Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Some Thoughts on Populism

Anyone trying to understand the popularity of Donald Trump among Republicans and Bernie Sanders among Democrats needs to understand the fact that both men are populists.

A populist is someone who appeals to the hopes and fears of the general population, generally against the ruling elite. That is the typical definition of populism, and it is certainly correct as far as it goes. But that does not explain why it is that populism only seems to arise at certain times and why it is that populists not only attack elites, but the weakest in society as well.

Populists are political opportunists. They seek to take over the elite, to become the alpha in society, and they seek to do so by creating a new coalition among a general population that for some reason feels itself under attack. I go into detail about social hierarchies here. Economic downturns are good times for populists because the general population feels itself slipping down the social hierarchy. Any movement toward becoming an omega is threatening, and it is natural for a social mammal such as humans to both lash out at those groups or individuals they consider to be omegas in society as well as at the elites they blame for creating the social conditions leading to their descent.

This is why both Trump and Sanders (and Ross Perot, in the 1990s) attack the elites as well as illegal immigrants and economic trade from developing countries. This remains the acceptable way to attack ethnic minorities, since outright in-nation racism is generally unacceptable.

My previous discussion of social hierarchies (linked above) also explains why it is that we have billionaires and elected elites emerging to attack the elites. This is a struggle for the alpha position (the Presidency) in American society, and because the presumed nominees seem to most people to be pre-selected (Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton), they are the "elite" alphas who the populists wish to overthrow. The populist manages to distinguish himself from the "true elites" by "telling it like it is," by saying things the way people say them in private. This is why they can say "outrageous" things. To the majority, such rhetoric is refreshing.

The populist plays toward the people's ignorance and prejudices, making virtues of their vices, claiming truth and goodness for them. Specifically, the populist plays toward people's evolved tendencies, which may not fit well in modern societies. Listen to a populist, and you will hear folk psychology, folk sociology, folk anthropology, folk economics, and degrees of tribalism. They thus tap into people's emotions in a way those who know, say, actual economics cannot.

Populism is thus neither a specifically right or left movement. Both the Tea Party and the Occupy movements are populist in nature. And I have already noted that Trump (Republican), Sanders (Socialist), and Perot (Independent)  are all populists. If you listen carefully, you will not hear much difference at all in either their rhetoric or their ideas. Any preference for Trump over Sanders, or vice versa, expresses nothing more nor less than the political party tribalism of their supporters.

It is important to note that "populism" comes from the Latin "populos," which is more equivalent to the "folk" (volk) of Germany. The populist party that came to power using the rhetoric of the folk was, of course, the National Socialists. I point this out not to engage in the logical fallacy of reductio ad Hitlerium, but to make a serious point about the nature of all populist movements.

In the U.S. it has not been uncommon for populist movements to be concerned with money and banking -- the Greenback Party in the late 1800s and the Occupy movement of today -- in much the same way that the Nazis came to power in the aftermath of the devastation of the hyperinflation of the Wiemar Republic and ongoing concerns about debt. While we are not facing hyperinflation, or even much inflation (because businesses are still holding cash rather than investing it as capital -- but when that changes . . .), there is increasing concern about debt. This is something Trump has brought up in recent days. The Occupy movement has focused mostly on the "unregulated" banks (they are "unregulated" because the banks and financial institutions are in fact the most regulated sector in the economy, and all of the problems that came to a head in 2008 are a consequence of that fact) and the wealthy, making them prime pickings for a populist politician. Sanders fits the bill for them. But, honestly, so does Trump. Both preach fascist policies.

Sander's socialism is nationalist in flavor. He favors trade restrictions, is generally anti-immigrant, and is an economic nationalist. This has been observed from both the left and the right. Economic patriotism, whether left or right, is necessarily nationalist in nature. It doesn't necessarily have to be outright socialist in nature, like Sanders'; no, it can also be highly interventionist in nature, like Trump's. But favorable to freedom it is not, no matter the degree of "socialist" you prefer.

The use of the term "fascism" has mostly become a slander leftists use against anyone with whom they disagree, but I am using it in the precise economic meaning of the term. As has been observed by others, whether he knows it or not, Trump is essentially a fascist. The Salon article, perhaps not surprisingly, ignores Sanders' similar positions.

