Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Decency, like all moral words, has a fundamentally subjective and socially constructed meaning. Decency is we think it is, and what we think it is is a product of social interaction. But just because its meaning is subjective and socially constructed doesn't mean it has no meaning. It does mean something: although we might disagree about the specifics, we can tell what is decent and what is not decent.

I think, for example, that people have to live with no home is not decent. That they have to beg for food is not decent. That they are not permitted to work — when there is manifestly much work undone — is not decent. That we are killing black people in our own country and brown people in the Middle East is not decent.

Others might think, for example, that we take from those who produce more and give to those who produce less is not decent. I disagree,

No matter: the point is not what specifically is or is not decent, the point is that the word decency does actual work in drawing distinctions about the world.

Decency is more fluid than good. I've written earlier that "I shouldn't, but ..." is incoherent. Shouldn't means don't. If someone actually does something, then they necessarily think they should do it. If they say they shouldn't but they do, then they are lying, bullshitting, confused, or so neurotic that they need the services of a psychologist, not a philosopher. Decency, in contrast, is not so rigid. Should and shouldn't come after we weigh the reasons; considerations of decency come before.

We can say, "This is not decent, but reasons." And the reasons might (or might not) be good reasons. It was certainly indecent to kill Nazis by the millions, because mass murder is, I think, uncontroversially indecent, but hey, they were Nazis. (And, I think, the analysis is symmetric: I think the Nazis and Germans believed that murdering millions of Jews, Gypsies, communists, homosexuals, and Slavs was indecent, but hey, reasons.) Similarly, whether or not someone thinks the economic constraints justify the indecency, it seems relatively uncontroversial that the way we treat food animals is clearly indecent.

The goal of civilization, I think, is or should be that we create a society where we can not just always act rightly but always act decently. A goal of universal decency might be asymptotic, but we should always at least be moving closer, to make our necessary indecency always rarer and always more fraught.

What I meant in my previous post, then is not to argue some specific concept of decency, but to talk about an attitude towards how we construct and implement not only our notions of decency but also when we make exceptions to decency. Hence, even when I completely agree with some religious people's specific constructions of decency, I profoundly disagree with how they construct that notion: that thus and such is decent or indecent not because we happen to subjectively feel it is so, but because God has so informed. Similarly with a monarchy, oligarchy, or even a republic: even if I agree, thus and such is decent (or we should make an exception to decency) because the king, or the bourgeoisie, or our elected representatives have so informed us... based, of course, on information only they can see.

As I noted, the specific institutions of a democracy are important, but democracy is more than just a set of institutions: indeed, no set of institutions, however carefully crafted, can be democratic if the people do not have democratic consciousness: the consciousness that the people themselves decide what is decent and when we must act indecently. Not the king, not the elite, not the trustees (and not the Party): the people themselves.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Killed by police

Ed highlights the most egregious police killings of unarmed black people in 2015, starting with 12 year old Tamir Rice, killed by police Nov. 22, 2014, whose killers will not be prosecuted.

See ?Killed by Police for a list of 1,190 people (as of Dec. 29) killed by police in 2015.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Religion and democracy

A couple of interesting articles: In Why the Left Needs Religion, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig argues that religion as religion (not just people who happen to be religious) is an essential component to left organizing, citing Christian religious doctrines and practices that are frankly Marxian. In Not God’s Politics, Susan Jacoby disagrees with Bruenig, citing the... diversity... of religious ideology on the right and left, and the propensity of Christians to impose their religion on everyone, including non-Christians. Naturally I much prefer Jacoby, and while I know many Christians I'm happy to have as allies, it is because of their politics, not their religion. But I think there's a larger point that's deserves highlighting.

We on the left should not, I think, be too focused on implementing a particular political-economic regime, e.g. welfare capitalism, social democracy, democratic socialism, or communism. The regime does matter, a lot, but the regime is not the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue is to change how people see the world and each other, to change our political and social psychology. A particular political-economic regime might be the consequence of that change, or might be a means to effect that change, but a change in "human nature" must be the fundamental goal of the left. I don't mean to say we shouldn't think carefully about political and economic issue at the deepest level (I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the economics and finance of communism), but these issues are not at the deepest level.

The fundamental struggle of the left is to inculcate the social psychology of democracy. We really like the word here in the United States; we are perhaps not quite so enthusiastic about the actual practice. Democracy is not about holding periodic elections, even with a comprehensive franchise and open candidacy. Democracy is not about letting people vote, it is about the people ruling. Elections are about people "choosing" our rulers; democracy is about people ruling themselves. Again, I want to say that although economic and political democracy is a regime, and requires specific kinds of political and economic institutions, the regime is not the fundamental, deepest, point; the deepest point is our social, cultural, political, and economic psychology, our consciousness.

Having sampled the Christian scriptures, the character of Jesus seems to me like a decent fellow.* But that's alarming right there: I have a favorable opinion of Jesus without believing for a second that the character or the narrative in which he appears has any sort of divine imprimatur. If you think Jesus is a decent character, why is that not enough to emulate him? What work does apotheosizing him do?

*I have much less familiarity with Islamic scripture. I wouldn't be surprised if apart from his egregious pedophilia, Muhammed (the man or the character of the narrator), given his time and place, was also rather decent. My point, though, is not the decency of the characters but the nature of religion.

The point of democracy, as an element of consciousness, is to act decently because we are decent; if we are not decent, we want to become decent.* If we act decently because some god demands we do so is to miss the fundamental point of democracy. More importantly, if we demand that others act decently not because they are decent, but because some god demands they do so, we don't just miss but actively undermine the whole point of democracy.

*What do I mean by "decent"? Good question. It's a vague word for a vague and complicated idea. I'll write more on this topic later.

One might argue that to persuade their readers to become decent is the Gospels authors' whole point, their real project. Perhaps so, but if that is their point, after almost two thousand years, they have decisively failed. And, I would argue, they have failed precisely because they have located the impetus to decency in the divine, rather than the human. I'm sorry, racist white European authoritarian neoliberal capitalism has captured a substantial fraction of nominal Christians, Christians who have in their homes an actual copy of the writings about the brown Middle-Eastern democratic communist, who say that what this brown Middle-Eastern democratic communist (supposedly) said is literally the most important thing in the world. If people actually believed what Jesus says, they would have greeted the writings of Marx with a collective, "Well, duh!" No, that's wrong: if people really believed Jesus, Christians never would have invented capitalism, and Marx would be known for his literary criticism. The fault is not in the content, so the fault must be in the location in the divine, not the human.

Democracy and communism are not about income equality or inequality. They are not about the Ministry of Planning or nationalizing the banks. Democracy and communism are about power, with the people taking power away from this or that self-selected elite, hereditary, economic, or theocratic, and wielding it themselves. Indeed, democracy is about abjuring power over others and privileging each person's individual power over him- or herself. By its very nature, no religion can ever give us that.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Science and philosophy: falsification

I'm simply going to state Karl Popper's claim and explain what it means. In further posts, I'll talk about the justification for his claim, and why we should care about the claim and its justification. If I feel like it, I'll talk about some weaknesses in Popper's case, and how they can be strengthened. However, that will require additional research that I would have to do in my copious free time. We'll see.

Popper's central claim is that a statement is scientific only if it is falsifiable. Note that this condition is necessary but not sufficient: a statement can, for example, be falsifiable and actually false, in which case it is not scientific. (Some might argue that Popper never says this, but it seems so trivial that if he really doesn't say so explicitly, it is uncharitable to believe he doesn't take it for granted.)

A statement is falsifiable if and only if there is an empirical observation that could in principle actually be observed that would render the statement false. If we do in fact observe a falsifying observation, then the statement is definitely false. However, if we bend over backwards to attempt to observe something that would falsify the statement, and we are unable to do so, we gain confidence in the truth of the statement; we can use probability theory (Bayesian or frequentist) to quantify our confidence. We can be certain that some statements are false, because we make a falsifying observation, but we can never be certain that any statement is actually true.

For example, take the statement, "Objects always fall when we drop them." This statement is falsifiable: if I drop something, and I observe it not falling, then the statement is definitely false. However, no matter how many times I drop something and observe it actually falling, I cannot be certain that things always fall when I drop them, everywhere on Earth for all time. The best I can do is say having observed things falling when I drop them many times, I have confidence in the statement, but if I were to ever actually observe a counterexample, then I would have to revise my theory.

In contrast, consider the statement, "God created the universe." The syllogism
  1. If God had not created it, the universe would not exist
  2. The universe exists
  3. Therefore, God created the universe
is certainly valid, and (2) is confirmed by observation. But the syllogism is not falsifiable: if no universe exists, we could not observe that fact. (We are part of the universe; if the universe did not exist, neither would we.) Therefore, the syllogism is not scientific: we could not in principle observe its falsity.

In principle, Popper's claim is very straightforward; in practice it's a lot more complicated. Most importantly, we cannot evaluate statements independently: all statements depend on a theoretical context, the larger structure of a scientific theory, the construction of our measurement devices, and the nature of language itself. Hence, we cannot isolate single statements for falsification; instead we can only falsify larger theoretical constructs. The best we can say if we observe something that falsifies a statement within a theoretical context, then something in the context (including the statement) is false, but we can't be sure precisely what part of the context (or the entire context) is incorrect.

