an outside organization is pressuring BSU to alter the content of its instruction, it is setting a dangerous precedent that might compromise academic freedom. While the author makes at least one good point, and is justly concerned about academic freedom, his case is too thin to be persuasive, and he fails to understand academic freedom in a thorough way.

The author makes an obvious error in attributing the FFRF's complaint to the New Atheists. The FFRF is an independent organization, and they speak only for themselves, not for the New Atheists in general. Indeed, some prominent New Atheists reject the action and the criticism of Professor Hedin. For example, Larry Moran, prominent New Atheist and University of Toronto Biochemistry Professor, criticizes the pressure against Prof. Hedin. In, Moran states flatly, "I defend the right of a tenured professor to teach whatever he/she believes to be true no matter how stupid it seems to the rest of us." New Atheist icon PZ Myers concurs with Moran: While Myers believes that Hedin's is a "crap course" with "bad science and bad teaching," he asserts that "professors have to have the right to teach unpopular, controversial issues, even from an ignorant perspective. The first amendment does not apply; this is not a course students are required to take, and it’s at a university, which students are not required to attend." Attributing the opposition to Hedin's course to the New Atheists is an unwarranted generalization flatly contradicted by the obvious evidence.

Substantively, it is hard to see the FFRF's action as undue pressure. The FFRF does not have any authority at all over BSU, and BSU can, if they choose, simply ignore the FFRF's complaint. Similarly, the University of Toronto has received complaints from creationists about Larry Moran's teaching of evolution, and the university simply ignores those complaints. At its most "intimidating," the FFRF complaint says only that Hedin's class "crosses ethical and constitutional lines." In contrast, Corey Robin reports a recent challenge to academic freedom at City University of New York's Brooklyn College. Aside from the academic content, the key difference is that the BC complaint was made by a governmental authority with control over CUNY's budget. For an action to be undue pressure, the complainant has to have some institutional power over the defendant; the FFRF does not have any power over BSU; its complaint, therefore, is not undue pressure.

While I agree with Moran and Myers that academic freedom is important, academic freedom does not and should not be above the law, especially Constitutional law. Although he is a Canadian, Moran is scared that if the United States Constitution forbids advocating religion in the classroom, then it might be illegal in the United States to criticize religion in the classroom. Moran's concern, however, is misplaced. Constitutional law does not prohibit religion as such; instead, it requires secularism. For example, even though Sunday is clearly the weekly holiday for the majority Christian sect, the Supreme Court has held that requiring businesses to close on Sunday is constitutional, because the law has the secular purpose of providing a community-wide day of rest, peace, and quiet. Thus, if Hadin's course were to be found unconstitutional, at least under the Lemon Test, it would not be because it had religious content, it would be because it violated one of the prongs of the Lemon Test: it lacked a clear secular purpose, it had the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, or it entailed "excessive government entanglement" with religion.

If some specific criticism of religion violated any of these prongs, it would be justly forbidden. But most criticism of religion in academia is implied, not overt. It has a clear primary secular purpose, teaching science, and teaching science, with all its contradictions of the truth claims of religion, does not entail excessive entanglement in religion. But if a professor at a publicly funded university does conduct a class with the primary purpose of inhibiting religion, his or her remarks are illegal and inappropriate. In this sense, the charge of the author of NAAAF has a valid prima facie point: if professors at public universities really are pushing atheism per se in the classroom, they are are violating the law and behaving just as inappropriately as the FFRF believes Professor Hedin is behaving. (Of course, it is possible that the complaints against atheist professors cited in NAAAF are substantively incorrect, which is why most universities require actual investigations before taking action.)

But more importantly, what are the limitations, if any, on academic freedom? To what extent does the non-academic public have a right to discuss and criticize what professors do in academia? It's pretty clear that actual legislative bodies directly interfering with academic content, as at CUNY, is definitely problematic and probably inappropriate. But Moran and Myers seem to go farther. Moran says,
I'm troubled by the fact that some people are calling for the instructor's dismissal and writing letters to the chair of his department. We really don't want to go down that path, do we? Academic freedom is important and it's especially important to defend it when a professor is pushing a view that we disagree with.
It's one thing to defend academic freedom. Although Moran and Myers obviously do not agree with Hedin, they believe that Hedin is using his academic freedom appropriately. But they seem troubled not just that Hedin is in any danger of having his academic freedom curtailed, but that the public is taking an actual position on the conduct of an academic. We have to make a clear distinction between raising and deciding, and neither Moran nor Myers makes this distinction clear. The public must be able to raise an issue, so long as the university gets to decide the issue.

