Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Demise of the Academy

My Trotskyist friends are big on material conditions. By this they mean the underlying forces influencing any social change or social movement. For Marxists, such material causes are inevitably economic. Famously, they interpret everything through a class conflict lens, and will often refer to the historical relationship of forces, or the contradictions inherent in capitalism.

So a lot of this is gibberish, but the underlying idea is true. Important social phenomena are indeed caused by important changes in the material facts of life. These, of course, need not only be economic, but can also be biological and sexual. They can even be psychological--economists have long recognized the importance of expectations in causing economic events.

So what’s causing the demise of the academy? It’s not just that professors are a bunch of pointy-headed nitwits--though that is certainly true. And it’s not just the hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go agenda, though that definitely hasn’t helped any. No--the reasons ultimately are economic and sexual. The other phenomena are a symptom of the academy’s dysfunction, not a cause.

Three key causes of academic decline are ultimately technological in origin--automation, disintermediation, and democratization.

The first item refers to disruptive pedagogy. This includes on-line learning, such as MOOCs, computer-aided instruction, such as Rosetta Stone, and computerized instructional aids, such as automated grading. The net result of all these technologies is to make higher education cheaper. It partially overcomes Baumol’s disease by increasing the productivity of the faculty.

But unlike all the hype, none of these technologies threaten higher education at its core. At some level, education depends on person-to-person interactions. While new technologies will eliminate a lot of professors’ jobs, there’s no way they’ll become completely obsolete.

It will, however, change what professors teach. We may distinguish between articulated knowledge and tacit knowledge. Articulated knowledge is the stuff you can put in words. It shows up in textbooks, on Wikipedia, and in on-line courses. Mathematics is the ultimate in articulated knowledge--everything can be reduced to words, numbers and symbols. Some form of computerized instruction will soon replace almost all mathematics professors. To a lesser degree the same is true in many STEM disciplines.

Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is stuff that can’t be put into words. Pronouncing Chinese nouns is a good example--the only way you’ll learn that is by imitation. Descriptions such as put your tongue on the top of your mouth simply won’t get you very far. Learning Chinese fluently ultimately requires that you spend time in China imitating native speakers.

A lot of what you learn in college is tacit knowledge, especially in the arts and humanities. There will always be jobs for human professors in those fields. So the hype around pedagogical technologies is, in my opinion, somewhat exaggerated.

The second way technology threatens college life is through disintermediation. Disintermediation means that it will no longer be one-stop shopping anymore. The college as a single location where students buy everything from their calculus class to their gym memberships will disappear. Rather, each of those items will be purchased a la carte from whatever provider offers the best value. Calculus, for example, will be delivered on-line from The Calculus Company. (That’s a company I’d like to found--it would teach nothing but calculus in all it’s variations for students at all levels.) Housing and athletics will be run by similarly specialist companies. The college will be reduced to housing those classes that are best taught in person.

The third term--democratization--destroys the university’s monopoly on scholarship. The Internet makes information available to anybody. It allows people without credentials (horrors!) to do valuable work in whatever discipline they want. This blog comments on Louis Proyect’s blog--he is a good example. The man is a good historian, despite having neither the credential nor the academic rank. He can do this because he no longer needs access to a physical library. Most of the sources available to “professional” historians are now available to anybody at a very modest cost.

Much of the dispute about climate change isn’t really about the climate. It’s more about who has authority to speak on behalf of “science”. Blogs such as Skeptical Science stoutly defend the professoriate--if you don’t have a tenured position at an official university, you have no standing to say anything about science. On the other side, bloggers like Stephen McIntyre weigh in aggressively, even without credentials.

The credentialists will ultimately lose this argument, and with them so will the academy. With scholarship so easily dispersed to the four winds, both students and taxpayers are becoming increasingly reluctant to pay for it to happen on college campuses. Outside of the most elite institutions, the research mission of colleges and universities will disappear. Scholarship in fields such as literature, history, and philosophy will become avocations, curated by public intellectuals (such as Mr. Proyect) who establish themselves as experts.

The college will be hollowed out, teaching only courses that require capital investment, such as chemistry labs.

So I think most higher education institutions will disappear, though that process may take decades. (After all, the Post Office is still around.) The material conditions for its demise are in place, and nothing our academic friends do will change that fact.

Still, they’re doing a really good job of hastening the inevitable. Our professor friends are engaging in remarkably stupid activities.

