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?


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 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.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Pope Francis: Part 2

Today, December 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela died. I have strangely little to say about this, except to note that his politics assaulted the status quo for the sake of utopian populist notions of freedom. But he also seems like a really nice guy. Come to think of it, he reminds me for all the world of Pope Francis.

Think about it: serious idealist comes into institutional power, preaches love and hope, is (mostly) beloved by the political left, and throws yet another wrench into the concept of legitimate hierarchy. I'm seeing a historical troika developing: Mandela, Pope Francis, and I'd also throw Mikhail Gorbachev in there, just so you know what's likely to happen to the institution unfortunate enough to have one of these guys take power.

Francis recently spoke out against capitalism, and boy, am I shocked. A clergyman with long-time experience in the ghetto hating inequitable distribution? Never would have seen THAT coming. Obama's already rolling with his ideas. How long before the wealth of the Vatican becomes a topic of conversation? And how long before the good pontiff starts giving it away?

Conservatives are not pleased with this new direction from His Holiness. Evidently, there is something more acrimonious to talk about than abortion and homosexuality, and for obvious reasons, questioning capitalism makes little sense to much of the establishment. We really have no option. Going from one group of self-interested people holding power - capitalists - to another group - politicians - is not solving anything, and this has been historically proven. At least with capitalism, things get produced. No other known system gets things done with any kind of reliability, unless you go back to more authoritarian systems, which people will not tolerate. Even in Christian thought, you need some form of your own strength to help the weak in the face of the selfish strong.

The Road To Hell...

Look, he's a pope. He's not an economist, and really, he's not even a philosopher. He's a sweet man, and guys like that have no business with power because they don't understand the basics of how it works. Capitalism, socialism, all these cultural systems describe methods of distributing authority over resources in such a way as to get things done. Speaking out against capitalism IS pointless, but the reason it's pointless is because nowhere in this game are we going to find a system that gives people what they want, which is more power. Poverty, Francis' pet peeve, is by definition a lack of economic power, and power is a zero-sum game. There's nothing Francis can do, nothing anyone can do, to create a system in which all rise in power, as opposed to simple possession of material goods and the supposed utility they provide. The closest he can come is to promote redistribution, which creates an expectation that people will get more from those in charge for doing less. Our system is already optimized to give people tons of crap. Whether or not they need more stuff is hardly questioned, and Francis looks blissfully unaware that people's "needs" are relative and impossible to satisfy.

A pope should understand that material wealth is not the problem with modern society, although this one doesn't seem to know it now. But hey, railing against the rich is making him popular. What can you do? None of this should surprise anyone.

Rush Limbaugh can call Pope Francis a Marxist without irony because Rush Limbaugh doesn't understand enough about Christianity to know that its fundamental philosophical foundations are the same foundations as Marxism, and always have been. Us Nietzscheans know how this works, but precious few other people do, especially conservatives.

Rush speaks to Christians over the airwaves; it might be news to some of those Christians, the ones who do not think through their moral principles, that Judeo-Christian ethics are based on subservience and self-sacrifice, and not the kind of individualism that modern libertarian-oriented conservatism promotes. Just a hundred years ago - a single century - some of the most well-known and beloved left-wing radicals in America were preachers, albeit Protestants. The most obvious example was William Jennings Bryan, who railed against the corporate classes, rousing farmers against bankers and pushing inflation through the Free Silver Movement. For most of Western history, religious organizations have been the political left.

In the case of Catholicism, that role has not been revolutionary so much as evolutionary; the church knew, and basic Judeo-Christian philosophy understands at the core, that inequality and some kind of relative deprivation are part of earthly existence. Thus, they focus on life after death, and redemption for the inevitable self-interest of being alive here. They cannot create heaven on Earth, although at various times, some popes have addressed inequality; Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI wrote Rerum Novarum and the retrospective Quadragesimo Anno respectively, to address inequality and industrialism specifically. The Catholic solution looked an awful lot like the guild system that individualistic capitalism replaced. Pope Francis might intend to move in a similar direction, which isn't so bad, but really places blame for modern problems in the wrong place: on capitalist inequality. In contrast, Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno called out liberalism and socialism as false gods, and with good reason; the Enlightenment holds some of the blame.

This might be a missed opportunity for the church already. Were the pontiff to point out the problems of capitalism and suggest a new arrangement in which Catholicism played a greater role, then the entire exercise would be a sharp - albeit unlikely to work - institutional power play. But Francis, who's also toying with changing the church's principles regarding homosexuality and contraceptives as well, might be under the impression that liberating people will solve problems instead of making them worse, by encouraging policies that "liberate" people from poverty, like redistribution. Francis is a true believer, not so much in the fundamentals of his religion - this is, after all, a man who called proselytizing "solemn nonsense" - but in the people; Mandela and Gorbachev would be pleased, but institutional order would be in trouble.

The "solemn nonsense" article is important to understanding what he's trying to do. Francis' idea of attracting people to the church is to be more giving and more pure in morality. He wants to, in essence, inspire people to be Catholic by selling them the faith, by creating an image of goodness that will draw people in by their natural inclination to the good and the Godly, by being the brand-name house of love, kindness, and sacrifice. What a vision, this species that is attracted to rigor and discipline out of love.

It's beatific, it's sublime, and it's completely fucking ridiculous. There are large portions of Christian thought that I find ludicrous anyway, but the degree of faith needed to look at the human species and decide that the problem is that stupid people don't have enough agency, and that people living in an individualistic culture want to do more in exchange for less, hoping for metaphysical grace in the afterlife in this secular age, truly staggers my mind. Religion needs cultural and institutional legitimacy - maybe even some mildly coercive proselytizing - not hippie humanism carried out like you're trying to sell a club membership. The Protestants would have never fallen off if things worked that way.

