Monday, March 31, 2014

Anti-Gravitas

Someone is questioning the direction of this country's media culture, and interestingly, it's not a bad article, written by Rob Walker without rancor or stridency. The emphasis is on the characteristic of gravitas, the embodiment and expression of authority and seriousness that used to be par for the course from those with power.

Not so today. With the president getting "interviewed" by Zach Galifianakis and the Clinton family taking selfies, gravitas seems doomed. Walker explains that this is because of the new media, the model of decentralized, more interactive communication that exists because of the internet. But WHY does the new media doom gravitas?

We can figure this out by understanding that gravitas implies power, simply by asking, why be serious about your decisions and behavior if you are irrelevant? There's no reason to do so. Without power, there is no gravitas; it's an element of behavior absent in the disenfranchised. Gravitas is not straight seriousness or misery, but a drawing seriousness that reflects an important process of decision going on. Walker seems to consider it a behavioral trait unconnected to one's hierarchical position, a pretentious seriousness which triggers other people's reaction to take the person seriously, no matter who they are, which is simply untrue. He overestimates the individual and underestimates the context. A serious person in an un-serious situation still gets no respect; they're a stick in the mud, nothing more. But a serious person with power... you'd better take that person seriously. The lesson is, gravitas is a product of power.

And that power requires signals. Back in the day, the aristocracy decked themselves out in jewelry, strong colors, doing everything they could to present a regal appearance. Why? Because they needed to LOOK powerful, which expensive appearances show; the jewels and fine clothes indicate resources to burn. Gold means wealth, and wealth means power, an association so deep that shiny metals seem to appeal to every kid on earth and every man wants chrome pipes on his motorcycle. If powerful people don't send their signals, then they might have to resort to other means - like violence and deprivation - to get people to take them seriously. That breeds a more direct resentment and eventually inefficiency, more inefficient than spending a few bucks on a good robe and crown.


This is all completely necessary to do anything of significance, of course. Coordinated human action requires leadership. Leadership requires attention. Attention is best acquired by having power, which when dealing with people who don't know you personally, means looking like you have power.

Appearances matter. You never saw Cronkite do the news wearing a wifebeater. You wear a damn tie when you want people to really listen to you. But more critically to Cronkite's identity and seriousness was that Cronkite was an anchor on a major news outlet back in the day of three channels and the absolute authority of the nightly news. And that position was one of tremendous power. Cronkite just "fit" his position well.

It's just that his position doesn't exist anymore.

That answers some questions about what's actually been going on. When Walker talks about "new media," he's clearly talking about the post-internet mass media situation, where people have a greater choice of content. So, what do people do with this choice? Clearly, they aren't going to just stick with the seriousness of a Cronkite when lighter fare is available. They would rather listen to the pap of someone like Stephen Colbert as they mock the powerful on prime time, laugh with someone they relate to, rather than shut up and listen soberly to anyone who acts like they mean business. People don't LIKE seriousness. They prefer the pressure-free, easy triviality of pop culture.

Walker's explanation for all this gravitas killing goes back to the sixties, which has its own mythology, namely that it really changed something in the social order. That's a half-truth at best, and if the power of the three-channel news oligopoly had been maintained, then one good newsman with a clear sense of himself could have brought gravitas right back to it. But that three-channel oligopoly wasn't maintained. Now that we have choices, well, fuck gravitas.

Now, don't get me wrong: it's not like people never, ever want to get serious. Obviously, people still get seriously self-righteous when they hear about some injustice the media environment throws in their face, and they enjoy it, as self-righteousness is empowering. The air of power that comes from casting a judgment tastes good, too, and getting the injustice in people's faces is the name of the power game today. It just has to be an injustice that people can do something about, and the victim of the injustice must be someone the audience can relate to.

That's an artifact of old ways, of the experience of group identity and its power. The most important tool in the arsenal for the authority of old was a sense of purpose. From the now-reviled grand ambitions of the Roman Empire to the holy implications of the now-reviled Crusades, old cultures - or at least their rulers - seemed to feel the urge to accomplish something, to dedicate themselves to something, to reach as far as their capability offered. The old orders could do this because, as a matter of the attention economy, they dominated the market. They could shape the entire worldview of their people through religion and regulation of behavior. And their power reinforced itself as their grand ambitions were realized.

Today, that power largely doesn't exist, and getting people behind mass movements which require actual effort is like herding cats. Anyone in the world can look at the powerful and disregard their wishes, which should call into question just how powerful those powerful people are. There is no denying that it is incredibly rare that even the most strident demands - practical, legal, moral - can be ignored, unless those demands are to stop doing something that's an imposition on others, a moral demand in the sense of negative liberty. It's quite easy to say "no" when people demand something.

Or, more simply, you can change the channel. Now that we've given people a choice of who to pay attention to, they avoid those who make them feel comparatively low, and seek out their affable jesters. Thus, we have progress.

The glory of Rome and the will of God are now dead, very dead, but all the better in the minds of certain people, who see grand purpose as overbearing, culturally divisive, promoting conflict, and rightly so. Having an identity creates something worth fighting for, which is evidently a bad thing.


So in this existentialist age, without purpose in culture beyond the individual level, the self seeks value in hedonistic "quality of life." Fun is our purpose. Everywhere, little moral slogans telling us to live, laugh, and love send clear messages to take joy seriously. "Enjoy it while you can" dominates the rhetoric; happiness as a commodity, we may as well try and get the most shit before things close down. Did I say happiness? That's a little deep for what I'm referring to... how about "bliss"?

The new media, lacking its old market power granted by limited options, is not allowed gravitas. It must sell itself as broadly as possible, and in trying to do so, requires lightness and an approachable demeanor. There aren't many people who like to get deep and dark in their spare time. Personal time is expected to be about grinning, relaxed entertainment, leisure time by definition. Our work does the same thing, with every wannabe Apple trying to get their employees to love their jobs by making them pleasant and fun. Members of the Catholic church have seen the most radical examples since Vatican II and the complete removal of testicles from the Catholic order. Members of the opposite sex must be funny as well as beautiful to be worth attention. Friends must entertain. In the process of making this normal, we've created a cultural environment that carves a smile into our face, Joker-style.

Why so serious?

The better question is, why not? Wouldn't our sense of cultural unity be better served by a serious goal? Wouldn't our society benefit in some way?

The academic answer is, no, it wouldn't. This is a utilitarian world. We are satisfying desires, and our culture shall be judged according to its ability to manufacture this lightweight bliss. When people have a goal, when they care, when something matters more than utility, then there's something out there that the mind legitimately sees as worth fighting for. And fighting simply will not do. When people have a goal and care, then there might be something worth organizing a hierarchy to direct people towards addressing it, and hierarchy simply will not do. Cultures that believe in things frequently end up killing people and legitimizing inequality, and to a humanist or Christian moral essentialist, that's evil. The solution? Believe in nothing. Santayana's old saying, "the only cure for birth and death is to enjoy the interval" can't be seen as just another point of view anymore. It's the final solution.

But it doesn't work for people who want meaning in their lives. What worked for them was the cohesion of the old order, and that order is dying. When the hierarchy dies, so does gravitas.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

WordGames: Power and Utility

Slave morality is essentially the morality of utility.                                                                      -Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, A. 260

I've been reading some Mencius Moldbug lately, which is a sobering experience. By no means do I agree with him on everything, but it looks like I need to abandon about a half dozen in-progress posts as redundant. Careful with that link: it's 300 damn pages long.

But still, there is plenty more to be said, especially if you've been studying economics for a while and question the basics of it at the core. Lots of neoreactionaries are actually just libertarians who realize that you can't pull out elections without bribery, and so they don't question much in economics, including Moldbug, who's work has a basis in utilitarianism. Most neoreactionaries go with the usual Western standards by which utility is measured: safety, stuff, and "openness." So in other words, they seem to be on the liberal utilitarian boat. It really matters that government be effective, responsible, all that, all for the sake of creating better living conditions in terms of safety, stuff, and openness, which would be more readily provided in a less democratic system.

Slow down, bro. Scott Alexander beat up on this "less democracy = more utility" idea fairly easily. Now, he used a selective understanding of what's being discussed that thinks as literally as possible about its subject for the sake of creating straw men at every opportunity, but he's right about this: from a utilitarian perspective, in fact, modern society is doing fine. It might be because of democratic pressure or it might be because of a million other factors, like the expectations and consequences and the way they interact with government. I don't know why neoreactionaries would have a problem citing this, except as a purely political matter: they want to convince people that life would get even easier, safer, and wealthier if the democratic system were done away with.

Of course, this is bullshit in the raw. We don't know that, and it's much more difficult to quantify than you might think. The hatred of "demotism" and a strong appreciation for the idea of accepting hierarchy indicates more is going on behind the scenes, but evidently, political palatability is even important for those who hate democracy. In reality, they seem to be more concerned with questions of power than questions of utility. That's tough to deal with, because the line between the two seems clear, but isn't.

