Monday, May 25, 2015

The Arts and Humanities as Luxuries

The world is full of luxuries. I am not just talking about diamond rings and emerald broaches. I am talking about air conditioning and refrigeration. Automobiles and airplanes. Novels and paintings.

Yes, the arts and humanities are luxuries. Studying them is a luxury. Learning about them is a luxury. True, they turn you into a better, more moral, more well-rounded person, but those, too, are luxuries. They are luxuries of our incredible wealth. They are, therefore, luxuries created by capitalism.

I'm hardly saying that songs and stories and dancing and other arts are products of capitalism. That would be stupid. The arts have existed for as long as there have been human beings -- with speech came these arts (though dancing goes as far back as territorial fishes). In many ways they are anything but luxuries -- they are always necessarily a part of being human. But in many ways, being human is itself a luxury. Humans have a lot of free time, created by our intelligence, social orders, and ability to speak.

But of course the more free time we have, the more time we have for luxuries. If we are finding ourselves with less time for luxuries -- like the arts and humanities -- this is perhaps an indication that something is wrong with our society, with our economy. Over time we ought to have more time for such luxuries. More people should find themselves in the position to study the arts and humanities. And yet we don't. Those who major in such fields are finding fewer and fewer jobs in their fields.

Ironically, it seems that as those who study the arts and humanities continue to succeed at getting their ideologies realized in American society, the fewer and fewer jobs there are for people who study the arts and humanities, and the fewer and fewer people even go into the arts and humanities.

Is this a case of biting the hand that feeds you? Probably. The more progressive ideas are implemented in our society, the more and more our society becomes a rat race for the vast majority of us. And that leaves less and less time for the arts and humanities. And, I suspect, less and less money to spend on them as well. If you have to spend all of your time working just to fall farther and farther behind, you find less and less time for higher values. Isn't it ironic that those who preach higher values are creating a society in which one cannot pursue them?

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Justice as Getting What You're Owed

Justice is getting what is owed for what is done.

This definition of justice makes it active, the result and consequence of action.

If you take from someone -- money, life, etc. -- then you owe what you have taken, plus retribution for engaging in a violent act.

Trade is therefore necessarily just, as you are paying your debt immediately upon receipt of what is given you. More, since no trade takes place unless both parties perceive themselves better off, there is an element of gift in mutual trades that makes it a form of generosity beyond justice. Mutual trade is therefore more than merely just.

You only have to use threats to get a trade if the other party does not perceive themselves as better off from the interaction. Truly just taxation would therefore never require threats; people would voluntarily give if they were persuaded they would be better off from the transaction. If your knee-jerk response is that not enough would donate, that simply means you are too lazy or unintelligent to think of anything other than force.

Working for a wage is therefore just, since you are getting what is owed you for the work you have done for the person. One can make plenty of arguments in favor of worker-owned businesses, but justice is simply not one of them. However, we can see that slavery is always necessarily unjust, since the slave is not given what is owed him for the work being done, by definition.

This definition of justice also means that welfare is not just, since those receiving it are doing so despite having done nothing for it -- or, precisely because they are doing nothing. Arguments for welfare or negative income taxes or basic income guarantees must therefore come from someplace other than a position of justice. There might be plenty of pragmatic reasons for supporting such programs, but justice is, from the above definition, not one of them. You are not owed anything simply for existing. You are owed things only when you have incurred a debt in someone else. We may prefer living in a society in which everyone receives a basic income guarantee (or not), but one cannot make the argument from the position from justice. As for where you get the money from, that of course may involve questions of justice. See above, on taxation.

This definition of justice also connects justice to morality in a way I have not before found. Ought is the past tense of "to owe." Further, "to owe" is related to "own," showing the connection between ownership, owing, and ought. Thus, we see the connection between ownership and justice -- without ownership, there can be no justice. One cannot steal without ownership.

The libertarian idea of self-ownership also then tells you, with this definition, that murder, rape, assault, and slavery are all forms of injustice. Since you are taking what another owns, you owe them. You owe them more than its worth when you use force, because the person would not have made the gains from trade.

None of this negates in the least our instinctual feelings of injustice towards these things. It provides a rational explanation of them, is all. Our feelings that we are being treated unjustly in this or that circumstance stems from an understanding that we are not being given what we owe. Now, that does not mean that just because we feel someone owes us something that that is the case. We can be wrong about what others owe us. People who feel like "the world owes" them something are wrong. Particular people or organizations owe them, if anyone does.