For example, I'm watching the Feynman lectures. Feynman talks about observations of the moons of Jupiter that falsified Newton's theory of gravity. Instead of modifying the theory of gravity itself, scientists changed the theoretical context by adding the premise that the speed of light is finite, with a definite value.

But this ambiguity does not damage Popper's central point. Popper does not give us any guidance on how to fix problems, he merely claims that if it is impossible in principle to have this particular problem, i.e. impossible to observe something contrary to the theoretical context, then whatever it is you're doing, you're not doing science.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Science and philosophy: Introduction

What is "science"? What makes one endeavor scientific and another endeavor non-scientific?

It's tempting to say that science is what scientists do. It's a tempting answer, because different kinds of scientists do a lot of different things. The way biologists do biology is very different from the way physicists do physics; if they are very different, why is it legitimate to label both as "science" but label mathematics or philosophy as "not-science" just because mathematics and philosophy are very different from physics and biology. It's also tempting because we can say that science is just another social category; to talk about science abstractly risks the fallacy of reification. In much the same sense being "American" is just what people in the United States happen to do; to talk abstractly about some essential "Americanism" that would be true regardless of what any Americans actually did would be nonsensical reification.

A lot of people, myself included, think that, unlike Americanism, there really is something essential about science, something essential that would be true even if everyone who called themselves "scientists" didn't do it. Moreover, it's important to think and talk about the essential nature of science because science, done "correctly," has immense social value; done incorrectly, science is useless or harmful. Furthermore, what actual professional scientists actually do is a vastly more rigorous version of a general mode of thought, a mode that everyone should employ, at least about some of their ideas and behaviors.

Of course, there are no other modes of thought, modes that are not science, that also have value; I do not advocate "scientism" in the sense that science is the only valuable mode of thought.

If there really is something essential about science, then philosophers are better-situated than scientists to talk about it. Paradoxically, if there is something essential about science, then it is possible that scientists do things scientifically out of habit or tradition, without reflection or specific intention. They could be doing things scientifically, but doing those things not because they know those things are scientific, but just out of habit. It might also be true that because science, as actually practiced, is socially situated, scientists do specific things that might be irrelevant or contrary to what is essentially scientific because of their social situation. It could take an outsider to discern which of those things really comprise the essence of science, and which are just arbitrary habits or extraneous social behavior. For example, I've worked with a lot of scientists. Many of them have no idea what statistical tests do or how statisticians actually interpret them; they just click a button in Stata or Excel, and if the p value is less than 0.05, they publish. The statistics are essentially scientific; the choice of 0.05 (or any other specific number) as the threshold of significance is not essential to science.

Again, I don't wish to deprecate the social aspects of science: scientists are part of society, and they have to fit their practices to the larger social context. Still, if there is such a thing as what is essentially science, it is still important to discern what is scientific and what is social.

Philosophers are also well-situated to talk about the essential nature of science because when doing actual philosophy (rather than "philosopholgy," the study of the somewhat arbitrarily constructed canon of philosophy) are the least susceptible to authority and privilege. A philosophical work stands or falls on its argument, not on the reputation or privilege of its author. Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, for example, is "authoritative" on a version of Libertarianism not because he holds any particular power to define it, but because he makes good arguments (well, as good as can be expected) and has persuaded a lot of people that his version of Libertarianism makes sense.

In this series, I will be talking about the philosophy of science as a philosopher. I claim no special privilege to define the essential nature of science, or even to establish that there is such a thing as an essential nature of science: my work, like all philosophy, stands or falls on the persuasiveness of my arguments.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Chamberlain inequality

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, noted anarchist/libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick argues that patterned distributions of income necessarily violate the principle of free exchange. Nozick supposes that there is some "patterned" distribution of income, i.e. some distribution that is objectively determinable. For example the notion of strict equality of income I've been writing about is certainly objectively determinable: I do not need to examine people's subjective preferences to determine what their incomes are, just the number of hours they actually work. He then supposes that a large number of people subjectively choose to freely pay Wilt Chamberlain (a famous basketball player of the 1960s) some money. Assuming enough people freely choose to do so, then Chamberlain will have much more money than the patterned distribution mandates. Thus, the patterned distribution forbids people from making choices that seem unproblematic.

There are a number of possible responses to Nozick's problem. The most obvious (but perhaps least intellectually satisfying) is to declare it a pseudo-problem, akin to the Omelas problem: the problem contradicts our moral intuition only because it makes deeply counterfactual assumptions about the world, but our moral intuitions are shaped by how the world actually is. Why would anyone want to just give Wilt Chamberlain money? Remember, almost all people who have very high incomes due to fame (athletes, musicians, actors, etc.) are embedded in industries that are paradigmatic of market failure. Even if there might be some good reasons for market failures, sports, popular music, movies, television, etc. are oligopolies and monopsonies, very far away from the perfect competition that is the core of the moral justification for capitalism. In our current system, the basis of our moral intuitions about economics, people don't freely choose to just give people like Chamberlain money, they "freely" choose to exchange their money for a good in a monopoly-controlled market; we cannot easily conclude that, absent these monopolies, they would choose to just part with their money (their share of the social product) out of benevolence or admiration.

Although the choice seems implausible, it is not impossible that people really would choose to voluntarily give their money away to admirable strangers. Thus, another resolution to Nozick's problem is to simply relax the pattern. The patterned distribution sets boundaries on the distribution of income, but permits deviations within those boundaries. Hence, my construction of nearly strict equality, which permits deviations from equality that satisfy certain criteria: deviations (1) are completely voluntary, (2) cannot accumulate, and (3) self-correct in the long run.

With certain boundaries, Nozick's problem fits neatly into these criteria. First, if people freely choose to give someone money (not as a condition of exchange), then doing so clearly fulfills condition (1). Second, a prohibition against absentee ownership means that even if Chamberlain did receive a lot more money than most people, he would have to spend it, which would eventually return the distribution to equality; Chamberlain could not use the extra money to secure lasting economic privilege.

The third criterion is more difficult to satisfy. On the one hand, if people really were willing to give someone like Chamberlain money, then people are going to want to do the same thing; removing the barriers to competition that are manifestly present in modern society will tend to reduce "Chamberlain inequality" over time. However, top quality "superstar" athletes (and popular musicians and actors) seem extremely rare: I don't think the NBA is limiting the number of superstar athletes, and people seem to derive a lot of pleasure in watching the very best ply certain trades. No matter how much money we give to "superstars," by definition there can be only a few.

But notice here that "superstars" violate the fundamental capitalist paradigm that high prices serve as a signal to incentivize entry and return a market to perfect competition: we cannot have a perfectly competitive market in "superstars," however much money we give them.

I suspect that in practice, Chamberlain inequality will persist the longest, and perhaps forever. Still, if we at least enforce absolute freedom (i.e. people do not exchange but give superstars money), and prevent accumulation and absentee ownership, we could tolerate Chamberlain inequality for a long time without terrible consequences.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Why education does not fix poverty

Why Education Does Not Fix Poverty:

  1. [H]anding out more high school and college diplomas doesn't magically create more good-paying jobs
  2. [H]aving more education does not necessarily increase people's productive capacity
  3. [P]overty is really about non-working people: children, elderly, disabled, students, carers, and the unemployed

Garbage and gravitas

Garbage and Gravitas: Ayn Rand was a melodramatist of the moral life: the battle is between the producer and the moochers, and it must end in life or death.

The chief conflict in Rand’s novels, then, is not between the individual and the masses. It is between the demigod-creator and all those unproductive elements of society—the intellectuals, bureaucrats and middlemen—that stand between him and the masses. Aesthetically, this makes for kitsch; politically, it bends toward fascism.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Nearly strict equality

Strict equality can be achieved only in a world of abundance, a world where everyone can have all the ordinary material things they want, and we allocate extraordinary things (trips to Alpha Centauri) by democratic means. But, lacking a world of abundance, I advocate nearly strict equality.

Nearly strict equality starts with strict equality: everyone receives exactly the same hourly wage, and contributes exactly the same absolute amount of labor to the common good (i.e. pays a flat tax*). That people can choose to work a different number of hours is not considered a deviation from strict equality: it is merely a particular trade-off between consuming leisure and consuming the physical social output.

*Wait, what? A flat tax? A flat tax coupled with absolute wage equality is not regressive.

Nearly strict equality permits deviations from strict equality that (1) are completely voluntary, (2) cannot accumulate, and (3) self-correct in the long run.

If all jobs pay the same hourly wage, then it is possible that given free choices, people will resist doing some jobs that they find less desirable than others. There are structural ways to allocate people to jobs, but by far the easiest way to convince people to do undesirable jobs without complaint is to simply pay them more. Note that under nearly strict equality, pay differentials are not proportional to social status; indeed, "low-status" jobs would probably pay more.

Structurally, we can separate jobs into three categories:

  1. Highly desirable jobs: the supply of candidates exceeds the social demand for the work
  2. Ordinary jobs: the supply of candidates is just about equal to the social demand
  3. Undesirable jobs: demand exceeds supply

For highly desirable jobs, we create an effective quota: limit entry to those jobs, so that the actual supply at the equality wage matches demand. We must, of course, have a democratic way of limiting entry, but I take a truly democratic form of government for granted. Since the point is to restrict excess supply, limiting entry will not produce monopolistic pricing.