If Francis held some genuine economic insight, he would be able to see that capitalism, the system of economic distribution by property rights and legal accountability, is not his enemy. It's just a system, and at the core of that system is people making decisions. The decisions are made according to cultural and personal values. If Francis wants to make a change, he will need people to be empowered to do something, and they will not have that power if they do not have rights to property, and responsibilities to go along with those rights. The way he talks, he encourages socialism by default, simply because it isn't capitalism, but socialism is enforced redistribution, not voluntary charity, and the meaning of charity dies when options disappear.

But still, he's such a nice guy. Once again, he's a great PR pope; you can see why people like him, especially certain people who are looking to have their worldview validated. I agree that the financial and material elements of the world should matter less than the relationships, than the cultural and moral elements of society, but Francis isn't making things better, he's making them worse. He's empowering fools. I want to like the guy, but... but...

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanks and No Thanks

It's been too long since I posted, with not a single blog issued this month. Hey, I've been busy; starting a business is a pain in the ass, as it turns out. But on to relevant points: Happy Thanksgiving!

Today is the day when we shall show our appreciation for all we have by eating most of it with gravy and stuffing, then waking up early and, wearing pajama pants and hiding melee weapons under our overcoats, drag ourselves to the retail beast's lair at the ass-crack of dawn to fight our way to savings at risk of our very lives.

Nothing new about saying this, as just about everyone and their dog laments our greed these days.

Some people are incensed enough by people having to work on Thanksgiving and the early morning after that they push the idea of boycotting businesses that are open on "gray Thursday" and Black Friday. It's ridiculous, but fortunately, our desire for low prices is far, far greater than our misplaced and sophomoric concern for other human beings. We'll be at the stores.

Black Friday is so named because stores that have been running debts all year get "into the black" by selling tons of shit the day after Thanksgiving. They can't take advantage of us without our help, and there's no sense to blaming them for wanting to run something other than deficits. Our government could learn from their example. When it comes to the greed, you will eventually blame whoever you despise the most: either you despise the shopper for being vacuous, or you will despise the capitalists for enabling the vacuousness.

So, should a society's power classes encourage this rampant consumerism, or should they enforce some agreed-upon - but nevertheless coercive - code of virtuous behavior?

I'm usually quite sympathetic to the cynicism surrounding capitalism these days, as I loathe consumerism as a lifestyle, but look on the bright side: at least people are getting off the couch. So, yeah, businesses figured out how to manipulate people into the stores under the least flattering circumstances. If you hate it, then don't do it. The most disgusting element of all this is that when given agency, this is how people choose to use it. the situation could be worse, although killing people in a mob for a Sesame Street toy might be a bit much.

But anyway...

I find it repugnant enough that giving thanks for what we have is such a rare activity. Christian practice holds that prayer - which is for giving thanks and not for asking the Lord to help you win the fucking lottery, you shitheel - should happen daily, preferably more than once a day. The fuck happened?

Well, being thankful is out of fashion. You're supposed to want more out of life, aren't you? You're supposed to push harder and scream louder, to demand justice, to complain loudly until you get everything you deserve. And what you deserve depends on what you can convince yourself you deserve, which depends on your self-esteem and imagination, both of which get hyper-charged around these parts. Expectations got ridiculous a long time ago. Satisfaction and thanks will not be forthcoming in this culture.

Besides, being satisfied is bad for a number of reasons, all of them going back to some low-frequency form of populism. There's nothing more useful in the acquisition of political power in a democratic nation than the idea that people deserve more than they have and the only reason they aren't getting it is because of the evil present order oppressing them. Particularly, they can portray the giving of thanks - particularly in a religious context - as the most deceptive way the powerful prevent the "natural order" of egalitarian humanism from coming into existence. They can say, "They're being evil by having so much, but they make you feel evil for wanting more! They're bullshitting you!" One side is trying to make money by selling things to other people - the horror! - while the other side tries to acquire more power by claiming moral delinquency on the part of the other side which has more.

So who's being greedy here?

You know the answer: everyone. But once again, you'll despise the side you want to despise.

Since I look at hierarchy as inevitable and still put a generally positive value on a society experiencing internal order and peace, I think thanks should be given more often. But I'm also going to do some Black Friday shopping. My family is doing it, and I'm going to help a certain someone pick out a new TV.

If you get too irritated by something like shopping frenzy - and particularly if you get irritated even as you complain that consumers don't have enough money to spend - you really need a sense of humor. I'm thinking there will be less than five casualties tomorrow. No big deal!

Update, December 2013:
As it turns out, I was only off by two!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Redefining Laziness

So after posting my last slapdash blog on the "conservatives hate the poor" stereotypes, a conversation the next day came up which was predominantly focused around that exact subject. Now, that blog was far from my best, but after arguing with a couple people for a while, I realized that there was definitely something important missing. I said, and I maintain, that people are generally lazy; the point of the blog was not that conservatives don't think people are lazy, but was rather that conservatives don't hold a particular stereotype about the poor being particularly lazy. Everyone is lazy in some way. The conservative, in my experience, generally thinks that the difference between the poor and the not-so-poor boils down to something different, a gut tolerance for shitty work.

But if this isn't a basic case of fundamental, innate differences between people, then what is it?

Well, after thinking about this for a couple of hours yet again, I realized that it was in my understanding of what constitutes laziness. It wasn't that I hadn't thought it through, so much as I thought it through long ago and have been writing on the assumption that laziness was well understood and readers would just know what I was saying.

But laziness is not well understood. It's actually kind of difficult to define if you go by the normal vision of a lazy person as simply someone who is inactive and prefers to stay that way. Suddenly, I had a crystalline moment where old thoughts came back and I remembered how I had thought out this concept years ago, then integrated my conclusions into my worldview, how those conclusions evolved, and eventually forgot how I had come to conclusions that made so much of a difference. But I shouldn't have done that. There's a key to my conservatism - and my Nietzschean worldview - locked in my definition of laziness, and I'm going to spell it out. If this makes enough sense that you think I've stated the obvious and you've heard it before, then I've succeeded, because I don't think it gets laid out much, if at all.

What is Laziness?

Think about it: what is laziness?

Is it a resistance to doing work? Yes. But what kind of work? ANY kind?! I think not.