That populism is fascist should not surprise anyone. Fascism taps into our most primitive, primeval propensities and drives. It is populism. Those on the right are accused of anti-intellectualism; those on the left are anti-elitists (while supporting bringing to power their own elites) -- but in fact, each is a variation of anti-elitism. And both promise the masses that they will gain power, that their lives will improve, and that the minorities who have been oppressing them all this time (the 1%, bankers, Jews, illegal immigrants, foreign workers, etc.) will receive their punishment. If you hear people attacking the elites while attacking some kind of minorities, you have a populist on your hands.

And that's the bottom line of populism. It is deeply, fundamentally anti-minority -- whatever that minority may be. The opposite of the populos, the masses, the folk is the minority group or groups within society. The easiest to attack are those from other countries -- that's why fascism is always nationalist socialism -- but eventually, those minorities are within the country, marginalized as not being true members of the nation, of the folk. This story has already been told in other countries. We came close with FDR's Japanese concentration camps. We don't need the full-blown American version.

Cecil the Sacred

Walter James Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, is currently one of the most hated men in the world. His crime? Killing Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe.

Palmer has killed many animals in his life, including at least one other lion. Probably the only people who cared about those animals were animal rights activists. So why is everyone losing their minds over this particular lion? 

Cecil the Lion was a sacred animal.

Traditional societies often have sacred animals or even sacred species. Some Native American tribes considered white bison to be sacred. White elephants in India were sacred, as are cows for Hindus. Cecil, who was well known and tagged, became for many people a sacred animal. Killing Cecil was thus a dire sin for which Palmer will have to pay.

There is something deep in our evolved psychologies that want there to be sacred animals. Cecil fulfilled that deep need in many people. If you want to know why people are so angry about Cecil, you have to understand this aspect of our evolved psychologies.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Uber Economy and the Distribution of Labor

One of Marx's more famous statements is that
as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. (The German Ideology)
While the possibility of the elimination of the division of labor have historically sounded utterly ridiculous -- especially given the immense benefits which have accrued from it for the entire human race -- it seems that we may have entered a time when we can do exactly the kind of things Marx suggested.

And it is all due to the Internet.

Uber/Lyft provide the model. If you want to be an Uber driver, you sign up. You can pretty much set your own times. You can work as much little as you'd like. You can work as a driver while also working at another job. So you could literally work one job in the morning and another job in the evening. And if you sign up on Airbnb, you can also work as a hotelier. Third job.

But what if this is only the beginning?

How many other kinds of work or services could be provided in this model? It is no longer impossible to imagine signing up for various jobs online to provide various services and working one in the morning, another in the afternoon, another in the evening, another after dinner, one thing today and another tomorrow.

And anyone with a blog can criticize after dinner.

All of this came about not because of communism, but because of the emergence of a new spontaneous order -- the internet. More specifically, the increasingly wireless internet. Marx was right that the emergence of a new social order would make such a life as he explains above possible; he was only wrong that it would (or could) at all resemble communism. It has turned out to be, in many ways, the absolute opposite of communism.

The combination of the free market and the internet is making many of Marx's goals possible. We just didn't get there the way he thought we would.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Some Observations on Dominance Hierarchies and Human Society

Humans are a species of social primate, so we should not be surprised to find we prefer to organize ourselves into dominance hierarchies. In fact, humans are unique in that we will organize ourselves into every kind of dominance hierarchy found among primates, as shown here.

Actually, two kinds -- multimale-multifemale groups and fission-fusion societies -- do not have humans listed, but this is wrong. The other groups in which humans are listed involve "family" units, while larger society actually falls into both  multimale-multifemale groups and fission-fusion societies. Corporations and governments involve the first, and civil society involves the second.

So dominance hierarchies are a natural part of human society and psychology. Thus we should not be surprised if we find people defending various dominance hierarchies, whether corporations or governments. Most interestingly, those most likely to defend them are the alphas (those with the most power) and the omegas (those with the least power). We find defenders of government among those who are in government -- particularly the elected alphas -- but also among what we would now call "marginalized groups," including women, minorities, and the poor. This may seem odd since, historically, marginalized groups are marginalized by the very governments which they defend. However, if we understand the psychologies of the omegas, we can come to understand why they defend the group that most oppresses them.