Academia does not, should not, and cannot exist in a complete vacuum, above and entirely unaffected by popular opinion. We have a complex and imperfect set of institutions designed to insulate academia from popular opinion and other powerful institutions, such as legislatures, executives, and businesses. However, this insulation cannot be absolute. The university has a social role, which must be negotiated with all members of society; the university does not and should not have social authority, immune from any criticism.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Educating inequality

Why American Colleges Are Becoming a Force for Inequality
We like to view higher education as the "great equalizer" that leads to social mobility. But selective colleges have long been accused of perpetuating class divides, rather than blurring them.

A recent landmark study by Stanford's Caroline Hoxby and Harvard's Christopher Avery lent further empirical evidence to this accusation, finding that high-achieving low-income students do not have access to selective schools. The study showed that the mismatch is due to a lack of knowledge, not quality. . . . Yet while the information gaps are real and need to be addressed, there is a much deeper structural problem. If most top colleges wanted to be truly equitable, they could not be with their current business model. There is not a golden pot of low-income applicants that schools want but are failing to reach. Instead, many schools don't want more low-income students because they won't be able to pay for them without a major overhaul of school funding practices. Outside of the handful of super-elite universities with fortress endowments, colleges' finances are currently designed around enrolling a disproportionately high number of high-income students. These schools could not afford to support more low-income or middle-income students absent either a huge increase in tuition, a commensurate reduction in spending, or a dramatic change in public funding.

Cheating is... good!?

Why I Let My Students Cheat On Their Game Theory Exam:
On test day for my Behavioral Ecology class at UCLA, I walked into the classroom bearing an impossibly difficult exam. Rather than being neatly arranged in alternate rows with pen or pencil in hand, my students sat in one tight group, with notes and books and laptops open and available. They were poised to share each other’s thoughts and to copy the best answers. As I distributed the tests, the students began to talk and write. All of this would normally be called cheating. But it was completely OK by me.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Hard Hats, Hippies, and the Real Antiwar Movement

Hard Hats, Hippies, and the Real Antiwar Movement
Over the months that stretched to years—staffing tables, working on resolutions, and organizing protests, petition campaigns, and other events—I spoke with fellow labor activists about their experiences within the Vietnam antiwar movement. They remembered the college students, the educated and religious pacifists, Eugene McCarthy, and the Weather Underground.

But these colleagues, whose days in labor and/or peace politics spanned the three decades between the wars, remembered more: the high-school kids from Brooklyn and the Bronx, for whom college was a remote dream, who left school by the thousands to protest the war; their working-class communities, which loved their soldier-sons but abhorred the war; the unions that took out advertisements condemning the war, sponsored labor-education programs about Indochina, co-sponsored rallies, and started petition drives; the draft resisters, who were often as concerned with the class inequities of the Selective Service System as they were with the immorality of the war itself; the veterans, most of whom had never protested before, joining and helping to lead the movement when they returned stateside; the working-class GIs who refused to fight; and the deserters who walked away.

via Corey Robin

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The hero and the masses

I posted a link the other day to Corey Robin's article, Nietzsche’s Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek. There are a couple of good critiques up as well: Critics respond to “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children”. Henry offers his view in Nietszche and the Marginalists.

Let me take a brief detour. I've noticed that undergraduate economics offers no rigorous account of what drives long run economic growth. Furthermore, there's no rigorous account of how and why capital, which is a sunk cost, gets "baked into" perfect competition and zero economic profit. Economics, as Henry notes, is about equilibrium, and at a true equilibrium, there's no growth at all. Economists talk about long run economic growth, but their writing is almost mystical. It either "just happens" or it relies on the magic of "entrepreneurship."

Henry finds an important theme in both Nietzsche and the Austrians: the idea of the "heroic individual." In Nietzsche (as best I can recall from reading him many years ago), the heroic individual is the "ubermensch" who rejects the slave morality of Christianity. In the Austrians it is the entrepreneur. In Weber, according to Henry, it is the politician; politics "provides a ground in which these very few individuals can fully develop themselves through struggle."