A resistance to just physical work? Please. Laziness has nothing to do with physical activity. That's especially true today, when fitness buffs can obviously be slackers (Jersey Shore?) and the fat guy in the office could be the hardest worker there. The connection between laziness and physical activity is a historical artifact, coming from centuries of being expected to work in the physical sense, as farmers, miners, craft artisans. Any time you're burning calories at a higher rate than motionless idle, you're doing some kind of work, but there are plenty of lazy people who move their bodies around, so it's not the same. Nothing physical describes the economic difference between work and leisure.

A resistance to learning? To actively acquiring skills? Please. The laziest people I know are getting incredibly skilled at Grand Theft Auto 5 right now, which makes sense, given all the "work" they put in to it. 

Is it a resistance to doing pointless work? Hell no: a resistance to doing pointless work is the basis upon which economic efficiency is founded. Besides, there are Luddites out there who disdain technology because it strips them of jobs that the technology makes pointless. Many people think they need pointless work to give them value, and while we can call them lazy by some standard, they aren't lazy in the sense that they won't do it. The question is whether pointless work is actually work, as opposed to waste. 

And pointless work is waste, intuitively. So what makes work work? This "work" concept needs a better definition for laziness to have a better definition. 

Well, let's start here: Playing GTA5 isn't work because it doesn't accomplish anything that others require of us. So, for it to be considered work, must it be what others want us to do? YES. That's the definition of work: what other people want us to do.

Right here, it should be obvious that this is about power and control. Laziness is a denigrating term used to straighten up people who are not going along with society's economic expectations. Like all other moral terms, the concept is cultural, normative, and meant to affect our behavior. It's meant to get us to work, and work is social.

There are two components to this normative definition of work:

  1. Work means investment. The action of work is the action of doing something for the sake of future benefit. All work, when you think about it, is investment. When you grow crops, you grow them with the expectation that later on, you will use them for some functional application like eating them, or sell them, either of which works in your benefit AFTER the work is done. By definition, working means doing something you'd rather not do right now for the sake of assuring yourself the ability to do something you want to do in the future. So again, work means investment. 
  2. Given that humans are social creatures, work implies a social meaning. A group is not simply a band of individuals, but a gathering with loyalties, internal dynamics, a hierarchy of some kind, and a basic understanding that every part has some value. Specialization requires that every member do something, make exchanges, work as a group, and work is therefore an extremely social activity for any human being. What's important about this is that work be what other people value, not that you value, and there are very few exceptions to this. This makes work somewhat coercive: you would not be doing it unless other people made you do it, and in a market system, that sense of force comes from the activities of other people that have value for us, the things we want from others and that we coerce them to do with our economic power, our money, that we acquire.
That's work. These things run on a continuum, of course; some investment-based economic activity runs on a shorter time frame. The most obvious example is a guy with a temp job that's "work today, get paid today", which is fairly immediate in reward and requires no long-term commitment, versus a dedicated company man who starts out in a mail room earning peanuts despite their college degree. Also, while some economic activity is very personal - growing a vegetable garden, for example, does not require other people to help, or to buy your stuff - it's all got some interpersonal punch.

Individuals generally want, on a selfish level, to do what they want instead of what others want, and to make minimal commitments. Society wants people to commit, taking the long view, and to do what others want the most i.e. what is in highest demand, market-wise. Everything from pay to bond market interest rates reflects this. People will push you, even if you think your welfare is not their business, because it really is.

No society is totally individualistic, so the talk about individual responsibility has its limits. Even when one member says, "I'm not doing anything and I accept the consequences", other members of the group know what this means: later, when starving, this asshole will require other people to support him. The group will have to support him, or they will feel terrible and question whether they could trust their neighbors if they went through a rough time; rarely do humans let other humans in their group just die. So even taking care of yourself by growing your own food is social work, as it assures others that they won't have to carry your dumb ass.

Proactive Humanity

So according to the above perspective, laziness is not about physical activity at all, but about doing what you want to do, versus what others want you to do. That assumes a difference between the two, a big difference between what you feel like doing and what society needs to get done.

I resisted this conclusion in my younger years. The thing is, ever since I first took an interest in anything economic, I never assumed that people were "naturally" lazy. People could be quite motivated to do things, feeling compelled to do things, when they really cared about something, and this much was obvious. We have energy, and no one wants to just do nothing. So I thought, if people cared about each other, they should be willing to do at least some work other needed of them, so that could handle the minimum drudgery that technology hadn't figured out how to solve. However, most "work" could be based on what people wanted to do.

This occurred to me when I was about 16, and I went from there to believing that it was society referring to an activity as "work", with all the arduous connotations that word has, which made the big difference in people's views towards what could be a creative activity without the sense of burden attached. We didn't need the coercion of money, or so I thought. About this time, I sent off for literature from the CPUSA.

At the time, I took seriously the idea that people were inherently good, selfless, really wanting to work but having been misled by a system dominated by assholes.

This was the result of a certain perspective I had about pleasure. There are people who really, literally enjoy doing what they do, as in, they'd do it even if you didn't pay them. I thought this was evolution making the act of helping others pleasurable, entirely aside from the self-interested benefits it conferred. I thought that if the contribution of doing work was communicated better, people would simply want to do it.

But there's a difference between helping people selflessly and helping people because it's empowering, and it became much more clear over the years that work is enjoyable because it is empowering. Everywhere you look, the examples of people enjoying their work are actually examples of a certain type of socialization. Artists are a good example: on a higher level, what are they actually doing? They're expressing themselves. The pleasure they take from it derives from their ability to garner praise or make a heavy social impact or simply be taken seriously, a reflection of their power. The artists who create selflessly are the ones you don't know about, because they do their work on their own time and then put it away without showing anyone, expecting nothing. Work is always about acquiring value from people. Value is subjective, uncertain, and we yearn for the assurance of public appreciation in our work. The football player who scores a touchdown feels real joy and personal triumph when it happens, but that comes from social circumstances. It's a game played by people for interpersonal glory, a competitive context. They feel good because they've raised their value in the eyes of others, and they will be able to leverage it for their own benefit in the bigger scheme of things.