For undesirable jobs, we could just say, "Well, you have to have some job, and all the desirable and ordinary jobs are taken, so here's your shovel, go clean out the sewer." But such a system would, I think, create resentment; more importantly, it would, I think, enable a strong structural "force" creating a permanent underclass of people (e.g. "untouchables"/dalits) who are forced to take these undesirable jobs. Such a force would be absolutely incompatible with communism.

Instead, we create a fourth category: "default" jobs. These default jobs are low-skilled, low-intensity, low-status, and relatively unproductive: jobs such as sweeping streets or delivering newspapers. Basically, these are jobs where a person can show up, pretend to work, and make a living. These jobs would probably have limited hours, enough so that people can live decently and pay their taxes, but not so much that they could ever have a lot of stuff. These jobs really exist first to just support the hard-core stoners and slackers (it's cheaper to just buy them off than to try to oppress them into working hard: prisons are expensive). Second, these jobs provide those who have ambitions to highly desirable jobs that are not amenable to pre-qualification, such as musician or actor; people can work these default jobs, and do whatever it takes to become recognized in their chosen field. Many will fail — by design — but they will not starve or freeze.

Most importantly, however, default jobs make accepting undesirable jobs completely voluntary. Given this pool of "default" workers, we then (democratically) increase the hourly pay of undesirable jobs until enough people from the default category voluntarily accept those jobs. Thus, this differential in pay becomes completely voluntary: no one will starve or die because they refuse to clean sewers or mine coal.

To prevent accumulation, first, we deprecate savings in favor of credit. You can put money in the bank, but there's no interest on saved money (except under special circumstances), so differential income does not accumulate into privileged wealth.

Second, we implement progressive taxation for those making above the equality hourly wage: the more you earn per hour, the greater the proportion of your pay that is collected in taxes. This essentially raises the price to consumers for undesirable work. (Because undesirable jobs are completely voluntary, it is the after-tax wage that encourages people to accept these jobs.) We then have a structural incentive to make those jobs less undesirable, probably by automation, which fulfills the third criterion: long-term self-correction.

I will address the "Wilt Chamberlain" argument in my next post.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Strict equality and marginalism

As far as I can tell, the best alternative to (nearly) strict equality of income is marginal productivity theory: each person should receive the social permission to consume socially produced goods and services in proportion to his or her marginal productivity. People who are very productive at the margin receive more of the social product; people who are not very productive should receive less.

Of course, arguing against one alternative among many is not much of an argument for a position, but knocking down the best alternative offers better support.

It's notable that Mankiw makes a deontic moral argument for marginalism rather than a utilitarian or pragmatic argument. I suppose he must, because the utilitarian argument looks pretty bad.

What do we mean by the marginal product? Generally speaking, the marginal product of something is the productivity of adding one more of that something; if we model production as a continuous function, the marginal product is the slope (partial derivative) of that something's contribution to production.

One problem, then, is that for an individual competitive firm, wages are exogenous: nothing the firm can do can affect wages. Thus the firm hires labor until the wage of the last worker exactly equals his or her contribution to production. At the level of the individual firm, therefore, the causality is exactly the reverse of the marginalist story: people are not paid according to their marginal productivity; the firm employs people until their marginal productivity equals their pay. If the prevailing wage were to exogenously increase or decrease, the marginal product of labor would still, at each individual firm, be equal to the wage.

But if the wage is exogenous to the individual firm, how is it set? Well, capitalism is very careful (with a notable exception, finally corrected, in the last half of the twentieth century) to ensure that most people's wages are set in a perfectly competitive market. In a perfectly competitive market, prices fall to costs, i.e. the cost of labor power, i.e. the cost of minimal subsistence. Only political reasons, not economic reasons, push some wages above subsistence in the long run. (In the short run, demand for a new specialty, such as computer programming, can race ahead of supply, allowing specialists oligopoly pricing, but after ten or twenty years, supply will eventually catch up.)

Thus, marginalism entails that most people should receive subsistence wages; not because most people can produce only that much, but because we will hire labor until the last person hired produces that much. And they produce that much not because of their personal characteristics, but because the firm has made a choice between labor and capital based on the exogenous subsistence wage. I can't imagine that anyone would consider these circumstances "fair."

What about the capitalist? Even allowing the polite fiction that capital (machines, trucks, buildings) produce anything at all, the capitalist himself produces nothing; he just sits around owning things. Even if the marginal product of capital is equal to the wage, an individual capitalist, unlike a worker, can own an unlimited amount of capital. Moreover, the more capital a capitalist owns, the more he can acquire, so capital ownership, absent political limits, is self-concentrating. And, concentrated enough, the capitalist can enjoy monopoly pricing, exogenously setting the price of capital. And again, firms will choose just enough capital so that the marginal product of capital is equal to its price.

So, yes, everyone receives his or her marginal product, but the decision about what that marginal product should be is not economically but socially determined; it has nothing to do with any individual's characteristics or capabilities. Fair? I think not.

What about the millionaire CEO? Is he paid his marginal product? If so, if the marginal product of a CEO really is in the eight figures, then bog-standard economic theory tells us we should be producing a lot more CEOs. We should be producing so many CEOs that the last one we hire produces the subsistence wage. If the CEOs we have are really producing tens of millions of dollars per year, we should experience an enormous boost in productivity by vastly expanding the number of CEOs.

Heh. Not gonna happen. Even if it's true that each CEO really is directly responsible for tens of millions of dollars of productivity (they're not), the fact that we have politically limited the supply of CEOs is why their marginal productivity is so high. And, of course, a CEO's marginal productivity is not really that high; they are pseudo-capitalists, paid not for their productivity but their social status.

Fundamentally, the problem with marginal productivity theory is that marginal productivity is politically determined; marginal productivity precedes wages and prices of capital.

There are, of course, limits on these prices. There is a physical limit as to how far real wages can fall, there are political pressures keeping wages above mud huts and just enough food to avoid starvation, and given some politically determined wage, there are high and low limits on the marginal productivity of capital. However, within those limits, marginalism entails that most people should live as poorly as possible, and that a small few should live as wealthily as possible, regardless of the individuals' characteristics, and regardless of the potential productive forces of society. Marginalism moves us away from the shared goal of abundance.

Another way of looking at it is that yes, it is a matter of economic necessity that everyone does in fact receive his or her marginal productivity; however, within physical limits, we are free to set marginal productivity. And if we are free to set it, we are free to set it such that everyone's marginal productivity is nearly equal. As productivity increases, equality tends to increase, until we really do have abundance and absolute income equality, i.e. as much as everyone wants.

Capitalism's mysterious triumph

Capitalism's Mysterious Triumph: "Communism failed because of an inability to provide a sustaining reason for existance; only under crisis could it work."

Krugman has some real insights, which any good communist should study. However, he looks only on the more pleasant aspects of capitalism; but the ugliness of capitalism is just as much a cause of its "triumph."

Sunday, November 22, 2015

More on strict equality

It seems pretty clear that our economic goal is to have economic abundance, where everyone can have as much ordinary stuff as they want; by definition, we would then have strict equality of income. We do not, of course, presently actually have economic abundance, so at best this form of strict equality lies in the future. What of today, then? First, does the present level of economic inequality per se help or hinder progress towards a goal of abundance? Second, should we address economic problems other than inequality, perhaps using inequality as a diagnostic or measure of success, or should we address economic inequality directly?

We do not have a world of abundance, but we do presently have (or are very close to) a world of "plenty": a world where everyone can have enough to avoid the most obvious kinds of physical and social suffering, such as malnutrition or starvation, homelessness, treatable death and disease, undereducation, and barriers to ordinary civic participation. Moreover, everyone can have the "necessities," and we will still have enough social surplus to continue expanding the forces of production. We know we presently have a world of plenty simply because all economic crises of modern capitalism are crises of overproduction. Overproduction is possible only in a world of plenty.* Given that we do in fact have plenty, we have to talk about the morality and practicality of how we distribute it.

*If you don't buy this claim, let me know, and I'll write about it elsewhere.

Because we do have enough that no one has to materially suffer, then it is a moral evil to allow anyone to suffer from material deprivation. This position is not a matter of argument: either we have this moral opinion or we don't. I'm going to proceed under the assumption that we do. (It's notable that people who seem to hold the alternative moral opinion seem to hide that opinion.) If we are going to both ensure that everyone has these necessities and account for people's consumption, then regardless of any other considerations, we must ensure that everyone has sufficient income to afford the necessities. We can, of course, do other things — e.g. improve education, equalize access to capital, ensure appropriate political and economic socialization — but we must also simply ensure that people have enough income to buy what they need. Criminality is beyond the scope of this post and topic, but we already at least pretend to offer even the worst criminals these basic necessities; how can we refuse them to law-abiding citizens? Clearly, to the extent that we share this moral vision, we must address income inequality directly.