One way that some communists view communism is that in communism, the concept of the heroic individual is deprecated rather than extolled. Individuals, in this view of communism, should not try to become exceptional; the acme of virtue is to be the undistinguished member of the masses. I can't blame capitalists for this view: real communists really hold this view.* But I think this view is naive and simplistic.

*I can blame capitalists for insisting that anything that any communist wants to do (that they don't like) necessarily entails every controversial or erroneous view that any other communist ever had.

It is true that communism is necessarily concerned with the well-being of everyone. It is not, however, true, that the trade-off between the well-being of the many and the well-being of exceptional few is as the capitalists describe it, and it is not true that we must somehow eliminate exceptionalism to achieve communism.

The issue is not exceptionalism per se, the issue is the moral status of the exceptional individual. In one view of human nature, the exceptional individual has the moral right, and perhaps has even a moral obligation, to dominate, subordinate ordinary individuals. Taking away this moral right, in this view, is tantamount to stamping out exceptionalism. Domination of the ordinary is the incentive to and reward for becoming exceptional; if we take away this social incentive, no one will become exceptional, and we will be doomed to a civilization of static mediocrity.

But wait... I have failed to define a key term: what precisely do I mean by "exceptional." The dictionary definition doesn't help: "exceptional" just means being unusual or out of the ordinary. But everyone, from Nietzsche to the Austrians, means something more: there are some particular characteristics that are both morally valued and exceptional. There is a thread running through Nietzsche to the Austrians to present-day "common knowledge": by exceptional in this context, we mean the person who has the awareness to see the world as something that can be shaped, the will to try and shape the world into what he or she wants it to be, and the skill, energy and cleverness to succeed in shaping the world. Such people are indeed unusual; most people are asleep, most who are awake lack a strong will, and most who are awake and willful lack skill, energy, or cleverness. For the sake of brevity, I will label a person with awareness, will, skill, energy, and cleverness as an "entrepreneur."

The naive communist view, then, is that in capitalism (and to a lesser extent in previous social structures) the entrepreneur achieves domination over the ordinary. Communists do not like any relations of domination and submission; therefore, if we eliminate exceptionalism then we eliminate relations of domination and submission. Go to the root cause, n'est pas?

There are, however, two subtleties that this naive view ignores. Why should the entrepreneur be incentivized and rewarded by dominance? More importantly, why should the entrepreneur be exceptional in the first place?

I argue first that entrepreneurship is its own reward. We do not need to socially incentivize and reward the entrepreneur. At the beginning of capitalism, incentivizing the entrepreneur with social dominance was one effective way of achieving industrialization. We know this is true because that's what we did, and it got us to the modern industrial civilization. It is possible that the capitalist way was the only way, or perhaps just the best way, but that's an argument about the past. The question today is whether we still want to reward the entrepreneur with social dominance, or, more precisely, to believe we reward the entrepreneur with social dominance. I argue second that the entrepreneur is exceptional is an artifact of modern civilization, strongly leveraged by capitalism. It is not that most people are not entrepreneurs, it is that modern civilization actively molds the masses of people into non-entrepreneurs; entrepreneurs are exceptional in that they have, for one reason or another, overcome or escaped this process.

Thus, a more nuanced communist view abandons the idea that we should eliminate the entrepreneur as an exceptional insult to the non-entrepreneurial masses. Instead, we should first establish that the entrepreneur has no consequent right to subordinate others. Secone, the goal of communism should be to turn everyone into entrepreneurs. We should all be aware that the world is to be shaped, we should all have the will to shape it, and we should all develop the skill, energy, and cleverness to be successful in actually shaping it.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Keynes vs. Hayek

Corey Robin draws an interesting, perhaps flawed, connection between Nietzsche and the Austrians. Robin is aware of his critics, and highlights Kevin Vallier critique from the right, On Robin’s Tenuous Connection between Nietzsche and Hayek, and Philip Pilkington's from the left, The Ideology to End Ideologies – A Response to Corey Robin on Nietzsche, Hayek, Mises, and Marginalism.

I'm somewhat unique. I'm a fiftyish economics undergraduate student who thought and read a lot about economics before I started school, and I have a pronounced Marxist bias. I've also spent many years reading as a lay person about physics and meta-physics (i.e. how physicists and philosophers think about the task of "doing physics").