Such people are being empowered by their investment, and the reaction from the crowd lets them know they've invested wisely.

The obviousness of this empowerment is less direct with people who, say, work on an assembly line, sometimes so indirect that they feel their job is meaningless. But that's not true; it's meaning is just less obvious and visible, as the assembly line worker is not there at the point of sale to see the person who really likes what they helped to create. Even more abstract is the case of someone like the guy who makes gasoline or some other commodity and nears nothing but bitching about the price and how they're getting bent over. Their satisfaction can only be found imagining how much people's lives would suck if they woke up tomorrow in a gasoline-free world.

There's a bias in favor of apparent joy: important work is seen as work that gets a happy reaction. But that's a terrible, terrible indicator of what work is actually important.

And that's just as true if you don't like it, either. Do we really want to do what others want us to do? Usually not, as people are self-interested. Nor do we care as much as we think about the lives of those who create for us. Do we really sweat much thinking about the working conditions at Foxconn when we buy our iPhones? Nah, we don't really care about the suicide nets. Welcome to Human Conflict 101, the origin story, the prequel, Part One, the Oldest Testament. Those people who get lucky and really want to do their job? They probably like their life more than you, but even then, they won't want to do it every day, with pressure applied to do it a certain way, at a certain rate, day in and day out. Even people doing their dream job have their bad days. Every artist eventually sells out to survive, as only the most vapid can actually think and feel on the terms of popular culture.

16-year-old me just didn't get how deep these things went, how lucky the people who enjoy their jobs are, how wrong I could be about the nature of people, and how poorly the supply that people preferred to give each other lined up with their demands of each other. Incentives, coercive incentives, are necessary. The people who provide what others want must be rewarded. They can not and will not be rewarded equally, and if it were required, then the system would collapse. Those who provide more must have more power, the link between investment and authority legitimized. The investor who's concerned with the long-term welfare of the business will take the short-term hit of being an asshole for a little while in exchange for the long-term benefit up tightening up discipline from the people he depends on. Those who can make trade-offs like this proficiently can build empires, and those who have are responsible for humanity's power.

As arrangements are made, some people will push the envelope and say no to the expectations, which could lead to reduced welfare for the rest. Most people do not abstractly blame themselves as a society for this, so they blame the power class. And so, the power class punishes people who are slacking. They are responsible for discipline. They used to just beat people's ass. Now, in the context of our free and individualistic society, the threat of getting fired acts to motivate people, the capitalists holding power and being appropriately hated for it. If you get fired, you might be able to coast on help from other people for a while, but if the support happens on personal terms, normal humans get tired of your lazy ass and tell you to get a damn job. This is how it has to be, and this is the ecosystem that gets destroyed by large-scale, impersonal charity.

These dynamics are both self-interested, and group-ish, as society is a condition of the individual's natural environment, a positive condition where the individual can acquire rest and pleasure by running on earned credit for a while. Every time we take a pleasant breather in this world, we have the activities of others - people who constrain violence, people who make things, people who entertain - to thank. Society is a system of investment, and everyone has to pay in.

Let this roll around in your head for a bit: the definition of a society is a group of people that invests in one another. Whoever doesn't do it takes themselves out of society, alienates themselves.


From what I can tell, there are two psychologies to the lazy bastard that are based on their attitude towards the expectations of the system. The first is the undisciplined slacker.

This is the person who knows what's expected of them and at least passively accepts the arrangement, but who delays or evades it when it's time to get things done. 

I know how that goes, because I am one lazy fucking fucker.
This bastard is a neat freak next to me.
I'm a born procrastinator. I put shit off, even though I know that shit needs to be done. (I'm doing it right now!) I prefer to chill out, listen to music, read, dabble in whatever, and just kind of check stuff out, especially cute girls on the interwebs. And, of course, I like to sleep in, and I mean really sleep in. Noon is too early to be up and doing things. These are my natural preferences, and they happen to coincide with the typical stereotype of a lazy person. I assume they are somewhat innate, as most of them have never been encouraged by anyone except implicitly, by example, my dad in his later years. I hated his loafishness as a kid and he still pushed me to do things, so I don't think I picked it up from him as a matter of conditioning, but rather as a matter of genetics. I've always had to fight it. The Army helped a bit.

It has its good points. I spend little time feeling overloaded, as I tend to get shit done at the last minute, so 6 days out of 7, I feel unstressed. My immune system is oxen-strong, as years ago, I tended to wash my dishes only about once a month, and my body had to deal with the unsanitary results (I've since reformed this... somewhat). Guys like me will keep being slackers, making short-term excuses and saying "I'll get to it tomorrow, don't worry" unless some problem - sickness, boredom, authority - forces us to take action and think beyond the next hour.

These people are not a threat to the order unless they are allowed to continue being slackers while everyone has to keep working. But if they manage to make work habitual, they will sometimes take their hatred of unnecessary labor into a talent for efficiency that spurs innovation and good order.

The other type is the rebellious slacker.

The rebellious slacker rejects the arrangement on the assumption that he's getting screwed. It's not that he doesn't want to work; it's that he doesn't want to work under this set of expectations, under the thumb of these assholes, with all this pressure being applied. The arrangement becomes unjust as he realizes how his feelings are less important than his performance.

Is he getting screwed? That's purely a subjective opinion, and it's inevitably a selfish one. We've been arguing about the arrangement for centuries, and equality - in metaphysical theory, in legal theory, or even in practice - has become default justice in the West because everyone wants more and nothing else can be innately justified to people. Equality is the Mexican standoff among all groups in of Western civilization: whoever flinches gets shot full of blame and moral guilt.

But for every rebel who is truly pissed off about the unfairness of the arrangement and would work hard for a better one, there are thirty rebels who simply don't want to be told what to do. They reject the authority of society over them. These people very rarely call it misanthropy, a rejection of the people, as that's a terribly unpopular thing to say. But rebels also very rarely have any real philosophical ground to stand on in rejecting the authority that runs society and enforces its value system, except the fact that everyone knows what it's like to hate being told what to do, and they empathize. So the rebel turns the idea of "the people" into whatever they want it to be, and will fight like mad to legitimize their point of view while destroying the legitimacy of the prevailing power class.

