Sunday, January 31, 2010

On opinions

"Opinions are like assholes: everybody has one, and they usually stink."

There seems to have been some confusion lately about the purpose of this blog, my duties and obligations as its publisher, and especially about the status of opinions.

This blog exists to publish my thoughts, my opinions and my arguments. Mine. Not yours. The only duties and obligations I recognize are those imposed by law (libel, copyright, etc.), the duties and obligations relating to citation and accurate quotation, factual accuracy and sound argumentation, and a duty and obligation under ordinary circumstances to preserve others' anonymity. Specifically, I recognize no duty or obligation whatsoever to publish anyone else's thoughts, opinions or arguments under any circumstances.

If you want to create a "community", where this, that or the other kind of person has a safe space to be heard, good for you. If you want to establish a more-or-less free speech zone where anyone can say what they please, more power to you. If you want to call me a fascist, an authoritarian scumbucket, a fucktard, a liar or accuse me of mopery on the high seas, well, it's a free country* (although I would urge you to keep an eye on the libel statutes). You can do whatever you please on your blog or whatever venue you create. And I can do whatever I please on my blog.

*Not really, but that's an issue for another post.

I moderate comments. I reserve the right to arbitrarily accept or reject any comment. If you push the submit button and I push the reject button, too bad: you pays your money and you takes your chances. In the unlikely case that your words are simply too precious to be lost, and you are not smart enough to make your own copy, email me or post a comment and I'll email you a copy of your text, free of charge.

As far as I'm concerned, you have the "right" to have whatever opinions you have, about anything, on whatever basis you please, or no basis at all. By "right" I mean I will not (under ordinary circumstances) endorse or suborn the use of violent or economic coercion on the basis of only your opinion. Furthermore, as far as I'm concerned, you have the "right" to express your opinion in an appropriate venue. I too have a right to have and express my opinion, and my opinion is often that your opinion is full of shit.

I keep commenting on principally because I want to be notified if I make an error of fact or reasoning, and because I value the opinions of some of my readers. If you're not pretty sure you're one of those readers, you're probably not, but I've also been known to change my mind in both directions.

Fundamentally, though, I'm not interested that you might disagree with me. I already know a lot of people disagree with me. I know too a lot of people think I'm a gigantic asshole. C'est la vie. Telling me that you personally disagree with me or that you think I'm a dick doesn't give me one iota of new information. There's no one in the world, not even my wife, for whom I would change my opinion only to avoid their censure.

There's been some confusion lately about the need for substantiation and argumentation. There have been a couple of commenters who have said that because I do not in fact substantiate all my opinions here, they are under no obligation to substantiate their contrary opinions. They are laboring under a giant misapprehension: as far as I'm concerned, no one has an obligation to substantiate any opinion. I note, rather, that without substantiation, I myself am not going to change my own opinion. There are very few people whose word I will take at face value regarding facts, arguments or conclusions; you pretty much have to have a Ph.D. (in something other than Philosophy) for me to even consider taking your word for much of anything. If my friend tells me the sky is blue, I'm going to look out the window. If you tell me that Tallahassee is the capital of Florida, I'm going to look at Wikipedia... and check the citations.

Unless I'm very confident that you're completely full of shit and you take pains to irritate me, I will generally publish one comment with an unsubstantiated contrary opinion: it's useful to summarize your position and request feedback on which parts are especially controversial. If that's all you got, however, if you can't, won't or don't want to substantiate your position, your opinion has been noted and published: there's nothing more to add, so STFU and GBTW.

If it irritates you that I have the wrong opinion, and you're not willing to present evidence and argument to the contrary, you're shit out of luck: I am extremely unlikely to change my mind. If that angers you and you, like db0, feel the need to lie and slander me elsewhere, that's your problem, not mine.

I collect no statistics on my readership; if you cost me readers, I'll never know nor will I care. I'm not writing to get a lot of readers. I write because the words in my head are fighting to get out; if I'm going to the trouble to write them down, I might as well show them to those who find them interesting. And if you don't find them interesting, don't read them. Simple as that.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Randians and property rights

Commenter John is amusingly unclear on basic property rights (or believes that only good Randians can assert property rights):
I can't post here on your blog where you have the declared right to unload with both barrels of your crude spew, but guests are not welcome to do likewise.
Indeed. This is my blog, for publishing my crude spew, not yours. I own it, and I can post or not post whatever I fucking please. If you don't like it, you can Get Your Own Motherfucking Blog[,] Asshole!

Zero for eleventy gajillion

It looks like Obama is putting health care reform — the only potentially successful initiative of the Democratic party, half- (or tenth-) assed as it was — on the the back burner. The Democrats will instead focus on "job creation", even the appearance of which is going to be even more difficult to pass than health care and — because anything that even appears to actually create jobs will appear to increase the budget deficit — is fraught with even more political peril.

The incompetence and ineffectuality of the Democratic party has descended to such a nadir that it is no longer seems the stuff of paranoid fantasy to suspect that important leaders of the Democratic party are intentionally and willfully taking a dive, effectively handing an enormous political mandate to the Republican party in 2010 and 2012.

via Ezra Klein and Paul Krugman.

Why do they bother?

One of the most puzzling (and therefore interesting) features of Atlas Shrugged is the fundamental motivation of the protagonists and supporting "good guys". Related to this puzzle is why Atlas Shrugged is so popular, especially among the higher levels of the professional-managerial middle class, the levels that afford entry into the capitalist ruling class. (Similarly, many of those in the "lower" levels of the capitalist ruling class also serve as professionals and upper-level managers.) It's very difficult to see on first glance why the book is popular. What Rand passes off as "philosophy" is so obviously bullshit that even professional philosophers — who specialize in obscure bullshit — have largely rejected not only her work but her status as a canonical philosopher. Any reasonably bright, moderately educated free-thinking sixteen-year-old can poke holes in her philosophy (I myself was a reasonably bright, moderately educated and free-thinking sixteen-year-old, and, as several of my friends were Randians (I was educated with the children of the wealthy) I did in fact poke holes in her philosophy.)

Rand is also grossly ignorant of (when not positively misinformed about) finance, business administration, industrial production, and legal philosophy and procedure, topics which presumably Rand's greatest admirers — members of the capitalist ruling class and professional-managerial middle class — have some degree of expertise or at least familiarity.

Most importantly, her incompetence as a novelist exceeds her deficiencies as a philosopher. (Ironically, Rand's primary goal was to become a novelist; the development of her philosophy was give substance and deep background to her novels.) Her prose is wooden, her characterizations one-dimensional, her plots implausible, she has no more feel for the details of verisimilitude as James Fenimore Cooper, and she clearly feels no more need for an editor than Stephen King. (The last criticism is not based only on the sheer length of her novels; the great 20th century epic writers, such as Michner and Clavell, succeed where Rand rails because they pack ten times more plot, characterization and verisimilitude in their own massive novels.)

I believe the two questions are related: Actual human beings care about Atlas Shrugged for the same reason that the characters in the novel are motivated to do what they do.

But the characters' motivation is indeed puzzling. One persistent theme in the novel is that none of the "good guys" are actually harmed by the system. Hank Rearden is a multi-millionaire and successful industrialist. His wife, Lillian, is a pain in his ass, but once he gets over his ludicrous uptightness and starts fucking Dagny Taggart, his wife fades into irrelevance. (The idea that either he or Dagny could be seriously socially or politically harmed by revelations of his infidelity or her fornication was weak in the 1940s when Rand began the novel, and implausible by its publication in 1957, and completely ridiculous when it became popular in the 1960s.) Late in the novel the government "robs" him of Rearden Metal, but he could just as easily have licensed its production to his considerable profit.

Similarly, Dagny Taggart is a successful executive, managing and operating Taggart Transcontinental, an enormous and critical industrial activity. She is able not only to operate her railroad, but successfully undertake a major capital improvement (laying new rail to Elias Wyatt's Colorado operations) even under the adverse conditions that ten years of John Galt's sabotage have created. Her brother, James, president and presumably majority stockholder, is again at best a pain in her ass, but she's clearly able to control him.

Francisco d'Anconia has apparently cornered the world market for copper. Ellis Wyatt runs a successful oil business (again during Galt's sabotage era) and is almost single-handedly responsible for the economic success of Colorado. Hugh Akston is a tenured academic and department head. Composer Richard Halley achieves artistic success and recognition before joining the strike. Midas Mulligan is a successful banker (who has apparently never heard of the appellate court). Even Cherryl Brooks has achieved considerable material success by marrying James Taggart.

John Galt himself, a preternaturally brilliant scientist and engineer, is only mildly inconvenienced by the "communist" takeover of the Twentieth Century Motor Company. The new legitimate management is admittedly not to his taste, but he is free to leave and manages to take his intellectual property with him. (And he is extraordinarily naive or stupid if he cannot figure out a way to profit by his talents even if her were to cede his intellectual property to the TCMC.)