Of course, setting a floor on income is not strict income equality. However, the need for an income floor requires that income inequality become an issue we need to address directly, neither irrelevant nor merely diagnostic. Sometimes we need to stick the camel's nose in the tent: if we accept an income floor, it becomes more politically feasible to continue to equalize income and wealth. Opponents might, seize normalization of strict equality as an argument against an income floor. But this argument presupposes the absolute good of income inequality, a presupposition that I do not think can be justified. The goal of strict equality is not some Procrustean bed of drab sameness; the goal is a society of material abundance. To be against strict equality in principle is to be against material abundance.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Strict equality: A world of abundance

Consider an "ideal" (in the sense of theoretically "perfect") world, a world of abundance, a world where everyone has as much ordinary stuff as they want; if someone wants something extraordinary, we would have some democratic process to decide if they should get it. This ideal world has perfect equality of income: everyone has the same demand on the social product — at least the ordinary product — as everyone else, i.e. as much as they want. There are some technical and philosophical problems: we would have to ensure we didn't have over- or under-population, and a lot of people might choose to sit around doing nothing, but I think it would be a stretch to find a specifically ethical problem with such a society. We would have to say that there is enough physical stuff that people can have as much as they want, but it is good that we deny some people what they want.* Why would we do that?

*I am excluding wanting "bad" things, e.g. wanting slaves or the enforced subordination of other people.

Contrast the above ideal world with ideal capitalism. Ignoring the considerable philosophical and practical problems with free markets, what happens with capitalism when we have a lot of stuff?

By ideal capitalism, I mean a political-economic system with the following characteristics. First, all markets for all commodities are perfect: there are perfectly competitive markets for all commodities (no monopolies, monopsonies, or oligarchies), free entry and exit in the production of all commodities, no externalities in the production or consumption of all commodities, and everyone has perfect information about all prices, costs, and benefits. Second labor power is a commodity with a perfect market. Third, capital, whether in its direct physical form as machines, buildings, etc. or its indirect, financial, form as a demand on the product produced by physical capital, is privately, individually owned.

Note that capital is not a commodity-by-definition above. Capital cannot be a commodity-by-definition; if it were, then no one would have a demand on the surplus social product (the amount of production in excess of the needs of survival and reproduction): there would not be any market at all for the social surplus, and we would produce only as much as everyone needed to survive and reproduce.

I'll discuss later the question of whether capitalism is or is not (it's not) a pragmatic way to grow society's productive forces to the point where there is enough stuff that people can just have what they want. I want to ask here whether or not ideal capitalism is compatible with a world of abundance.

The problem of labor is sufficient to show that capitalism is not compatible with abundance. Either there is labor or there is not (all production is by capital). If there is labor, and labor power is a commodity with a perfect market, then the price of labor power is equal to its marginal cost. Furthermore, competition ensures that the marginal cost would be as low as possible. Thus, people who labor would receive for their labor just enough to survive and reproduce. Even if there were enough that everyone could have as much as they want, people who labor would not have as much as they want.

Furthermore, there is no opportunity for people who labor to acquire capital. If they received enough for their labor to acquire capital, then the price of labor power would be above its marginal cost, and we would conclude that the market for labor power was imperfect.

If there were no labor, if all production is only by physical capital, then the private ownership of capital becomes the problem. If capital is privately owned, then an individual's consumption is limited by the amount of capital they own. Again, there is enough (or the potential to produce enough) that everyone can have as much as they want, but some people's consumption is limited by what is nothing more than an arbitrary social convention. If we were to redistribute the social ownership of capital, we would not have private ownership.

Thus, regardless of its utility as an intermediate mode of production, capitalism cannot be a universal mode of production. This result should not be surprising: capitalism is a social response to scarcity, specifically scarcity of capital. We should not expect it to be robust to abundance.

We could relax the assumptions of capitalism, perhaps specifically the assumption of labor power as a commodity. And, of course, at some point we must relax them, unless we want to deliberately impose scarcity just to keep the system intact.

In later posts, I'll take up the issue of capitalism as an intermediate mode of production, and why it begins to fail far short of an abundance of production.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

$70,000 minimum wage

Here's What Really Happened at That Company That Set a $70,000 Minimum Wage

Dan Price decided to pay all 120 employees at least $70,000. Grown men cried. Profits soared. Then things got really crazy.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Strict equality: Introduction

For the next several posts, until I finish or lose interest, I want to make a case for a strictly equal distribution of income (and wealth). I'm not going to argue that we have "too much" inequality; I'm going to argue that we should have no inequality of income and wealth whatsoever. The argument that communism and socialism are in a deep sense "about" equality of income is, I think, accurate and important. As a communist, I think I should argue for the value of strict equality directly.

As a utilitarian and small-d democrat, I will concede right away that if people really want inequality, then we should have as much inequality as we really do want. However, part of my argument is that a lot of people do not actually want inequality; I suspect that people at the bottom of the distribution tolerate inequality because they believe it is objectively moral or that equality is physically impossible. Furthermore, utilitarianism entails that society changes because people change what they want, and I want to change what people want.

Before I begin the actual argument, I want to state again what I do and do not mean by strict equality. Strict equality means that each person, under all circumstances, receives an equal share, by some metric of "equal", of the social product.

I do not, however, mean that everyone receives exactly the same bundle of goods: 2 lbs of chicken, 17 tomatoes, 2 board games, etc. People have different preferences, and will consume different bundles of goods. I also do not mean that everyone must work the same amount and receive the same amount of stuff: leisure is part of the social product, and people can choose to trade off stuff for leisure. I am also talking only about equality of demand on the social economic product; I am not talking about equality of physical characteristics or capabilities, social status, admiration and prestige, or anything else like that. I'm arguing only for equal access to the goods and services we produce as a society.

Finally, I understand that I cannot simply wave a magic want and implement strict income equality. Similarly, I am not arguing about a particular method of implementing strict income equality. A minority of people overthrowing the government by force of arms and imposing strict income equality on the citizenry by force would be a Very Bad Idea. However, there are a lot of other ways to move society materially towards strict equality.

Essentially, I want to argue that we should move towards strict equality, and we should move there by intentionally and deliberately decreasing inequality directly, rather than ignoring the problem and hoping other, more "fundamental" changes will deliver equality indirectly.

My argument will (hopefully) include the following points (I'll add links when I flesh them out, and otherwise adjust the summary as I think of new points or abandon old ones):

Positive argument:

  • Economic argument: Declining marginal utility of income; consumption as a zero-sum game.
  • A perfect, ideal world would have strict income equality.
  • Strict income equality is entailed by the ideal of "free markets."
  • Income inequality is undemocratic.

Counterarguments and rebuttals:

  • Access to medical care could be unequal; people who receive a lot of the social product in the form of medical care should not have to trade off access to other stuff. Concede: this form of "inequality" will probably be the last to go.
  • There is utilitarian value for income inequality today. Concede, but argue we can and should change present inequality; present inequality poses a technical problem, not a fundamental problem.
  • There is a non-utilitarian, deontic case ("just deserts") for inequality. Rebut by arguing that deontic morality is incoherent in general, and terrible when applied to access to the social product.
  • Utilitarianism is incoherent. Rebut by arguing utilitarianism is coherent.
  • Strict income equality is less efficient. Partially concede — so what? — but fundamentally rebut: argue strict income equality is more efficient than inequality.
  • Strict income equality is a million years away. Rebut by arguing it's feasible soon.
  • Humans are naturally competitive. Weakly concede, but we can compete over things (e.g. prestige) other than the social product.

If you want to suggest other arguments or raise counter-arguments, please do so in the comments.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Success, inequality, and socialism

Iron Knee's "clincher" continues to bug me. In The Problem with Socialism, the author closes with the line, "What we need is capitalism where everyone has equal opportunity to create and succeed at their own business. Not a system like socialism where everyone is guaranteed success."

And, to a certain extent, Iron Knee is correct. Socialism does not guarantee everyone two Ferraris, but as a political theory, all form of socialism purport to use state power to guarantee that no one starves or freezes, that everyone has adequate medical care and education: essentially, all people in a society are guaranteed a basic civilized existence. Socialism entails that these goals are primary, achieved by whatever means are most effective given particular circumstances, and that any other goals other than national survival must give way to these goals. Socialism views a basic civilized existence as a starting point, not as something that one must strive for, and can possibly fail to obtain.* All forms of socialism from welfare state capitalism to communism share this goal; the disagreements are of scope and means. If you agree that every person gets a basic civilized existed just by virtue of being a person, you are a socialist.

*Few socialists, I think, would forbid a person from voluntarily renouncing what most people consider a basic civilized existence.

If you disagree, then you think that people should somehow merit a basic civilized existence. If so, then it follows (unless you are simply disagreeing with terminology), then some people do not merit a civilized existence: that it's acceptable that some people starve, or freeze, or die or suffer from treatable medical conditions, or do not receive an adequate education. That's the only alternative to socialism, broadly defined.

If a society does use state power to guarantee everyone a basic civilized existence, then people who presently consume too little will consume more. Because the rich presently consume about all they want to consume, this guarantee will necessarily reduce inequality. To a certain extent, the objection to present inequality is moral: it is immoral to live in extreme luxury when others are starving. As I've written earlier, the case for inequality is also moral: it is immoral for any person to get more or less than what they deserve, and if a person deserves poverty, it is immoral to alleviate it.