This is not undisciplined slacker-ishness. These people are dedicated to the ideal of a slacker's world, and fight for it, empowering themselves by controlling the context of their society, the intoxicating experience that becomes everything they want to do. By undisciplined slacker principles, they often screw themselves by doing more work than they would have by running with the status quo. But they aren't undisciplined slackers. They're egoists. It's not a lack of energy or a lack of investment-mindedness that makes them what they are. It's an absolute refusal to do what other people want them to do. It's pure anti-social alienation.

One time in a thousand, these people take action and change things in a way that can be argued as an improvement. The rest of the time, they are simply selfish. We have seen the enemy, and it is the rebellious slacker. The undisciplined slacker shares a desire for control, a desire for the power to watch TV or sleep in without negative consequence. The rebellious slacker offers some of this power, by creating better excuses, by argumentative innovation, with disordering consequences. They are natural allies, but the undisciplined is a foot soldier. He takes his cues from the rebel.

This is what we have to watch out for. The fundamental concept of freedom is that others can't tell you what to do. How far do you think that can go?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Stereotype Within a Stereotype

As we all know, conservatives hate poor people.

Obviously, there is a connection between being poor and not having a decent job. When I was a liberal, the big joke was about "boot-strappy" Repubs who thought everyone should be able to come up regardless of social injustices, their complete irrationality on the subject, and the essential hatred of the poor that they seemed to savor like a glass of fine Thunderbird. Oh yeah, and racism.

That's painting with kind of a broad brush, isn't it?

The Story from the Other Side

I've spent time with the people who are affected by these issues. I know few people, regardless of political persuasion, who think it's typically as simple as expecting the government to hand them free money; those in dire straits are fully aware that they need to work. That much is clear, although the kind of work they think they should be doing often is not. I've also known people who failed before, who fail habitually, and the pattern is quite predictable. See if you can relate:
  • You need a job.
  • You look for a good job first, pass on a couple of bad ones, until you realize that for whatever reason, most jobs you're looking at are not going to be what you've been dreaming of. So you apply for the better of the bad ones, the jobs where you might stand a chance of finding something good about it.
  • You find a job that looks like it might be tolerable.
  • You start work. It's okay for a while, maybe even enjoyable to be doing something with purpose, meeting new people, making money. You have a job, which is better than not having a job, and you can do this. There's a sort of honeymoon period where you get to know a few of your coworkers, and they're good people, and you can handle it. This lasts for maybe a month or two.
  • Despite our best efforts to change corporate management to be more sympathetic and give out more breaks and treats and compliments and generally be easygoing, tricking the worker into thinking that they earn deep respect for work that a terrapin can do, the boss remains the boss and replaceable employees remain replaceable. The boss might be the owner or manager; either way, they are invested in the continued competitive functioning of the business, and end up demanding things that seem increasingly asinine. The boss starts to push harder, and the butting of heads commences. You come home tired as hell every day, possibly angry. Your social life and your hobbies have suffered. You realize the job is boring, repetitive, annoying, and in lot of ways, a dead end. You will never be president of the company, and if you don't watch out, you might be here at sixty.
  • Eventually, you start taking shortcuts, getting irritated more easily, really hating that you have to go in every day. You draw more lines in the sand. This is you after the honeymoon, the real you. Everyone's a bit different, but if you hold the slightest self-esteem, the idea of doing this shit forever will start to grate on your imagination and make you feel like a failure. Suddenly, you're a douche to work with. You might have problems with telling people off. You might have problems with being late or absent for your shifts. People won't be able to depend on you.
  • Now the boss should theoretically have to fire you, but that's a hassle bureaucratically, so they will alternately start scheduling you for less hours. Much less. Eventually, you no longer have a job in any relevant sense. You will likely quit, sometimes spectacularly, and feel totally justified in doing so, although the money questions remain in the back of your mind. 
  • Rinse, repeat.
I have a point in laying these basic dynamics out here: conservatives understand this. We've been there. It's not that conservatives don't get tempted to tell the boss to lick balls or tell the customer to toss his own salad. We may have done it before, albeit not so much as adults with people needing us to bring home the cash. Conservatives might be less likely to take stupid risks, less likely to quit impulsively, hoping and wishing that things work out and that a bad job is a stepping stone to a good job in our personal life narratives. It's a less romantic worldview, one more bound by duty and pragmatism.

This stereotype of conservatives being made up of rich people and stupid rednecks who are incapable of "getting it", of comprehending and empathizing with the pressures and stress and trials of being an adult who just needs a break, isn't true.

People already get lots of breaks, and the conservative recognizes a point where the excuses have to stop. Adults with people relying on them must keep going, even if things suck. Justice in vocation is not a matter of good versus evil; there are jobs that satisfy so deeply that it becomes your life, and jobs that are pure, unrelenting torture. This is a continuum, almost all work falls within these boundaries, and the actual calibrating of this continuum is deeply subjective.

Grown-ups know the game. At about two months in to a daily-grind job, that's when character has to show. You either have to find a way to use your off-time productively to find something better, or you get used to where you are. Keep showing up, make friends, get used to it. Even the latter option is not the end of the world. You can get comfortable, and maybe accept the reality that most humans have had to accept:

Work sucks. They would not pay you to come in if they could get someone to do it for free.

But you can embrace a life where you work to live, instead of living to work. No one lives to work at Arby's, but you can eat and pay rent even on that wage. It would be massively unfair if those who stomach this were treated equally to those that won't. Being too merciful about this basic expectation causes problems: The days of people valuing work enough to stay for long periods and build seniority are over, keeping wages down and giving rise to credentialism. The system should not devalue the good fortune of getting a steady job that pays your bills. It cannot turn support for those who quit into an entitlement; there has to be a threat of some kind. There's a logic here.