Indeed, Rand portrays all of the "strikers" as not just responsible and productive, but also economically and socially successful. Actual success appears to be just as much a criterion as responsibility or productivity. "Atlas" may be holding up the world, but he appears to be well compensated for doing so.

Rand's in something of a philosophical bind, a bind that squeezes all deontic ethical philosophers. On the one hand, she's making a case for the inherent (deontic) worth of certain values; on the other hand, she has to show the pragmatic* worth of those values. She can't have her characters be largely unsuccessful in ordinary society; her entire philosophy would then just sound like sour grapes. But if they are successful, what precisely is their complaint?

*Note that expediency and most unappealing "ends justify the means" ethical philosophies typically restrict the range of pragmatic consequences that apply to ethical evaluation; when they fail, they fail because of their restrictions, not because of pragmatism in general.

The stated reason for the strike is of course that other people have the "wrong sort of values". But so what? John Galt is not actually harmed by the TCMC (and the company predictably goes bankrupt on its own due to management far more incompetent than any seen in the Soviet Union). Midas Mulligan might have to make one or two bad loans to incompetents, but the legal system has never been perfect. Hank Rearden could easily divorce Lillian, and even if he pays alimony, he's hardly going to be reduced to living in a mud hut living on beans and rice. Hank could also tell his ungrateful brother to STFU and GTFO (which he finally does), or just shrug off Philip's and his mother's contempt and resentment with amused indifference.

Indeed Rand portrays those with the "wrong" values as so ludicrously incompetent and self-defeating that it is only Galt's strike that gives them the capability to actually mismanage the world. Absent the strike, they are already marginalized and ineffective. How does Rand successfully elevate the condition of people who have already achieved success as an epic struggle against oppression?

Likewise, Rand is most popular among the middle and higher levels of the professional-managerial middle class, and the lower levels of the capitalist ruling class (as noted above, these classes overlap considerably). You won't find a lot of workers reading Atlas Shrugged on the factory floor. The exclusively white characters don't have much appeal among ethic minorities. Rand is hardly a feminist icon. Again: what is the appeal of Rand's epic struggle against oppression among those who are obviously the least oppressed: ruling-class (or near-ruling-class) white males?

Friday, January 29, 2010


via Bruce Schneier

Health care propaganda

I stumbled on this essay criticizing the health care bill:
[House Bill 3200: The Affordable Health Care Choices Act of 2009] provide[s] for rationing of health care, particularly where senior citizens and other classes of citizens are involved, free health care for illegal immigrants, free abortion services, and probably forced participation in abortions by members of the medical profession. ...

[T]his legislation really has no intention of providing affordable health care choices. Instead it is a convenient cover for the most massive transfer of power to the Executive Branch of government that has ever occurred, or even been contemplated.

[The bill provides for] a direct violation of the specific provisions of the 4th Amendment to the Constitution protecting against unreasonable searches and seizures. You can also forget about the right to privacy. That will have been legislated into oblivion regardless of what the 3rd and 4th Amendments may provide. [This criticism is especially ironic given that conservatives have been typically hostile to reading a right to privacy in the Constitution, and their support for drug-law enforcement has made a mockery of the direct purpose of the Fourth Amendment. And I cannot at all see what relevance the Third Amendment might have to this discussion.]
Consider as well this editorial in the Wall Street Journal, which argues against the constitutionality of the bill.

These articles substantiate my rebuttal to Dagood's allegation of mindless or irrational oppositionalism in politics. These articles show that pundits are trying to convince their popular support that the health care bill is intrinsically bad; they do not appear to be trying to convince their popular support that the bill is bad just because it's a Democratic initiative.

Dagood asserts that
All [the popular supporters] know is their leadership, in the form of media personalities, is whipping them into a frenzy of how the Democrats want to do... something. How the President proposes... something. Because the Democrats and the President is a "them"—they must oppose it! Not for what it is; not for a certain ideology. But because the other side wants it.
But that's not all they know, or at least not all they believe. Assuming the "media personalities" are as effective as Dagood asserts, we would expect the popular supporters to believe not just that the Health Care bill is a Democratic bill, but also that the bill itself will shred the Constitution, establish a tyrannical, undemocratic regime, and fail to actually improve health-care.

Now it's of course these allegations are ridiculously false, but that's not the point. The point is that our political problems are different from the specific problem of irrational oppositionalism, at least at the popular level.

Update: Maggie Mahar posts Who Voted for Brown in Massachusetts — and Why? explores correlations between attitudes on health care and voting patterns in the recent Senatorial special election in Massachusets. She concludes that
Why do so few Americans know what is actually in the legislation? A blizzard of misinformation has created much confusion. In newspapers and on television, you regularly hear that ordinary Americans will be forced to buy insurance they cannot afford (no mention of subsidies or caps on out-of-pocket payments which should virtually eliminate medical bankruptcies.) You read that small businesses won’t be able to afford a mandate (no mention of tax credits.)

Americans have been told that the Democrats are making no effort to rein in spending (no mention of the pages and pages of proposals that would cut Medicare costs, paving the way for lower health care bills throughout the system.) They are warned that Medicare beneficiaries will be hurt (no explanation that Medicare cuts are targeting unnecessary care that puts patients at risk without benefits; no mention that the bill will help close the donut hole that now forces Medicare patients to pay for their drugs out-of-pocket.)

We have been told that insurers will continue business as usual (no mention of the provision that prevents them from putting a lifetime cap on benefits, or the plank in the legislation which says that insurers must spend a certain percentage of the premiums they receive on healthcare. If they don’t spend it, they are required to give their customers a partial refund.)
Ignorance and disinformation are substantively different from oppositionalism.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Principles and rational thought

(I am not a scientist. What follows is a speculative theory. The strength or weakness of my argument goes to the plausibility of theory, not its truth. The truth of the theory would have to be established scientifically, by using the theory to create testable hypotheses, and testing them.)

People largely operate on principles. A principle is a specific kind of mental structure: When the circumstances, established by perception, resemble some specific pattern, perform some specific action. Thinking by principle differs from rational evaluation. Rational evaluation consists of predicting the future outcome based on the specific circumstances and a range of possible actions; we perform the action that we expect will have the best outcome.

(It seems plausible too that rational thought may itself be nothing but thinking-by-principle using a narrowly and rigorously defined set of universal principles.)

It seems fairly clear to me that most animals think by principle; in animals, these principles are directly or indirectly* hard-coded into their brains as instincts. It also seems clear that principles themselves are easily susceptible to biological evolution: there will be variations in hard-coded principles, and the variations that diminish reproductive success will be naturally selected against.

*One example of indirect hard-coding might be imprinting. For example, whatever a baby duck first sees when it hatches becomes "mom"; in this case, the specific perceptions are not hard-coded, but the propensity for taking an imprint is hard-coded.

Thinking by principle is, in general, an extremely efficient way of dealing with a complicated world. For example, I'm a pretty good poker player. I almost never actually calculate the probabilities when I play. Instead I've developed a set of principles that guide my play. I'm almost pathologically slow at actually calculating probabilities (and arithmetic in general), a deficiency that prevents me from ever being a top professional player. My principles are sufficiently effective, however, that I almost always win against players at home, and I have a noticable advantage against skilled amateurs at casinos.

One advantage that human beings have over animals is that we can use our brains to think at multiple levels of abstraction. Therefore, we can create meta-principles: When a pattern of principles (perhaps in addition to a pattern of perceptual circumstance) are activated, perform some action. Since a meta-principle is a principle, we can extend the above definition: When a pattern of principles or meta-principles (or meta-meta-principles, etc.) are activated, perform some action. Furthermore, we can affect the contents of our own brain*: one of the actions we can perform is to positively or negatively reinforce a principle.

*Robert Anton Wilson eloquently describes this capability as that we are our own meta-programmers.

Thinking by principle allows us to operate effectively in situations where actually computing all the outcomes is practically impossible (even if it is tractable in theory). Our brains have only a limited amount of computational power; the computational compression afforded by principles is considerable. Consider, for example, chess-playing computers. It required a $10,000,000 computer, one that could compute 200,000,000 potential outcomes per second, to beat a human being, generally capable of evaluating at best only tens of moves per second. We can thus estimate that thinking by principle is about ten million times more efficient than by pure computation. (Actually, Deep Blue did have some thinking-by-principle as part of its program, so the computational efficiency of principles might be an order of magnitude or two higher.)

Thinking by principle, especially that principles can evolve socially, also allows us to act effectively in situations where actually computing the outcome is metaphysically impossible* or theoretically intractable (exponential or factorial complexity).

*For example, it is metaphysically impossible to win at poker by playing a computationally perfect game. A computationally perfect game ensures you will always break even in the long run, regardless of your opponents' actual play.

Furthermore, general principles (principles that almost always achieve an optimal or near-optimal (or correct or near-correct) outcome) are almost as valuable as universal principles (principles that always achieve an optimal or correct outcome), and there are many many orders of magnitude more good general principles as there are universal principles.