Ask an economist, and what you do when you trade with people is not acquiring power. It's cooperative, just the production of stuff needed for comfort. It's not power. It's not control. It's not oppression or manipulation. It's just people making decisions, exercising their freedom, acquiring what they value. It's innocent, I tell you...

Yeah, right.

I'd like to put this to bed, right now. It's a ridiculous statement.

Here's the operating question: what is utility?

Supposedly, it's all about pleasure and pain, to the point that abortion advocates use utilitarianism to explain why a fetus isn't a person until the second trimester: because until then, it can't feel pain. This is so important to some people's conception of the world, and their conception of man as a rational animal, that they simply must believe that once you sate everyone's appetites, the human race will become calm and docile to the point of ending conflict.

So pursuing utility not only seems like a rational thing to do, but more importantly, it sounds harmless, and there's a reason for that. That's the image they want to promote. Utility seekers just want to be safe, unhampered, satisfied. There's nothing mean-spirited going on there. Utilitarians can have freedom, ostensibly without harming anyone. And we care very much about freedom, the NAP, the Harm Principle, for all you anarcho-cap/libertarian true believers. No zero-sum games here!

It's a moral term. To seek power makes you Hitler. To seek utility makes you HedonismBot.


And HedonismBot was always a likable guy, threw a great party, all that.

Now, is this difference between power and utility a real thing, or is it some intuitively attractive horseshit that people like because it gives them an escape hatch against accusations of pursuing power, like everyone does? Because exchanging favors through the system of depersonalized reciprocity we know of as money, using their desires to get them to work to satisfy your desires, seems like it could easily be not-harmless under a lot of circumstances. It's a form of leverage, or even manipulation, contracts nullified as being made under duress. Society subjects people to a lot like this, and it has to, for the sake of utility. You didn't decide that it was okay for your world to demand forty hours of work a week from you, and while the grocery might carry your preferred brand of soda, it won't be playing Metallica through the PA or paint the building hot pink just for you. So, maybe utility is just what can be limited to you alone experiencing it... What about our common experiences? If you think these fairly simple and irrelevant conflicts of interest are a problem, now imagine adding religion into the mix.

Get into economics as a science, and it starts to look like utility is rather poorly defined. Pleasure and pain don't include every intuitive source of utility, nor do they disqualify what is intuitively power, for an obvious reason: exercising power is extremely pleasurable. Hell, in terms of both contemporary interaction and evolutionary biology, the experience of pleasure certainly came about as a recognition of power.

Okay, we can back up a second. Maybe you'd like to define utility as something that seems more concrete, like usefulness. Food, water, housing, a bed, clothing, and medical care are obviously useful. Useful at what? At maintaining the life of the individual in question. And no, sex doesn't belong on this list. Don't encourage the whores.

We might be back at the wants versus needs question here, and just like on that topic, we have a tendency to see people who want, or need, or require, or desire, or just gotta fucking have stuff, and take some kind of pity on them, as it's so understandable. It is understandable, because we all seek something that seems both practical for ourselves and available from society. But just because we empathize doesn't mean there's no conflict of interests. Really, it doesn't look like utility is much more than a concept invented after the fact, for the sake of differentiating desires society told you it was okay to pursue from the ones that violated expectations, got in people's way, and pissed people off.

With that in mind, let's ask the inverse question to the last one: what is power?

Power goes hand in hand with agency. It means that your actions get reactions, that you can predict those reactions, that you have control over your environment. It means feedback that lines up with our intentions. Does this include controlling people? Well, since we basically subdued the natural environment in favor of entirely man-made circumstances long ago, what else do you think you would be controlling? Of course it means controlling people. If our circumstances are man-made, then to control the circumstances, we must control men.

Controlling our social circumstances means the world to us. Why do you think "freedom" is so important, and what do you think it really means? Why is wealth, beyond the basics of sustenance and distraction, such a big deal? Why do we care about participating in government? No one with the slightest bit of sense will tolerate not having control, and in the push to establish a world that provides utility to all, we end up also trying to provide power to all. That's a problem, because while we cast utility as a cooperative game, power is clearly zero-sum. So if the lines are solid gray at this point and you can't tell the difference between power and utility, then which is the valid perspective?

Well, you tell me. Your money is directly responsible for creating demand that someone else work, that they use their resources to produce what you want. This has obvious costs for the person doing the work and obvious opportunity costs for those who would prefer something else be produced with those resources: is this not power? People who know how to codify your preferences seem to be able to manipulate you into sitting through advertisements on a regular basis, a fact which consumes tremendous amounts of time and attention, which is really all we have in this world: is this not power? What could possibly be more useful than power? Particularly power over your environment, particularly people?

Because of the phantom difference between power and utility, people are often torn between thinking that the world is filled with misery and thinking that the world is a great place that requires little to have a great life. That's particularly true for the current generation of "Bright" atheists:



This creates problems, because at the end of the day, work is both necessary and is imposed on us by the world, so no matter how easy it gets, most people will still hate it because it disempowers them. I know more people who get pissed at their job because it's boring than who say it's too hard. That might be a pride thing, but what's absolutely true is that people hate being told what to do.

Stop bullshitting. The purpose of the concept of utility is to whitewash power into something suitable for Judeo-Christian moral tastes, to make empowerment innocent so long as we come to a vague and ever-shifting consensus on the circumstances. You know perfectly well that economic systems are coercive, relationships are binding and controlling when functioning properly, and that no cultural system can tolerate a true apostate for long. So the consensus does what we would expect: it disempowers the empowered.

Beyond all the horseshit of a society that can supposedly support you being your authentic self, the limits to that world are simple and so clear that we only recognize them subconsciously: we can't have power. And that sucks, because power is what we want. The status quo might get us fast transportation, some decent Mexican food, and air conditioning, but does it get us anything more than that, anything higher, anything really aspirational? No, it's built to kill that shit.

The world is a social environment, and it is precisely this social environment that basically everyone wants to control, but can't. In trying to create a world where we can make our own reality without interference, we've put the system together so power is as widely disseminated, and therefore as impossible to leverage, as possible. The American people elect a government precisely to stop those with other kinds of power - violence, wealth - from using them, and that's basically the extent of their mandate. All political sides occasionally get pissed off about what they can't do, even leftists, albeit their irritation is focused on how moving the direction they want to move can take too long when dependent on voters. Even those on the more powerful side have so little control over their social environment that all they can do is what can be sold to the lowest common denominator.

You can make money, but even after the taxes, you can't do anything against the populist grain with it, and therefore you can't do anything interesting with it. You can have your commitments and your loyalties to other people, but they are very tenuous because the world won't support you if things get tough. This is how you build a utilitarian world: you destroy the possibility of using power for anything higher than the softest and most immediate forms of pleasure and pain, and in the process, you make power a reviled thing, even as the leadership uses it to produce more "utility" and becomes reviled in the process. Hope you like distractions, because that's all your life is going to be around these parts. We have no choice in the matter, because to build anything more involving would trample someone's prerogatives. Who says the world you want is the world I have to live in? Or vice versa? The only thing to do is to screw everyone and make them live in a consumerist shithole no one really wants but that's comfortable enough to hold back the most severe frustration.

The idea of this culture is simple: if I can't have power, you can't either. Democracy is the common man's revenge fantasy, masquerading as an intelligent feedback mechanism.

If you're like me at all, there have probably been moments in your life where you looked around at your society as people bitch about stupid details and said to no one in particular, "Just fucking DO SOMETHING!!!!" How the fuck does a society develop spaceflight that gets them to the goddamn moon and then basically just chill for decades? I mean, the obvious next level, the highest elevation of man achievable in the physical world, is right there, and we just sort of... stop?

If this culture had any sense, it would take apart the safety net except for Food Stamps and bare emergency Medicaid, push the bright people into STEM fields, then throw $300 billion into a crash Mars colonization program and pay those new engineers well to make it happen. Those brains are resources, and they aren't being used for anything but stupid crap like high finance simply because this society doesn't have a hierarchy willing to use power.

One thing that really irritated me about Scott Alexander was his complete lack of understanding of the word "demotic." He basically said the neoreactionaries made it up. So evidently, Alexander has never read Jacques Barzun, he does not understand the concept of populist cheerleading of the average and below, and he doesn't know it because his mind is so obsessed with "utility" that it has no basis for comparison. Demotism is a real thing, which deserves a better name but still will have the same purpose: to suppress higher values and the power which come from them, for the sake of the empowerment of all those who would otherwise be accountable to that power. Maybe the neoreaction should stop trying to sell itself on utility and start selling itself on bringing people together for the sake of expanding horizons.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Votes and Dollars

This blog will center on the positives and negatives of the two most dominant forms of power distribution in the modern world: wealth (driven by property rights) and legitimate government (driven by democracy).