In wolf packs, the role of the omega is to hold the group together by being the scapegoat -- the one on which everyone's frustrations are expressed. Nobody really wants to be the omega, though it seems the omega is necessary for social cohesion. Since nobody wants to be the omega, we have the Klan dominated by poor whites; the most physically abusive husband are also, not coincidentally, found among the poorest, though anyone who sees himself as the omega male in any organization may become abusive. This also is why physical abuse increases during the Super Bowl among men whose team lost. Your team is a proxy social group, and when they lose, "you" lose, making you submissive to the winning team. To assert you are not an omega, you seek to find someone weaker to make the omega.

The ancient Greeks were brilliant with their development of tragedy, in which they could stage a scapegoat, creating a ritualized scapegoat that would eliminate the need for a real, physical one. In a democracy, this development is particularly necessary, since everyone is formally equal. At the same time, Athens was hardly universally equal -- only land-owning men were equal. This left women and non-citizens, particularly slaves. In the U.S., women have become included, as well as various minority groups, into society on more and more equal footings. While this happened first socially, throughout civil society, it is not uncommon for governments to come along as cap the social changes with legislation -- and, as a result, taking credit for the changes. What this does is ingratiate the former omega group to the alphas, with the result that the omegas in fact stay in place, though they have been ritually included. But they are included on the condition that they maintain loyalty to the alphas who "granted" them safety. Indeed, in social species we often see the alpha showing a certain favor for the omega, protecting them from the rest of the social group if things get too rough. However, the alpha will turn on them if the omega mistakes that favoritism for the granting of any real power. Favor must always be shown to the alpha.

The ones most likely to challenge the alpha are thus not the omegas. More, it is not likely to be anyone close to the alpha, either, as they are part of the coalition that keeps the alpha in power. Coalition politics keeps the alpha in power. No, the ones most likely to really challenge the alpha are those who are neither omegas nor the ones in the coalition. They are the ones always in danger of falling lower, and they are always wondering if they could and should be the ones in charge. It is out of this group within the social group where real challenges occur, where revolutions are spearheaded.

Of course, in order to succeed, the one(s) challenging the alpha will have to form a coalition, persuade enough of the group to join them. This may or may not include the omega, though it typically will not, since the omega is loyal to the alpha. Some in the alpha's coalition, though, may be persuaded to join the revolutionaries precisely because they want to be on the winning side.

These dynamics are most obvious in the political realm, but if we are honest, we find these dynamics among groups of friends, among various social groups, like among artists, and within organizations, like firms. In politics, it is not uncommon to use proxies from other social orders to shore up power. Poverty is such a proxy. Politicians use the omegas from the economic order to create more favoritism for themselves within the political order. Or from other orders (though this may be less obvious). Coalitions are central to maintaining power, regardless of what kind of power one is seeking to maintain. Corporate CEOs seek to maintain economic power through coalitions with governments, and politicians seek to do the same with CEOs -- this is the source of competition-crushing regulations and the regulatory capture that necessarily happens when regulations are passed. These are coalitions among the powerful, and they ingratiate the poor and oppressed to them (through the government more often than not) to help maintain their power. This squeezes out the middle class, from which all real challenges to the system -- political, economic, etc. -- necessarily come.

The fact that the middle class is being squeezed out of existence is thus a feature, not a bug.

As I've noted before, entrepreneurs also tend to come from low in the social hierarchy. 

Appropriate Literatures for Appropriate Psychological Levels

If people go through different stages of psychosocial complexity, it would make sense for our schools to teach whatever literature is appropriate for each of those levels. While there are different cultures throughout history at different levels of complexity, more complex societies also contain the less complex levels within them, usually among the younger people who are moving through the psychological levels themselves and creating local subcultures at that level.

For example, the world of ancient Greece around the time of Achilles and Odysseus was at the same psychosocial level as are the middle school children in countries like the United States. This doesn't mean that the ancient Greeks were more childlike; rather, it means that our society is so complex that movement through the levels are compressed. While the adults during the time of Achilles behaved like our middle school kids, the teens of his time would have not acted at all like our teens, but likely would have been more docile (of course, teens at the time were adults, so nobody would have thought them rebellious for acting like Achilles, either).

In our society, we therefore find levels of complexity that resemble tribalism (younger children, home life in general), the world of Homer (middle school kids and gang members), the Medieval period (older teens and social conservatives/Religious Right), the Enlightenment period (late teens to early twenties, most libertarians), and the postmodern period (the rest of adulthood for most, the egalitarian left). There are also integrationists and holistic thinkers, but society hasn't caught up with them quite yet.

This would suggest that certain works of literature would be most appropriate for different levels.

Grade schools should teach fairy tales, fables, and works that generally have animism as a theme.