We can plausibly conclude, therefore, that the human brain is not a "rational thinking" machine; it is, rather, a machine that performs sophisticated and complicated management and application of principles. Furthermore, we can conclude that the principles in actual operation in a population is the result of an evolutionary process: heritable/transmissible variation in principles (and princple-sets) dialectically coupled with a negative selection process, a process that (somehow) removes egregiously bad principles.

There are, however, some drawbacks to using principles. Most importantly, Godel's theorem (and the related Church-Turing thesis) implies that there is no general algorithm that can evaluate a set of general principles for optimality. Any algorithmic or computational evaluation of a set of principles has to be done on a case-by-case basis, when it can be done at all.

Thinking-by-principle can lead to known irrational results. For example, if a principle is strong (i.e. the brain's "principle management system" assigns a high weight to the principle), a person might adhere to a principle even under specific circumstances where they can and do rationally know that contravening the principle would be optimal. Most people, for example, have a strong aversion to stealing; they will "irrationally" refrain from stealing even when they know they probably won't get caught, they know if they do get caught the consequences will not be severe, and the specific theft will not have any noticeable effect on the mutually beneficial state of a minimal-theft society. More specifically, many people will walk back into a store to pay for a stick of gum that has been inadvertently overlooked by the cashier. In most cases, these instances of irrationality are benign: the computational efficiency afforded by thinking-by-principle usually sufficiently outweighs the known failures, and natural selection helps remove principles with catastrophic failures.

Thinking-by-princple leads more problematically to the philosophical error of deonticism, the mistaken belief that principles have value independently of (as opposed to different from but necessarily related to) their outcomes. This error seems almost inevitable for any philosopher who understands neither evolution by variation and selection (every philosopher before Darwin, notably Emmanuel Kant, and many after) nor computational and complexity theory (i.e. just about everyone).

Principles have to be transmitted for evolution to work on them. Also, principles that establish global mutual benefit by sacrificing local "selfish" benefit (i.e. principles that optimize mutual benefit in Prisoner's Dilemma situations) have to have sufficient inherent strength to outweight the local "selfish" benefit. A person's brain, therefore, has to have some degree of "stickiness", the strength that received principles from one's parents, culture and society are adopted.

Like every trait, we expect the degree of stickiness to vary among individuals, the degree of stickiness to be heritable or transmissible (either genetically or verbally/culturally) and for some degrees of stickiness to be selected against. Too little stickiness, and each individual has to figure out the whole world from scratch, an impossible task, and therefore selected against. Too much stickiness, and a person cannot adapt to changing circumstances, also selected against.

There are three important concepts:
  1. People typically think using principles, not by direct rational evaluation
  2. People's brains have varying degrees of "stickiness" for adopting new principles
  3. Both the content of people's principles as well as their "stickiness" are shaped by selection, an inherently negative process
Using these three elements, a lot of otherwise puzzling human behavior becomes clear.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Socialism

Their habit... is always to maintain that nature has made all men equal, and that, therefore, neither honor nor respect is due to majesty.... But... inequality of rights and of power proceeds from the very Author of nature, "from whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named"... by mutual duties and rights, that the thirst for power is restrained and the rational ground of obedience made easy, firm, and noble.

Assuredly... There is no power but from God; and those that are, are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God. And they that resist purchase to themselves damnation." And again she admonishes those "subject by necessity" to be so "not only for wrath but also for conscience' sake," and to render "to all men their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due, custom to whom custom, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor."... [E]ven in the kingdom of heaven He hath willed that the choirs of angels be distinct and some subject to others... so also has He appointed that there should be various orders in civil society, differing indignity, rights, and power... many members, some nobler than others....

[I]f at any time it happen that the power of the State is rashly and tyrannically wielded by princes, the teaching of the Catholic church does not allow an insurrection... she teaches that relief may be hastened by the merits of Christian patience and by earnest prayers to God....

Even family life itself... necessarily feels and experiences the salutary power of the Church... as Christ is the head of the Church, so is the man the head of the woman... so also should wives be subject to their husbands... the authority of our heavenly Father and Lord is imparted to parents and masters....

[T]he Church, with much greater wisdom and good sense, recognizes the inequality among men, who are born with different powers of body and mind, inequality in actual possession, also, and holds that the right of property and of ownership, which springs from nature itself, must not be touched and stands inviolate...

Pope Leo XIII, 1878

via Brad DeLong

Please note that the publication of a quotation here does not necessarily indicate my approval.

Partisanship and oppositionalism

Dagood writes about mindless oppositionalism, but I think he misses some important considerations. First, he does not clearly explicitly present oppositionalism and extreme partisanship as a specifically Republican tactic. The Democratic party and the liberal intelligentsia struggles to work up the bare minimum of the partisanship necessary for an intentionally adversarial political system. Second, although it seems obviously true that the right-wing and Republicans are extremely partisan, Dagood fails to make the case that their partisanship is mindless or contrary to their interests.

Politics is an adversarial system. We employ an adversarial system when the parties do not share common goals. The legal system is adversarial precisely because the goals of prosecution/plaintiffs are fundamentally opposed to those of the defense. The only commonality lies in the process, not in the outcome. Any "higher level" outcome, such as the "interests of justice" is supposed to emerge from the adversarial process; it doesn't inhere directly in any of the parties' duties or obligations*. Indeed none of the parties can have a direct mutual obligation to the interests of justice, because the legal system exists to determine which of the parties interests actually do represent the interests of justice.

*AFAIK, with my Law & Order J.D. the prosecution in the criminal justice system does have an inherent obligation to the interests of justice: they cannot prosecute a defendant they believe to be not guilty and must disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. I suspect this obligation is often honored more in the breach than the observance.

Contrast this principle with a non-adversarial system such as science. Although there is tension and conflict in science, there is a larger meta-principle in science that all scientists have a common goal: the discovery of truth. Each scientist has an inherent obligation to seek the truth, although they are, of course, expected to argue vigorously for what they sincerely believe to be true against those who sincerely believe alternatives. A scientist — unlike an attorney — does not "win" if he successfully blocks the discovery of truth in favor of his own mistaken opinion.

(I do not at all intend to disparage attorneys here. The justice system has a fundamentally different kind of goal than the scientific process, and even as a communist, I believe an adversarial legal system is superior to any plausible alternative, especially a legal system modeled more closely on scientific investigation.)

Partisanship and oppositionalism on general principles are ineluctable features of any adversarial system. An advocate often cannot reliably predict the outcome of an opponent's action: in an adversarial system, it would be sheer folly to permit an opponent to prevail when you could thwart him, even if — and especially if — you're uncertain of the outcome. (The exception (again relying on my Law & Order J.D.) is that it's counter-productive to oppose actions when you're confident you'll lose.)

It's difficult — almost impossible — in an adversarial system to rationally criticize only an opponent for oppositionalism: such a criticism would be obviously self-defeating. But it's also odd to criticize both sides for oppositionalism: an adversarial system is by its nature oppositional. Of course the right wing and the Republican party does criticize the "oppositionalism" of left wing and the Democratic party, but this criticism succeeds only because the Republicans rely directly on delusion (false ideas about objectively truth) among their voters and popular support.

Indeed, the entire narrative of oppositionalism as a negative has been pushed by the right wing and Republicans for no other reason than to undermine the effectiveness and power of the left wing and Democratic party in an inherently adversarial system. And it's a narrative that's working not only in their own popular support, but also working in the liberal intelligentsia, charged with forming and evaluating liberal policy and ideology.

We can't and shouldn't criticize oppositionalism in general in an adversarial system, but we can and should, of course, criticize mindless or unwarranted oppositionalism. But what makes oppositionalism mindless or unwarranted?

Oppositionalism is unwarranted when an advocate opposes something she knows or ought to know is in his or her interests. Dagood offers two examples: he excluded opposing evidence (improperly introduced by his opponent) in a civil trial that later would have helped him, and he remarks that the health care bill presently before congress appears to be in the interests of the right wing and Republicans.

There are two ways to evaluate the first example. He doesn't say so explicitly, but presumably Dagood believes he should have known that the evidence he excluded would have helped him. He didn't rely on general principles when he couldn't have known the outcome, he allowed his reliance on general principles to lazily shortcut an analysis he could have performed. Perhaps not his finest hour as an attorney, but what conclusion can we draw from this example, other than even competent professionals sometimes make mistakes?

We cannot draw the conclusion that we should never rely on general principles, nor can we draw the conclusion that we should not rely on oppositionalism as a general principle in an adversarial process. Reality is far to complex to make every decision on the basis of analysis. There are too many cases where analysis cannot give us even a high degree of confidence. We have to rely on general principles, and a principle is general rather than universal precisely because it is not always correct. Assuming that the opposition are not complete idiots, the general principle seems entirely warranted that if the opposition wants it, it's probably not in your interest to allow it. (Of course we should be careful too: the opposition may not be completely incompetent, but neither are they omniscient, and they will make mistakes. But I think Dagood is trying to make a larger case than that we should just be careful.)