The prime example is the crusade against sexual harassment. The claim is that female college students are sexually assaulted way in excess of the regular populations. (1 in 5 is the obviously bogus statistic floating around.) To remedy this “tragedy”, illiberal rules and laws are being implemented, all of which are almost certainly unconstitutional. The most egregious is the new law in California (summarized as “yes means yes”) which makes it impossible for men to defend themselves against a sexual assault charge, as even defenders of the law admit.

It all began with a Dear Colleague letter from the federal Department of Education, “suggesting” that campuses should use a preponderance of the evidence standard in adjudicating sexual disputes. This means that men are tried and convicted (in a civil sense) of heinous crimes without due process.

So I support these new sexual assault laws. I oppose the academy in all its nefarious forms, and anything that destroys its credibility is something to be celebrated. Men will be even less likely to attend college than before. (And when they leave, so will the women.) Those that do are more likely to be filing lawsuits against their campuses, assisting them in bankruptcy. My campus is spending a fortune in policing--we have more cops per square foot than any city in America. And all for the sake of defending us against (mostly) non-existent crimes.

The professoriate is trying to help the Democratic Party with its war against women meme. Instead, they’re simply hastening their own doom.

Down with the academy!

Further Reading:

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Trotskyists Down on the Farm

I respond to an article appearing in Counterpunch, written by Carmello Ruiz-Marrero, entitled Toward the Agro-Police State. That title is over-the-top. The content is succinctly represented by the sub-heading: "You'll need an iPad if you want to be a farmer."

Horrors!

Mr. Ruiz-Marrero reports that Monsanto is buying some small technology companies, none for more than a billion dollars. (For comparison, Monsanto is capitalized at around $18 billion, and Apple Computer at over $500 billion.) The first company is The Climate Corporation. Mr. Ruiz-Marrero quotes from their mission statement:
The Climate Corporation aims to help farmers around the world protect and improve their farming operations with uniquely powerful software and insurance products. The company’s proprietary technology platform combines hyper-local weather monitoring, agronomic data modeling, and high-resolution weather simulations to deliver climate.com, a solution that helps farmers improve their profits by making better informed operating and financing decisions, and Total Weather Insurance, an insurance offering that pays farmers automatically for bad weather that may impact their profits.
Farmers are more likely to earn money and less likely to lose it. Consumers will get cheaper prices. The environment benefits because fewer resources are wasted. It's hard to find fault with this. What's Mr. Ruiz-Marrero's problem?

It gets worse.
In 2012 Monsanto bought a similar company, Precision Planting, for $210 million. The biotech behemoth was after the company’s FieldView platform, a hardware/software package that monitors the performance of farm machinery and pretty much tells the farmer how to do everything, determining even the spacing between crop rows.
Yet another evil plot to make food cheaper and better, using fewer chemicals while wasting less land and water. These awful capitalists! What will they think of next?

Mr. Ruiz-Marrero lays out the benefits of this new technology rather clearly.
Welcome to the brave new world of precision farming, in which every farmer will need a wifi connection and an iPad. Precision ag, as it is often called, is the collective name of a series of new agricultural data and crop monitoring technologies. The alleged benefits of these new techno packages include increased yields, better information for decision making in the farm, reduction in the use and overuse of agrochemicals and fertilizer, and increased profits. It relies on cutting edge technologies like geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing, wireless internet, portable computers, high-speed data processing, and global positioning (GPS).
Again, I still fail to see the problem. How can he possibly be against any of this?

I'll summarize his complaint in bullet points.
  • It employs military technology, specifically drone aircraft. The connection is to Big Data in the cloud. The farmer will be cut out of the loop. Further, data will be readily available to adjudicate patent violations or lawsuits.
  • Farmers will be deskilled. There will be a "loss of local farm knowledge and the erosion of farmer's rights." (Though probably with less erosion of the farmer's land.)
  • On the other hand, many farmers in Mr. Ruiz-Marrero's native Puerto Rico are illiterate. Only 14% have college degrees. Deskilling notwithstanding, they won't be able to cope with the intellectual demands of wifi and robotic drones.
  • Adopting this new technology, at the low end, costs  $1,000,000, $100,000, $20,000. Frankly, that's just not a lot of money--not even for a family farm. A farmer without that much capital has a title: subsistence farmer. Mr. Ruiz-Marrero's fears that farmers will be forced into debt seems unwarranted.
But the main problem is all this benefits the wealthy. Only rich people will be able to buy the wholesome, freshly-grown, organic vegetables at the local farmer's market. The rest of us shlubs will be stuck with cheap frankenfoods, plastics on a stalk. But Mr. Ruiz-Marrero surely exaggerates the difference. There are no nutritional differences between so-called "organic" foods and their GM analogs. In a few cases there may be a taste difference, notably with tomatoes. Personally, I think the "organic" label is just advertising hype and I refuse to buy the stuff.