Number 5,319 on my peeves list revolves around the bullshittery in public opinion which says that capitalism and democracy reinforce one another. This goes back a long way, but sees its greatest reinforcement from more recent conservative stalwarts like Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom. From my perspective, capitalism and democracy are both ways of managing power with completely different principles underwriting them. They make terrible bedfellows.

The fundamental difference is that capitalism places formal power into a tangible form represented by a limited currency, which allows it to be traded, to include loss, gain, investment, and waste by the individual. Democracy places power into the hands of a group by means of a majority vote, carried out periodically. Do we even consider which one of them is actually more fair, effective, or sustainable? Because if you do, it's not a clear case of logical superiority but a case of your personal level of paranoia, identity, and investment in the system. Not only do they not reinforce one another, but they very clearly contradict and undermine one another.

And yet they do the same thing: votes and dollars create power structures based on the values of those who interact with them. They work differently, but both are coercive in some sense. Both provide power to institutional hierarchies and establish social order.

So the question is, which hierarchy should be considered more legitimate, the economic or democratic?

It matters, because once the Utopian idiocy of anti-authoritarianism has been disposed of, you come down to the real question of modern politics: is democratically elected government a better source of authority than authority granted by recognized property rights? No matter what actions you think are morally right, the question of system still applies. Who should bear the responsibility, and therefore have the authority? Really, how should society work?

Capital Games




This needs to be a fresh start for your perspective in order to have any impact, so I must ask a favor: forget all the emotional baggage that the word capitalism has, and think about the actual mechanics of a capitalist system. Let's keep it basic. Capitalism comes from property rights. Property rights are simply a formal declaration of power over something that others must accept: you own it, you retain the responsibility for, and the products of, its use. As owner, you hold the power to use it, burn it to the ground, sell it, or turn it into a work of modern art. The power is yours. It assumes an owner with agency and little else, so the idea can be modified to go along with almost any ideology that assumes agency.

Capitalism, as a system, is the descendant of feudalism, and feudalism was territorial power distribution that focused on ownership by individuals and families, the landed aristocracy. It was George W. Bush's "ownership society" on steroids. In the days of feudalism, namely the Middle Ages, there was no central government supporting this situation; it stayed in place as a matter of the rival groups keeping each other in check, with some help from the Catholic church. The royals were responsible for their property, for managing it, maintaining it, expanding it, protecting it. Imagine a bunch of private businesses owning all territory today, their private armies staring each other down, and you're close. Anarcho-capitalists are probably getting a hard-on right now.

Money had always been important, but the independence of land granted before the centralization of government under nationalism meant autonomy that was almost bizarre from a modern perspective. Owning land, in the old days, was like owning your own country, a fact of life displayed by the territorial divisions in the Holy Roman Empire, modern day Germany. Look at this clusterfuck:
"National" boundaries circa 1648, just after the 30 Years' War.
Tradition, religion, and a shared enemy in the Ottoman Turks held them in some kind of accord, but otherwise the kingdoms, some very tiny, fought regularly. Over 300 independent territories made up the confederated pseudo-military system of the time, which would eventually fall more and more under the broad control of a single noble house, the Brandenburgs.

Capitalism doesn't work quite that way; its basic form has only existed since about the 16th century, so at the same time Germany was a mature feudal order as shown in the above map, the Dutch and English were just playing with the first proto-capitalist states. Capitalism focuses on a central government that supervises and enforces property rights in a more fluid arrangement of possession. The government, as judicial arbiter and spirit of the whole people, holds ultimate agency. Security, no longer a personal responsibility but a public one, opened up risk and reward considerably for those who could create value with their property.

Before capitalism, owning and defending property was always considered a good investment, due to the autonomy of title. Hierarchies based on land control were the essence of the world of kings, knights, and manors. The logic changed after centralized populist governments established dominance.

Capitalism, then, is Ownership Light, supervised ownership subject to government fiat. It holds the same relationship to arrangements of ownership in feudal times as paintball holds to war. The organization with agency here is the US government, and while said government uses their power lightly for fear of losing elections, the existence of eminent domain should kill your illusions as to whether property rights are really rights. They are privileges, the government granting responsibility for property to those who hold title to it and pay taxes on it, unless the owner is blocking "progress" and therefore is doing something unpopular with their property. The government owns the country, and everything else is just assigned responsibility.

Ownership of the property gets exchanged all the time, and the medium of exchange is money. To keep it simple: money is power. If you ever hear someone talk about national issues and say, "It's not really politics; they just want more money." then they deserve to get slapped: money is political. Even those with enough land to grow crops, feed themselves, and avoid the outside world still must pay taxes on their land, so a certain minimum of money wealth is necessary for any control over any property, and therefore, all must participate in the system.

In a world so up-its-ass with freedom talk, the last legitimate way people can compel desired behavior out of each other, the only consistent way to get people working as a group towards a unified goal, is with money.

Money organizes the economy on a macro scale. It's depersonalized reciprocity. Just about everyone understands that people must work and specialize in their labor. Money, an evaluation of the value of work, creates the incentive system by which people know what has value in an economy; this happens because what you value more commands a higher price based on its scarcity, and people who are looking to work respond to that price by specializing in whatever field commands more money. They become empowered by doing what commands these high prices, and can use their increased power, their money, to pay people to do what they want them to do, and those people can then do the same, and so on.

It's a language. Each transaction makes a statement, in pure integer value. When speaking the language of what we value, money forces us to put it in numerical terms - "this item or service is worth five dollars" - and then agree on a value between people. Then, we keep track of the value of what has been given and taken, and try to keep our heads above water. The scarcity of these tokens of value gives it meaning when we make or spend them, as a matter of relativity. Those with more value each individual unit less. That's a matter of human perception, not design. To say money biases anything is to hold a bias against math. "Accounting" is not so much a technical term as a moral one: paying your debts is simply the right thing to do, and accountability makes it work. To succeed, a capitalist must appeal to the value system of the culture he is in. Even basic survival requires understanding and catering to that values system in order to do something of value and be valued by other people. That binds people together.

Thus, money is inherently conservative: as a token of legitimate power, and it can be spent, saved, wasted, and the presence of more or less of it holds a direct correlation to the influence an individual has in the larger economy. The people who are good at this game tend to continue to be good at it, while the money that they already have gives them advantages, it takes money to make money, and so the effects of power tend to snowball up to a point where they are unmanageable. This is what it looks like when society organizes itself, a hierarchy in development. Those who take the concept to be legitimate define such wealth as earned and such power as respectable, and this creates the perception of merit.

The power gives rise to institutionalization and legacy; it is precisely the idea that people are to be held accountable that makes this - and all successful social systems throughout history - work. It's an incredibly flexible system, too. We think of capitalism as individualistic, but obviously organizations and institutions trade, too. Any entity with recognized agency can trade. Communist nations traded during the Cold War... and did so with the goal of making a profit.

Pardon if I gush, but it works fucking beautifully. At least, it does most of the time Those who want to de-emphasize money want to de-emphasize the debt they owe to those who have saved or grown their money. It is precisely because it is unequally distributed that it has meaning. Those dollars that the entrepreneur earned - or even passed down to an heir - represent services rendered. If you think those transactions were invariably made under duress or misrepresentation, then the game you're hating on is the game of life. Duress and misrepresentation are always a matter of degree; manipulating desires is the story of society, and if it came down to it, you wouldn't have it any other way.

The capitalist system is neither humanist nor empathetic by nature, no one is owed anything, but because numbers don't usually lie, you can say that it expresses the values of whoever is using it. But it can be viewed as expressing appreciation. When you buy something, this is you saying, "thanks for making this and giving me control over it. Here's a token that can later be redeemed for something of similar value." No one looks at it that way today, but that's a cultural problem and not a problem with the money-and-property system.

This does not mean that we're looking at a panacea here. The fairness of the system is a matter of perceptions and it is very easy to come to the conclusion that you have been treated unfairly in your own quest for whatever you think you deserve. There is no known way to perfectly match the growth of the money supply to the growth of value of services rendered, so inflation and deflation happen all the time, based on gold production and fiat currency management. And many people who take risks are incredibly stupid about it, which can destabilize the system. Information and allocation of attention present problems for everyone, in every system.

But the incentives to manage risks and acquire relevant information are better here than in any other system. Capitalism is about risks, and pressure on the individual is built in. That's as natural an action in the social world as in the natural world, where predators burn calories to chase prey, hoping for a return greater than the expenditure, a caloric profit. Success depends on whether the product is more valuable to people who have the money to buy it than the costs of producing it. If it happens, then there is growth; the value of the good creates more wealth, which serves as more incentive power to produce, which creates more wealth. It's perpetual motion. The pressure resulting from this dynamic is responsible for all economic empowerment throughout human history.

Spending Votes




Democracy is based on the moral idea that every individual has equal value. You are entitled to the exact same voice, with the same degree of power, as every other voter.