The second example is much more interesting: He makes the case that the health care bill (or a "good" bill, one with elements that have already been proposed and successfully defeated) would decrease taxes* and lower health care costs. The right wing wants lower taxes and lower health care costs, therefore their opposition to the health care bill has been contrary to their own interests, and thus constitutes mindless oppositionalism.

*Technically, I believe the intent is to lower the budget deficit, also a stated goal of the right wing and Republicans.

But keep in mind that the stated goal of a political party in an adversarial political system is not to get some policy implemented, it is to successfully elect members of the party to political office. It can easily be against the latter interest to allow the opposition to implement some element of one's own agenda, and especially for the opposition to take credit for that implementation. Clearly the Republican party officials might easily have good reason to oppose the Democratic implementation of a policy to which they would otherwise agree. Unless we can prove that blocking or obstructing the health care bill would be contrary to electoral success, we cannot call the party opposition "mindless" or irrational.

It is more to the point that the voters and popular support for the right wing really do want lower taxes and lower health care costs, and their opposition is irrational.
All they know is their leadership, in the form of media personalities, is whipping them into a frenzy of how the Democrats want to do….something. How the President proposes…something. Because the Democrats and the President is a “them”—they must oppose it! Not for what it is; not for a certain ideology. But because the other side wants it.
I just don't see this analysis as persuasive or correct. It seems fairly clear from even a superficial examination of the news that people who support right-wing politicians are very deeply deluded about the facts, a lot of facts. But it is precisely this delusion about the facts that argues against specifically mindless oppositionalism. The people aren't against the health care bill just because it's a Democratic initiative, the people are against the bill because they sincerely (albeit incorrectly) believe it is contrary to their interests.

There's something deeper going on in the right-wing than simple oppositionalism, mindless or not. The powers-that-be on right-wing have an agenda, an agenda that's seems more substantive than simply winning elections for members of the Republican party. They've lost too many elections (especially in 2007 and 2009), elections they could have won by modifying their ideology and policies. They have been remarkably disciplined about maintaining their core ideology even in the face of electoral defeat, far more disciplined than the left-wing and the Democratic party.

(Indeed the Democratic party seems unable to minimally function even as a partisan advocate in an adversarial situation. To draw a legal analogy, it's like they are a defense attorney faced with a prosecution that continuously tries to introduce prejudicial, irrelevant and unlawfully obtained evidence; it is their objections, not the prosecution's actions, that appear to be prejudicing the case before the jury. (Unlike in the law, in politics the "jury" — i.e. the voters — hears all the procedural actions.))

You do not achieve this kind of discipline without something indistinguishable from an underlying agenda. And this agenda cannot be successful unless it resonates with something deep in the human psyche, or at least in the psyche of a lot of people. As anyone who has debated Christians quickly learns, delusion requires not just ignorance but the active cooperation of the deluded. The deluded must not just be unaware of the facts, but learn elaborate modes of thought to deny the facts and rationalize their dismissal. It seems implausible to believe that anyone would engage in these elaborate mental gymnastics without some deep underlying emotional basis, a basis more complex than superficial identification with a political party.

The filibuster

Krugman complains:
The past year has been a spectacular demonstration of the crippling effect of the filibuster on America’s ability to deal with, well, anything.
Krugman is wrong. We've had the filibuster in the Senate since 1789, and this is not the first era to feature bitter partisanship.

While a legislative minority can in theory use a filibuster to block majority party will, it comes at a high cost: the minority party effectively shuts down the Senate for the duration of the filibuster. A filibuster is as well an extremely visible and dramatic action. A filibuster can thus work politically only if the people as a whole support the position of the minority party on a particular issue. If they do not support the minority, a filibuster hands the majority party a potent partisan weapon.

Our superficial political problems seem more obviously due to the weakness of the liberal faction of the capitalist ruling class. Had they even a little bit of partisan will, they would welcome a Republican filibuster, especially over an issue as popular as health care. (A deeper problem is that the voters consistently reject politicians who pursue an explicitly populist agenda, precisely because the narrative in the commercial media brands such politicians as unserious and, ironically, as mindlessly partisan. This narrative is even seeping tacitly into the liberal intelligentsia.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The rotting corpse

According to Krugman and Zasloff, "Obama seems to have decided to fire Tim Geithner and replace him with 'the rotting corpse of Andrew Mellon*.'"

*"Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate … It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people."

Monday, January 25, 2010

A bold prediction

I will repeat and reinforce (and slightly qualify) my prediction from August 2007 that Barack Obama will lose the November 2012 election for President of the United States to the Republican candidate. I will make only one reservation: If the Republicans run Sarah Palin as the candidate or vice-presidential candidate, Obama will win. Furthermore, whether or not Palin runs and Obama wins or loses, the Republicans will have a majority at least in the House of Representatives in the 2012 elections.

It's possible the Republicans will run a candidate (such as Palin) that simply cannot beat Obama, but I think they went with their 2nd string in 2008. They'll see that Obama is as vulnerable as Carter was, go with their "Ronnie", their first string in 2012. They shouldn't run Palin, but they should give her a prominent role as a spokesmodel. She might even run in the primaries, but she should do so only to gain credibility.

We might even see a ????/Lieberman ticket, unless progressives are able to focus their voodoo powers and Joe drops dead of an aneurysm.

Paul and Larry

Krugman, January 25, 2010:
So one case you can make is that Obama was just fated to have a bad first year. FDR had the good luck not to take office until more or less everything that could go wrong, had; the bank runs had already happened, the big decline in GDP was already nearing its end. Obama, by contrast, came into office early enough to take the blame for the continuing slump.

Me, December 23, 2008:
Roosevelt took office in 1933, more than three years after the trigger of the Great Depression. Obama, on the other hand, will take office only months after the trigger of this depression. Roosevelt thus did not have to take the blame for the half-measures and incompetent management that inevitably follow a true catastrophe. Obama, on the other hand, does not have someone like Hoover to point to and say, "Whatever we do, we know we can't do that."


This post announces an addition to the References & Articles section: A Self-Referential Story. This post was inspired by a recent post on another blog, and expresses appreciation of yet another blog for pointing out the recent post. This post unconscionably omits reference to the aggregator where the second post appears.

The narrative of purity

I strongly suspect that Ayn Rand in general and Atlas Shrugged in particular is critical for understanding the agenda of the Republican power structure.

Leaving aside the ridiculous content of Rand's political "philosophy", it's instructive to look at the events and development of her narrative.

John Galt works as an engineer for the Twentieth Century Motor Company. Using his magical powers to completely revolutionize physics, he invents a magic motor that can provide nearly limitless, free mechanical power.

In a heavy-handed allegory to the Bolshevik revolution (in which Rand and her family was stripped of their upper-middle-class privilege) the Twentieth Century Motor Company is inherited by "communists" and turned into a collectivist dystopia.

John Galt is offended by this takeover. Note that he is not actually harmed: he is free to leave and his invention with him (even though one would suspect that the Twentieth Century Motor Company actually owns the intellectual property).

Galt immediately forms the intention of "turning off the lights of New York", an obvious metaphor for the apocalyptic collapse of mid-20th century society.

Galt begins recruiting the most productive people, convincing them to withdraw their productivity from the larger society and begin forming a Utopian society in Colorado. Because the society is not yet self-sufficient, those who withdraw take the menial jobs where the can honorably earn their keep, but contribute nothing of larger value to society. Galt also recruits two important allies, Francisco d'Anconia, who controls a global copper-mining empire, and the pirate Ragnar Danneskjöld.

Narratively, the novel opens about ten years after the beginning of Galt's efforts to bring about the apocalypse. Economic productivity has degenerated considerably, but has not yet collapsed. Hand Reardon has (magically) invented "Reardon Metal"; Dagny Taggard is operating Taggart Transcontinental profitably and undertakes large-scale capital improvements; and Ellis Wyatt has revitalized the economy of Colorado.

Dagny Taggart follows John Galt to "Galt's Gulch", offering the reader a glimpse of the Utopian society that will follow the purification of society's corruption. (While there, Dagny offers her subservience to Galt, another direct parallel to the misogyny of the Christian mythos). In one telling aside, during Dagny's absence a series of incompetent and perverse actions leads to the deaths of a train full of passengers. Rand dwells with morbid fascination on how much the passengers deserve to die.

The government, which has become controlled by corrupt, collectivist and tyrannical elements, undermines productive capabilities. In addition Ellis Wyatt, Francisco d'Anconia and Ragnar Danneskjöld commit acts of sabotage: destruction of oil wells, copper-mining facilities, sinking of supply ships and bombing factories.