More precisely — and possibly a bit more charitably — "inequalitarians" view property as a fundamental moral principle: it is just as immoral for a person to be coercively deprived of his or her property as it is for a person to be coercively deprived of a kidney, regardless of the social consequences. There are thousands of people who will suffer, and hundreds who will die outright, precisely because we do not permit the forcible expropriation of people's kidneys for transplant. Similarly, it is no more objectionable that people suffer and die because we do not permit the forcible expropriation of people's property.

Iron Knee's primary thrust is that socialists are too concerned with inequality. Presumably, Iron Knee thinks socialists object to inequality per se, and that it is a deep philosophical error to try to guarantee a more equal distribution of wealth or income.

Again, to a certain extent, Iron Knee is correct. I am a communist precisely because I think inequality is absolutely morally wrong. I would like to see a society where anyone and everyone can literally do whatever they choose, and can have whatever they want.* Such a society would be perfectly equal. Achieving this moral result, however, is not a matter of absurd Harrison Bergeron** handicapping. The point is not to take away from those who have more in the name of "equality"; the point is to give to those who have less. The only way to achieve this result is to develop the productive forces of humanity to the point where anyone and everyone can do what they choose and have what they want. In this sense, "inequality" is a technical problem, in the sense that equalizing physical health, although a moral good, is a technical problem: we correct inequality of health by making sick people healthier, not healthy people sicker.

*Except, of course, owning slaves.
**"Harrison Bergeron" is a terrific story, and Vonnegut is a terrific writer, but the story is not a good criticism of socialism. I doubt Vonnegut intended it as such.

There is another moral issue regarding inequality: power. Wealth and property is not just about who consumes what, but who controls whom, who is dominant and who is subordinate, who's the boss and who's the wage slave. Beyond a certain level (and different socialists will argue about where that level is, but almost all agree that we are waaaaaay past it) inequality of income and wealth directly creates inequality of political power, which is fundamentally inconsistent with our notions of democracy. Wealth and income inequality causes political inequality, and we cannot function as a democracy with too large an imbalance of political power.

But there's yet another moral issue, deeper still. But before I confront the moral issue, I want to talk about what's not any kind moral issue.

First, if you want to be a terrific piano player, you have to practice for at least 10,000 hours. And to practice 10,000 hours, you have to practice a lot every day. If you practice eight hours a day for three or four years, you will become a terrific piano player. Some people will choose to practice, and others will not; the former will become terrific piano players, the latter will not. But that's just not a matter of inequality, or not the sort of inequality that socialists ever worry about or condemn. At best, socialists might say that no one should be barred from practicing enough becoming a terrific piano player just because of his or her choice of parents.

Second, there will always be "inequality" in social admiration. There are a lot of popular musicians who practiced just as hard as Beyonce, just as many basketball players who practiced just as much as LeBron James, just as many economists who studied as hard as Paul Krugman, but they're not as popular. I myself, for example, do not believe that my blog ought to be as popular as Perez Hilton's; he and I are not "unequal" in any important sense. Whether or not other people like someone's work is just not a moral issue that socialists are concerned with.

Finally, I want to exclude the utilitarian argument for inequality. The utilitarian argument is that to optimize the social division of labor, under circumstances where technological circumstances require the social division of labor, we need to give some people a larger portion of the social product to get them to do something other than what they would otherwise want to do. I would argue that this social structure is not at all inequal: everyone is on the same preference curve that trades off doing what they want versus doing what other people want. In any event, even if this is "inequality", it is not the kind of inequality we see under capitalism, and apologists for inequality often reject utilitarianism as justification for inequality.

What is astonishing, though, is the moral idea is that people who have high social status deserve to consume a larger portion of the social product. Utilitarian arguments aside, given that leisure is itself part of that product, why should it be in any sense wrong that each person had an exactly equal share in the total social product? I don't mean to say that everyone should consume exactly the same amount of each and every product; I just mean that every person would have exactly the same income, to spend as they choose, with prices of each product set exactly according to the socially necessary abstract labor time?

To repeat myself, because, sadly, I often receive comments from people seriously deficient in reading comprehension (not that they would even bother to read this disclaimer), but I am explicitly excluding utilitarian arguments for inequality. I don't think utilitarian arguments for inequality actually work, and I'll probably discuss this issue in another post, but save the utilitarian arguments — "If we didn't have income inequality, people wouldn't work, and we'd all starve!" — for that post. If, however, you want to defend the idea that some people somehow deserve more of the social product than others on non-utilitarian grounds, argue away.

There are a lot of good arguments against inequality, both as actually exist and at the theoretical level, and no good arguments for it. I could be wrong, but the idea that even any inequality is a moral good is a fundamental moral premise is at best lazy and at worst malicious.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Do the rich deserve their wealth?

Do the rich deserve their wealth? Greg Mankiw believes they do. But Mankiw is asking the wrong question. Suppose everyone had as much wealth as today's 1 percent. Undoubtedly, some would not "deserve" such wealth. But so what? Everyone's rich; let's just enjoy our wealth, right?

A better question would be, do the poor "deserve" their poverty?

Much depends on what we mean by "deserve." Like most moral language, "deserve" and related words are equivocal. We often use "deserve" in a utilitarian sense. When we say, for example, "The rich deserve their wealth," we might mean that the everyone is better off with what wealth and income inequality we have. Arthur Okun makes an implicitly utilitarian argument in his "leaky bucket" theory. Okun argued transferring wealth from the rich to the poor always involved some inefficiency; we might become more equal after a transfer, but we have less stuff overall. Whether or not Okun was correct, and whether or not the utility of equality outweighs the overall loss of stuff, Okun is making a utilitarian argument. Similarly, when we say that criminals "deserve" punishment, we often mean that punishing criminals deters others from committing crimes, thus making the world better off. That the criminal himself suffers is the price we must pay, and because the whole problem arises because of the criminal's choices, we are less troubled by his own suffering. We use this sense of "deserve," with its utilitarian implications, all over the place, mostly unproblematically.

But Mankiw spends considerable ink denying the utilitarian argument. His argument against utilitarianism is not very good, but that's not my concern for today; what matters is that Mankiw argues that the rich "deserve" their wealth on grounds other than utilitarianism. It is inherently wrong, regardless of effects on utility, to confiscate the wealth of rich people, precisely because they "deserve" it. But if that's true, if we reject utilitarianism, then if (most) rich people deserve their wealth, then (most) poor people deserve their poverty.

It is therefore equally wrong, regardless of the utilitarian consequences, to give money to poor people. Not only must this money be taken from rich people, violating their rights, but the overall argument is that people should get what they deserve, and giving them something other than what they deserve, whether they deserve wealth or poverty, is inherently wrong.

If we take Mankiw's argument to its logical conclusion, then a society with tremendous economic inequality is not merely tolerable, it is mandatory. The highest moral imperative is that people must get what they deserve. If the poor deserve poverty and misery, it is immoral to alleviate their misery, even if we could do so without diminishing anyone else's happiness. (Which would blatantly contradict economists' usual endorsement of Pareto efficiency.)

Mankiw he probably does not, at least consciously, intend this interpretation: he admits the utility of some transfers. But without this interpretation, the argument is pointless. The claim that it is immoral to be rich — that no one should ever be rich, regardless of our economic circumstances — almost by definition is immune to an argument from positive deservingness. No one would argue, for example, that anyone deserves to murder, rape, or steal. Even apologists for murder, rape, and theft don't argue that doing so is a reward for merit; they argue that the victims deserve to be killed, raped, and expropriated by force. Arguments from deservingness always work to justify the lack of a privilege or right.

I think a democratic communist must fundamentally reject the concept of deservingness, except in the trivial sense that everyone "deserves" to be happy, and no one "deserves" to suffer. That everyone cannot all be happy, and that some will in fact suffer becomes a practical problem rather than a fundamental problem. Notwithstanding the enormous practical problems, the fundamental role of all our social systems should be to make as many people as we can as happy as we can. To do otherwise is simply to dress the legitimate grievances against capitalism in robes of red rather than green.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

What's so bad about socialism?

I'm not really a socialist, in the sense that Bernie Sanders is a socialist. There's a lot to criticize about Sanders from the left, primarily that he seems — from the secondary sources I've read — to buy into American imperialism. However, I think a lot of criticism ostensibly from "progressives" is misguided. For example, "Iron Knee," author of the blog Political Irony, uses Sanders as a vehicle to criticize some of the foundational tenets of both socialism and communism. I like the author, and I like his blog; however, I think he or she has some incorrect opinions, which I'd like to address.

Iron Knee's first criticism asserts that socialism is about equality of outcomes, and that equality of opportunity is superior. This position is flawed on several points.

I don't think that socialism really is about strict equality of outcomes, and in the present context — the United States in the 21st century — I don't think that it's even possible to talk meaningfully about equality of outcomes; the problem right now is the massive inequality of outcomes. One does not need to assert that everyone must be exactly the same to point out that the enormous magnitude of the existing differences seem unjustifiable and oppressive.

Second, the concept of equality of opportunity is not really coherent, and to the extent that it is coherent, is not by itself moral. How do we know when we really do have equality of opportunity, as distinct from equality of outcomes? How would we measure it?