I will focus on representative government here, because I don't know a single person so stupid that they believe the incredible inefficiency of direct democracy is worth it. The ballot box operates on many of the same principles that making money does for those aspiring to have power in the system; acquiring votes means convincing people to vote for you, giving the impression that what you're selling has more value than what the competition is selling, and then basically trying to convince the most valuable demographics that you are doing this with every election. It's still about values, and marketing principles apply. This is a game, just like capitalism. The parties are establishment products, and the bigger the system, the more necessary parties become.

Voting requires an institution with power that people can get elected to. Centralized institutions have serious advantages, namely in dealing with 'tragedy of the commons' type situations and when defending from other institutions that have power. The idea is fueled by popularity of an individual leading to a perception of legitimacy. It's important for the element of legitimacy: the government is basically just a command bureaucracy with the representatives being those who establish its rules, so the election thing is the only element of it that creates the perception of anything more than another tell-you-what-to-do body.

Votes are a currency just like money is a currency. There's little difference in actually making the choice; the choice of a politician is a choice of a provider of a service, and buying a product is not so much a simple convenience but more like an affirmation of the value of the service or product you're acquiring, along with - in theory - admitting to the value of the person creating the good. The difference is in giving up something of scarcity to you, which happens with money but not voting. Either way, people are making a value judgment, and should admit their responsibility or at least complicity in it. They never do, but the democratic way says that they should.

This cannot be stressed enough: while dollars must be earned according to the rigors and values of others in the system, votes are an entitlement, granted to each individual for every election, and with no pretense to merit besides the voter managing to not be in jail at the time. There's a vague idea that elections should take place frequently enough to get rid of incompetents before serious damage is done, and seldom enough that the elected reps have time to prove their ideas, but these concerns directly conflict with one another and term length is basically arbitrary. So is the specific system of voting, between winner-take-all plurality voting, anti-plurality voting, Borda count, Condorcet's method, etcetera; economist Ken Arrow basically proved that no voting system can be "fair" in the sense of accepted definitions of fairness.

As it stands, dollars can be invested, saved in the long term to build empires. Not votes. The individual will always have one vote, every two or four years, and that vote is a "use it or lose it" proposition. There is no investment that can give you more votes than other people. It doesn't matter if you can't balance your checkbook or if you think a "veto" is Spanish for "a whale's vagina". A complete idiot's opinion counts for as much as the most educated, erudite, and respected man's opinion ever can. This is egalitarianism, raw.

There is no risk of failure, except failure as a society, which no voter will ultimately blame himself for. There is no risk of losing your voice, no risk of waking up on election day to find that you spent your last vote to get two doubles and a lap dance at Babydolls. There is no better system in the world for stupid people.

In America, particularly, elected officials try very hard to convince us that they aren't so much manipulating society for future votes so much as regulating it to make it "fair." But this supposed fairness is, obviously, a subjective matter, and we should all know by now that people come to self-interested conclusions when deciding what's fair. So when everyone at all levels of society is given the right to vote for a champion who "represents their values," and obviously the majority of those people will be closer to the bottom of any given hierarchy than the top, what the hell should we expect them to do?

Their perception of injustice is encouraged and facilitated by institutional media. This isn't a state run media, of course: they have no particular investment or interest in the particular party or economic class as it stands, just in the overall power structure. Plus, it lives in a competitive ratings arena, so they have every incentive to tell people what they want to hear for the sake of drawing in viewers. So they dive to that lowest common denominator on a daily basis, like so much else endemic to democratic systems.

The underlying, unequally distributed currency of democracy is attention. Manipulating attention gives advantages and disadvantages to gaining power throughout the system, just as it does in the brand awareness category for businesses. The attention economy underlies all institutions.

For the wannabe elected, the perceptions fuel power more directly; it comes down to mob-rule style popularity, formalized peer pressure, government through the same mechanism that high school kids use to choose the prom queen, and as every professional athlete and pop star knows, nothing is more fickle, nothing has a shorter time preference and a shorter memory, than the mob.

The necessity of maintaining popularity keeps any kind of serious enforcement of discipline or rigor from creeping into an elected government in almost every society that practices voting. In the name of justice, the sovereign is expected to make people's lives easier, and not to hold fast for standards. We like our kings merciful to a fault. How often do you really think the guy pushing people to do better wins popularity contests?

So what kind of standards do people want the sovereign to relax? There are plenty, but the most obvious are the standards of producing what other people value, through the opposing capitalist system.

The Democratization of Wealth


What we have here is institutional competition between business and government, but it's a strange form of competition. The government has explicit power to tell people what to do, but everyone hates when they use it and they need to get elected, so they prefer a softer and more positive incentive power, using dollars which they tax away from the wealthy, lending credence to the ideal of earning what you get. The typical story today focuses on corruption by the monied classes in government, which shows a certain expectation that all these property rights are extremely conditional, but it also assumes that the rich are conniving bastards who don't earn their money or use it well.

The clearest objection to the thesis of this blog is that people support markets, and so the conflict between property and democracy does not really exist. The people will vote to retain property rights.

But deep down, we all probably know that this is bullshit. People have supported property rights so long as the average person's stock of wealth was expanding. The support always gets soft when recessions hit, when a handful seem to get outsize rewards through market machinery, and when the actual authority that people with money have over culture becomes too obvious. Knowing this, the market system has become increasingly compromised to the democratic popularity contest over the last century. People actually support artificial market-like constructions; a real market wouldn't be nearly as wasteful, or have the appearance of such short-term-obsessed wealth, as the American market. A real market would be efficient, to include limiting the consumption of the average person. A real market would encourage people to team up in institutions for the sake of mutual aid of all kinds. But instead, the nation is the institution and the markets are subordinate to it, so market principles of autonomy are simply thrown out when enough people feel their welfare has become less than it should be.

America has had a middle class for several decades now. Because of this, people look at purchases with a sensibility that seems to override good sense about their budget constraints. There is little or no discipline in the way that we spend money, undermining everything about "market efficiency" a capitalist might think applies. That's affected out entire viewpoint on what a healthy economy should be, and that's effectively by design. We want money to communicate what we value, but we don't want to be hemmed in by it. We want money to have symbolic power to show our approval of iPhones or Toyotas, but we don't really think of ourselves having to earn the money to buy them against any kind of resistance. Opportunity and income are owed to us: if we see limitations from a lack of money, it seems unjust.

There is an agenda to this, whether the people pushing it realize it or not: the egalitarians want to make buying more like voting. We want the money to show what people value and where our production should be allocated, but not to show what people deserve to have.

I think lots of people would like to create a situation where people's income from actual work is used for leisure and entertainment products alone, extras, consumerist purchases that say something about your identity instead of commodities that should be free, and that this is the best way to be capitalist. They want a world where all income is discretionary income. The extremes, of people needing to work to survive and people building empires of business, would be avoided.

But I think other people simply want everyone to have all the money they feel they need. This would destroy the power of money, as what gives it value and brings supply and demand into accord is the scarcity of it, but that's the point. See money doesn't actually bring supply and demand into accord unless we consider money a legitimate gauge of value produced: we still want more things, even if we run out of money. So we'd like to see that go away, and it enrages us when a little thing like not having currency gets in the way of us having what we want when other people in society obviously still have the wherewithal to produce it. We want the connection between how much valuable work people do and how much they can have to disappear, obviously for what society considers necessities, but even for luxuries.

Armed with a fiat currency and too much estrogen, politicians use economic manipulation to "show they care" and boost their election prospects with complicity from everyone involved. The results of the vote over the long run show it:

  • People don't want to have the burden of saving money for retirement, so cue Social Security.
  • People don't want to worry about not being able to eat and live in a house, so cue food stamps and HUD.
  • Failure to figure out how to get health care gets you Medicare and Medicaid, plus a whole new mess of subsidies with the recent legislation.
  • Lenient bankruptcy laws are the rule in America particularly.
  • Lots of people want regulations on producers and employers, so people can just assume that products are safe and ethically made without doing due diligence.
  • Anti-trust laws eliminate the concern over monopoly exploitation which might otherwise require people to act as socially conscious buyers.
  • We have mortgage help of various sorts, including a large tax deduction, which is being debated precisely because it's failing at its primary task: to help the middle class buy houses. Since it helps investors and the evil rich more than most, lots of people would like it to disappear.
  • "Good conscience" legal principles allow for nullifying contracts that are deemed exploitative.
  • Free lawyers if you get arrested.
  • Cradle-to-grave education subsidization.
  • All infrastructure in transportation, energy, and communications have been subsidized into existence, often on conditions of equal access for everyone.
  • Plus much more!