Second-Order Stereotyping

Liberals don't look at conservative thought as having any sophistication. What you might notice about this is that to explain the lack of support for policies which benefit the poor and unemployed, liberals have created a narrative about conservatives which demeans them. This narrative relies on the conservatives holding their own false stereotypes (poor people are lazy and deserve it), and explaining why anyone would have such a stereotype by stereotyping the stereotypers (they really just hate minorities). Liberals think of themselves as the people fighting against stereotypes, but the general presence of the stereotype within a stereotype, like Russian matroshka dolls, runs mad among them.

They love their snarky little cut-downs. You might have heard these things before:

They say that those who seem to have a problem with gay people are actually repressed homosexuals themselves.

They say that people who don't want the rich to be taxed want to become rich themselves one day and are operating under an especially stupid form of self-interest.

They say that if you have a problem with affirmative action or if you own a gun, then you're afraid of black people. If you spend time learning to use that gun, then you're a Solid Snake wannabe who's aching to start a fight, and without that gun, you're still very much afraid of black people.

They say those who subscribe to religions which promote severe discipline are people who have some kind of mental disorder that keeps them from being happy.

They say that conservatives simply hate women, or are afraid of them, or just need to get laid, or all of these at the same time.

Actually, ask around, and you might find that most conservatives weren't hugged enough as children. The spankings probably fucked 'em up. Something something abuse... Or maybe it's just in their genes. Meanwhile, whoever the conservatives stand against becomes almost saint-like.

This is stereotyping assumed to be so rampant that it creates second-order effects. We all know that the anti-discrimination legislation was passed with full knowledge that Americans were so heavily programmed to look down on everyone not white, male, rich, straight, and Christian that they were incapable of thought. Accepting that view is just part of the propaganda war that comes with living in a democratic society.

The liberal stereotypes usually focus on emotions, as liberals over-value emotions: if the conservative doesn't support their positions - which is to say, positions that move society more towards an individualist egalitarian vision that cares about people's emotions more - then it's because of fear or hate. The only better buzzword is ignorance, which appeals to the ego of anyone who wants to feel like a well-informed part of the solution. If it marginalizes arguments from the other side by putting images of dysfunctional people in the heads of the public, then they will support it. Like every other political and ideological side ever, they push the notion that what they believe is common sense truth while the other side is a big, steaming plate of hot garbage that could only have been created by subhumans looking to justify what Jim Goad calls "gleeful assholery".

But let's call this what it is, and I don't just mean calling out the propaganda war aspect or the childishness of liberal utopianism. The basis for the denigrating nature of these comments is the idea that stereotyping is always bad. But is that actually the case?

Since I stereotype with abandon on this here blog, you might have figured out that I answer NO to this question. Stereotyping is the mind organizing its environment by classifying discrete units into like groups and noticing patterns of behavior, which also just happens to be the basis upon which all knowledge is formed. Most of the time, our stereotypes exist because we accurately see things. We see that douchebags wear super-deep V-necks, that you can tell a vapid skank by the tramp stamp, hooker shoes, and tanning bed overload. There are exceptions to all these rules, but you won't go broke gambling on these appearances lining up with reality. Stereotypes are an inevitable consequences of people having an openly shared sense of identity, and being part of any group acts as a check on behavior because it motivates people to stay out of trouble and not look stupid, even people who don't have anything to lose personally. If you've ever represented any group anywhere, you understand this. Making your family, friends, alma mater, company, church, or anyone you care about look like shit is deeply dishonorable.

We hate stereotypes because we are supposed to be culturally individualist first, and that individualism translates into a deep suspicion and loathing of the idea that people can be typecast. You shouldn't even think about it: the signals given off by appearances should always be ignored. But we observe our world, and so long as we do, we make these kinds of assessments.

When the general assessments don't work, there are problems. Racism, in particular, has been a problem here. No matter what the IQ stats say, and no matter how screwed up black culture looks, there are unarguably decent and intelligent black people who get screwed on any first impression because they get tarred by the same brush as others who share their skin color. Trying to solve this by continuing to lump blacks together in rhetoric and policy holds drawbacks, but at least the problem was clear, considering America's philosophy of individualism.

But individualism didn't always mean that you couldn't think, and the race issue kicked off a whole host of "reject all stereotypes" thinking that is past its expiration date and needs to be rethought. There are times when you can make some generalizations. People who are a part of voluntary groups who develop a reputations shouldn't complain so long as they have the prerogative to leave. Getting criticized for the company you voluntarily keep is not stupid, as your voluntary actions mean something. Homosexuality, for anyone who values the idea of passing on their family line, will never be equal to heterosexuality for obvious practical reasons. For women who don't like the gender roles, the positives that come with specialization of the sexes need to be given very serious consideration before the old ways get abandoned. This is the most obviously necessary case where pure individualism needs to be abandoned.

Actually, for any society to function, pure individualism needs to be abandoned. Expectations need to exist. Conditioning needs to be done. You are a part of a system with incentives that have been worked out. No one wants to be the asshole telling the kids to get back to work and pack the gears, but driving people to fall into social roles through real, effective and affecting consequences is a good long-run strategy for keeping life from sucking any more than it has to. The world is not a playground, and this view is not the result of stereotyping or bigotry. It's the result of seeing reality, all of it, including the parts that don't look so nice. Someone has to do it.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Truth and Neutrality

"What if God were not exactly truth, and if this could be proved? And if he were instead the vanity, the desire for power, the ambitions, the fear, and the enraptured and terrified folly of mankind?"                          -Nietzsche

There is physical truth, the lab-experiment-verified principles of the way the world physically works, which I will not question here. What I'm going against is the existence of truth in values. There was no 'subjective revolution' in society, and cultural attitudes still have not dampened the idea that 'the truth will set us free'. But the bulk of understanding of the mind has made our perspective of it more and more mechanistic while undermining even the possibility of metaphysical discovery. In order to not see this, one must be determined not to look; we can change moods and behaviors with drugs, we can boil the interpretation of our experiences down to brain regions and relate the functioning of the brain to a computer. There's a reason atheists dominate intellectual circles today. With more information comes a more secular worldview.