Curiously, in another post, Super Bowl Socialism, Iron Knee labels the NFL as socialistic just because they do enforce equality of opportunity, and regulates the individual teams for the benefit of the collective sport. And second, Iron Knee points to the potential inequality of outcomes as the justification for providing equality of opportunity: " If big or rich cities were allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money then . . . would most likely win most (if not all) of the time. What a dull sport that would be, with the same teams winning game after game, year after year." If Iron Knee is in favor of equality of opportunity, and labels as socialism a system that enforces that equality, is he in favor of socialism or not?

Finally, there is a distinction between the kind of equality of opportunity where anyone can win to the kind of equality of opportunity where everyone can win. We could have a system with absolute equality of opportunity, with a literal lottery where the winners became slave owners and the losers remain slaves. Sure, anyone could become a slave-owner, but not everyone could be, and we would still have slavery. Of course, I don't believe for a second that Iron Knee would assent to such a system; I just think he hasn't really thought the whole issue through: it's not so easy to strictly separate equality of opportunity from equality of outcomes.

Second, Iron Knee criticizes Sanders' call for "massive government job creation programs," which he or she believes "unwise." The author points out that "Even socialist countries failed at that," a somewhat vague assertion. But Iron Knee ignores that there have been a lot of (more or less) successful massive government job creation programs, notably many provisions of the New Deal in the United States. And, of course, the military is nothing but a massive government job creation program; the obvious connection between the military and U.S. imperialism notwithstanding, What Paul Krugman calls "weaponized Keynesianism" has not brought the U.S. economy to its knees.

Moreover, regardless of what one might think about the reasons, it is objectively true that presently, the U.S. is not creating a sufficient number of private sector jobs. Unemployment is economically persistent: because unemployed people don't have money, they don't generate aggregate demand, and thus they provide no incentive for businesses to invest. There are only three possible responses: give people jobs, give people charity, or let people starve. I don't think for a moment that Iron Knee wants anyone to starve, so the choice is between work and charity. I prefer work, not only from moral position that charity is fundamentally subordinating, but also from the pragmatic position that if we're going to give people money, we might as well get some socially useful labor from them.

To a certain extent, Iron Knee has a point: there are certainly a lot of ways massive government jobs programs can go awry, especially when the government in question is owned through and through by the capitalist class. If there is going to be a massive government jobs program, I would much rather it be run by Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton. But in any case, I suspect Iron Knee is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Third, Iron Knee believes Sanders — and, given the tenor and title of the post, socialism in general — attacks the rich "seemingly just for the offense of being rich." I understand the limitations of the blog format, which is not a scholarly article, but I really would like more substantiation for this point; it's a long-established canard against socialism and communism.

Although individuals can definitely be envious, socialist and communist theory has never been based in mere envy. The fundamental theory of socialism and communism is that the capitalist class, the private owners of the means of production, i.e. "the rich," exploit and oppress the working class. Not because they're bad people, but because the relations of production entailed by the private ownership of capital structurally entail the exploitation and oppression of the working class. It's not a fault of individual capitalists, it's a fault of the structure of capitalism. Whether or not you believe this analysis, it is emphatically not simply envy of differences in material reward.

And even a committed capitalist should, I think, admit that the rich are in fact the ruling class not just of the country but the world, and as such have voluntarily assumed responsibility and accountability for the well-being of society. If things are bad, if there are
people who get richer from government corporate welfare, like hedge fund managers who take advantage of insane tax breaks, bankers who throw lavish parties for themselves using bailout money, or CEOs who cash in their golden parachutes after destroying the companies they were supposed to lead.
then it is primarily the responsibility of the rich to correct these deficiencies.

Finally, Iron Knee asserts that "the problem is not capitalism, it is what wrongly passes for capitalism in this country." I think this is to a certain extent a cop-out. I don't think there is any such thing as True Capitalism™. We have the system we have, which is a form of capitalism, which differs from various theoretical ideals of capitalism. Iron Knee argues that according to his theoretical ideal, free markets are the sine qua non of capitalism. However, this construction is very problematic, because the free market is unacceptably vague, and where specific, it is incoherent. Briefly, the free market can be defined as trading free of government interference beyond the enforcement of property rights. In this sense, "protectionist things like copyrights beyond the lifetime of the creator," are just definitions and enforcement of property rights, theoretically justifiable by any capitalist system but the most extreme of Rothbardian libertarianism.

Since Iron Knee would, I think, reject this definition, then the idea of the "free market" becomes incoherent. In what sense can markets be "free"? Does it just mean that markets have only those regulations the speaker likes and are in his or her interests? Absolutely free markets are impossible: markets must have property rights, and property rights entail coercion. This coercion might be justifiable, but I think it is an offense against language to call one kind of systematic coercion "freedom" and another kind of systematic coercion "tyranny" just because the second implements systematic coercion. We would need a much deeper account of what kinds of systematic coercion are legitimate and, more importantly why some kinds are legitimate and others illegitimate.

Iron Knee closes his post with the claim that he does not want "a system like socialism where everyone is guaranteed success." To be honest, I have no idea what the author means here. What is "success"? Can socialism can actually guarantee success, and doing so would be wrong? Alternatively, Can socialism not actually guarantee success, and trying to do so would be harmful? (I suspect the latter, but Iron Knee is not explicit.)

I do not, however, think that any kind of socialism, from the weakest tea welfare capitalism to democratic socialism to outright communism purports to guarantee "success." All forms of socialism and communism instead seek to eliminate catastrophic failure. Regardless of anything else, the first goal of all socialist philosophies is to make sure that no one starves*, no one freezes, no one goes without ordinary medical care, no one is homeless, everyone is appropriately educated. This is not a goal the United States, the most capitalistic country on Earth, has been able to achieve, or even come close.

*At least not involuntarily. If you really want to go live in the woods and eat bark and berries and bugs, no one is stopping you.

If Iron Knee wants to define "success" as having more material wealth than most people, then socialism cannot possibly guarantee "success"; no socialist would want to make such a guarantee.

If Iron Knee wants to be precise about what actual socialist theoreticians, including Sanders, purport to guarantee, then he needs to be much more specific.

If Iron Knee wants to define "success" as not starving, freezing, dying of treatable diseases, etc. then yes, socialism does purport to guarantee "success." And it would then be incumbent on Iron Knee to explain precisely why we should not guarantee such "success," to explain precisely why we should let people starve and freeze.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sunday, September 27, 2015

I'm no longer an atheist

Don't be silly: I still think the idea of god is utter bollocks.

I'm no longer an atheist because I no longer believe that religion, as a social, cultural, political, and economic institution, has any special or unusual characteristics to distinguish it from non-religious institutions.

Again, I don't think that religions are especially good institutions. But I see all the negative characteristics in religion appearing in non-religious and anti-religious institutions. It's not just Richard Dawkins, a person I once admired (as much as I admire anyone), but has now become a pathetic buffoon. I see the dogmatism, stupidity, hatefulness, and assholery — qualities that religion, while not quite having a monopoly, seemed to have adopted as its peculiar niche — have become entrenched far outside the sphere of religion: MRAs, gamergate, the Republican presidential primary campaign (where religion seems surprisingly low-key), zombie economics, etc. ad nauseam.

In a world where the Catholic Church is looking more progressive than the Clinton faction of the Democratic party (and while I'd love to be proven wrong, I can see no chance for Sanders as a Democrat), I can no longer believe that religion per se is a particular problem in our society: it's lost its dominance on the worst of human ideas. Religion is now just one place among many where we stick our stupid ideas.

I've long argued that atheism is a political label, and I no longer share the political view associated with that label. I understand those who do still hold that view, and of course I do not think religion should be exempt from criticism, but I no longer believe that religion is anywhere close to the most important problem in society.

The most important problem, of course, is capitalism.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Democracy and injury

I want to ask again: what is democracy? Previously, I talked about democracy and majoritarianism. I want to make it a little more explicit that majoritarianism is an expedient measure; I do not believe that democracy necessarily entails that the majority itself should be sovereign. It is presently infeasible for all the people to come to a decision, so when a democratic society need to make a decision, we resort to expediency.

And indeed, from a theoretical position, I see democracy as the principle of universal popular sovereignty: the sovereignty of all the people. This theoretical basis has a number of interesting implications.

First, it is not possible for a person to offend "The People." A person can offend other individuals, he can offend the government, he can offend the majority, but he cannot offend "The People": he is part of "The People," and he cannot offend himself. (Well, I suppose he can, but that's a matter for a psychologist or perhaps a rabbi, not a political theorist and economist.) The police power (a synecdoche for violent part of the political process: police, sheriffs, courts, prisons, etc.) cannot coherently be used in a democracy to make people "better." Better according to whom? Certainly not the "offender."

Because a person can offend and injure other people, the principle of universal popular sovereignty entails that the police should act to resolve and prevent offenses between other people. Things get complicated because we do want to not just resolve disputes, but also prevent them. In other words, we do want to act a little proactively against people who place others at risk of injury, harm, inconvenience, or unpleasantness. Thus, instead of just legislating for the general welfare (the traditional legal term for individual U.S. states' broad legislative powers), a democratic state defines what is or is not an injury or offense, and what objectively determinable behaviors put individuals at risk for that injury.

It's also important that under universal popular sovereignty, the actual police should not ordinarily go looking for "law-breaking." For even a potential offense to exist, it must usually be visible. (And where it's ordinarily hidden, such as building code violations, we can use overt inspection.) The police become people who hang around waiting for individuals to come to them with disputes.