This has all been legitimized with an intense narrative about exploitation and victimization by the capitalists. For people who view inequality as a good versus evil situation, anything that creates inequality is a form of corruption, including demands from those who work that they have more power, property, and influence than those who don't. At the end of the day, those types of people believe that people who produce should be doing so out of self-sacrificing love for mankind, not for the sake of incentives. What they accept in the meantime is an idealized vision of the people creating a good world by setting the power hungry against each other, both in democracy and with capitalism maxed out on competitiveness, managed by anti-trust, progressive taxes, regulations, and the ever popular inflationary currency. They'll take the status quo only because they can't seem to get slave morality to take very well for those with the confidence and competence to organize modern industry.

Does it work? Sure! It sounds great, so long as you can take everyone who still produces things for granted. You have to have a sucker in here, someone willing to work as if their ass is on the line, despite a safety net that clearly shows that it isn't. Germany is finding out about this right now, as the EU pushes it to subsidize other European countries. Supposedly, it helps keep the European economy and shared currency humming along if all of Europe is spending money. The logic is impeccable:

If we tax the money away from you and give it to consumers, then we're helping you, too, by giving you an opportunity to earn it back. That way, you don't get bored!

At the end of the day, the maintenance of the middle class comes down to this. The ideology of the market-democracy hybrid preaches merit as a simulacra at the best of times and a damned lie invented for the sake of the rich at the worst of times. Markets power individualism in the best of times, and in the worst of times, markets repress the spirit of the individual by forcing him to conform to jobs he doesn't like, buying products inferior to what he would prefer, and thus must the people be subsidized. 

Markets will never die, but if they look like they're actually empowering those with wealth instead of just systematically pulling the genius from them, they might be made irrelevant. So if you're one of those who actually thinks that producing for others will grant you respect and real influence, if you pull overtime for the sake of maximizing production, if you work your ass off in high-demand fields because it's what society needs, instead of what you feel like doing, if you actually place any faith in the concept of accountability instead of the biases of the victim classes, then ask yourself: do you really think they'd let you get away with it?

And more importantly: you know they're just using you, right?

Don't strain yourself. They aren't worth it.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Haterade

Hate. HATE. HATE!

Aw, hate hate hate hate hate hate hate...
It's everywhere. It gets talked about too much. So, let's talk about it some more.

What is hate? Hate indicates an impassioned disliking, to the point where those experiencing it would be driven to destroy or at least change the subject that they hate. If you look at this definition and then look at political opinion on the left and right from a distance, it's fairly obvious that there is no serious comparative advantage in haterade production between the two. The political right wants to maintain a status quo it values and therefore predictably hates those who wish to change it, wishing to change them. The left wishes to change the status quo, and therefore predictably hates those who support it. Either side can say, in theory, that it's the ideas that are the problem, that need changing, not the people. Let's not get into something complicated, like the degree to which people are defined by their ideas.

Since I have a functioning mind and even a few values, I have an extensive list of shit I hate. I even hate how people use the word hate!

For the sake of verbal variety, I loathe how that term is thrown around. As someone on the right, my opinions are evidently built out of pure, patriarchy-fresh, weapons-grade Hate. Leftists think we hate what we don't hate, or what we merely refuse to value equally to what we love the most. We long ago breached the wall where hate really meant something about character, and it has degraded into a simple demonizing term, shorthand for anything the other side dislikes. It's very convenient, to be able to say that the more heavily someone disagrees with you, the more hateful they are.

Hate is energy, and I swear, you can create a perpetual motion out of me with that word. Whenever I read the word "hate" in discourse on politics and culture, I produce more hate than the cost of the initial hate, thus violating the law of conservation of hate. Where does this hate come from? I dunno, some deep well of metaphysical hate which channels through me, the Emperor encouraging me in the background. Good, let the hate flow...

There are two other things I know I hate. The first is stupidity, the lack of coherent and well-thought-out ideas that breeds ideological bandwagon-jumping. The second, and closely related, is a certain strain of dishonesty I think of as the pious propaganda instinct of liberalism, and all the tendencies that go with it. It's not stupid, because it often works, although those who actually buy into it are stupid. I hate the stridency deeply felt for nothing more than a solipsistic worldview, I hate the unflinching and unjustified belief that their values are objective while the values of other cultures are merely leftovers of oppressive orders, I hate the sense of entitlement and the materialism, I hate the emotionalism, I hate the dismissals of all ideas not their own married to the expectation that their ideas should be listened to, and I certainly hate the hypocritical tendency to accuse enemies of the exact same character traits they embody.

Delicious and refreshing!
One example that pissed me off really good a few months ago is Salon's treatment of Richard Spencer, the head of the National Policy Institute, which advocates white separatism.

I'm not a huge fan of Spencer for a number of reasons, but nor am I a huge fan of leftist treatment of the topic of race, which will get its own post later. Suffice it to say, race matters in a more sophisticated way than the topic is given credit for, and will have cultural implications just based on the difference in people's perspective wrought by different appearances. This is important enough that blacks were having very serious discussions about separatism versus integration just a few decades ago. But today, conversations about race have been shut down with such efficiency that any conservative who opens their mouth or closes their wallet to minority issues is drinking from a cup of hate, and drinking deeply. They might have decided to bathe in it. Might have even developed HateGills so they can live while swimming in it. Using the H-word is absolutely critical to maintaining this state of affairs, and preventing society from veering any further away from the borderless unified humanity they want.

We need not get into detail about ideas in the article, since Salon.com certainly does not. Naturally, how does Salon frame Spencer? They try hard to sound objective most times, but then you have moments like the last two sentences:
As we shook hands and parted ways, I turned briefly to get a glimpse of him walking away. I couldn’t help being surprised that that same well-manicured man had just expressed so much hate. 
Of course, the last word in the article is HATE. That's what the writer wants to leave you with, the association she wants the reader to have with Spencer. Should have seen that coming. Earlier, Spencer explicitly rejects the notion that he's driven by hatred, but of course that's not taken seriously. It's not like they are capable of respecting this man. To recognize and research race with any intention other than furthering their narrative is simply hatred, stated by the executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network: Spencer, she added, is waging a marketing campaign that repackages a classic brand of hate and selling it as a benign intellectual studyDespite a lack of feelings expressly communicated here, the author assures us that, With me, he was slow to unmask his feeling about race. Because his feelings are obvious, right? Despite having come from a household that was obviously not filled with race warriors, despite a high-dollar education, despite being well-presented and erudite, Spencer is simply irrationally hateful. 

This position is constant in the MSM, as race issues are simply never discussed on critical terms, ever. For the political side that constantly claims the intellectual high ground, that's a problem. But never mind. The man must be driven by an emotional agenda, and not the same concerns that every other political activist believes of themselves: that they live in a culture with systematic problems and identify with a group that has valid concerns for its future.

It's Salon.com and I don't expect much. And I'm not going to say that the man is full of equally glad tidings for all peoples. Nor should he have to be: you are allowed to be closer to those you identify with than those you don't identify with, last I checked. I have no doubt that Richard Spencer prefers the perceived culture of white people to black people. That's a preference. Is holding a preference the same thing as hate? Don't liberals have preferences?

Hatin' the Gays


Similarly, no matter how many times conservative writers say that they don't hate gays, no one believes it. Either they hate gays, or they're literally living in fear of them - homophobia - leading to some really ridiculous, really immature, and really idiotic stereotypes of people who oppose gay marriage and associated expressions of homosexuality being equal to heterosexuality:


Explain to me the logic of this, without also telling me that the person who left the note is either an asshole who wants to piss someone off - sounds a bit hateful, doesn't it? - or is really stupid enough to think that support for the traditional family model that has existed for several thousand years comes down to OH MY GOD QUEERS SO GROSS COOTIES EWWW!!!

Idiot. And let's not get into the psychology of a person who would do this, take a picture, and post it on the web with apparent pride, either.

Gay people seem to get special benefits when it comes to accusing their detractors of hate, maybe because what they're doing is loving one another, the opposite of hate if you take those words at face value. Since liberalism is Judeo-Christian and encourages everyone to love each other, gays are an embodiment of sorts for their principles. They love each other so vigorously, after all.

Look, I know gay people, I get along with gay people, and I have no problem giving certain gay guys I know a friendly hug when I see them. There are gays in my family and among my most long-standing friendships. I also respect traditional family structure and think that, in a culture bound to Western individualism which desperately needs a stronger sense of accountability, people should be expected to raise their biological children within that context. But to some people, even most people, saying "no" to gay marriage can only be traced to something personal, some visceral disgust. But it's not personal, nor is it personal for most of the conservatives I've talked to about the issue.

Go ahead and ask me a loaded question: if you had gay kid, what would you tell them?

Not much, until they ask. This assumes I have a kid who is a 6 on the Kinsey scale. I would say, "Well, it's disappointing, that you won't have kids. But okay." That's about all I would, or realistically could, do. I wouldn't disown the kid. He or she would be invited to Christmas dinner. I'm not marching in any parades, I can tell you that.

The real action comes up if we're talking about a kid who's a 3 on the Kinsey scale.