Cheaper food is better than expensive food. Farming that uses fewer resources is better than farming that wastes resources. Mr. Ruiz-Marrero has got his priorities all wrong.

Louis Proyect contributed his two-cents with a post here. Revealingly, it's an ad hominem attack on a journalist rather than any kind of reasoned argument. On science issues (where Mr. Proyect is resoundingly ignorant) that appears to be the best he can do. The Pulitzer-winning reporter, Amy Harmon, apparently has the moral backbone of a dead rat, what defending GM foods as she does. Mr. Proyect delivers the laugh line:
Her sordid record is worth examining, as is the question of genetic modification itself that she practically likens to global warming denialism or creationism...
The irony is that Mr. Proyect is himself a quasi-creationist, denying as he does the overwhelming evidence of evolution on human behavior.

Of course it's not necessary to believe lock-step in everything that so-called "scientists" say. I myself take partial issue with the so-called "consensus" on global warming. There may be good non-scientific reasons to reject evolution. But Mr. Proyect can't have it both ways--that the "consensus" is always true except when he disagrees with it.

But, since he's in awe of science, here's the statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science on GM foods.
The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe … The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.
I agree with this. If all the bad things that the anti-GM movement predicted were true, they would have happened by now. In the meantime, over two trillion GM meals have been served, with no evidence either of bad health or environmental destruction.

Misters Proyect and Ruiz-Marrero need to find themselves some new windmills to slay.

Further Reading:

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Red-Baiting the Climate

When I was a Trotskyist, the words "red-baiting" ended any argument. The term stems from the 1950s when Communists (the Stalinist ones in the CPUSA) were surreptitiously infiltrating themselves into government agencies where they then aided and abetted the Soviets.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union we now know for a fact that that happened, though probably neither to the extent nor with the consequences they desired.

But that term never applied very well to Trotskyists. We viewed the bourgeois state as the mortal enemy, and far from trying to infiltrate it we avoided it like the plague. Our criticism of the CPUSA was that they were class-collaborationists, i.e., they participated with bourgeois governments in oppressing the working class. We condemned them for their very infiltration.

But we did infiltrate, if not the bourgeois state, then various "working class" social movements and institutions. In the 1930s Trotskyists played a key role in the development of the Teamsters Union. From the 1950s through the 1980s we made continuous efforts to form "fractions" in the unions, i.e., groups of "worker-Bolsheviks" who could advance a revolutionary socialist agenda.

So when addressed to Trotskyists the term takes on a slightly different meaning. It implies that a given organization is a front-group, nominally independent but in reality controlled by the Party. Today new names have evolved to describe such organizations: "astroturf", or "sockpuppets." The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) certainly had its share of front groups. Almost all defense committees were such, most famously the one that pursued the COINTELPRO lawsuit. The Mark Curtis Defense Committee is another example. While these went around seeking endorsements, they never had much of a footprint outside of the Party.

The National Student Coalition Against Racism was another such front group. In this case the Party wanted it to become a mass organization, but failed.

On the other hand, there were a few organizations led by Trotskyists that really did have a mass following. The Student Mobilization Committee is the most important one--it organized the 800,000 strong antiwar marches on April 24th, 1971. Comrades were clearly in the leadership of this group, but with 800,000 adherents it's really hard to think of it as a front group. Instead, it's probably the closest the American communist movement has ever come to having an actual success.

So now we come to the Sept. 21st Climate March. The big demonstration--300,000 people--happened in New York. Reason TV has a perfectly good report here, and while the communists get a mention, most of the audience is goodhearted if fuzzy-thinking people. They're not Trotskyist wannabes. Indeed, I think this march was organized by legitimate climate activists--Bill McKibben gave a talk on my campus to build attendance. The Trotskyists are a sideshow.