Middle schools should teach the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. There are of course contemporary works that are at this level, such as the Harry Potter series. These are stories the students can relate to.

The ancient Greek tragedies were written when the Greeks were transitioning from an ancient world view to a "Medieval" world view. Thus, works such as these ought to be taught in that transition (8-9th grades).

Early high school ought to be taught Medieval works such as the works of de Troyes and Dante.

Late high school ought to be dominated by Renaissance literature and early Enlightenment works.

In college, students ought to be taught later Enlightenment works and Modernism.

Postmodern works ought to be reserved for the end of college, perhaps even grad school.

Integrationist and holistic works, like the works of Milan Kundera and Frederick Turner, are certainly grad school works, though many would have to get them on their own, since the only grad school programs providing such readings would be English and humanities programs. 

This sequence would allow students to read works with which they can, psychologically and socially, relate, while at the same time moving students through each of the psychosocial levels, allowing them to reach more complex psychological and social levels. Among the benefits is the fact that the more complex your psychology is and, as a consequence, the social level in which you can interact, the more successful you will be in life (by any variety of measures).

We could and should do the same thing with things like philosophy (which is also easily divided into these periods, with very good reason). Ways of teaching the sciences, social sciences, and other humanities would have to be developed to fit these levels of psychological complexity. But my areas are primarily in the humanities, so I'll leave the development of other areas to others.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

What Is Life? How Common Is It?

How common is life in the universe? To answer that, we have to first answer the question: what is life?

What is life? Life is a complex self-organizing network process capable of reproducing itself. In other worse, it is a self-organizing system capable of self-reproduction -- creating another, very similar self-reproducing self-organizing system.

Self-organization is a feature of the universe itself. And as an environment at a particular level of complexity is filled, new levels of complexity emerge to create new environments to be filled. Atoms to molecules to chemical cycles to living things to social species to humans and their social environments. Re-run the universe, and you get life. And you get life over and over and over in a variety of places. And you get human-type intelligence as well, eventually.

Life is extremely common because self-organizing processes are extremely common. Life is simply a subcategory of self-organizing processes. It is simply a certain level of complexity of self-organizing processes. Given that, we must assume that life is common across the universe.

If we assume that the number of atoms in the universe is 10^80 and that life is exponentially more complex than is atomic complexity, and that therefore life is likely exponentially less common, we could come to some number of living things that would suggest how common life may be.

First, consider that the number of atoms that make up the earth is about 10^50. That should give you some idea of how big 10^80 truly is. It has been estimated that the number of living things that have existed on earth throughout history is about 10^40.

There are various estimates of the number of habitable planets in the Milky Way. I'll pick a low number simply so we can extrapolate it to all the other galaxies. So let's say there is only 10 billion = 10,000,000,000 = 10^10. If there are 100 billion galaxies, that means about 10^20 habitable planets in the known universe. Thus, number of living things on earth multiplied by number of habitable planets is 10^60 living things throughout the history of the universe. So life is common.

More, we only have to have life emerge once per planet. That's only 10^20 times that self-organizing self-reproducing systems had to emerge. Given that atoms had to emerge 10^80 times, this is a truly small number of times it had to emerge. It seems highly unlikely it didn't, over and over and over again.

Friday, July 17, 2015

A Science of Cultural Change Is Possible (and Necessary)

T. Greer asks the eminently sensible question Is a Science of Cultural Change Possible? I think it is, but Greer is more skeptical (while acknowledging the interesting work in the field so far).

Greer uses the example of changing views on marriage and family that have made acceptance of gay marriage even possible. The complex narrative of those changing views is provided as evidence that narrative is most important for understanding what happened. (The narrative is definitely worth reading.) However, the narrative, as unquestionably important as it is, in some ways doesn't explain why it is that a particular view of marriage came to dominate over what had been the dominant view. Why did the change occur? That's what a science of cultural change can explain.

Greer notes that in 1995-96, only 27% of the population thought gays should be allowed to get married, while in 2015, 60% agree with that position. That's a huge change in 20 years. But let's be honest -- the 27% in 1995 was a huge percentage compared to what it had been 20 years before, when it was in the single digits. That means there was a huge leap in support in basically a generation. That means that a huge number of people who once opposed gay marriage now favor it. How do we explain that?