After issuing his manifesto, John Galt is captured by the government, who believes him to be their best hope for restoring order and productivity. (Galt is captured because the government is following Dagny Taggart, now his lover, in yet another parallel between Atlas Shrugged and Christian mythology: betrayal of the male hero through the agency of the woman.) Inexplicably, they first torture him, and then offer him virtually absolute power to reform society. He refuses this offer because he does not believe they will implement his suggestions (specifically an end to the income tax). It's notably that Galt does not negotiate in any sense, even to the extent of making demands under threat of walking away; it's clear he intends to walk away no matter what.

Dagny Taggart and Hank Reardon (who prove to be skilled military commandos in addition to their other varied superlative talents) rescue John Galt from the government; as they are escaping, the lights finally do go off in New York.

Additional, the protagonists are explicitly divorced from the political process in any form. Hank Reardon hires a lobbyist, but only with ill-concealed disgust and reluctance, and without even minimal supervision... especially telling for a character whom Rand portrays as finding 25 hours in every day to attend to every detail. The protagonists have no interest in telling their story to the nation or the world, they have no interest in persuading the world to their values. Galt issues his lengthy manifesto at the end of his campaign to bring about the apocalypse, when it is far too late to actually change anything. Galt's attitude is reminiscent of Rorschach from Watchmen: "The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout 'Save us!'... and I'll whisper 'no.'"

Atlas Shrugged is a near-perfect instance of the narrative of purity. The narrative of purity starts with a "golden age", followed by a corruption of the golden age, followed by its restoration by eliminating the corruption through the appearance of a messiah. This narrative is, of course, fundamental to the Christian Bible: Eden, the fall of man and original sin, and the restoration of Eden in heaven through the agency of the apocalypse. The key element is redemption through the elimination of corruption, differentiating the narrative of purity from the narrative of power, seen for example in the Koran, where the followers of Allah do not eliminate disbelief but rather achieve (or are exhorted to achieve) domination over the unbelievers.

Of particular importance to the narrative of purity is that corruption cannot be reformed. Corruption is inherent and ineluctable. In Christian mythology corruption exists in everyone, and is mitigated only by supernatural grace. In Atlas Shrugged, the corruption in the antagonists — James Taggart, Lillian Rearden — comes from an ineluctable self-hatred or from a desire for political power — Orren Boyle, Wesley Mouch — apparently fundamentally incompatible with Rand's pure values.

The development of the moral character of the protagonist is the critical element of every narrative, and Atlas Shrugged is no exception, where the focus is on the development of Dagny Taggart's charager. She does not really grow as a character: her development consists, rather, of eliminating her compassion for and submission to those of the "wrong" values. The lights of New York cannot go off until Dagny gives up her attachment to the well being of the larger society; indeed this is the only change in Dagny's character.

Rand is not, of course, the first to employ the narrative of purity; as noted, the form goes back to the earliest history of narrative mythology. Rand is, however, the first to apply this narrative form to capitalism in an explicitly mythological epic tale.

The real world is, of course, considerably more complicated and messy than epic mythology. Still, I think Rand's application of the narrative of purity to the capitalist ruling class can go a long way towards explaining otherwise puzzling elements and behavior of contemporary politics.

The republican agenda, part 2

I received some very interesting comments and conjectures on my recent post, The Republican Goals.

Keep in mind there are three components to any ruling class faction: the face of the faction, in this case elected Republican politicians and the Republican party officers, such as Michael Steele; the popular support, ordinary people who vote for the party, volunteer for campaigns and otherwise provide its popular base; the power of the faction: the actual capitalists who provide economic support for the party. I'm mostly curious about the motives and goals of the power component, although all the components are important in evaluating hypotheses.

Many commenters support the null hypothesis: there are no consistent or general goals of the power component of the Republicans (or possibly even of any component). In other words, there's no "artificial" selection going on; the character of the Republicans is purely natural selection, based purely on the interaction between the personal characteristics of the individuals. While the null hypothesis is hard to prove, anyone (myself included) who wants to think about the issue scientifically must make any alternative hypothesis empirically distinguishable from the null hypothesis. How can we empirically tell the difference between some goal or agenda and no goal at all?

One key distinction between the Democratic and Republican party power structures is ideological consistency. Even when they lose elections — a lot of elections — the Republicans preserve major (and even a lot of superficial) elements of their ideology intact. The Democratic party power structure, however, tends to change its core ideology in response to even small losses: they have virtually abandoned almost all of the ideology constructed and successfully tested (and at least temporarily adopted by the Republicans) during FDR to Nixon height of Democratic party power. (Of course, as a communist, I'm hardly impressed even by the best of Democratic party ideology.) The long-term Republican ideological consistency in the face of local defeats seems like pretty strong evidence that there's some sort of underlying agenda somewhere; without such an ideological agenda, there should be more variation in Republican elected officials, variation that the voters will not select against, the kind of variation we actually do see in the Democratic party.

The second "null" hypothesis is that whatever agenda exists, exists either within the party itself, or in a behind-the-scenes power structure that isn't really a part of the capitalist ruling class. Pat Robertson, for example, is not really a part of the capitalist ruling class: he has a lot of money (his net worth is estimated as $200-1,000 million), but he did not achieve his wealth through the ordinary capitalist means, the production of goods and services or financial manipulation. He's best seen, I think, as someone who's achieved a degree of economic power outside the traditional capitalist class; it's an open question whether or not the capitalist class will adopt him.

It may well be that the obvious Marxian analysis of the present political situation is not correct: What we are seeing today is not the result of competition within the capitalist class (i.e. those who own and control the means of actual production), but rather competition between the capitalist class and some new and distinct class. Furthermore, this new and distinct class might not be an economic class. Before now, standards of living were low enough that economic productivity by itself exercised strong selection pressure. Today, however, our "problem" is with surpluses and overproduction. (Local or immediate over-production has been a persistent problem in capitalism from the middle of the 19th century. The problem, however, may have become global and systemic; not amenable to local and immediate adjustments in finance and government policy, or simply a pause awaiting the next scientific or technical innovation.)

I suspect this non-economic line of analysis may prove more fruitful.

Who makes this shit up?

From Not Always Right: Funny & Stupid Customer Quotes:

Welcome To B.C. Bookstores:
(I’m ringing up a young couple for a video game. The girlfriend asks about the game and the boyfriend describes it to her.)

Boyfriend: “[In the game] you’re one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.”

Girlfriend: “Which one?”

Boyfriend: “War.”

Girlfriend: “Who are the others?”

Boyfriend: “Famine, Pestilence, and Plague.”

Girlfriend: “Who makes this s*** up?!”

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The philosophy of law

Daniel J. Becker writes a philosophical analysis of Citizens United. It's complicated and a little on the tl;dr side, but the thrust of his argument seems to be that the Constitution and its implementation and interpretation exists to serve We the People; any decision or action that does not or is not intended to serve The People is therefore wrong. (Becker uses the term "error", but I think this term is not precisely correct. "Error" more strongly indicates contravention of objective truth; hence I prefer the more explicitly ethical term "wrong".)

Becker is responding to Glenn Greenwald's defense of Citizens United. Greenwald asserts that "illegal or unconstitutional actions... can't be justified because of the allegedly good results they produce,"
and concludes that "the 'rule of law' means we faithfully apply it in ways that produce outcomes we like and outcomes we don't like." Greenwald makes some interesting and persuasive points directly in defense of the Supreme Court's decision, but I think his philosophical definition of the rule of law is too narrow and superficial. On the other hand, I think Becker's interpretation is far too broad.

Becker correctly asserts that the philosophical foundation of our government (at least on paper) rests on the interests and will of The People. But what are those interests? The People are, after all, actual people, who individually do nothing but act in their own interests every second of every day. Why do we need a Constitution at all? Why do we need a government? Why do we need law to effect that which individual people naturally and continuously effect, indeed that which they cannot help but effect? The obvious answer is that the interests of The People can in some sense be different from the interests of individual people. The existence of Constitutions, governments and laws presupposes a collective interest somehow distinguishable from individuals' interests. It's a fairly straightforward that the collective interest does not exist independently of individuals' interests: a collective is not a real entity existing independently of individuals; to assign a collective an independently real status is to commit a patent fallacy of reification.

On the other hand, protecting the interests of minorities is one of the primary purposes and effects of constitutions, governments and statutes, a purpose and effect that people seem to find enormously valuable. We must therefore be very suspicious of constructions of collective interest as simplistic statistical property of individuals' interests, such as a majority.

There are three more-or-less separate reasons to have a rule of law, distinct from individuals acting their own individual interest. The first is simply that we consolidate and delegate the use of violent coercion to a class of professionals (e.g. the police and the government). We want to make it more difficult for these people to use their special position to privilege their own immediate interests over the interests of the rest of us. We therefore impose the principle on these experts that they must act according to general, universally applicable principles rather than purely on a case-by-case basis. This mechanism is of course imperfect, but it does by itself prevent the most egregious "abuses" of power.