So now comes the blogger Zombie, reporting on the climate march in Oakland, CA. This was much smaller (he doesn't give a number), perhaps only a thousand people or so. He red-baits the march as a commie event. And he certainly has some good evidence. All of this blog's friends make an appearance: Socialist Action gets top billing. Solidarity is present. Even Socialist Viewpoint makes a cameo appearance (holding a sign promoting "system change not climate change"). The SWP had a very large booth.

The CPUSA was there, as were the International Socialists, the Freedom Socialist Party, and Socialist Alternative. Bob Avakian's fan club made an appearance, with t-shirts advertising "BA Speaks." And Mr. Zombie makes a point to include the card table lit display from the (I kid you not) Committees of Correspondence for Democracy & Socialism.

Further, the keynote speaker was an avowed revolutionary socialist. I don't know who she was or what organization she represented. She advised the assembled to get involved by talking to any of the people in the booths, i.e., all the Trotskyists and commies.

But it can't be entirely true. For all their similarities, these grouplets are all at each other's throats. My former comrades in the SWP wouldn't give the Bob Avakian fan club the time of day (nor do I blame them). There is no love lost between Socialist Action and Socialist Viewpoint, however much you'd think they have in common.

Further, the SWP regards environmentalism as a petty-bourgeois phenomenon, and is not fully on board with the enterprise. The fact that they had a lit booth up says nothing about their support for the march, which at best would be tepid.

So the march was organized by the People's Climate Committee (PCC). Are they a front group for one of these Trotskyist sects? I doubt it, though perhaps Socialist Action played a disproportionate role. But like the SMC of yore, this effort really does tap into the fervent feeling of many people. The New York march was big enough to drown out the Trotskyists, but that wasn't true in Oakland. Rather than being a front group, instead the PCC's march was hijacked by assorted communists.

So what do all of these commie groups have in common?

  • They are old. There are remarkably few people under 40 behind the lit tables. Most of them look to be nearing 60.
  • They are ugly. We all get less attractive as we age. Most of us make some efforts to hide that fact, but apparently not the communists.
  • They're angry. They all look like they've got a big chip on their shoulder. The picture of the two Socialist Viewpoint ladies makes the case.
  • They're miserable. None of them are having any fun. Far from being a party atmosphere, this is a chore. These folks put the Puritans to shame--it's against the rules to smile.
At least that's how they come across in the photos. Maybe Mr. Zombie has selectively published unflattering photos. That's probably part of it. I doubt the event was quite as miserable as he's made it look. Still, his imagery conforms to my recollection of antiwar demonstrations. We were all young back then, but apart from the age difference I don't think much has changed. I never enjoyed attending those. I was tasked with selling The Militant, and the experience was both boring and stressful.

If this represents the flower of the revolutionary movement, then I am pleased to say that the bourgeoisie have nothing to fear.


PS: Mr. Zombie previously posted a very amusing account of a Slutwalks march, here.

Further Reading:

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Robots of the World, Unite!

In the previous issue of Socialist Action is a fascinating article by Danny Haiphong, entitled Capitalist Automation in the 21st Century. The interesting thing is that Mr. Haiphong gets the facts mostly right, but his interpretation of them is mistaken. It's worth trying to take it apart. The article is short and hard to excerpt, so you may want to read the whole thing.

Mr. Haiphong reports on a hero of the workers' cause with whom I was previously unacquainted. "James Boggs was a revolutionary Black autoworker in the Post World War II era, a period where technology boomed from the vast expansion of “war-time” industries. He broke from the racist leadership of the United Auto Workers (UAW) to help organize the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the early ’60s."

In 1968, Mr. Boggs pretty clearly laid out the rap sheet against automation that Marxists make to this very day. In Mr. Haiphong's words:
In The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Workers Notebook, Boggs examines the impact of capitalist automation. During the industrial period of U.S. capitalism, advanced technology was implemented to speed-up, or automate productive factories. This development grinded away at traditional labor union structures, displacing “skilled” workers and pressuring labor unions to bargain for defensive protections of “bread and butter” gains instead of offensive campaigns for workplace power. Boggs asserted that the only effective counter offensive to automation’s assault on labor would be for workers to make “politics” instead of ”things.” Automation paved the way for deindustrialization and precipitated a decline in conditions for all workers that could not be remedied under the U.S. capitalist system.
That's pretty prescient! Only the last sentence seems wrong. There is no way that conditions for all workers are declining. By any measure our standard of living has gone up--and not just for rich people. Even poor people are vastly better off than they were fifty years ago.