More, nobody owes you more than what you agreed to receive. So, for example, if you get hired someplace at a given wage, and the person hiring you says you will get a raise after a year, then you are owed a raise after that year. The person truly would be acting unjustly if they refused to give you that raise, or if they conveniently found a reason to fire you to avoid paying you more. But if they did not, then you are not owed a raise -- or a promotion, for that matter. The decision by your employer to do so is therefore extra, a gift for doing more than what you had agree to do. But gifts by definition do not require reciprocation, so even if you give more than you said you would, that does not mean the other is necessarily obliged to reciprocate with a raise or promotion. Of course, one should not be surprised if one doesn't retain workers for long with that attitude. No one said there wouldn't be consequences to your actions. But one should not judge those actions as unjust if the gift is not reciprocated -- or just, if the gift is reciprocated.

A gift therefore goes beyond what one is owed. You are not owed technological advances, art, scientific discoveries, or philanthropy. Nor are you owed the social wealth created by the market. Those are gifts above and beyond anything you are owed. Acts of mutual trade are just, because each is getting what is owed; and to the extent that each is getting more, there is also an element of gift involved as well. Mutual trade is thus both just and more than just. All of the advances in science, technology, and wealth creation in our society are therefore  gifts freely given by the invisible hand. In the case of science, art, and technology, from others' obsessions.

These are a few of the implications of this definition of justice. Certainly more needs to be done to tease out the implications of the definition -- and to justify the definition itself.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Will 2020 Be a Major Turning Point?

I keep thinking about Peter Turchin's cliodynamics approach to the study of history and his discovery of two cycles in history, the shorter of which occurs on a 50-year cycle. This shorter cycle is one of political violence, with the last occurring around 1970, and the one before that around 1920. We forget the political violence of 1920 (and 1870, after the Civil War), but the political violence of 1970 is fresher. However, we now have a generation for whom this is ancient history -- if they know of it at all -- meaning they are ignorant enough to repeat history.

History is due for repeating in 2020. And the conditions are here. Turchin argues that political violence arises when there is an overproduction of elites. The problem isn't necessarily that these elites cannot get jobs. Those with college or especially grad school have lower levels of unemployment than do those with only a high school education. However, what unemployment figures don't show are those who graduate from college and attend grad school because they cannot find a job, and they do not show the misallocation of human resources that occurs when a person with a degree in X cannot find a job doing X. Sometimes the thing they do is much more valuable than what they went to school for, but more often that is not the case.

What is worse is more and more jobs require college degrees -- not because anyone needs a college degree to do the job, but because having a college degree allows the employers to discriminate based on intelligence and general abilities. This means that fewer without college degrees can get jobs. Increases in the minimum wage only exacerbate the problem, cutting off the bottom rung of the ladder of success. The only way you can reach the new bottom rungs is if you spend a ton of money getting training (college). Thus, you end up standing on a pile of debt to reach the bottom rung to get employed. You end up worse off, because you have to pay that debt back, and that ends up being a reduction in your income for all practical purposes.

So you have a bunch of people who have college degrees doing things that they know should not require college degrees. This creates resentment among the college educated. And those same people have the education to fully understand what they feel, and they have some sense of who to blame (given how far left the universities lean, guess who that may be?). At the same time, there are more and more doing well -- which seems like a good thing, except that people who are very wealthy tend to get into politics with that money. Thus there is more and more competition for the same number of seats. Even though there is almost no differences in ideology, you get deeper divisions in rhetoric, increased tribalism between the major parties.

The kinds of violence we have seen in the past have been things like terrorist bombings and mass shootings (one or few against many) -- things we have in fact seen on the rise. Prior to the 1970s, there were also lynchings (many against one or a few) -- which we can be thankful are on the wane, and which we can hope remains there. We may also see more riots (many against many) and even assassination attempts (one or few against one or few). We have begun, I think, to see more riots -- mostly in response to police actions against citizens. Police actions are often a reflection of the political environment, and people's opposition to government actions are going to find their expression in conflicts with police first.

Several things are driving these dynamics.