Network theory explains it. When you have a network, you have a situation where you can have explosive change, or emergence. There is a tipping point where the idea, etc. spreads rather quickly. It usually occurs at about 10% saturation. Given the slowness of cultural change, such a massive change in only a generation is rapid.

Greer further asks some great questions:
Today countries with fairly similar economic and demographic profiles—such as much of Western Europe and Japan—have very different attitudes and expectations for the roles men, women, and children are supposed to play in family life. Things like the age at which children leave the home or marry can be quantified and coded with ease. It is much harder to quantify or code how much affection husbands are expected to show their wives, or how harshly parents should discipline their children. [5]
So what does explain these things? And more importantly, how can we verify if any proposed explanation is true? Is it possible to establish a science of family life? 
The answer to this is that one would have to create a set of network models for each of the cultural traits, from economy to culture to family to whatever other spontaneous order would be involved. There are patterns of psychosocial emergence that take place under changing degrees of interactive density within a population or culture (see the work of Clare Graves and those influenced by him). But these patterns both affect the economy and culture (and others) and are in turn affected by them. We would expect people to have different attitudes based on economy, interactive density, various cultural practices, degrees of trust, etc. Each of these can be modeled and layered on each other to create the rich variety we see in the world.

This may not satisfy many people who think that "science" means "precise prediction." But precise prediction is only appropriate for the simple sciences, like physics and (most) chemistry. It is not at all appropriate for the complex sciences, like biology, psychology, and the social sciences, where we can only ever make pattern predictions.

A great example of a pattern prediction is Turchin's prediction that there will be an increase in political violence in the U.S. in 2020. The research he has done strongly suggests there is a 50 year secular cycle of political violence in the U.S. (The exception, 1820, occurred during the Dalton Minimum, which caused temperatures across the globe to plummet, and may have had a dampening effect on people getting together publicly to get riled up together.) While he can predict that there will be an upswing in political violence, and he can recognize some general elements that drive the cycle, what he cannot do is predict what the precise nature of the conflict will be, what parties will be involved, precisely where the violence will erupt, and precisely what will trigger everything. Also, something could happen to increase or decrease the degree of violence. And 2020 is a more-or-less (within a year or two) prediction. So if it peaks a little early or a little late, Turchin would still be right in his prediction.

Turchin's work involves the creation of a kind of macrohistory comparable to macroeconomics. The patterns that emerge in each macro view involve the kinds of cycles one would expect if positive feedback dominates. Underlying this involves microhistory and microeconomics, which involves the actions of individuals and which is dominates by negative feedback. The fact that different kinds of feedback dominate at different levels of analysis suggests to me that we need to have both approaches if we are going to develop a fully scientific, fully complex understanding of history, culture, economics, or any other social phenomenon we wish to understand. No question that narrative is a vital element, but so too are network models, constructal theory, percolation models, emergence, self-organization, and other related mathematical approaches that will allow us to develop more scientific understandings of human psychosociology.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Camplin Creative Consulting Online

Camplin Creative Consulting is officially online! If you have any editing or proofreading needs, this is the place to go. Only $10 per page. I can also do writing consulting.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Cliodynamics Talk

I talked about Peter Turchin's Cliodynamics on this BlogTalkRadio show. We talk about the validity of macrohistory and the 2020 prediction. Listen in and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Effective Altruism and Business Ethics

Peter Singer has an article on The Logic of Effective Altruism. The idea is that you should make sure that your altruism is effective,  and that every spare dime you have ought to go to altruism. He does acknowledge that, of course, we all fall short of our ideals, so we shouldn't beat ourselves up too much if we do, so long as we continue to aim for the ideal.

The idea is not a bad one, so far as it goes, and he even acknowledges that one can in fact benefit others through starting a business and providing jobs. Quite frankly, I think that's the best way to help others overall. Which makes me consider the potentials in combining effective altruism with business ethics.

Egoistic business ethics would suggest you should do anything and everything you can to make as high of profits as possible and to keep your business in business. To the extent that you benefit others by hiring them, that's good from the point of view of altruism, but it primarily benefits those known to you (your employees) over others, and it is the effect on others not known to you with which Singer is concerned.

Egoistic business ethics would suggest increasing profits as much as possible. That is ethical in relation to one's investors. To keep one's own business in business may require one lobbying government to reduce or even eliminate competition. Or to get subsidies for one's business. One can (and one often does) come up with any number of good reasons why you should get the government to regulate your industry (you are fair and produce good products, but the competition may not), license others in your business (you don't want incompetents providing services or making products, do you?), or subsidize your business (to level the playing field, of course), but in the end, these are all designed to benefit you at the expense of others. Prices are kept up for your benefit. Keeping your business in business may of course benefit your particular employees, but at the expense of higher prices for everyone and less employment overall.

