Thursday, September 24, 2020

Science. the left, and genetic academic ability

I am a "scientist" both by profession (I'm minimally qualified to publish in the social sciences) and by philosophical inclination. I think science, broadly defined, is not only the best but the only way to anything that looks even remotely like truth.

I'm not stupid. I know that science is not just a philosophy but a social activity, and prone to the same biases and bullshit as every other social activity. Scientists can be just as racist, sexist, and classist as anyone else. As individuals scientists can hold onto their cherished biases in the face of evidence just as fervently as the most conservative priest. I don't think that if someone has a Ph.D. and slaps the "science" label on something, it is therefore God's Own Truth... or even a little bit true.

But, as a philosophy, as a methodology, as a social practice, I think science, and scientists, have a least a chance of stumbling onto the truth, a chance that no other social practice has. And when some individual scientist makes a mistake, however egregious, we can correct the mistake... using science. And science does, at least in the long run, actually privilege some statements as truth, or at as least moving us closer to the truth.

I'm also a moral subjectivist. I don't think there are any moral truths, precisely because we can't use science to decide moral questions. If the evidence contradicts a moral statement, too bad for the evidence: science is about how the world is, but morality is about the world isn't and what we want it to become. The observation that people can and do murder each other contradicts the statement that people cannot murder each other, but does nothing to contradict the statement that people shouldn't (in some broad sense) murder each other.

Just like any other progressive or socialist, I become incensed when reactionaries ignore or contradict scientific truth just because they don't like it. 

No, COVID-19 really is infectious, whether you like it or not; it really is an order of magnitude more deadly than the flu, whether you like it or not. To be honest, I don't like that COVID-19 is infectious and deadly, but there it is.

No, the Earth really is becoming warmer because of human activity, and the Earth will soon become at best inhospitable and at worse uninhabitable, whether you like it or not.

No, life really did evolve over hundreds of millions or billions of years, whether you like it or not.

No, Black people really are just as smart as white people; women are just as smart as men, gay people just as pro-social as straight people, etc. I happen to like those truths, but that doesn't matter: they're really true regardless of whether I like it or not. And if someone else doesn't like those truths, well, they're free to dislike them, but they're still true.

And we know all the above because science, not because it is somehow "morally superior" to believe any of the above.

But I become just as incensed when progressives or socialists ignore or contradict scientific truth just because they don't like it.

There are a lot of rhetorical moves one can make against any scientific truth. Scientific truths are never known with certainty. Scientific truths are always underdetermined by observation. Science is always theory-laden and dependent on preconceptions. Scientists might always have made a mistake, forgotten this important factor, missed that causal pathway.

Fine. If some philosopher wants to argue that science has given us some nifty gadgets but does not move us one iota closer to any interesting truth about the world, just because science is uncertain, underdetermined, theory-laden, possibly in error, well, that's hardly philosophically disreputable. But I think such a philosopher should be consistent: they should reject arguments from science for positions they like just as vehemently as they reject them for positions they dislike.

I don't think Nathan J. Robinson is that kind of radical skeptic. But when he comes across an idea he doesn't like, he trots out the same anti-science rhetorical moves that I think (hope!) he would vehemently denounce from a reactionary.

Robinson takes exception to Fredrik deBoer's recent book, The Cult of Smart. Robinson quotes deBoer's own summary:

The existence and power of genetic dispositions in academic ability have been demonstrated by literally hundreds of high-quality studies that replicate each other and that find again and again that genetic influence can explain .5 – .8 of the variation in educational metrics within the population.

I'm probably qualified to evaluate this claim, but I'm honestly too lazy to do so. There are plenty of people whose job it is to evaluate this kind of claim and who could do a much better job than I ever could. But it is certainly possible to contest this claim on scientific grounds, and if the science doesn't hold up, too bad for deBoer and genetic academic ability. We'll never be certain, but if we don't abandon science on this topic, we'll be a lot more confident about the answer in twenty years.

Robinson, however, does everything but contest this claim on scientific grounds. Instead, he constructs an elaborate screed that is nothing more than the idea that he doesn't want there to be genetic academic ability, the idea of genetic academic ability is morally reprehensible, therefore there cannot be any such thing.

Maybe that's a good strategy, at least for Robinson. Maybe abandoning scientific reasoning will bring about the kind of world that Robinson wants, and hey, use what works, n'est ce pas?

But I don't want any kind of world that abandons scientific reasoning. And Robinson's science denialism is as repugnant to me as climate change denialism, and has destroyed the credibility I had for Current Affairs as thoroughly as Doug Henwood destroyed my credibility for Jacobin.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Marxists should not dismiss MMT

I'm not saying that Marxists should become MMT enthusiasts. Adam Booth is at least partly correct: MMT scholars are mostly not Marxists or socialists, and MMT by itself will not usher in a socialist utopia.