Swinging either way means making a choice, because men and women are different, they have different expectations and psychologies if nothing else, and you have to adapt to this if you want to have any success in the sexual marketplace. So if I have a kid who's a 3 on the Kinsey scale, then I would strongly encourage that kid to aim for dating the opposite sex. I wouldn't be too pushy about it, because there's nothing more certain to push a kid away from a direction in life these days than having an older person push that choice like a Jehovah's witness selling timeshares. I would prefer a calm discussion over it at an age where the kid brings it up himself or herself. I would also prefer to live in a world where respect for authority exists, but this is America and no father has the option of really acting like an authority figure here.

If I have a kid, that kid gets at least two decades of heavy investment from my life. Why should someone who theoretically doesn't regret this decision recommend to their kid that they reject that choice? Wouldn't it be an insult to the family for a parent not to recommend continuing the family line to their own kids?

I can hear the chorus of, "Well, it's not right to push kids to live your life! You don't know how they feel or what kind of life is right for them, what they're meant for! You have the obligation to keep an open mind!" Sounds great to think that people have this life that's meant just for them, doesn't it? But there's no reason to think that's the case: we mold ourselves and are molded by the world in a dynamic process with plenty of possibilities. Kids are kids. They make stupid decisions and their myopic perspective on being alive when they've been spoiled straight to hell means that they're usually blissfully unaware that most of their points of view come from other kids at school or, worse, media messaging. Kids are wrong about who they are all the time. Being a kid is fresh enough in my memory to know that. I've been around a few decades now, so on the assumption that I actually have something in common with my kids, I'm going to give them honest advice. I'd rather be an asshole than untrustworthy, and sometimes that is the choice. If this creates conflict, then fine. Parents are too cowardly today.

Is this perspective hateful to you?

If it is, you need to learn what words mean. It's not hate. Holding an opinion and having a sense of identity is not hate. Deciding that one course of cultural action is better than another is not hate. To say otherwise is to say that having values is itself immoral and disgusting, that all decisions are equally good and the same, that all perspectives are equally good and the same, that no one is ever right. Such a position implodes on itself, and good riddance.

Somehow, it became so accepted that thinking gays shouldn't have a legal right to marry was absolutely equivalent to hating them that the conversation moved into racism territory. The fight itself became evil, and that's just ridiculous. Marriage is about accountability and genetic legacy, and if we were in a culture that had thought this through, no one would be encouraging anyone else to get married simply because of an emotional connection. The institution handcuffs the people in it, and it should, because creating and raising children is too important to be seen as a matter of how you feel.

Looked at in a different light, you can make one last claim to say that when liberals talk about hate, they are referencing a lack of open-mindedness and compassion. But none of this is about open-mindedness and compassion. Being compassionate would indicate that there is tragedy and weakness in being gay - which we are told it's not, since it's supposed to be legitimately equal - while being "open-minded" would basically require shutting up about your own preferences, while you step out of everyone's way and let them live, think, believe, and act however they want. This is fundamentally impossible, but more importantly, that's not what's being suggested by liberalism in America.

What's being suggested is a very definite choice that implies the rejection of alternatives, as any choice must. It's a choice to devalue group identity in favor of an individualist hedonism, and that choice will brook no argument. It's every bit as totalitarian as any right-wing ideal, which is fine to those who are on their side; they join the chorus of accusing the opposition of hate without dissonant guilt, because to them, the opposition is both wrong and is acting as an oppressive overdog which they must valiantly fight against. This intensity of purpose looks like hate because it does not lend itself to dispassion, but nor should it. If having such an intense degree of belief is hate, then hate is a natural part of life when you care about something, and it should be managed, not vilified and used as a pejorative.

But this is where we are. So, if you stand for something, you should probably just get used to the word "hate" and let its intensity wash out a bit in your mind. It's just an insult. I've used the word 64 times in this blog so you can get used to seeing it, reading it, thinking about it at a distance. It's essentially meaningless, and it should be treated like it. If you want the prerogative to have an unpopular opinion, then inoculate yourselves now.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Teen Moms and TV

SURPRISE! Teenagers are jealous of the teen moms in the TV shows they watch!

Somehow, we didn't expect this, because these shows are supposed to be cautionary tales that show teenagers the consequences of getting pregnant at a young age. And somehow, teenagers learned that the consequence for teen pregnancy is getting lots of people to watch them on television. The exact content of these TV shows doesn't matter, because TV is incapable of being a disciplinary medium.

You know this. The shows all have semi-cute teenage girls as their main characters. What do you expect the producers to do? Do you expect them to portray those girls as idiots, moral degenerates, failures? Do you expect them to try to maintain regular season programming by establishing unlikable protagonists? Or do you expect them to create likable protagonists who are constantly getting shit on by life, and to portray this as justice instead of victimhood?

No TV show can survive on reality. They need narrative, and they need that narrative to show the good people winning. If Farrah Abraham and Jenelle Evans have hopes and dreams that turn them into relatable TV friends for their audience, do you expect the production team to show their hopes and dreams being destroyed from a neutral perspective? Of course not. Everyone would want to help, because this is America, and we don't make examples of people, especially young girls, here. We save them.

And more importantly, we elevate them, the new everywoman for other stupid kids to identify with. These girls now have storybook endings, book deals, Wiki pages, and fans. Since boneheaded idiocy of this caliber could only come from America, let me explain something very basic to all of you who could possibly be flummoxed by all this: Attention has value.

Attention is a currency. When you have people's attention, especially in large numbers, then you are relevant. Otherwise, you're not. So in putting them on TV, we give them power. The actual story being told is secondary at best.

"While we're here at the season premier of our TV show, let us tell
you how terrible our lives are..."

It doesn't matter if they cry in every episode. It doesn't matter if they spend the entire time complaining about how they don't have a life and people think they're whores. It doesn't matter if they're constantly on drugs; actually, for the kids who have discovered that some drugs are a lot of fun, it would be a bonus. When you aim a camera at them and let them gain sympathy and compassion and relevance through highly-rated media, then you have just elevated them to a position of greater influence over other people's points of view on the world than 99% of the US population. That, more than the content of the shows, is what the kids in the study were responding to. Of course the teen moms are getting paid and becoming famous.

There is no difference between good and bad attention in this culture, because there is no real, severe punishment to deal with in the latter case. Even if people disapprove, it would be mean to say anything about it; you must just assume that the fools know their mistakes and will try to do better. If they don't know that, then their decisions must be working for them. And if they need help, well, we have to help them if we can, because we're supposed to be good people and good people help, right?

We've been taught to be nice or to mind our business. We've been taught that there's no excuse for being harsh or judgmental. We've been taught that even complete fuckups deserve our sympathy and help in turning their lives around more than criticism, let alone the unmentionable prospect of rejection or ostracism.

Cautionary tales that rake in recognition and money for the screwup are not cautionary tales. They are tales of how you too can make a bucketload of money by fucking up your life and then using the ensuing drama to get people to care.

When society allowed itself to have ranks and inequalities and demotions, when fathers and bosses and officials had a job more sophisticated and demanding of respect than just unconditional, appliance-like support, then consequences could happen for failing to meet their standards. But here, in the land of endless excuses for every failure and endless questioning of legitimate authority, we don't do that anymore. Overblown emphasis on compassion and support create situations like this all the time.

A society must be willing to inflict pain.

Now, I'm not saying that these shows are increasing the teen pregnancy rate, because stupid teenagers don't need permission to fuck. They will fuck, and if they don't like the feel of latex, they will get pregnant. They're teenagers. They're stupid. Fact of life. The show doesn't much change the overall incentive structure of the culture. But here's a more radical idea: the teenagers might be smarter than the parents here, because from what I can tell about these shows, the girls' parents still support them, opportunities still exist for them, and their lives will be called "courageous" and "triumphant" if they succeed in the face of bad decisions, far more than if they never made those bad decisions in the first place. That's not a production of TV; that's a reflection of the populace at large. No TV show is necessary to survive as a single mom today, even a very stupid single teen mom. We've built this society for them.

Addendum: Two days later, Yahoo! has published an article directly counter to its earlier one, this time saying that the shows reduced teen pregnancy. The new article takes on the formidable task of talking up the decision-making of teenage girls, who have theoretically noticed that the girls on the shows were, to say the least, not role models. In any case, the difference in pregnancy rates is less than 6% over the course of nearly 5 years, which anyone who's taken a statistics course knows is near the margin of error in most studies. The article is careful to point out that correlation does not equal causation, and in this case is one factor in a continuing trendline of less teen births. Bigger factors are at work.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Would the Real Honest Character Please Stand Up?

Simple question here, and one that should be of utmost importance in a culture where everyone is really into authenticity and "being yourself:" Do you find out who people really are when they are under pressure, or when there is no pressure on them?