So what would an effective altruistic business ethics look like? First, you have to know what is most effective. That would require understanding basic economics (at the very least), and the consequences of various regulations on the economy in general and your sector in particular. You would then not necessarily do what is best for your business (outside of trying to create the best product at the lowest cost, of course), but what is best for the economy in general, and your sector in particular. Anti-competitive regulations are not likely to benefit the most people most of the time, so one should not engage in lobbying for anti-competitive legislation to be passed. This doesn't mean you should be a sucker and let everyone else exploit the system in place while you struggle and fail in it; rather, what it means is you should lobby to get rid of any legislation that is anti-competitive and benefits the already-wealthy and regulators at the expense of competition and broader wealth creation.

We may also see businesses using their profits for both sustainable growth of the business and for bonuses for all of the employees. Employee buy-in of the business through bonuses and programs that encourage loyalty (which should be rewarded with loyalty from the business owner) and stock ownership among the employees so that they have literally bought into the company and its success may also be considered forms of effective altruistic business practice (though one has to be careful with ownership through stocks, given the track record of stock owners wanting profits at any cost). Some profits may also be used to improve the local community, to make it a better place to live for everyone. If you can encourage people to live close to work (walking or cycling distance), that will benefit the community through reduced pollution and increased exercise. Business could also do the legwork of finding effective philanthropies to which the owner and employees could donate (once everyone agreed upon what kind(s) of philanthropy in which they wished to engage), ensuring many were engaging in effective altruism.

I am sure one could come up with a number of other scenarios which would demonstrate how one could combine effective altruism and business ethics. For them to be effective, such business ethics would strongly support free market principles, I would think, rather than profits at any cost for investors. It would be pro-market, but not necessarily pro-business, and certainly not pro-corporation. Corporations, after all, are beneficiaries of government largess and are in fact government-created entities. It would be difficult to imagine how one could maximize effective altruism within a pro-corporate civil society, even as it is easy (for me, at least) to imagine how one could maximize effective altruism within a free market, entrepreneurial civil society.

 And given the inefficiencies inherent in government actions, policies, and programs, support for government programs is the opposite of effective altruism. Government programs are ineffective altruism at its worst. One possible exception would be a basic income guarantee, which could be done with minimal cost (costs which primarily benefit highly paid government employees at the expense of those being helped) and result in maximum benefits. Of course, wealthy people could also set up BIGs for certain communities, benefiting those communities by allowing people to decide what is the best way to spend the money on themselves. That would be another form of effective altruism many have perhaps not considered precisely because too many think the government should do such things. Such crowding-out effects of government are also anti-effective altruism.

All in all, this seems an interesting idea. I think people ought to consider effective altruism as their guiding morals when it comes to helping others. It is easy to benefit those closest to you, but perhaps we are better judged by how we treat others we will never ever meet.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Historicism and/vs Universalism

In the West, at least, there seems to be a constant argument between Historicism and Universalism.

The Historicists, who include the postmodern multiculturalists, claim that to understand any cultural artifact, you have to understand the historical and cultural situation in which the artifact was created. One cannot understand the works of Sophocles without understanding the ancient Greek world in which he wrote. And since we are not ancient Greeks ourselves, we cannot really ever understand Sophocles' works.

Historicism is a Romantic idea, and was in part a reaction against Enlightenment Universalism. The Romantics -- particularly the German Romantics -- favored more regional arts that would reflect the local language and culture. German poets should write German poetry -- which went well beyond the poems simply being written in German -- meaning, with German thoughts and German ideas and reflecting Germanness itself. The Germans thus studied the ancient Greeks as a model of a radical Other to the German. Without understanding this, one cannot understand the German obsession with the Greeks, or what the German Romantics were getting at in writing about the Greeks.

Gunther Heilbrunn, in a review of a book on esotericism, has an extended discussion of Historicism in which he provides several good definitions:
[Historicism] meant that even the greatest philosophers and thinkers were the intellectual hostages of their own era’s conventions. Consider the dwellers in Plato’s famous image of the cave. Shackled so that they can only look ahead, they confuse the images cast on the wall before them with real beings. Only a few ascend to descry the real world, lit by the sun, not artificial fires.