More importantly, and more philosophically, individuals have desires about abstractions, desires that can conflict with concrete instances of those abstractions. We can, for example, desire freedom of speech in the abstract while also desiring that certain people in particular (e.g. Nazis, pedophiles, Creationists) should not speak. In these cases, the question is not whether or not to use a simple statistical construction of the collective interest, but rather to weigh simple statistical constructions about different things. We can say that even though a majority of people would like Nazis to shut up, the majority would also like freedom of speech, and the majority's desire for the abstract principle is stronger than the their dislike of some concrete instance.

But there's an even deeper reason. Astute readers of my blog will know that the concept of collective interest will sooner or later be followed by a discussion of the Prisoner's Dilemma and its importance in ethical, legal and political philosophy. The Prisoner's Dilemma concisely captures the apparent paradox that there are states of affairs that are in everyone's interest that are at the same time in no one individual's interest. In other words, there are circumstances where, unlike the abstraction/concrete distinction above, there is no level at all where a simple statistical evaluation of individuals interests can give us the answer we "want" to achieve. It is not that the majority of people would prefer cooperation: If we assume that every person is rational, and that a rational person will always make the decision that maximizes his or her interests, then everyone ought to prefer to defect. Since everyone "rationally" prefers to defect, we always end up with mutual defection. But mutual cooperation is better for everyone than mutual defection.

The paradox is only apparent, because we're dealing with two different senses of "interest". In one sense, interest is captured in game theory as simple parameters: numbers in a decision matrix. In another sense, interest is the decision that obtains the largest of those numbers. These two senses are not independent — we can't talk about the best decision independently of the numbers in the matrix — but likewise they are different... and, in the case of the Prisoner's Dilemma, qualitatively different.

So Greenwald is too narrow. Yes, it's an effect of the rule of law that there will sometimes be bad outcomes, and that some law can produce a bad outcome is not a sufficient argument to contravene or invalidate a law. But Greenwald goes farther than that, "whether [illegal or unconstitutional] actions produce good results is really not germane," and that "the Court's decision will produce "bad results" is not really an argument." He doesn't say the argument is not sufficient, he says it's not relevant, not even an argument.

But it's never been the exclusive or even primary job of the Supreme Court to simply make sure that legislation is consistent with the Constitution. Even if we wanted that them to hew strictly to that task, the US Constitution is not sufficiently specific to allow them to do that, in the same sense that it's the job of the federal courts to ensure that the actions of individuals both inside and outside the government are consistent with the very specific and detailed federal statutes.

Rather, it's one of the most important jobs of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution in — as best as they can determine, which is often deficient, but that's another story — the best interest of The People. An analysis of what the likely good and bad effects of one plausible interpretation over another is precisely to the point, germane, relevant and the not only is an argument, it's the only kind of relevant argument. This is not only both the power and duty of the Supreme Court but also the power and duty of every court, and the reason why we need human judges, not just robots.

Just as Greenwald's argument is too narrow, Becker's argument is too broad. Yes, the Supreme Court can and should operate not just as a narrow interpreter of law, but also as guardians of the public interest, especially in recondite circumstances where the public interest cannot be determined by simple and direct measures. But it is not at all obvious that the Supreme Court has failed to act in the public interest. How should they determine it? One way is precisely what Greenwald recommends: By taking the literal meaning of the Constitution as what The People themselves have declared to be in our interests.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Republican goals

I'm struggling with great difficulty to figure out the ultimate goal of the Republicans and Randian fascists. On the one hand, they've mastered the strategy and tactics of the struggle for power within the capitalist class and American "democracy"; their victory is almost assured in 2012 (a right-wing Republican president, a Republican legislature and a Republican-friendly Supreme Court). But what then? It's like a dog chasing a car: what will he do if he catches it?

The Republican party was in almost exactly the same position after 9/11: Formal control of the government and carte blanche among the people to use that formal power arbitrarily. They could have sent a million soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq, instead of a few hundred thousand, and they could have completely conquered them with Roman ruthlessness. They could have obliterated the Democratic party and liberal/progressive political organization, either with mass arrests or relentless propaganda. They could even, I think, have pretty much overtly pressured "liberal" Supreme Court justices to resign and packed the court to make their assumption of formal governmental power absolute.

They didn't do any of this: whatever their goals were (and we can feel confident that adhering to democratic standards of fair play are not among them), they failed to realize them, and they failed for reasons other than lack of opportunity. I don't know why they failed. I suspect they concentrated on "getting to the Superbowl" that when they got there, they didn't have the oomph to win it. To the extent that they had a plan, it was the narrow, unimaginative and immature idea to fight a few cool war: when they won it, everyone would like them.

The thing is, what do you do with power? In 1940, it was pretty clear what power was for: to take over the world. The Germans, Japanese, Americans and Russians all wanted to take over the world: In the 1980s, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the internal collapse of Chinese communism, the Americans finally won: we literally took over the world. It was a hell of a lot of fun winning the world, but actually running it, not so much.

The Nazis didn't take power just so they could act like assholes, they were assholes because that's what was necessary to be to take power. The world was up for grabs, and they wanted a try.

So I have to ask myself (and I still don't know the answer) why do the Republicans want power? Why do they want the kind of power they can get by being gigantic assholes? Why bother to oppose universal health care? Who cares if we have a $2 trillion stimulus? Why let 30,000,000 working-age adults sit around with their thumbs up their asses not even producing for the exclusive benefit of the ruling class? Over what is one faction of the 1% who own most everything fighting the other faction? They're not fighting for any standard of living; the capitalist ruling class avoids sybaritic decadence by choice, not necessity. They're not fighting over the world: they own the world. (They could, if they chose, subjugate the angry Islamic masses in six months. That they don't do so indicates only that they don't want to; they lack only the desire or will, not the means.)

Are they really fighting, as Orwell opined, just for the power to be as arbitrary, assholy and cruel as possible? Is the banal dystopia of 1984 really what hundreds of thousands of years of human development and ten thousand years of civilization, art, culture, science, philosophy, literature and human effort is leading up to?

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Weimar Republic

We are witnessing the last days of the US version of the Weimar Republic. Hope you're a fan of swastikas and jackboots: I predict the following will be written of our times:
The midterm elections in November 2010 resulted in an enormous political shift: 18.3% of the vote went to extreme right Republican candidates, five times the percentage compared to 2008. It was no longer possible to form a liberal majority in the Congress, not even a Grand Coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans. This encouraged the supporters of the Christian Reconstructionists to force their claim to power by increasing organization of public demonstrations and paramilitary violence against rival paramilitary groups.

From 2010 to 2012, Obama tried to reform the devastated state without a majority in Congress, governing by emergency decrees. During that time, the 2008 Depression reached its low point. In line with conservative economic theory that less public spending would spur economic growth, Obama drastically cut state expenditures, including in the social sector. He expected and accepted that the economic crisis would, for a while, deteriorate before things would improve. Among others, the government completely halted all public grants to the obligatory unemployment insurance, which resulted in higher contributions by the workers and fewer benefits for the unemployed.

The bulk of American capitalists and land-owners originally supported the Democratic government: not from any personal liking for Obama, but believing the conservatives would best serve their interests. But as the mass of the working class and middle classes turned against Obama, more of the great capitalists and landowners declared themselves in favour of his opponents – Romney and Huckabee. By late 2011, liberal democracy as a movement was dead, and the time was coming when capitalists would drop Obama and come to terms with Romney and Huckabee. Warren Buffet himself was no less a supporter of an anti-democratic revolution represented by Romney and Huckabee.

(satirized from Wikipedia)
We can only pray* that the sensible among us will do more than nibble popcorn and watch with amusement as millions are murdered and the rest enslaved. Don't look to me for help; I'll be dead or in a concentration camp. Will you acquit yourselves more honorably than the German liberals and progressives of the 1930s and 1940s, who collapsed in cowardice after the mass murder of the socialists, communists and anarchists?

*This metaphor should indicate the depth of my frustration and despair.

The immediate inevitability of revolution

In the 2008 election, the Democratic party faced as close to ideal circumstances as a partisan political party can possibly face: The final term of the worst president ever, a war even more unpopular than Vietnam owned by the opposing party, an economic crisis completely, unequivocally and undeniably the responsibility of and effect of the opposing party's policies, and a charismatic, accomplished and intelligent presidential candidate. They were rewarded by the presidency, an historic legislative majority, and the opportunity to quickly seat a new Supreme Court justice.

And what have they accomplished? Zero. Zip. Nada. We're still in Iraq and Afghanistan. We still have record unemployment. The pathetic "the best we can say about it is it's just barely better than nothing" health care bill is still uncertain to pass. The Democratic party just lost a special election in Massachusetts, one of the great bastions of liberalism and the Democratic party.

The Democratic party has not only failed as the representatives of the well-established policies of liberal and progressive capitalism, they have failed to show minimal competence even as a partisan political party. Stupidity? Weakness? Cowardice? Betrayal? Treason? I don't know, but it doesn't matter. All that matters is success and failure, and the Democratic party is failing orders of magnitude more deeply than the Republican party under Richard Nixon's presidency.