In a related article Marginal Utility Theory as a Blueprint for Social Control, Pilkington believes that the marginal theory of value is simply absurd, resting on obviously false assumption, and leading to a picture of reality so far removed from the actual reality that it has no real intellectual value at all. In Eb on What they Teach in School, the inimitable Buce weighs in, albeit peripherally.

Even as a Marxist, however, I'm not so sure.

One idea that was drilled into my head in my studies in physics is that a model is a model. The map is not the territory. I look at all the marginalist models I've just finished learning in Intermediate Micro and Macro (the last time, I think, an economics undergraduate will ever look at the underlying models), and I see, well, models. Given some assumptions that seem to hold (or at least be useful) sometimes, they seem to provide some insight into some kinds of behavior. Some sometimes some some. Physicists seem to have few conceptional problems with some and sometimes. I don't see any fundamental metaphysical conflict between the marginal theory of exchange value and the Labor Theory of exchange value; indeed I wrote a paper on the subject: The Labor Theory of Value.

As I see it, there are two fundamentally competing metaphysical views on economics, and these views compete on the descriptive, normative, and valuative levels.

In the descriptive sense (according to my admittedly half-expert understanding) the marginalist/Austrian view, and especially the neo-classical macroeconomic view, maintains that the economy is always in the one and only socially optimal equilibrium, no matter what we might observe happening. There are no "technical" fixes that can be made by anyone, especially the government. The underlying physical fundamentals of the economy — technology, productivity, physical and human capital development — can and do change, but they change only slowly, and it takes a lot of work to change them. All interventions to try to change our economic behavior without changing the fundamentals move us away from equilibrium. The market will adjust automatically and quickly, so the best these interventions can be is ineffective. When interventions are extreme enough to actually alter our economic behavior, the do their worst: they force us to stop trying to change the fundamentals and actively work just to restore the equilibrium the government has disturbed. Hence the response to the Nixon stimuli was the Volker recession. The marginalist/Austrian view in this sense is: it ain't broke; don't try to fix it.

In the descriptive sense, the competing Keynesian view maintains that the economy can, sometimes, be persistently out of equilibrium, or stuck in a socially sub-optimal equilibrium. Individual consumers and firms often, but not always, correct economic imbalances; when they cannot, the government must step in to correct it. The government, in the Keynesian view, is hardly perfect, and they can err; it is a distortion of Keynesianism to say that whatever the government does is good. However, the government can, at least sometimes, do good.

Intertwined with these descriptive views are normative views. In the marginalist/Austrian view, the market outcome is by definition the socially optimal outcome. Not only is the market always in equilibrium, it is always in the socially optimal equilibrium, by definition.

In the Keynesian view, the market outcome and the socially optimal economic outcome, while related, are substantively different things. I'm not talking about values and outcomes that are fundamentally outside the realm of economics; I'm talking about purely economic outcomes. For example, market outcomes tend to produce income and wealth inequality; we might decide, socially, that less inequality is a more socially optimal economic outcome, even though the "market" must be "distorted" to achieve this outcome.

The question of values is not quite as clear. In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin makes a strong case that "reactionaries" (i.e. marginalists/Austrians) view political inequality as a positive virtue. Descriptively, political inequality exists when some individuals have the power to arbitrarily command other individuals. (The notion of individual, arbitrary command is different from socialized command, e.g. submission to democratically agreed-upon constraints on behavior.) Reactionaries, according to Robin, think that relations of individual domination and submission are not only a virtue, but the primary, fundamental raison d'ĂȘtre of human civilization. Keynesians value political equality, the state where no individuals can arbitrarily command others.

There's nothing disreputable per se about having political values, and seeking to express those values in a society. Furthermore, all political expression of values involves some degree of coercion and imposition. If the marginalists/Austrians value political inequality, that's what they value, and they are just as much citizens and human beings as I am. I cannot expect but that they will try to express — and, to some degree, coerce and impose — those values in a society. There is, however, something fundamentally disreputable in describing reality inaccurately, intentionally or ignorantly, in order to achieve the political expression of one's values.

Thus, the Keynesian critique of the reactionary, the Austrian, the marginalist, etc. takes place at two levels. The first is on the level of competing values. The Keynesians want political equality; the Austrians want political inequality. They Keynesians are going to like democracy; the Austrians are not going to like it. I know I personally like Keynesian values more than Austrian values, but there is no objective sense with which we can scientifically say that one is more accurate than the other. All we can do is discover who has sufficient will, power, cleverness, skill, and ability to make their values preeminent in society.