The historicist denies that anyone can escape. Hegel, for instance, taught that the most profound thinkers are those that best captured the spirit of their own age, or rather of the age just past—the owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk. Hegel helped usher in das historische Jahrhundert, the century devoted to history. Timeless truths made way for such as were possible within a certain historical horizon. Plato’s ideas could be studied as a historical artifact; they were no longer live options. The Ideas had become just ideas. Implicit was the notion that progress, with the rise of Nazism and Stalinism, had suffered a pounding from which it could not recover.
 The Historicism of the German Romantics also worked its way into 19th Century German economics. The "Austrian School" was a derogatory term created by the German Historicist economists for those who opposed Historicism and embraced, rather, more universalist ideas in economics. Ludwig von Mises' praxeology, for example, is applicable to all people at all times in all places. This is the very opposite of Historicism.

One of the problems with Historicism -- and one of its strengths -- is the insistence on relativism. If everything is always only ever historically and culturally situated, then there is no universal truth -- there are not even patterns which one can detect -- rather, there are only truths that are truths in their times and places. Truth is, thus, relative. And not just truth. Beauty, morals, human nature itself. All is relative.

The problem with relativism is that it ends up corroding the boundaries between truth and myth, between virtue and vice, etc. If my truth is as valid as your truth, then if I believe that Aristotle stole his ideas from the Great Library of Alexandria, then I am entitled to my truth. You may then complain that the Great Library was built only after Alexandria was founded, and Alexandria was founded only after Alexander the Great took over Egypt, and that therefore the tutor of Alexander the Great, Aristotle, was dead well before the Great Library was built. But if all truth -- ALL truth -- is relative, then your facts don't matter. Of course, this is the most extreme form of relativism, but there have been people who have argued precisely for this approach. Again, Heilbrunn points out that,
The corrosive relativism of historicism threatened to destroy such pockets of virtue that remained. But historicism, it turned out, was itself vulnerable to attack: for one thing, it relied on a circular mode of argument. Suppose that you could understand Sophocles only if you had a firm grasp of the Greek culture from which he emerged. But the tragedies were themselves an integral part of Greek culture. Absent an understanding of the plays, Greek culture was impenetrable.
So, we cannot understand Sophocles without understanding Greek culture, but we cannot understand Greek culture without understanding Sophocles. Of course, for strong Historicists/multiculturalists, this isn't a problem -- it is the point. One could counter, instead, that it seems unlikely that one human being couldn't understand a fellow human being, but this leads us into arguments for universalism, which the Historicist denies to be valid. Yet, there is another problem:
Historicism also suffered from self-reflexivity. Historicists may claim that the thought of all previous eras was confined by the historical conditions that produced it, but from where could a thinker derive suppositions of his thought if not from the world about him? Obvious examples were the Greek polis, the Roman Republic and Empire, and the mental world of feudalism. Yet this insight impales the historicist on the horns of a dilemma. Either he has to claim an exemption from his discovery that all thought is merely an expression of its age, thereby landing in a mass of contradictions, or he has to admit that this insight is as time-bound as any other. Case closed.
The Historicists' world view may itself be a product of his/her time and culture, and thus is just as valid/invalid as is universalism.

And this may in fact solve the problem. The dual validity of Historicism and Universalism is not necessarily a contradiction, but may rather be more of a paradox. The difference between a contradiction and a paradox is that the former results in a breakdown of the entire system, while the latter drives the system to new levels of complexity.

We can thus take an idea from the Historicist par excellance mentioned above, Hegel, to solve the problem -- dialectics. If the Enlightenment thesis of Universalism gave rise to the Romantic thesis of Historicism, then we should expect the emergence of a synthesis of the two. We would expect it to emerge once the contradictions of Historicism became too overwhelming. There are bound to be attempts to return to the older form -- Universalism -- as we see with Mises, but the most successful systems of thought will be those that synthesize the two ways of thinking. And we do see some degree of this in the works of such thinkers as Nietzsche, Hayek, M. Polanyi, J. T. Fraser, Frederick Turner, Clare Graves, et al.

For example, what happens when the universal laws of economics meet this or that particular culture? It turns out that cultural diversity affects the degree of entrepreneurship that takes place and thus the degree of wealth created. Cultures can also undermine entrepreneurship in other ways -- through myths that make heroes of liars and thieves, for example. Respect for entrepreneurial endeavors matters when it comes to wealth creation. At the same time, subjective valuation is a universal human trait, as is the law of diminishing returns and marginal utility. No matter how much you like something, you want less of it immediately after your desire for it is satisfied.