The question is not whether there should be a revolution. The revolution is under way even as we speak, a an unholy alliance of Klansmen, Nazis, Christian fundamentalists, and Randian "capitalists" who have already overthrown capitalist constitutional liberal democracy, a revolution that is at most three years (and possibly less than a year) away from seizing complete power. Only one question remains. Will there be a counter-revolution? And there's only one person who can answer that question: You.

In the next one to three years, there isn't going to be a sideline, and there will be no popcorn. Much as I might dislike polarization, there isn't going to be a middle ground: you'll either be part of the resistance or part of the regime. And it won't be the resistance who will be forcing the choice: the fascist regime will make damn sure you have to compromise your human morality just to survive. Will you? Will you die or go underground rather than compromise your principles? I can't tell you how to chose, because I don't think I can demand that you die or risk death for what I personally think is important. I know how I personally will choose (and if my posts here suddenly stop, check the underground or the concentration camps), but how you will choose is between you and no one but your God or your conscience.

Freedom of speech

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and db0 is absolutely correct about Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission [PDF]. This decision is nothing more than an de jure recognition of the de facto state of affairs.

(db0 makes one small error: he claims that the US government and the capitalist ruling class have been "defecating in the spirit of liberty for the last 150 years." He's off by about two hundred years: from the very beginning of the European colonization of North America until right about 150 years ago, the US was explicitly and constitutionally a slave-owning nation (not to mention engaged in a genocidal war of aggression against the indigenous population). If chattel slavery isn't the epitome of defecation on the spirit of liberty, I don't know what is.)

Political tactics 101

Paul Krugman seems surprised at Tim Geithner's comments on banking reform: "Geithner might as well have had a chyron underneath as he spoke, with the words DON’T WORRY, WE’RE NOT GOING TO TAKE ANY REAL ACTION."

Dude, this is right out of the first year political science textbook (the real one they give to operatives, not the academic bullshit): The the boss makes vague pronouncements in favor of something popular, a subordinate quietly undermines the specifics, and everyone gets to have his popular cake and eat his capitalist privilege, too.

Is there any evidence that Obama actually believes any of the populist bullshit he campaigned on?*


Update: As Mark Thoma notes,
[T]here's zero chance the proposals Obama announced today will ever be law. This was a fairly transparent political stunt — the White House needed to do something to take the media's focus off of health care 24/7, so they flew in Volcker and announced some proposals that sound good to the media. The two Senate staffers I talk to regularly both said their offices were basically ignoring Obama's proposals, because even if the White House fights for them (which they won't), Chris Dodd has no intention of inserting them into his committee's bill. I like how some people think Obama's proposals represent a fundamental turning point on financial reform, because....well, clearly this is their first rodeo.

On "civility"

There is apparently a live debate about what constitutes "civility" in among scientific blogs. There are a number of issues with this debate I'd like to address.

First, framing the debate as about civility unacceptably biases the discussion right from the start. There is no such thing as objectively civilized standards; there are only the standards generally employed in particular "civilizations" (in the looser sense of more-or-less organized groups of people communicating with each other). Rather than asking what standards do or do not (objectively) constitute "real" civility, it seems more productive to ask directly which standards are in effect in different places, to what extent we can analyze the effects of those standards, and to what extent — and for whom — those effects are desirable.

Henry Gee, a senior editor for Nature, alleges that he has been sharply criticized for asserting any standards on the basis that "the enforcement of ground rules is an act of white male patriarchy and acts to exclude certain subsets of society from taking part." Unfortunately, although Dr Gee says that "some otherwise intelligent and articulate people seem to believe" this criticism, he doesn't directly cite or quote anyone. We should be immediately suspicious of anyone, especially a professional scientist, who paraphrases a critical opinion without citing and quoting its proponents. Abstract generalities are acceptable enough in philosophy (philosophers are expected — perhaps even required — to bullshit) but when we're talking about the real world, we need specifics.

While there are plenty of stupid people out there capable of expressing a stupid opinion, it's also plausible that Gee is obtusely misunderstanding the criticism that some particular standards reinforce white male patriarchy, and that these standards unacceptably exclude certain subsets of society from taking part. Because the debate is framed in an inherently misleading way, on what objectively constitutes civility, and civility is good by definition, then a criticism of objectively good standards is easy to interpret as a criticism of standards in general: who would argue for standards that are objectively bad?

Coturnix offers one direct criticism of standards in the scientific community. It's clear that Coturnix does not argue against the concepts of standards in general:
The form and format of a scientific paper has evolved towards a very precise and very universal state that makes scientist-to-scientist communication flawless. And that is how it should be... [emphasis added]

Coturnix says that part of scientific academic training consists of mastering "the formalized kabuki dance of the use of Scientese language." He may be correct or incorrect, but he has introduced an opinion before he has introduced any facts. The essential metaphorical feature of Labuki is the dominance of arbitrary conventions; mastery of the art form consists of skillfully executing these difficult conventions; mastery does not consist of using these conventions to structure the presentation of new ideas. Contrast Kabuki with narrative fiction, which has conventions — from spelling, grammar, punctuation; to sentence and paragraph structure; to standards of verisimilitude (Twain justly criticizes Cooper for violating those standards) — that primarily serve to make the communication of the author's ideas more effective. The standards of Kabuki are arbitrary and definitional -- the standards are the art form; the standards of narrative fiction are (or are intended to be) utilitarian and instrumental. You cannot contravene the conventions of Kabuki: Kabuki is nothing but convention; you can break the conventions of narrative fiction, however, if you can still tell a good story enjoyable by an ordinary literate person.

So it's difficult to immediately see precisely what Coturnix refers to by "the kabuki dance... of Scientese language." On the one hand, he doesn't seem to be talking about the "precise" and "universal" language of scientific papers; he's clear that this language is instrumental, and he approves of these forms. It's unclear if he means the language of scientific papers applied to "Letters To The Editor of scientific journals, conferences and invited seminars." In these contexts, "the formal rhetoric" is "Fine, but..." But what?

Rather than telling us specifically what standards he's referring to, Coturnix goes on to stress the exclusionary nature of standards in general, in clearly pejorative language. Standards are "essential for the Inside Club to make sure that the Barbarians remain at the Gate and are never allowed inside." Insistence on these standards "is the way to keep the power relations intact." [emphasis added] Standards have "always been the way to keep women, minorities and people from developing countries outside the club, waiting outside the Gate."

Since Coturnix is not explicit about precisely what standards he's referring to (he mentions only one actual standard, "don't get angry"), it seems easy to interpret his comments as pertaining to standards in general, or alternatively a charge that some unspecified standards of academic discourse are completely arbitrary (i.e. an "inherently dishonest" kabuki dance). But we cannot evaluate whether either of these assertions are true.

All standards are exclusionary: we don't want imprecision or ambiguity in scientific papers, and we therefore exclude papers which don't meet the accepted standards that enable precision and clarity. It doesn't matter if one does not want to or cannot meet these standards by virtue of one's race, sex, religion or national origin: you can't write a comprehensible scientific paper without adhering to the standards. (Alternatively, you could demonstrate by example that you can write a clear, accurate and precise paper without adhering to one or more elements of the standard, which would argue effectively that those particular elements were not instrumentally necessary.) It doesn't matter why you can't use correct spelling, grammar or structure: you can't write effective narrative fiction if people don't understand what you're saying. (Again, if you can write a good story without some convention, then the convention requires modification.)

Neither can we evaluate the charge that "Scientese" has the essential properties of Kabuki — stylized, definitionally rigid, content-free — because Coturnix asks us to read several paragraphs of abstract denunciations of unspecific standards before he gives us a clue what he's talking about. Indeed, the entire middle section lacks merit: It's clear that Coturnix doesn't like something, but we have no idea what specifically he dislikes.

Coturnix eventually mentions a specific context: "The debates about 'proper' language exist on science blogs themselves." Coturnix appears to argue that it's inappropriate to require that blogs adhere to the standards of scientific papers. An attempt to move the discussion of a scientific paper away from blogs was "resisted fiercely." But it's unclear why such attempts require fierce resistance. The whole point of blogs is that the content cannot be regulated by anyone but the authors. "Fierce resistance" need consist of nothing more than saying, "No."

I was recently accused of "incivility" in my recent criticism of Matt LeBlanc. My response to the accusation was a simple shrug: if you don't like what I write, don't read it. DB0 recently objected to my refusal to publish one of his comments, and my request that he not comment further here. Again, my response was simply that it's my blog, and I'll publish or reject comments as I please. He had a lot of unpleasant (and unjustified) things to say about me on his own blog, and good for him: he can write what he pleases — and accept or reject comments as he pleases — on his own blog.