Many places are increasing the minimum wage, which is making it harder and harder for those with low skills to get jobs. This is creating a permanently unemployed underclass with a lot of time on their hands and who are trained by the social workers they deal with to cheat the system (don't qualify? just say x, y, and z and we can qualify you!). People with a lot of free time have time to get into trouble. Add to this a war on drugs, and you have a situation where the police are going to be in constant conflicts with the poorest in society. A group who feels life isn't treating them fairly find themselves abused by the police as well, meaning by the government (who is abusing them at every turn, especially when it tries to help them).

Artificially low interest rates on student loans strongly contributes the the increase in those going to college, which in turn drives up the cost of college, which in turn drives up the need to get a loan to attend. That money doesn't go to university professors, by the way, but to administrators -- to a mandarin class. In fact, more and more university professors are part-timers not making enough to get by. So long as the students side with administrators, these injustices will continue unabated, but what will happen if and when students switch sides, realizing it is the administrators who are the enemy and the professors who are the allies? You never know when that will take place. You just need a tipping point.

We have people who are going to college to get debt, unable then to get the kind of job they expected, and finding their real income is lower than they expected, because of what they owe in college debts (which they cannot get out from under because of federal law). Further, colleges are not designed to produce entrepreneurs who become wealthy as a result, but rather homogenous workers for already-established businesses who remain in the struggling middle class all their lives.

This is all a lot of potential conflict just bubbling under the surface, ready to boil over. Turchin suggests that things can be done to counteract these things. Most of them will be psychological in nature rather than changes that will fix anything. At the same time, I have to wonder.

Student loans consist of over $1 trillion in debt. With an average of $30,000/student. That's a lot of debt. If you are in debt, you are not just a have-not. You have less than zero, in a real sense. Only if you can manage to pay everything off will it have been worth it. But will you?

Health care spending is around $3 trillion. The health care system consists of over 17% of the economy. That's ridiculous and absurd. Health care spending, like university tuition rates, has gone up much, much, much faster than the rate of inflation. Which means both are in bubbles, like housing was in a bubble leading in to the 2008 crash.

Housing bubbles result in recessions and depressions. Investor bubbles result in stock market crashes. Higher education bubbles result in revolution.I have no earthly idea what a health care bubble bursting will look like. But given the size of the economy it has taken (and given that housing is also around 17% of the economy), it can't be good. Meanwhile, we are reinflating housing.

We can further add to Turchin's 50 year cycle the 60 year cycle of Kondratieff, who showed the economy goes through boom-bust cycles (because, again, we don't seem to learn anything). Coincidentally, the depression of the K-cycle ends this time in . . . 2020.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Analogues Between Biological and Cultural Evolution

The question of how and whether culture really evolves in a way similar to organisms is a common one among those who study culture. For some of us, it is obvious that it does; for others, the connection to anything that reeks of biology is enough to reject the idea without further consideration. Those in the latter camp have a strong tendency to assume that those trying to understand culture from an evolutionary perspective are engaging in "Social Darwinism," although there is nothing remotely Darwinian in Social Darwinism (though there is a lot of Progressivism in it).

There are likely others who reject the connection because they mistakenly think an evolutionary perspective is necessarily reductionist in nature. But this is hardly the case. Evolution has created more and more complex organisms; why wouldn't it also give rise to more and more complex -- or at least changing -- cultures as well? And why wouldn't it give rise to something (humans) that could change even faster than biological evolution could manage, if doing so were an adaptive advantage? Evolution involves change based on a variety of changes of the original -- those changes can be random "errors," changes in regulatory regions, recombinations, etc. We can understand these things in biological/genetic or human terms. In either case, something changes in the information held and communicated. It doesn't matter if that information is held in DNA or brain structures.

We are familiar with DNA mutations -- and the fact that our DNA has mechanisms to fix most errors. But DNA can change in a large variety of ways. Genes can jump around. Stretches of DNA can be copied over and over and over and reinserted. Chromosomes can be recombined. Regulatory regions can receive changes -- methyl groups added to cytosine, sometimes adenine -- to turn genes on and off. Etc. All of these affect how information is communicated in the cell, how it is expressed, and how it affects not just the cell, but the entire organism in multicellular organisms.

But humans do the same exact thing. That is the point of this article, and of an article I coauthored with Euel Elliott.We know that humans make errors when they process information. No matter how well an author communicates, no matter how clearly an author writes, there will always be people who misunderstand what they are saying. We have all read books, talked to others about them, and wondered if they read the same thing we did. And there is little doubt the author would wonder if we read the book they wrote. These errors result in discussions, refinements, new things being written, etc. The history of philosophy is likely the history of these kinds of errors taking place.