By definition, a truly "communist" society doesn't need anything remotely resembling money: the opportunity cost of producing and consuming the ordinary social product — food, shelter, clothing, communication, entertainment, etc. — is negligible and there is no need to carefully account for its use or ration its consumption.

But any kind of "socialist" society will need something that looks very much like money. By definition, a "socialist" society must manage scarce resources, which means that society must carefully account for the opportunity cost of producing and consuming the social product to ensure that we produce what we want the most, and ration the consumption of the social product. Essentially, anything that does the job of accounting for and rationing the social product is money*.

 *It's pointless to quibble over definitions, a task I have spent far too much time on. We could define the label money as including something unique to capitalism, and then, of course, socialists wouldn't use money. But there still would what we use to account for and ration of social product, which we'll arbitrarily label as gnippa. Then the rest of this article is about gnippa.

People in a socialist society will have very different relations to money than people in a capitalist society. Socialists will use and think about money differently than capitalists use and think about money, but whatever those relations, so long as they account for and ration the social product, they will have some relations to money.

There are two reasons I think Marxists should pay attention to MMT. The first is that at least initially, a socialists society must actually manage money. I can't imagine any benefit for a socialist society to not account for the social product, and try to ration access without using numbers. Once we start slapping numbers on the social product and use those numbers to ration access to the social product, we have what is essentially money. And if we're using money, we need theories about how it works.

And just as capitalist scientists can come up with good theories about how electrons, viruses, cows, and ecosystems work, capitalist economists can come up with good theories about how money works, and how to manage the accounting and rationing of the social product.

As an economist in a capitalist society, I understand that most of my colleagues spend most of their time just providing academic support for capitalist ideology, a task I don't really endorse, but there is a little truth, mostly independent of ideology, in there. And I think that MMT has some of that mostly ideology-independent truth.

The second reason that I think Marxists should pay attention to MMT is that MMT explicitly challenges a critical capitalist myth: the myth that money itself is a scarce resource, and that to get what they want, the masses must get money from those who already have it. 

If the capitalist class had all of the iron in storage, protected by armed guards, then regardless of our social structure, if we wanted to build stuff using iron, we would need to get the iron from those who had it, by persuasion or force. And because iron is really useful in making weapons, control over iron would give the capitalist class an enormous advantage in the exercise of force.

The capitalist class rules because it has control over money. So long as we buy the myth that money itself is a scarce resource, capitalists' control over money gives them as much or more power as they would have if they controlled all the iron. Even if 99% of the people wanted socialism, if the people believed that capitalists controlled a scarce resource they needed, then the capitalists can block socialism.

This myth has real bite. Margaret Thatcher supported her eleven-year rule with little more than the slogan, "The trouble with Socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money."But if money is not a scarce resource, then we cannot run out of anyone's money. 

The Democratic party in the United States cannot implement even a hint of a progressive, much less a socialist, agenda just because they cannot imagine how they could pry the money out of rich people's hands. Worse, the Democratic electorate, as much as they might want a progressive agenda, falls for the myth that they need rich people's money, and they too cannot imagine how to get at that money, so they don't demand that the party attempt the impossible.

MMT proponents directly challenge the myth of the scarcity of money. Whether or not they realize it, they are fundamentally subverting a fundamental myth of capitalism, really in the same sense that Christian scholars who challenge the historicity of the resurrection fundamentally subvert a fundamental myth of Christianity. 

Capitalism dominates today not just because capitalists successfully argue that capitalism is better, but because capitalism is true, that any sacrifices or privation the people must suffer under capitalism are imposed not by the capitalist system, but by nature: there is only so much money to go around, and if there isn't enough money, we can't get what we want, regardless of the availability of other resources.

So no, MMT is not itself socialist, and a simple restructuring of the Treasury and Fed around MMT theories will not by itself bring about a socialist society. However, MMT subverts a fundamental myth that supports capitalism, and it behooves all anti-capitalists to endorse that subversion.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Opinion: Detroit accountant shows that opinions built on ignorance come crashing down

the stupid! it burns!

Richard Drumb disapproves of Modern Monetary Theory. He pretty much trots out every moronic anti-MMT trope. 

Drumb compares the federal government to the city of Detroit, but Detroit cannot create money, and the federal government does nothing but create the money it spends.

No one lends money to the federal government. Why would the government need to borrow money, which it creates? The government does not borrow; instead, it generously offers to pay people interest to take money out of circulation.

We have a lot of economic problems, and the federal government is doing a lot of harmful things. But a violating a non-existent budget constraint is not one of those problems.