The second level of critique, however, goes deeper. We Keynesians assert that in addition to the legitimate and reputable project of imposing their values on society (just as we legitimately and reputably seek to impose our own values on society), the Austrians are guilty of inaccurately describing objective reality. The sort of marginal analysis they use is, while useful and applicable under certain circumstance, not a universal description of economic reality. The sort of perfectly competitive markets they talk about when they assert that markets lead, by definition, to socially optimal outcomes, do not actually exist in reality, and the few markets that even approximate perfect competition are rare, limited, and usually separated from ordinary consumers by a layer of monopolistic or oligopolistic markets. And, as Marx has shown, if all capitalist markets were in fact perfectly competitive, capitalism would self-destruct. That capitalism has not (yet) self-destructed does not by itself disprove Marx; it shows only that capitalists are not, in fact, actually capitalists in an economic sense. Capitalists have enough intelligence to know that they cannot subscribe in practice to the ideology they endorse in theory.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Stupid! It Burns! (Larry the Cable Guy edition)

the stupid! it burns! Larry the Barefoot Bum Calls Me Stupid. Sort of. [Link Fixed] Sort of? I really, actually, completely call him — well, his post, but close enough — really, actually, completely stupid. Kinda what the whole series is about.

In his retort, he says,
I didn’t care then, but recently came upon [this TSIB post] and thought, the nerve of this Larry the Cable Guy character. I don’t suppose he’s calling me stupid. [Yes, I was. -LTBB] That would be original. Instead he goes for the atheist standby of calling all Christians stupid. . . . It’s all any atheist has: “Show me God” and calling you stupid. I don’t know who Larry the Cucumber is or why he goes by the hideous name “Barefoot Bum.” Is he daring any Christian to wash his horrendous hooves? I don’t get it. Larry the Laughing Thalidomide Baby would be a better moniker than “Barefoot Bum.” . . . “There is no God. And I hate Him!” is the atheist creed. It’s really a case of the lady dost protesting too much, methinks.

Amazingly enough, it gets funnier. Read the rest.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Nietzsche’s Marginal Children

Nietzsche’s Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek: How did the conservative ideas of Friedrich Hayek and the Austrian school become our economic reality? By turning the market into the realm of great politics and morals.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Capitalism and communism

I haven't written anything in a while (schoolwork has been heavy lately), so I want to reiterate a point I've made before about the difference between capitalism and communism.

Capitalism is not about "free markets." In the economic sense of perfectly competitive markets, free markets do not and cannot exist in actual reality. We have a few markets that are approximately perfectly competitive, but those markets usually exist not to supply the consumer but to supply monopolistic or oligopolistic end-stage producers. For example, economists usually consider agricultural production to be close to perfectly competitive, but most agricultural production goes through one of the big food processing conglomerates, such as Archer Daniels Midland or General Foods. Similarly, a lot of clothing production is perfectly competitive, but most ends up being sold through Walmart, Target, or a couple of other chains.

In the political sense of markets free of government interference, free markets are impossible. Markets require both money and reliable promises, all of which require a government. Political free market advocates want enough government interference to protect their own interests, but not enough to protect yours.

If capitalism is not about "free markets," then communism as anti-capitalism cannot be about "central planning." Central planning is a tool that both communist and capitalist governments use under various historical circumstances, mostly when fighting wars. Most Western economies were very strictly centrally planned during the Second Imperialist War. Both the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, as well as China under Mao, had to fight long, protracted, and continuous wars (especially Russia), and simultaneously had only a few decades to catch up with centuries of Western capitalist development (especially China).*

*The Soviet Union and China also developed communism in a social and cultural environment very different from that which we are used to in the West; because of this deep cultural difference, we must expect them to do things that we find absurd, incomprehensible, or repugnant, and would never be countenanced in the West. (I'm sure they find many of our practices absurd, incomprehensible, or repugnant.) Communism does not entail becoming Russian or Chinese.