Thus, the synthesis of Universalism and Historicism into a pseudo-Universalism/pseudo-Historicism seems closer to the truth of the matter. Think of it as a solid core of truth with fuzzy edges. This suggests that truth is more like a strange attractor than a solid, unchanging Idea. The system of thought in which the truth is embedded comes closer to it and sometimes drifts farther away from it, but always circles around it as an absent center which cannot ever be reached. This is how knowledge works, and it is how memory itself works. Indeed, strange attractors are simultaneously attractors and repulsors, acting together in a paradoxical manner that keeps the system in place. The system is more stable by being both stable and unstable. A better understanding of truth is thus one that sees truth as simultaneously universal and historically/culturally contingent.

Some of the thinkers I mentioned above have demonstrated how this is possible and how it results in a kind of contingent progress. Fraser's theory of time and emergence shows us how it works out throughout the universe, across time. With the emergence of new levels of complexity, we can simultaneously get universalism in the less complex level and historicism in the emergence of the new level. Clare Graves' social psychology does this, too, for human psychology and social order. Plato and Aristotle are universal for their level of complexity (and any levels less complex than themselves they addressed), which would be included in any levels of greater complexity. At the same time, to be purposefully anachronistic to make my point, the Enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes, Locke, Smith, Hume, et al are not universal for Plato and Aristotle in the areas in which they have built on their ideas at greater levels of psychosocial complexity.

Complexity, strange attractors (chaos and bios theory), and emergence is thus the paradigm that allows us to synthesize Universalism and Historicism. With it, we are able to get a better understanding of the necessity of both. Further, we are given a model that allows for the simultaneous existence of Universalism and Historicism, of the enduring and the ever-changing. The enduring endures because it is ever-changing, and the ever-changing is prevented from dissipation by the presence of the enduring. Both, simultaneously. And thus we spin ever so slightly closer to the absent center truth of these matters.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Teaching Literature by Helping the Students Lose Themselves in It

Why do students -- college students especially, but high school students as well -- avoid literature classes? We are, after all, a storytelling species. We love stories. Why, then, would we avoid a class on stories?

Perhaps the reason is that literature teachers don't teach literature as stories or as beautiful words arranged beautifully. No, they are primarily teaching them in the worst kinds of reductionist manners imaginable, and are particularly fond of reducing everything to political positions (and it is their political positions which are the height of human virtue, meaning all literature must be thoroughly condemned for not coming to their realizations centuries before).

Students ought to be able to walk away from a literature class excited about literary stories and poems. They like stories and songs, after all.  If we can actually get human beings hating the best stories and songs (in the form of poetry) ever written, we have either failed or have succumbed to a truly evil world view, one designed to dehumanize us from within.

We should real literature because it is entertaining, beautiful, makes us more empathetic because we are reading about idealized human beings who are doing things that are either greater or worse than we have done but with whom we can empathize and therefore become better people.

That is why we ought to read literature. And that's how it ought to be taught. As great works that can make us great people, not by tearing down the works, but by becoming lost in them.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Paradox Drives Creativity in Nature, including Humans (Executive Function Version)

New research shows that people who are maximally creative exhibit both imagination and attention. While attention requires the use of the brain's executive function, imagination has been shown to be optimal in those with weak executive function. Given that the executive function actually restricts creativity in the form of imagination, as I discuss here, we seem to have a paradoxical situation where the executive function both represses and is required for creativity.

Yet, paradoxical situations are the very drivers of creativity in nature. The strange attractors of chaos and bios both attract and repel, simultaneously. The most creative groups are those that are involve both individualism and group-think simultaneously, and which have a strong core with a clear boundary and also interdisciplinary overlappers with other groups. The strongest, most creative economies are those that exhibit both cooperation and competition simultaneously. It is in the overcoming of paradoxical relations, while maintaining those paradoxical relations, that drives creative problem-solving at every level of reality.

As a result, we should not be surprised that human creativity is driven by a paradox -- that we simultaneously need a weak and a strong executive function to work. Human psychological and social complexity is driven by paradox, and increasing complexity results in ever-more paradoxes, driving ever-more complexity. Still, we should expect to find some basic paradoxes, such as this.