Indeed, it is rather perverse to say that automation is an "assault" on labor. Is labor better off digging ditches with a pick and shovel rather than using a backhoe? Were women really happier working at the deadly tedious job of telephone operator, instead of relying on automatic switches? The over-the-road truck driver may be a romantic job, but it is a grindingly enervating occupation. Driverless trucks (coming soon) will render that job mostly obsolete. Surely, machines are better at boringly endless jobs than people are.

As if channeling Mr. Boggs, Seth Galinsky pens an article in this week's Militant about union efforts to organize fast workers. He quotes a Burger King employee:
“Conditions are bad,” Luz Meza, who works at Burger King, said at the Houston rally. “The equipment doesn’t work and the ventilation is no good. I got burned and the boss said to put mustard on it. One worker got cut and there were no Band-Aids. There’s no sick, vacation or holiday pay.”
Why would anybody want a job like that? Fortunately, such jobs may not exist much longer.
Momentum Machines of San Francisco has invented a fully-automated contraption that can grind meat, slice tomatoes, grill patties, wrap fully cooked burgers and do pretty much anything else human fast-food workers can do. The machine is capable of cranking out 360 burgers per hour, ...
So the Burger King of the (near) future will have three employees per shift--one to greet customers and hand them their food at the counter, another to do likewise at the drive-thru window, and a third responsible for cleaning and minor maintenance. (This assumes that ordering and payment are done by mobile phone and voice-recognition software.) That's ten or more people who won't be doing meaningless, smelly, dangerous jobs at Burger King. What's there not to like?

The unions won't like it. With only three employees there's nothing left to organize at fast food. (And in a pinch the store could function even without those three.) That looks to be Mr. Haiphong's objection to automation. It grinds away at "labor union structures," rendering them irrelevant. The SEIU is half-heartedly trying to organize fast food workers because they see photogenic victims of capitalist plunder. If they succeed (which they won't--and they know it) then automation comes down all that much faster. There's no way that any food service job earns $15/hour when up against the machine.

It's a Marxist truism that automation "hurts" the working class, but Mr. Haiphong goes beyond this analysis.
Automation has produced a decline in the total rate of profit alongside heightened insecurity for workers. Capitalist profit derives from the amount of labor time unpaid, or simply put, from capitalists paying workers less than their output produced over time. This is the basis of labor exploitation. Technology creates a decrease in the total rate of profit because it is a past product of labor exploitation. Thus, technology is a cost for capitalist enterprises. And under capitalism, costs to profits means consequences for workers.
This perceptive paragraph is unusual in the Marxist press, and it's not entirely untrue. But I'm going to quibble with Mr. Haiphong's phrase "decrease in the total rate of profit." In his usage the concept is undefined and meaningless. But if he means that prices go down as a result of automation, he's absolutely correct. The capitalist cannot charge for the labor of employees that don't work there anymore. And in the long run, once the capital expense has been amortized, the cost declines to the price of raw materials and electricity to run the machine. Mr. Haiphong is correct--this is bad for capitalists as it reduces everything to a commodity.

But he never gets to the next step. Prices go down, and therefore consumers get richer. And that explains the paradox that Mr. Haiphong apparently can't get his head around. How is it that workers can be so seriously mistreated, but at the same time society is getting richer and richer and richer? The answer is that even as wages decline, prices are going down even faster. Our standard of living goes up.

Or put another way, higher productivity is a good thing. 360 hamburgers per hour with no labor expense is vastly better than putting people through hell working in a Burger King joint. Mr. Haiphong calls it speed-up, but it is precisely not that. It is radically changing the way we work and making us infinitely richer in the process.

Further Reading:

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ferguson Distinctions

Now that the Ferguson, Missouri, tragedy is winding down, now is probably a good time to take stock of the situation. My sources are three articles: from The Militant (by Dan Fein), Socialist Action (by Clay Wadena), and Counterpunch (by Ishmael Reed). Except for Mr. Reed's piece (dated this weekend) the other two articles are old news, reflecting Trotskyist publication schedules.

Mr. Reed's piece is completely over the top. He headlines the (irrelevant) fact that Gaza Palestinians are tweeting instructions about how to hold an insurrection. Further, supposedly some St. Louis County policeman once worked in Israel. This, to Mr. Reed, makes for just stunning parallels between Gaza and Ferguson.