As a matter of the principles of reality, this is not a new idea; it's just a statement differentiating positive and normative. David Hume stated the "fact-value problem" two hundred and fifty years ago, saying, "You can't derive an ought from an is." Despite a lot of trying, particularly from partisan economists and sophomoric philosophers, this point has never been convincingly disproved. Suddenly, morality need not be real in any metaphysical sense, just popular, and from there, it was a fairly straight road to postmodernism.

Two hundred years before that, Spinoza argued for pantheism through logical discourse on the nature of God. This is quite possibly the most rebellious act in the history of Western Philosophy; the entire idea of God as a basis for morality vanished when everything became a reflection of God's will. God could no longer be used as a normative moral anchor.

Subjectivism has a terrible reputation; religious philosophers probably gain their greatest current traction when they play on the fears of those who need to see morality and existence as being concrete, comprehensible, and purposeful. Subjectivism leads to conflict and does not dictate a resolution, so accepting it and having values anyway is akin to building your house on sand.

But by any scientific standpoint, values ARE subjective, based on mental programming which can be quite faulty and not at all the same as describing objective fact. Two people can describe a brutal murder as being factually the same. They can agree on the angle of the microphone stand as it slammed into Ke$ha's skull, and the look of gleeful malevolence on my face. They might notice certain things about the physical reality differently, because their eyes are drawn towards different elements of the scene. But in how the incident is evaluated, however, its overarching normative meaning, the stories need not actually be conflicting in content to have wildly different value interpretations. If you hate Ke$ha, you might see this act as good, of positive value. If you like Ke$ha, or if you're one of those sad deontologists who think that all violence is bad, you'll be horrified.

What if the search for depth and the belief in the possibility of metaphysically important knowledge and value is, itself, another product of the human desire for empowerment? Could we accept it, no matter how well proven? Modern philosophers will tell you that they have given up metaphysics, but they have not. The unwillingness to look in the dark nooks and crannies, at what traditional morality would call "evil", for answers to questions speaks to either their primitive superstition or their belief in something beyond the material world. Goodness, as it were, proves illogical in every materialistic context. Logic, as it were, must remain indebted to something irrational to come to the desired conclusions of those who use it.

Wittgenstein seemed prepared to accept a certain level of this about language and thought. Following in the footsteps of Nietzsche's On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense, Wittgenstein annihilated the assumption that language and truth have some deep, intimate relationship. Language, particularly, is tremendously important in the shaping of the mind (there's purpose to those "word games" posts I put up), but Wittgenstein still seemed to think that the mad and futile grasp for meaning was, to the degree that anything had meaning, a neutral act. Wittgenstein never seemed to be a Nietzschean; he never thought of all existing for power.

But it is. Creating the operating currency and context for information yields tremendous influence. Knowledge is power, and defining the ideas that make up knowledge is absolute power. There is no neutrality here.

The Nietzschean way of viewing language is one where exchange between people is a form of empowerment, in the same way that market interactions empower people. It's frequently if not normally unequal, and the underlying motivations of many conversations have everything to do with establishing a control over other people's perspectives.

I'm reminded of this every time I take a college course. If you ask a professor, most classes you take in college are predominantly neutral, with only a touch of understandable bias from the instructor coming through. They have to say this because they know their fellow professors are biased in some way, and while sometimes they disapprove, they want the same liberty to have an opinion. Tenure holds value because professors can say what they want to say, and this is academic freedom. The student hardly finds anything but a single perspective in most cases.

Bias goes beyond delivery; in liberal arts classes particularly, the delivery of the material is secondary. The content of the material is where the real bias is. Remember, the modern world is beholden to the dynamics of the attention economy. By selecting readings and choosing the focus of the class, any given professor ignores truckloads of other material in the field that he or she could have covered, but chose not to. Political balance might be valued in some particularly neutralist schools, but balance is not neutrality. No one will present material that insinuates, say, something positive about Hitler. As a history major, I can tell you without reservation that any history course, even a survey course with a standardized syllabus, solidly reflects the values of the instructor or organizer, not even touching the actual commentary in the class; if someone teaching a class about medieval France chooses to focus on peasant life instead of court life, this says more about their perspective than it does about France. It has to be this way, too: you can't tell a student everything about France over the course of centuries in one lifetime. There's no obvious way to decide what matters, except in historically rare outlier events that absolutely demand attention, and this is why historiography creates such vehement arguments. Frankly, it's no better in economics. About the only place to find something close to values-neutral instruction is in the hard sciences or very technical fields, and those must be sharply specialized.

The Jesuits understood that the power of a teacher is in the hold they get over the pupil's mind.

Having said this, don't bother arguing about it. Arguing is the most obvious case where conversation is all about power.

Confrontation in Conversation

For most people, a pleasant conversation is an agreeable conversation, in the literal sense: you agree with what's being said. These sorts of conversations reinforce what we already know, or simply pass along new information that we have no preconceived notions on.

But for confrontational conversation, there are two types: argument and debate.

Argument happens between two people where an audience is not the point. You're trying to convince the opposition of something he has some cause to not believe, which is a form of identity assault. Debate is what happens when you're just going through motions with the intention on swaying the people watching.

The tactics are different. Arguments can be full-on war, verbal brutality, although this usually doesn't result in much more than shutting up the opposition. That's a short-sighted way to fight, for reasons that will become obvious in a moment. Debates, meanwhile, require finesse to win, because you have to be likable and relatable to pull in an audience. Both are competitive, but in the case of a one-on-one, your purpose is more nakedly antagonistic. With debates, you must look more like you're interested in "the truth", as investigating by opening yourself up to criticism. You have to promote a notion of yourself and your position as desirable, far more than promoting it as logical.

Both debate and argument are confrontational, but debate operates on more of a "market" mechanism. You are selling your ideas, convincing others of their value. As markets tend to do, this helps boil them down to effective size and refine them into something usable and high-impact, as no one becomes convinced by watery, unfocused presentation. The idea market makes thought more efficient, then, and this is reflected in language.