Another implication of the conflict-resolution framework is that obedience to the law is not itself a virtue. Indeed, the law becomes something that cannot be "obeyed" under ordinary circumstances; it is invoked only when there is some conflict between individuals. Instead, the primary virtue is not injuring your neighbors, and not risking their injury. The law is invoked only when injury occurs or might reasonably occur.

To no small extent, I'm making a distinction without a difference. If for the public good, a majority wants to use its police power to prevent some behavior, they can simply declare it potentially injurious. However, discussing an issue on the basis of its potential for injury reframes the discussion. If, for example, we were to focus our discussion of gay marriage specifically on injury, the position of conservative religious people would at least be considerably weakened: gay marriage injures no one.

Such an attitude might make some beneficial laws, such as mandating seat belt usage, untenable. I would reverse my usual argument against libertarians: seat belt laws are trivial, one way or the other. Just as the infringement of seat belt laws against individual liberty are minor, their prohibition is also minor. There are still possibilities: under universal health care, you not wearing your seat belt places other people at risk for financial injury: other people will have to pay your medical care or support your dependents if you get hurt or killed in a car accident where the seat belt would have prevented the injury; thus a majority might reasonably declare refusing to wear a seat belt potentially injurious.

For centuries, the sovereign, whether it was the noble, the king, or the elite, has used its monopoly of violence to, at least in theory, improve the people. But under universal popular sovereignty, there is no part of society, not even the majority, that has standing to "improve" anyone.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Democracy and majoritarianism

What is democracy? Or, more precisely, what do we want democracy to be? Because, of course, democracy is a social construction; it doesn't have any reality independent of what we think about how we want to organize our society.

Linguistically, "democracy" joins "demos" with "-cracy": rule or sovereignty of the people. Sovereignty is pretty straightforward (final legitimate decision-making), but what of "demos"? What do we mean by "the people"? There is no such thing in itself as "the people"; there are only individual people who happen to be acting more-or-less cooperatively. We can use "the people" metaphorically or idiomatically, but analytically, we have to talk about things we can actually look at, e.g. people and institutions.

We could choose to define democracy as strict majoritarianism, the absolute sovereignty of the majority. In other words, when we have any social question, we take a vote, and whatever the majority decides is the final decision in the matter. Note that particular institutional arrangements might or might not just indirectly effect sovereignty of the majority. For example, delegated democracy closely tracks sovereignty of the majority of individuals; a democratic republic, however, can substantially alter or block sovereignty of the majority (which is its whole purpose).

In the context of the United States in the 21st century, people tend to reject strict majoritarianism, for pretty good reasons. There are a lot of issues that can be decided by a majority without too many problems, but although we disagree about the specifics, almost everyone agrees that some things — e.g. private gun ownership or gay marriage — should be immune from the will of majority, at least in the short term.

If we take the rejection of strict majoritarianism as a given, the only alternative is to institutionalize the exceptions. In the United States, there are three sets of institutions that provide exceptions to strict majoritarianism. The first, as mentioned above, is republicanism (and the whole political infrastructure, including political parties, campaigns, campaign finance, etc.). The whole point of electing trustees is that, in theory, the trustees will wisely pick and choose between the will of the majority (specifically, how a majority of people would vote on any given issue) and the "good of the country." As I've discussed before, I categorically reject this institutional arrangement; our present trustees do not choose between the majority and the common good, but between the majority and the class interests of the bourgeois minority.

The class interests of the proletariat will more closely track the will of the majority, just because proletariat is in the majority. But even though socialism can be more majoritarian than capitalism, there are still important things that a lot of people would not want to be subject to the short-term will of the majority. We do not — or at least I myself do not want — for the majority to just vote on whether I live or die, whether I have freedom of movement, what I say, what job I do, whom I can or cannot have sex with, what kind of food I eat, etc.

The second institution that creates exceptions to strict majoritarianism is the legal system. Instead of just voting on whether I'm executed or put in jail, the "majority" (to the extent that republicanism is majoritarian) has to create a rule, which can be more-or-less objectively evaluated, and kill or imprison me only if I objectively violate the rule. And whether I have or have not objectively violated the rule is determined by an elaborate system of courts, trials, rules of evidence, precedent, lawyers, judges, juries, (and the associated political psychology) that distances the verdict from the majority.

At its most abstract level, a legal system seems like a Good Idea. Even if we don't at all restrict the kinds of rules majority can make, I really would prefer that the majority of people not just vote on putting me in jail, but control my behavior by making rules I can choose to comply with, and to which my compliance can be objectively determined. (Of course, the bourgeois legal system has a lot of institutional characteristics that are completely incompatible with socialism. Indeed, one good argument against capitalism is that capitalist employers, individually and as a class, can and do regulate behavior in ways that the somewhat more majoritarian government cannot regulate.)

The third institution, which is technically part of the legal system, but is important enough to be considered separately, is the institution of constitutionalism: the constitution categorically restricts the "majority" from making certain kinds of rules. Again, implemented judiciously, constitutionalism also seems like a Good Idea. But constitutionalism raises the question: if constitutionalism immunizes individuals from the majority, who decides what's in the constitution? If the majority creates the constitution, the constitution would not immunize the individual from the majority.

The critical point, however, is that constitutionalism immunizes the individual from the short-term will of the majority. Essentially, constitutional limitations on the majority comprise a list of things that a short-term majority has once done that a majority has later decided were Bad Ideas. For example, a majority might want to punish Alan for saying vile and hateful things about Norwegians, but Socrates might note that a majority of us have decided categorically not to punish people for just saying things. A majority might change that constitutional prohibition, but just the idea of changing the constitution at least forces the discussion to consider the abstract principle, rather than the immediate behavior. And, of course, we can also decide, as a majority, that we have more restrictions than just a majority vote — e.g. two-thirds majority — to change the constitution.

Thus, I believe that democratic communism can have its majoritarian cake and eats its exceptions too, with a socialist legal system and a socialist constitution.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The politics of democratic communism: a theory of the state

The standard theory of the state — in Weber's definition the institution(s) that exercise a monopoly on the legitimate use of violent coercion — has been that the state shapes its citizens. Even when the state is legitimized by more-or-less popular means (as in nominally "democratic" republics), the citizens legitimize the state to coercively shape the citizenry. We want the state to create good citizens. Democratic republics don't change this fundamental role of the state; they merely change how and to whom this fundamental role is given.

"Anarchism" (with scare quotes, very loosely defined, leaning far more towards Rothbard than Bakunin) takes almost completely the opposite view: no one should use coercion to shape anyone; the only legitimate use of coercion is in self-defense. However, coercion is not so easily dismissed, and "self-defense" (not to mention "coercion") is not so easily defined. It a depressingly obvious trope that so-called Libertarians just define whatever coercion they like (or coercion in the service of what they like) as "self-defense". Fundamentally, the only kinds of "anarchists" I've seen are those hopelessly naive, confused, deluded, or actively mendacious about their own political philosophy, or those who just label whatever kind of society they like as "anarchistic".

What is curious, though, is that there are situations where I personally want to be coerced, at least hypothetically, a notion that seems wildly counter-intuitive: if I want something, why should I want to be coerced into doing it? Why can't I just do it because I want to? The answer is signalling. I know what I want, but you cannot know directly, by observation, what I want, what's in my mind. (And, of course, vice versa.) The best you can do is draw conclusions about what is in my mind based on the evidence of my actions. But talk is cheap: even the most vicious serial killer can talk about the sanctity of life. If I want to convince you of my good intentions, I need to send you an expensive signal, one that convinces you that if I had bad intentions, the expense of the signal outweighs the satisfaction of my bad intentions. But expensive signals are expensive: what I'd like to do is send a signal that is cheap if I have good intentions, but expensive if I have bad intentions. Coercion works nicely: if I have good intentions, I do as I please, cheaply; if I fulfill bad intentions, I am subject to expensive penalties: fines, prison, ostracism, disgrace, etc.

As Hal Draper persuasively describes in Marx's Theory of Revolution*, Marx and Engels developed a theory of the state. In their theory, the conflict between individual interests and communitarian interests is the fundamental contradiction that eventually gives rise to the bourgeois state. All societies, even those before the invention and hegemony of the bourgeois state, use coercion to promulgate social norms, norms that encourage cooperation and discourage destructive kinds of competition and individual or small-group conflict. In pre-state societies, the coercion is diffused throughout the community, and largely internalized, because the benefits of cooperation in a subsistence economy are readily apparent. However, with the division of labor and increased economic productivity, the coercion necessary to maintain a more complex, interdependent society becomes concentrated in an identifiable organization, the "state", rather than being diffused through society.

*I'm about halfway through volume 1 of 3; expect more insights as I continue to read. My interpretation of Marx and Engels' theory is largely from Draper; where I mention Marx and Engels below, I am relying heavily on Draper's interpretation.

As the coercive apparatus necessary to maintain social cooperation becomes concentrated, the concentrated institution, like any other institution, naturally and inevitably develops its own interests, and uses coercion both materially and ideologically to promotes it's own interests, rather than the general interest of society. Furthermore, as the division of labor creates class differentiation, the economic ruling class, the bourgeoisie, captures considerable control over the formal state apparatus, and the bourgeoisie uses that power to maintain its rule, and maintain its domination over the working class.