Elliott and I focus in our paper on recombinations -- or, in Matt Ridley's words, "ideas having sex." Most technological innovations are attempts to recombine different things. Sometimes they result from errors (many scientific discoveries involve errors -- like the discovery of penicillin). Sometimes it just involves an increase in "regulation" -- production -- such as mass production. (The evolution of the human brain seemed to be mostly driven by increased production of certain brain proteins, meaning the change was a regulatory one.)

Thus, we can readily find analogues between biological evolution and cultural evolution.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Awe, Altruism, Guilt, and Tragedy

There is more evidence for the connection between the feeling of awe and the development of altruism. I already discussed this here and here.

The new article points out that we feel awe in the presence of religion, art, and music. I discussed the role of tragedy (which was religious musical art) in creating awe, and Nietzsche discussed the role of music in tragedy. Tragedy was no doubt part of the reason Athens was such a unified society. Athens was also likely one of the first authoritative societies, something we would see in the Roman Empire and most fully in Medieval Christian Europe (also in places like Confucian China). Awe was created in different ways in each society -- the Emperor in Imperial Rome and Confucian China, God in Medieval Europe, and perhaps with the tragedies in Athens -- but its centrality was an important aspect of each.

This also implies that guilt is an important aspect of the awe-altruism connection. I have already discussed the role of tragedy in the emergence of guilt

Sunday, May 17, 2015

If You Want to Learn, Read and Visit, But Do Not Study or Go to School

According to this study from 2001, if you want to do well in school, school itself is not going to help you that much. What will help you? Overwhelmingly, reading. Reading is the most strongly correlated with your ability to engage in letter-word comprehension, passage comprehension, applied problems, and calculation. The same is true of visiting, market work, and church attendance, though to a much lesser degree. Market work, though, is strongest of the three. And eating together as a family is strongly correlated with doing better in all four areas as well.

Having a hobby and doing art are positively correlated with strong letter-word comprehension and passage comprehension. Playing sports is positively correlated with applied problem solving. Conversation is correlated with passage comprehension and, oddly, calculation. There is a slight negative correlation between conversation and letter-word comprehension, but that might simply be because talkers won't shut up long enough to read anything.

I think it should bother everyone that attending church makes you better able to do all of these things than does attending school.

Attending school and studying seem to have only slightly positive, but almost negligible effects. 

And don't worry too much about T.V. But do worry that your kids aren't getting enough sleep. 

What does this all say? 

This suggests to me that if one had a school setting in which reading for comprehension (rather than words per minute, which is a stupid criterium) was encouraged, in which visiting and conversation were encouraged, students were encouraged to do art and hobbies, and in which students were encouraged to work and play sports, you would have an ideal learning environment.

Wait? Isn't that the Montessori method I just described?


Wednesday, May 06, 2015

If Having a Loving Family is an Unfair Advantage...

There are some things that are so incredibly wrong-headed, it's bizarre that the thought ever crossed anyone's mind. Such is almost every premise underlying the article Is Having a Loving Family an Unfair Advantage?

The title should tell you everything. While I do think there are some advantages to asking truly fundamental questions such  as "are families really necessary?" at the same time, the reason for the reasoning is questionable at best. The philosophers think that having a good family provides you with unfair advantages in life. Of course, if you think that, I think you have a pretty perverse sense of both "unfair" and "advantage." While the authors do come to the conclusion that the dissolution of the family would do more social harm than good (thank goodness they're not complete morons!), they still make the basic argument that if you are doing things like reading to your children at bedtime, then you are conferring an unfair advantage to your children -- about which you should be concerned!

The assumption is that we ought to try to hobble ourselves and our children. If there weren't family dynamics benefits to reading at bedtime, they would welcome its abolition because of the social advantages it confers. They have read "Harrison Bergeron" and decided it was a how-to story rather than a criticism of their fundamentally evil motives.

The primary advantage to reading the article is to find out what we all ought to support. We all ought to be reading to our children every night, and we all ought to send our children to private schools. The common sense thing to do is to find out what these contemptible idiots think confer "unfair" advantages, and try to bring it to everyone. They would raze the forest rather than see a single tree rise above the canopy.