It's not a simple question. Look at the context in which we expect people to make decisions. We have pushed and pushed to create a cultural environment with no judgment against people who want something outside the norm, and we have pushed even harder to undermine judgment against people who don't maintain long-term contracts. Everything becomes unfair when the prices go up, the expectations too high, the costs too great, the effort needed for this game too intense. Divorcing wives and homosexuals both seem to find it important that society is not judging them as they find happiness in being who they are. Money seems to screw up everything, too, so we want people to avoid the pressures of having to respond to it. No one should have to do a job they hate just for the money, right? Remember Office Space: if you had a million dollars, what would you do? This kind of thinking is important to people. Their decisions must not be constrained by coercive elements like the threat of violence, ostracism or deprivation.

So think about what this means. It seems that only decisions made effectively in a void are actually legitimate decisions. Therefore, an individual is not expressing their true point of view if the power of the outside world is coercing them in any direction, a state which is a little difficult to create but intuitively desirable. Thus, we have the makings of oppression.

It's easy to see the mental workings behind the idea: if someone is making me choose something by threatening me if I make a wrong decision by some standard, then I'm going to be what the world wants me to be, not who I want me to be and therefore who I really am. So my real self is being buried by the pressures of a cruel universe.

These are the people who emphasize free will, a difference between persuasion and coercion, the rights of the individual, the necessity of choices provided, the moral illegitimacy of decisions made under duress. They have a hell of a time squaring all this with law and order, with the economic machine, with punishment, with responsibility, all the more so in a world increasingly more guiltless and godless. But we place an awful lot of stock in this idea.



But hold on a second:

I know lots of people, particularly men, who seem to think that we only really know what someone cares about by how much they prioritize it in the grand scheme of the world, not simply when the world holds no influence. Obviously if everything was free, you'd have more of whatever you had time and attention to consume, but what you decide to pursue despite being on a budget and having to accept the trade-offs is what's really important to you... right? I mean, you aren't making decisions with no sense of priorities in this world, are you?

Doesn't it say more about who you really are and what you really care about, that you are willing to pay?

It's a question worth asking: would you tolerate loss for something? For someone? Would you take risks for what you value? More to the point: is what you want worth pain? These questions are more aligned with a perspective based on economics and praxeology than Western liberation ethics, a discussion more involving cardinal and ordinal utility. From this point of view, it's about what you do, not what you say. We're talking revealed preferences. And doing right by other people or by the principles of your culture is only impressive if it comes with a price.

Helping your Dad fix his car when you have nothing better to do IS different than helping your Dad fix his car when you blow off other things you'd rather be doing or even need to do for your own sake. That's when you can really say something about how much you care about your father.

What does this say about people, when the prices seem to regulate their desires? Because it probably says more about the people making the decisions than about the prices themselves, or even the people setting the prices. If your understanding of a person's true character is who they would be if no one gave a shit what they did, if they had the Ring of Gyges and endless resources, then I have a funny feeling that people wouldn't look any better - assuming an honest evaluation, even by their non-standards - if they were allowed to be who they really are.



This kind of thinking is critical for understanding how much value someone places on something. It was seen as extremely important witness to faith in God that Jesus, and later the Apostles, preached their sermon despite threat of arrest, punishment, and even death. It has been seen as important to understanding their devotion that men work for years at jobs they don't like to care for their family. The other way to communicate to others how much you value something -just telling them you want it - becomes too easily a drama contest pitting people's rhetorical talents, their ability to scream and cry on command that is alien to a masculine ideal of stoic effort that does not intrude itself on others. Why would mad desire that comes out in passionate expression be a legitimate gauge of worthiness? That's a Western and extremely feminist notion; need becomes gauged by emotional intensity and not exchange value.

That goes hand in hand with welfarism. Doing good works for people is easy if it's free of cost or if you're rewarded for it; in the end, it means making someone else do it. If you're expecting some kind of exchange out of politeness, someone showing thanks by "giving" something back without ever having consented, then you've just thrust an exchange on them and it isn't really good works. But doing something for others at genuine cost to yourself... why must charities beg, anyway?

There is a reason - actual reason - that Christianity emphasizes sacrifice so much that their corporate logo is a guy getting himself literally crucified for the sake of other people.

So. Which is the real you? Are you what you see yourself as in your mind's eye, or are you how you respond to the world on its terms? Are you a private ideal or a public persona? Would your real, honest values, the real YOU, please stand up? Can we get a word from your true self?

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One side looks at life innocently. They just want a life where their path is clear. The other looks at life strategically. And the arrogance necessary to believe that there is such a thing as innocence reflects the arrogance necessary to believe you deserve a state, as opposed to a deal. A strategist approaches the world on its terms. An innocent - or so they would call themselves - just wants what they've come to believe the world owes them.

Of course, this changes the moral calculus. You aren't a victim of the world: you're a part of it. Only a hermit could really live well without some control over people, some expectations realized and ideals conformed to. Without this we have no prerogative to judge and therefore no prerogative to condemn the prices others demand from us, so you can see the difficulty: suddenly, there's no such thing as oppression. And we have to believe in oppression, so oppression comes from high prices.

Assume the price tag to be a fact of life, and assume that any "just price" can only be a matter of perspective. If that's the case, then who are these people who regard justice to be a world where everything is all but free, in every sense of the world? Do we owe them Valhalla? Evidently we do. You've seen this perspective before, likely almost every day. It's the perspective of someone who lives with someone else paying the bills. It's the perspective of a child.

What child is happy to know that their most powerful dreams and desires can be reduced to coefficients in a demand function? And a demand function among many that form an aggregate demand function, at that. It makes our dreams seem so... irrelevant. Aren't we supposed to be more important than that?

It is the repression of the true self, only if you understand that the true self wants power and considers all obstacles to be unjust be definition. What we imagine we want if cost is no object - a free world - is not so much anything inborn, but some desire picked up due precisely to the pressures of the world. Of course we want what's out of reach, but I rarely hear of people truly desiring something that doesn't exist at all. People get their desires from the world, so I find it difficult to believe that desires are "inborn" and a "part of who we are" outside the context of our physical and social environment. Everything is power, remember, and it should never be surprising that someone wants something just because he can't have it. The entire philosophy doesn't just scream of rebellious reaction for its own sake but screams louder that all that can be right is solipsism.

Great men have made the world by building their visions, but they paid for it. If you want your world free, then good luck finding someone to sell it to you at that price.

If you meet someone who does something asinine and inconsiderate, then says, "look, I didn't want to do that, but I have bills to pay/cops to avoid/grades I need to get/potential sex partners to impress/a boss breathing down my neck/shit that needs to get done," then you should know what they're doing. They're selling themselves to you, lowering the cost of their failure by assuring you that, really, deep down, they aren't like that. And they aren't. If they had nothing to gain, they might not have done that. But they did have something to gain, and your irritation, pain, and inconvenience was worth the price to them. Remember: you have a price to others.

That doesn't make the world a tragic place to live. Instrumental value is all you can have to people who don't know you, and you don't really know that many people. It just shows the value of those who treat you better than that.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

WordGames: Lost Decades

The professions of economics and politics have embraced a new fashion over the last few years. Whenever there's a somewhat extended period - several years, often around ten years - where economic growth is less than excellent, they now label this period a "lost decade."

And man, these lost decades are everywhere. The most famous of them goes to Japan, who's economic problems have been going so long that judgment against their performance covers two decades, starting in 1991 and arguably continues today.

European countries seem to be headed in a similar direction. Their financial crisis kicked off a period of stagnating growth pretty much everywhere except Germany.

And of course, there's the good ol' US of A. Particularly when your attention is riveted on employment and income, America has sucked for a solid forty years now. My alma mater recently hosted professor Edward Wolff, who explained the situation on fairly sensible terms: the mismatches in labor supply and labor demand, the rise in the superstar phenomenon, and globalism all played a part in pushing American incomes back to a standstill since 1973. Thus, a lost few decades for average American incomes.

Implied in the "lost decade" phrase is the idea that things should have and could have been better, if it weren't for some X factor which invariably gets politicized. Among the first people to talk about this was Paul Krugman, who identified Japan's lost decade and established the concept of liquidity traps, whereby central banks can no longer stimulate an economy by lowering interest rates, as they can only go so low - theoretically to zero, although negative interest rates have happened, where you pay people to take the newly printed money - and they can't force anyone to borrow (for those playing the home game, the Fed can't force anyone to borrow, but the US Treasury department can, and did, in 2008 following the collapse of Lehman Brothers).

Just so you know, these are pretty much all happening after huge booms where long term trends are left in the dust. In Japan, for example, the property boom was, ah, a little exaggerated. In 1991, the land in Tokyo alone was worth more than all the land in the United States. After the crash, no investor wanted to pay the price to re-inflate the bubble, so of course, the economy retracted, at least on paper. In reality, if you control for stupid speculative asset values and the distortions they create, the crashes suck but performance afterwards usually isn't really that bad. Japan's lost decades actually feature expansion at a rate of about 2%, which is quite good if you remember that Japan has basically zero population growth. No surprise there: companies like Honda, Mitsubishi, Canon, Nippon Steel, and Fuji Heavy Industries continue to make money just fine, thank you.