I have my own problems with this, I know, but after long exposure to academia, argument is more like war to me than sales. I've been trained to over-argue rather than under-argue for fear of missing points and leaving entire avenues open to approach. I might not inspire anyone, but my arguments are much more airtight than most of what everyone else is doing. I've had to loosen up to write online, as everything I publish would be book-length if I felt a greater need to be unassailable.


Of course, objective truth-seeking is not the goal. In this entire understanding of human conversation, truth-seeking is never the goal. And how can it be? What truth would we be talking about here? Divide up the types of conversation again: you have agreeable conversation in which there is no disagreement, then there's argument, and there's debate. The first does not challenge, the latter two challenge for the sake of winning and not for finding truth. Where would truth come in to a subjective disagreement?

Conversation, argument, debate, are all about one thing: the domination of a point of view.

You share a perspective, or you don't. People who agree share a perspective. Those who don't just don't, and you can't have that, given that the bastard might run around spreading his bullshit over your "truth". So it has to be resolved, and suddenly, you are in a fight and words are your weapons, the swords that clash and take apart the enemy perspective, limb from limb.

Men, in particular, approach argument and debate like an honorable fight. They get into it wanting tovalidly and respectably change your mind. They do not get into it for the purpose of destroying someone emotionally... unlike some other genders we will not discuss.

They want to sharpen the definitions of their words and use them to make precise, waste-free cuts against the enemy that brings about greater and greater understanding with each slice. They want to do so without cruelty, as eventually, their competitor may need to become their friend, in case of further attack. They need their respect. The arguments establish an implicit hierarchy, and a hierarchy does not function well within a context of absolute brutality. Productively winning an argument or debate is about bringing people on board.

Language binds by relaying ideas. When you win the war of defining words, then your words reflect ideas that establish the framework by which others think. The language is the legacy we pass down, the infrastructure of thought, and its resiliency depends on the relevance of its words in the long term. To have sharp, well-honed definitions to your words gives them longer-term, perpetual ability to cut through existence and define it down to the dimensions the wordsmith sees fit. A sharp sword is good for living, not just for fighting. 

But the problem with all this is that in a fight, the sharpest sword is not the most effective sword.
You want a BIG sword

A big sword, no matter how dull, can batter you to death if you get pinned down, if you try fighting with honor against the honorless. What that type of sword has to have is weight, emotional weight, a "taking it personally" heaviness that, so long as the fighters are part of something, so long as they have any code or character, will always be there. If you believe things about yourself, then even when no one is watching, you can be beaten to death by your own convictions. Everyone with any kind of observational awareness knows that emotions are more powerful than cold logic and no perspective ever gets anywhere without emotional appeal built in. David Hume established that idea, too.

This is not an honorable fight. An honorable fight features two who decide to legitimately find out who is strongest, and a debate or argument which is aimed at really focusing the definitions of words and finding the consistency in values, at sharpening everyone's swords, embodies this type of honor. Competitive honor means the world, especially to men. It is everything that empowers civilization.

An honorable, winning argument is the most recognizable thing in the world. An honorable, winning argument makes sense.

In contrast, an honorless, emotional fight just means winning. There's no sense of illumination when one perspective is pushed onto another, like being pushed through a door. There's no cohesive and logically consistent worldview presented. An emotional fight is like dropping an A-bomb or assassinating a king. While it may occasionally be necessary to survive, no one wants to do it and it cannot become a way of life or a tradition if you ever want to see a culture capable of trust. It's what happens when you need the enemy to simply die. There is no respect, no assumption that the end of the fight means a rectification of relations and later cooperation. It's fighting against an enemy without humanity. If you do this, you'd best kill the enemy fast and kill him twice, because if they come back, they will know your tricks, disregard honor, and want you thoroughly dead, just like you did to them. You're fucked.

Some people fail to understand this consistently. These people hate any form of coercion, so fighting of any kind is evil to them. They don't want a society built on strength, so they think that unless it's worth fighting no-holds-barred, a survival situation, then there's no point to fighting at all. Might as well just be nice. This, of course, is bullshit; you're basically saying, "there's nothing in the world worth fighting for." For those with any convictions, it can't work that way. They care, so they fight. It matters to them.

The temptation to lie and cheat, right up to the point of doing something dishonorable, is extreme, because who would believe the loser who's making excuses? So in an argument, you might need a ref, an empowered ref that can enforce rules conducive to honor and a goal-centered game, an agent of the system's hierarchical powers. In a debate, the audience should be the ref, but audiences are usually just the general public and these are not intelligent people, so even in debates, we need a ref.

And the ref has a code taken from the hierarchy. Honor references what the culture values as the context of the argument. Honor means acceptable according to certain principles that limit the individual for the sake of bigger concerns than the individual. A good referee says, "Stick to the rules, guys", and supposedly does not favor any one side over the other. This is usually what's meant by "neutrality". But it's not neutral. It's holding the sanctity of the game itself over any personal preference for one side or the other. It's favoring the existing system of values by which the rules establish themselves over some upstart code of unproven value that's being pushed by people who would benefit from it.

Specifically excluded from this view is the notion that the ref should be trying to even things out for the sake of "better competition" all the time; would you want to watch a game where any team that got ahead suddenly started getting fouls called constantly, while the losing team could do whatever the hell it wanted, so long as it was losing? Every good ref says, "may the best man win" and in an argument, that's the person who makes sense according to the prevailing cultural context. Every good ref is a conservative. Every good rule is conservative.

Without the cultural context, there's no sense to be made. Every idea you've heard is a take-off of some old idea, and they're perpetually being recycled for the sake of someone's agenda. There can never be values-neutrality; it would mean nihilism and no one will fight for nothingness. Every debate or argument you hear operates within the context of a language and culture; the universality of morality is actually a universality of self-interested emotion and by no means does it always come to the same conclusions.

There is no neutrality to be found here. And there cannot be.