It's interesting to note that Coturnix does not justify a different set of standards on blogs by appealing to the obvious fact that blogs are a different venue from scientific papers and the formal channels of scientific communication. While praising them in a short whisper, he condemns the standards themselves (or something) in an extended shout: these standards are racist, sexist, classist, completely arbitrary and without any effect on content or efficacy of communication; they serve (only?) to exclude "some people... [who] are just as good as scientists as the folks inside the club." Blogs are not just different, they are better, because they foster "honest" discussion, and avoid the "inherent dishonesty of the formalized rhetoric."

I have no doubt that some of the standards of formal scientific discourse are indeed arbitrary, some of the standards unfairly and unjustly exclude people we want — as honest seekers after scientific truth — to include, that some of these standards are unnecessarily and unjustly racist, sexist, classist and serve only to perpetuate and maintain individual's power within the hierarchy hindering (or at least failing to further) the pursuit of scientific truth. But I need to know which standards have these effects. Without specifics, I cannot know which standards deserve whispered praise and which deserve shouted condemnation. It's just not enough to say, "those formal steps were designed by Victorian gentlemen scientists, thus following those steps turns one into a present-time Victorian gentleman scientist" as if that was a substantive criticism.

Coturnix raises several objections in his article.

Coturnix claims that cience is hierarchical. Fair enough, it does indeed seem so. Is it bad that science is hierarchical? I have no idea. I can tell that Coturnix doesn't seem to like hierarchical organizations, but I don't know why, other than the unproven and implausible implication that hierarchical organizations are inherently sexist, racist, classist, and arbitrarily exclusionary. Hierarchies work for some tasks, they fail badly at others; they have advantages and disadvantages. Do assholes sometimes act to preserve their position in the hierarchy, sometimes at the expense of performing the tasks the hierarchy exists to implement? Of course: that's one of the primary disadvantages of a hierarchy, a disadvantage that has been mitigated in different ways. I have no idea what he proposes as an alternative, especially for efficiently allocating money and time.

Coturnix alleges that some mostly unspecified standards in the scientific community are Kabuki-like: i.e. completely arbitrary and without utilitarian value. He appears to imply that these standards — mastery of which constitutes a substantial part of academic training — exist only to further white male privilege. Is this true? I have no idea.

Coturnix alleges that mainstream science journalists deprecate blogs as non-hierarchical, democratic publications, where formal standards don't apply. That's a fair allegation, but one that doesn't require all that much debate. You can't censor my blog; you're entitled to your opinion, and entitled to express it, but I have the ability to simply ignore your opinion. (It would seem contradictory to complain that mainstream journalists have no right to express an unfavorable opinion about blogs.)

Fundamentally, the problem is caused by an attempt to establish objective standards of discourse. There aren't any. All standards are fundamentally arbitrary or exist to fulfill some other arbitrary desire. Take away the quest for objective standards, and it's fairly easy to conclude that pluralism reigns: create a venue and establish whatever standards you please; the readers will decide on the value of those standards in that venue. If you want to change the standards of a public venue, tell me why I should change those standards, and give me evidence that those standards have an unwanted effect.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pragmatism, uncertainty and ethical principles.

The essential feature of ethical pragmatism is that actions and conditions (objective (non-minded) states of affairs) do not have direct, intrinsic (deontic) ethical value. Actions and conditions (and the potential for actions and conditions) have effects on our subjective feelings; they therefore have indirect, instrumental (pragmatic) ethical value. Similarly, ethical principles have no objective ethical truth: it is neither objectively true nor false that "we should not kill innocent people". These observations are actually true, whether we like them or not.

A naive view of pragmatism, Bentham's utilitarianism, says that we should predict the effects of various actions and conditions and choose the alternative that maximizes the pragmatic outcome. Obviously true, because, what's the alternative? Should we choose an alternative that we know is worse? But we should always be suspicious of the obvious: it's often an indication that we're missing something important*.

*Astute readers of this blog will notice that I sometimes call various statements obviously true; you should infer either that I myself am being insufficiently skeptical or that I'm offering a subtle clue that I want to examine the issue more deeply.

Bentham's utilitarianism fails to account for uncertainty: lack of knowledge about the future that we can't (or can't yet) predict as risk, i.e. as a probability distribution calculated or modeled analytically from first principles. We can for example calculate the risk that a couple of dice will come up snake-eyes, but we are uncertain if they're loaded or fair.

Our ethical and political thinking is almost completely dominated by uncertainty. Even with our considerable modern scientific knowledge, there's a lot about the world we just don't know, even probabilistically. We can guess about future uncertainty by looking at the past, but without a model based on first principles, we don't know what elements or conditions might have changed that would render the past irrelevant as a guide to the future.

Even when we do have probabilistic knowledge, human intuition seems extremely poor at calculating actual probabilities. Even professional statisticians have reported to me that they often make fundamental errors in their thinking; becoming convinced that a specific calculation is accurate requires careful, time-consuming study. It's just not a matter of complexity; human (and even animal) neurology has evolved to perform equally complex calculations, for example the ballistic calculations that allow us to play catch or the aerodynamic calculations that allow birds to fly. My guess is that the mental tools we evolved to handle uncertainty also handle the actual risks faced by animals and humans well enough that our difficulty intuiting risk was not selected against.

By definition, we can't rationally and analytically determine uncertainty. But we still have to move around in an uncertain and hostile world. Hence we can conclude that we have evolved mechanisms to deal with uncertainty. Evolution can solve problems that analysis cannot or has not yet solved. (We do not for instance have to understand anything about molecular biology to perform artificial selection on animals and plants.) Some of those mechanisms are biological — animals too have to survive in an uncertain world — and some are social.

Understanding uncertainty as a key element of ethical and political biological and social evolution seems to have good explanatory power*. One knotty problem in ethical philosophy, the Trolley Problem, becomes easily comprehensible under the uncertainty paradigm. In the first case, where the agent must choose whether or not to throw a switch to redirect the trolley to the track with fewer people in the way, the uncertainty seems intuitively symmetrical, and we don't have any problem making the decision analytically. In the second case, however, where the agent must choose whether or not to push the "fat man" in front of the trolley to stop it, the uncertainty is qualitatively asymmetrical: we are uncertain about the consequences of pushing a person in front of a train in a substantively different way than we are uncertain about letting a runaway trolley put people on the tracks at risk.

*Explanatory power is not sufficient proof that a theory is true, but it's a good start.

Indeed, The vast majority of arguments and experiments in ethical philosophy simply assume certainty* about the consequences of the alternatives. The Trolley Problem, for example, assumes that we are certain that pushing the fat man in front of the train will stop the train, and it assumes that if we don't push him, we are equally certain that five people will die. I'm all for making simplifying assumptions to understand complex systems, but it's possible to simplify away the wrong feature: one cannot, for example, understand anything at all about aircraft design if we simplify away air resistance. Likewise we cannot understand ethical and political behavior if simplify away uncertainty. Which does appear to actually be the case: experiments that explore ethical thinking by assuming certainty are confused and contradictory; they either make people look like blithering idiots or require a rococo ethical ontology.

*Or at least a rational understanding of the risk.

Furthermore, given that selection — both biological and social — is a negative process, then it makes sense that our evolutionary response to uncertainty is biased towards avoiding catastrophe rather than optimizing outcome. The catastrophic failure of some variation leads to immediate adverse selection; an optimization appears selected "for" only indirectly, when the optimization alters the environment to select against unoptimized variations. And we do in fact see these characteristics in many cognitive biases.

We can draw several conclusions from this analysis. First, although ethical principles do not have intrinsic objective truth, we cannot trivially dispense with them, in favor of some sort of analytical utilitarianism. On the other hand, just because some ethical principle has not been selected against in the past does not mean it is some sort of eternal verity. Thus a degree of small-cee conservatism is warranted — if it ain't broke, don't fix it — but some conclusions drawn conservatively — we must preserve tradition at all costs — are equally unwarranted. Second, when we do make changes, we must take special precautions against catastrophe, even at the cost of theoretical optimizations. Given this constraint, however, the best we can do rationally is the best we can do: If we are not to simply lobotomize ourselves en masse, then we still must act in the face of uncertainty.

Most importantly, however, we can see that most ethical and political discourse is simply bullshit: consisting mostly of analyses of the intrinsic merits of these principles. But ethical principles do not have intrinsic merits, we usually cannot even analyze the consequences of changes to ethical principles to justify them directly.

There is only one good conservative argument: we know existing principles have not yet failed catastrophically. There is only one good "liberal" argument: we know the negative effects of these principles, and we must minimize the potential catastrophic consequences of any changes to these principles.

Furthermore, because ethical and political principles are the result of an evolutionary process, to make changes to these principles in a society, we must (somehow) exert negative selection pressure*: we must directly or indirectly deprecate bad ideas. Promoting a good idea ("positive" selection) will work only when adoption of that idea by a minority changes the social and economic environment in such a way that alternative ideas are deprecated.

*Negative selection pressure in the world of ideas does not mean killing people who hold bad ideas.