The European debt crisis came from their own housing boom, one that took place in pretty much every country that has earned the PIIGS moniker. Greece, obviously, enjoyed a boom in housing which went along with their permanent boom in government services, made available by a bond market which assumed that Europe would bail out the default-prone country if it screwed up again. Same for Spain and Portugal. All three countries enjoyed labor policy far to the left: Greece maintained a railroad so inefficient that you could have paid a taxi to drive every passenger to their destination and still saved money, just to keep 6,500 railroad workers employed, while allowing workers in "highly physical" occupations like hairdressers to retire with full government benefits in their early 50's. Spain's labor market maintained so many protections for full-time workers that no employer would hire them, instead relying on temp labor; unemployment, presently around 26%, is far higher for young people. Italy has managed to hold on to zero productivity growth - and a high degree of popularity for socialist politics - for well over a decade. Ireland, the odd child, renovated its tax code along the line of Reagan-style supply-side policy, drew in corporate employment, and held their own housing boom, which collapsed and was among the first to contribute to the crisis. The government then decided to guarantee its banks and debt exploded; although harsh, the austerity measures faced less argument there than any other country, and recovery has been stronger.

So let's review: a situation occurs in which everyone agrees that the valuations levied on certain assets is explosive, unsustainable, and ridiculous. Those prices eventually, and painfully, return from orbit in a crash. Then, this idea of lost decades comes around which, using the periods of ridiculous values as their benchmarks, whines about how things have gone a really long time without meeting expectations. Obviously, I've come to the conclusion that I hate the term "lost decade."

Lost decades have nothing to do with whether or not something that realistically had the potential to exist was lost. They have everything to do with using the permanently high expectations of voters that come around whenever there's a boom. Plenty of people see this, but the existence and political popularity of terms like "lost decade" will be around for a while as it remains useful to damn whoever is in charge by labeling one.

Subsidizing American Labor


So land values get involved in pretty much all of them, and the crashes usually start there. But forget land; the most common economic good to overvalue in the post-industrial world is labor.

Artificially inflating labor costs isn't a market distortion in the eyes of most people, because it happens to be the cornerstone of most party platforms for cultures that hold competitive elections. Work is, of course, just another economic input when viewed without a moral agenda. It rises and falls in value, and while we like to see the cost of everything else fall in this world, we hate it when labor falls in price, as that's our wages we're talking about. But we should expects downs to go with the ups in labor value, too.

So the US situation focuses a lot on inflating the value of labor. Now, think about being a business which uses labor as a production factor. What do you do if your society is constantly trying to increase the cost of labor? Obviously, then the natural thing to do for those whose business requires a lot of labor is to reduce the use of it or find cheaper alternatives, which is exactly what we've done.

I can't blame them. The background of the American labor market, the standard by which earnings and worker conditions are compared, is the period between World War 2 and Vietnam, one of the world's greatest middle-class booms.

The period after World War 2 saw a degree of demand enjoyed by American business and American labor that was so freakishly wonderful that compared to material progress at basically every other period of the same length, heaven had arrived on Earth. We rebuilt Europe with Marshall Plan money, the last industrial power left standing, exporting like mad and, after NSC-68, throwing battleships full of cash at the military as well. Over 35% of the labor force was unionized in the 50's, and unions exist pretty much exclusively at times of economic prosperity, where they can siphon some cash off for themselves from companies that enjoy huge market power. The identity of the American middle class lives in this time period; the demand for American labor was extraordinary.

Remember that word. Extraordinary. As in, other than ordinary. As in, not normal.

Just so we're clear on this, no one in their right mind, with the slightest bit of historical perspective, would assume that the growth from that era could possibly be kept up in perpetuity. Think about this: if the American economy grows by 4% a year, what will it look like in 2250?

Previous middle classes have risen briefly, running on for a few decades, and then fallen apart, usually attached to an empire. That's the historical pattern. Spain had a middle class in the 15th and sixteenth centuries. Holland had one in the 17th. Britain in the late 18th through about World War 1. And the US has had one since World War 2. It stagnated, as all of them do. And it will probably end, as all of them do.

Middle classes are a bitch to maintain, because you're talking about the distribution of market power, which is dynamic in any healthy economy and tends to move towards increased concentration. Trying to avoid that concentration through demand-side redistributive schemes increases the likelihood of inflation, while trying to avoid concentration by supply-side management is basically shooting yourself in the foot. Supply-side stimulus literally empowers those who already have wealth as a matter of policy.

When it comes to managing the value of labor, you basically end up subsidizing work. Not just a little work, but the bulk of it, because economies that function are hierarchical by nature, and the closer you get to equality, the less efficient the system becomes. Efficiency, by definition, is getting things done with minimal input. You can't maintain high growth with high levels of inefficiency, so the push to "liberate business" made by guys like Reagan is, after the collectivist ideals run their course, the only way to stimulate growth without inflation.

The Really Big Picture


The term "lost decade", with its ridiculous expectations, implies that the business cycle has been mastered, and despite all the Keynesian and neoliberal pronouncements to that effect over the last seventy years, no sensible person believes it. Instead, you're left with a simple statement of moral and political righteousness.

What we've distorted is not rational expectations, but expectations of progress in a moral sense, and the progress comes from the moral ideal of equality. The problem with a bust, really, is that normal people are affected by it and it moves the distribution of wealth towards those who have wealth. Booms don't; booms make money cheap, and investors must take bigger and dumber risks to maintain their relative place. Labor, however, benefits from constantly increased demand.

The link between inequality and boom/bust draws out some hellacious arguments and isn't overwhelmingly dominated by either side, but underneath the talk about the rich getting richer is a basic reality: under boom conditions, the economic world needs people, lots of people, to work. Everything becomes easier, happier, with higher standards, and thus less efficient. Under bust conditions, people become useless; when spending less, we don't need them anymore. We love that booms devalue money: I remember the tech boom in 1999, when one magazine article suggested ways to spend all the excess cash you had lying around, including buying the body of Vladimir Lenin and using it as a coffee table, or having a famous Japanese calligrapher monogram every blade of grass in your yard. During the housing bubble, a few years ago, I remember Ditech.com commercials showing loan officers acting like retarded used car salesmen, prodding everyone to cash in every penny of equity from their homes, moves that would pull them financially underwater after Lehman failed. Booms encourage the hell out of debt, of all kinds, which is usually the most painful element of the bust. Stupid, all of it.



We crave that stupidity, because it means that money is losing relevance. A boom economy convinces people that we're moving towards a world where everyone can expect work, then can move towards doing the work they want, then can work when they feel like it, when ridiculous ideas like the efficient market hypothesis seduce people into complacency and utopian dreams. Those dreams, in modern Western consumerist civilization, live on perceptions of equality, on the fantasy that growth isn't driven by competitive energy and is instead a product of cooperative preferences with no need to fight or tolerate unpleasantness.

When a country becomes powerful in global terms, like Spain, Holland, Great Britain, and the US, the wealth reflects dominance and the power is real in the sense of a powerful business dominating a market. Working in those countries become the equivalent of working for Apple or Goldman Sachs. It's a matter of relative strength, where productive action is needed from a population as clearly as it is during a war. The wealth created by internal booms is not like that. It's purely speculative and psychological.

An economist named Kondratiev and an accountant named Elliott have both hypothesized about grand cycles of economic growth and stagnation, and their ideas stand in stark contrast to the political desires of most of the modern world. We want to think we can maintain booms forever, but we can't.

What you get in the long view is a notion similar to what Hyman Minsky said about the boom-and-bust cycle of credit: stability begets instability. We go from hedge investment, to speculative investment, to Ponzi investment. It's extremely psychological, and given what people are, it's inevitable over the long run. Those big Kondratiev waves work over the course of generations, not years, eliminating the possibility for individuals to learn from experience: every generation thinks it can fix the fails of the last, and they pay for that arrogance. Overconfidence creates the groundwork for stupid people to do stupid things and screw up, thus destroying the confidence. The push to get the economy going again after a credit bust is basically an attempt to use monetary and fiscal policy to manipulate investors into doubling their bets on a craps table with cold dice. They won't do it. The only way government could really fix any of it is through authoritarian action in the moment or moves to stabilize the financial sector during a boom, which translates into an imposed reduction in growth. Democratic nations won't stand for it.

For labor, it's more of the same. The big demand for labor in boom countries eventually overextends itself and dries up, creating shocks and disappointment. Labor gets devalued as investors stick to sure things, people rediscover thrift, and with the memory of waste in the back of their minds, don't trade as much for stupid crap that would only be bought by someone who doesn't really value their own wealth, thinking that it's endless. In other words, they grow up, and those with little or nothing of real value to contribute are exposed. In other words, equality begets inequality.