I will readily admit that a centrally micromanaged economy is a Bad Idea in many circumstances. But not all, however: almost all capitalist businesses, some of them very large, operate internally as centrally micromanaged economies. Furthermore, at the macroeconomic level, investment is controlled by a fairly small group of people, who exogenously set various macroeconomic variables such as interest rate, money supply, bank reserve requirements, and bank lending standards. (The argument in even neoclassical economics is not whether to exogenously set macro variables, but which variables to set and which variables to allow to respond exogenously endogenously.) What makes humans human are our ability to plan and our ability to socially coordinate our actions. Unplanned, uncoordinated evolution is very very slow and very very painful; It is nonsensical to throw away our most powerful tools, our ability to make decisions in the present based on our understanding of the future and our ability to communicate and coordinate our actions. Again, the point is not whether to have a "planned" economy, but what to plan and, most importantly, who does the planning.

The who is the crux of biscuit.

Capitalism is the idea that private individuals should "own" the means of production, and that individuals should use the means of production for their own benefit. In capitalism, social constraints on individuals' use of the means of production should be as little as possible; in practice, those social constraints are determined by the owners of capital themselves, to prevent self-destructive internecine strife. Ownership (and remember that ownership is socially constructed) of the means of production, i.e. money, grants individuals enormous social and political power. I would be very happy to let you control almost all the guns if I get just enough guns to control all the money. Mao was wrong: political power comes from the vault of the bank, not the barrel of the gun.

In contrast, Communism is the idea that "society" should "own" the means of production, and "society" should determine how to use the means of production for the benefit of workers. Of course, "society" is a placeholder here: individuals are real, "society" is an abstraction that should not be reified. It's a placeholder for a social process, including mores, customs, and institutions, that individuals socially construct. But communism is more than just some sort of social process; capitalism is also a social process which is itself socially constructed. Communism demands at least that the social process we use to determine the use of the means of production operate for the benefit of the workers, not the owners of capital. The argument among communists, then, is what kind of mores, customs, and institutions will actually benefit workers.

(I want to take a slight detour here. I advocate what political scientists would strictly term not communism but democratic socialism; strictly speaking, in political science jargon, "communism" means either the end stage of socialism, rule by the communist party, or a political system based on pure Kantian altruism. This labeling is applied by academic political scientists, who of course constitute a capitalist institution. I could call myself a socialist, but in reality, there are too many people who call themselves "socialists" that advocate (at best) only welfare-state capitalism, and laissez-faire capitalists like to brand as "socialist" anyone who advocates even the tiniest bit of welfare-state capitalism. ("I'm a socialist!" "Oh, you're voting for Obama?" Sigh.) I call myself a communist to make clear that, whatever my specific ideas, I advocate a radical departure from capitalism, not incremental welfare-state-ism; I'd rather have that distinction immediately clear and leave the details of my ideas to further discussion.)

Russia and China tried to see to the workers' benefit by implementing a self-selecting, self-promoting national communist party can exercise direct managerial control over factories, stores, farms, etc., and the workers who operate them. This effort collapsed in Russia, and it has been so substantially modified in China that, although controversial, one can legitimately call China an authoritarian capitalist state. (There's some evidence that the coordination afforded by an authoritarian state, which does not depend on economic coercion to maintain political power, operates more efficiently than a technically republican state such as the United States.) The two biggest justifications for this particular structure are that both Russia and China needed economic development immediately, and that they had few of the social, cultural, and institutional precursors for a successful republic or democracy. (A republic or a democracy, like any other social construction, cannot simply be dropped on a society like an overcoat.) If you're in a substantially economically underdeveloped (in relative terms) country with a long tradition of authoritarianism, a ruling communist party is not such a bad idea; the alternative is, perhaps, only a choice between tyranny and fascism.

But the West does not have the conditions that justify party rule. We have a highly developed economy; we don't have to make a "big push" to catch up with anyone else to secure our survival. We also have a the social, cultural, and institutional characteristics that can support the development of democracy. There's no reason we must make the same sort of compromises and adjustments required by Russia and China. (Neither should we ignore their accomplishments or, where appropriate, copy their methods, simply because they operated in a different cultural context.)

The point of communism, if we go to Marx, is that the workers should own the means of production. We communists are struggling, just as the capitalists struggled for centuries, to define what that means, and we have to abandon ideas that either (depending on who you ask) failed or are no longer applicable to material circumstances. In the West, therefore, communism has to mean democratic communism, ownership of the means of production by a democratic state.