It's important to note that Marx and Engels do not consider the development of the state or its capture by the bourgeoisie as some sort of conspiracy, and especially not an alien power imposed from outside society. The state in general (which precedes capitalism) and the bourgeoisie's capture of the state are the resolution of contradictions from within society, and are the result of real human beings trying to solve real problems, and keep a complex society from collapsing.

Economically, capitalism depends on diverting as much labor as practically possible to the accumulation of capital, which necessarily entails that capitalism must divert labor from consumption; given the size of the working class, even a small increase in per capita working class consumption entails a relatively large decrease in capital accumulation, it should be unsurprising that the focus of bourgeois ideological production entails (contradictorily, but ideological contradiction is much easier to swallow than material contradiction) both the valorization of work and the condemnation of poverty. Workers are good because they work, but they are bad because they are poor, and thus deserve poverty. And, furthermore, society must be organized in compliance with law, i.e. an ideal concept of justice, rather than organized by interest: the interest of the working class is fundamentally hostile to capitalism.

Except perhaps as a counter-apologetic, whether this historical course of events was good or bad (it was bad) is really immaterial. It is what happened. The question is, where do we go from here? How do we start to think about the role of coercion emerging from the concept of the bourgeois state?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A capitalist in socialist's clothing

The problem, I think, is that Miya Tokumitsu does everything she can to avoid criticizing capitalism (a charge I think the author would vehemently deny). Capitalism makes all virtues, however we loosely define "virtue", about profit (and if it can't make a virtue profitable, it makes it a vice). "Do what you love" (DWYL) is no exception. Instead of a criticism of how capitalism has corrupted what is arguably the defining virtue of humanity, the emotional and social power of labor, Tokumitsu sees DWYL as the defining characteristic of capitalism, and therefore not a human construct. Her interview, Why ‘Do What You Love’ Is Pernicious Advice, carries on this theme.

The fundamental point of the interview comes near the end: "[O]ne of the things I want to do is celebrate the job that just pays the rent." But just paying the rent, not DWYL, is the fundamental capitalist virtue. It is the essence of alienated labor, a concept Marx writes quite a bit about. When you work just to pay the rent (and notice "rent", paying the parasitic landlord class), your labor is literally alienated, cut off, detached, made external. Working just to pay the rent reduces our work to the "cash nexus". I see nothing at all wrong with Marx's goal, to make labor "not only a means of life but life's prime want." All of us should be doing what we love; the fact that we cannot is a failure of capitalism; it is not that doing what we love is itself disreputable.

Of course, capitalism does try to digest every virtue and make it about cash, and DWYL is no exception. Tokumitsu talks about how capitalism tries to corrupt DWYL: the corporate PR fakery, standards that employees should always look like they're happy, the want-ad insistence that candidates be "passionate" about janitorial work, the idea that if you're doing what you love, you should not expect to be paid in actual money. But Tokumitsu draws the wrong conclusion from these attempts: capitalism is trying to assimilate, corrupt, and ultimately destroy the fundamental virtue of socialism. Socialists can certainly resist the corruption of this virtue, and critics can certainly argue that corrupting the virtue of DWYL produces more, not fewer, contradictions, but arguing that we should do away with the virtue entirely, and accept absolutely alienated labor as the ultimate standard of good would do nothing but hand capitalism an unearned victory.

Socialist theoreticians should, of course, valorize the proletariat, whose labor is absolutely alienated. But we should valorize the proletariat and the alienation of their labor not because alienated labor is the best form of labor. Instead, we should valorize the proletariat because the absolute alienation of their labor is, as Marx argues, the fundamental contradiction the resolution (sublation, aufheben) of which produces revolutionary consciousness.

See also: In defense of "Do What You Love"

Sunday, August 09, 2015

The politics of democratic communism: the people and their delegates

The basic unit of popular democracy under democratic communism is the block*, comprising between 100-500 people, including adults and children, all of whom vote. (Those medically unable to vote, e.g. infants, toddlers, and those with sufficiently severe cognitive disabilities, will have a guardian exercise their vote.) A neighborhood comprises a compact region of blocks with a total of 10,000 people. A district comprises 100 neighborhoods, with a total of 1,000,000 people. Finally, a nation comprises all of the districts; the United States, for example, would have about 350 districts.

*I will use terminology appropriate to an urban context. The rough numbers matter; the actual physical arrangement will vary from hyper-dense (very large apartment buildings) to hyper-sparse (rural areas).

District Assemblies

The blocks in a neighborhood elect the neighborhood's delegate to the district. Each block "speaks as a whole"; the delegate the block chooses receives the votes of everyone in the block. The neighborhood's delegate must receive a majority (not a plurality) of the votes; neighborhoods must use Instant-Runoff Voting (IRV) or other forms of vote tranferability to choose a delegate with a majority. Blocks also meet periodically (e.g. monthly) for its neighborhood delegate to report on the business of the districts, and for the blocks to give advice to the delegate.

It is possible for a neighborhood to have "delegate churn," where two (or more) candidates are nearly equally matched, and individual blocks changing their votes may swing the majority back and forth between the candidates. However, because of transparency (I'll write on this later), churn should not have an enormous effect on the the business of the district.

Unlike republican systems, blocks may change their vote for a delegate at any time; if the formerly elected delegate loses her majority, she is replaced by a new delegate with the majority. Essentially, delegate voting is essentially continuous, rather than periodic. Furthermore, any vote made by the delegate in the affairs of the district may be reversed by a majority vote of the people in the blocks. Two-thirds of the people in the blocks may directly compel its delegate to introduce and endorse action at the district level. Finally, dependent on the policy of the district, neighborhoods may directly elect judges with original jurisdiction.

Delegates are paid 40 SVU per week. Once a person has served as a delegate for more than a certain period (e.g. two years), the delegate receives a pension, determined by years of service, and even if she later leaves the government, her total annual income (including the pension) may not exceed 2000 SVU. Finally, a delegate who serves less than the minimum may be sanctioned with the same (or more severe) income restriction for corruption, subject to due process.

Each delegate has three roles. First, a delegate is the head of the civil service in her neighborhood, with direct managerial responsibility over services provided at the neighborhood level. (Churn would more seriously hamper this management; but internal civil-service management structures can compensate.)

Second, the assembled delegates in the district conduct the business of the district by majority vote. First, they allocate the budget provided by the national government; the district can also borrow money by selling bonds. Since districts cannot create money, district-level bonds have default risk, and a district may choose to default on its bonds.

The district assembly also enacts legislation to determine how the judiciary is to resolve disputes between individuals and private organizations within the district. The district assembly also appoints appellate judges with district scope, and to appoint original-jurisdiction judges (unless the district has opted to have the people directly elect original-jurisdiction judges by neighborhood). The district assembly directly regulates areas of the district used preponderantly for commerce and industry. The district assembly also acts collectively as the head of the civil service for services provided at the district level.

Third, the assembled delegates elect delegates to the national assembly, again with the same requirement of IRV-enabled majoritarianism. As with neighborhoods, the assembled delegates of the district may replace their national delegate at any time, may reverse her vote by majority vote, and may, by two-thirds vote, compel the delegate to introduce and support action at the national level.

National Assembly

The national assembly has all of the corresponding duties of the district assemblies, applied to the nation as a whole: appointment and direction of delegates to international bodies, managing the affairs of the nation as a whole, acting collectively as the head of the civil service at the national level, and appointing judges with original and appellate jurisdiction for conflicts between districts.

The national government has the exclusive ability to create money, either directly or by delegating this authority to a central bank. The national government can also borrow money, but is forbidden from defaulting on any financial obligation denominated in the national currency: the national government must create money to satisfy its national-currency financial obligations. (How to implement this mandate is a challenging legal problem.) The national government may default on financial obligations denominated in anything other than its own national currency.

Note that unlike the US federal government, the national government may legislate in general (not just tax and spend) for the general welfare: the national assembly has, in bourgeois terminology, "police powers."

Other Assemblies

Districts may be subdivided into cities and towns. Districts can be aggregated into metropolitan areas (e.g. the San Francisco metropolitan area, which includes about 7.44 million people), regions (e.g. states), transportation areas (e.g. the New England passenger rail structure), natural resource areas (e.g. the Colorado river), and other ad hoc aggregates, created around infrastructure and natural resources. As with districts, neighborhoods included in the subdivision or aggregate elect delegates to these assemblies.


The default jurisdiction is the district. Districts may delegate business to cities and towns contained in the district; any money allocated to cities and towns must be allocated on an equal per-capita basis. Larger regions may assume superior jurisdiction if there is a reasonable basis for doing so, or if directed to assume superior jurisdiction by the appropriate court to protect the individual rights of citizens of an inferior jurisdiction. (For example, if it is found that a district is discriminating in elementary/secondary education against black people, a court could order a larger assembly, the metro area, region, or national government, to take over direct control of the district's school system.

Sorting Everything Out

It looks at first glance like we have a hodgepodge of overlapping responsibilities. However, the situation is not very different from what we currently have. Although I will later propose a unitary civil service, individual offices should have well-defined management chains. For example, regulation of an individual school will have a clear chain of responsibility from the neighborhood to the district to the region to the national government; it would not, be under the direction of a transportation or natural resource district.