So let's count the ways how Hamas and Ferguson demonstrators are different.

  • Blacks are not lobbing random missiles into White neighborhoods.
  • Blacks are not advocating the mass murder of American Jews (or anybody else).
  • Blacks are not storing military weapons in apartment buildings.
  • The US military is not bombing apartment buildings in order to destroy those weapons.
  • Unlike Gazans and Israel, Black Americans are citizens, and entitled to full constitutional privileges.
Socialist Action repeats this particular slander, essentially accusing Black residents of Ferguson of being terrorists. They are not terrorists.

Indeed, far from being terrorists, Ferguson's Black residents are victims. First, Michael Brown (age 18) was shot and killed. That may or may not turn out to be a justified homicide in the law enforcement sense of the word, but it is in any event a tragedy. His family does not deserve the vitriol directed against them by some on the Right.

Second, there is no question that Ferguson's local government no longer serves the interest of its citizens. Both the city government and the police department are majority white, in a town that is now two-thirds Black. Megan McArdle convincingly explains why: the demographics of the community has changed dramatically over the last two decades. The police department, in particular, is unionized and they can't easily be fired. Further, just like college professors, police tend to hire their own kind. No question--Ferguson needs a different police department.

Third, law enforcement in America has clearly gone off the rails. Rand Paul (a Republican) is among the more prominent politicians to point this out, in a widely cited opinion piece in Time. Republicans have been loudest in advocating the repeal of punitive drug laws, of all sorts of nanny-state regulations, and of stupid laws that prevent honest people from earning a living. Some suggest that the average American commits three felonies per day. That may be an exaggeration, but Mr. Reed is absolutely correct when he claims that Black folks are disproportionately arrested. We need to stop doing that.

I watch Cops occasionally. One episode in particular disturbs me: an undercover cop arresting a Black teenager for drug possession. It's dumb, it's unAmerican, and that cop should be fired.

Fourth, I read somewhere (wish I could tell you where and when) that of 175 people arrested, only 7 were Ferguson residents. That is, the Black folks who live in Ferguson are civilized people. The looters, the rock-throwers, the gangsters--those come from outside the community. So in addition to the cops, Ferguson residents are being victimized by thugs. The thugs don't care that the QuikTrip store won't reopen, or that it might be impossible to buy a gallon of milk within the town. No--that's only a problem for the regular folks.

What Ferguson residents did do is exercise their right to free speech and for a redress of grievances. The "hands-up, don't shoot" demonstrators may be right or wrong on the issues, but they are NOT the problem. They are American citizens, and they have as much right to demonstrate as I have to write this blog. To the cops' credit, apparently they also understand that--they've only arrested 7 Ferguson people.

The Militant also gets it. Of the three articles, it is the only one that makes any distinction between honest citizens and gangsters. Socialist Action lumps them together, and Mr. Reed goes so far as to valorize the thugs--witness his favorable comparison to Hamas.

So what is the larger significance of Ferguson? One hopes that it leads to a change in our criminal code. We need a whole lot fewer felonies. The cops need to protect us, not harass us for non-crimes.

What most strikes me is that the unrest has not spread. Unlike 1967, there's no mass looting of stores in Black neighborhoods. That's because we have made a lot of progress on racial issues over the past half century. There is no reason to destroy your own neighborhood anymore (not that there ever was a very good reason).

Blacks and whites are different people. We may not always like each other. But it looks like we have mostly learned how to live together reasonably peacefully. I think that's progress.

Further Reading:

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Book Review: Conservative Insurgency

On the headline level Kurt Schlichter (author of Conservative Insurgency) and I agree. Limited government under constitutional law designed to enhance liberty for all citizens is the worthy goal of politics. But under the hood, I increasingly doubt Mr. Schlichter's dedication to that cause.

The book is a retrospective from 2041, describing how Conservatives vanquished Liberals and Progressives once and for all following the dark days of the Obama and (Hillary) Clinton administrations. Conservatives borrowed tactics from Lenin, Saul Alinsky, and Andrew Breitbart, steadily marching through the institutions to not only capture government, but the popular culture besides.

The Conservative Insurgency is descended from the Tea Party, but it has hopefully divested itself of the Stupid Wing (my term) of the Republican Party, of which Ted Cruz, Todd Akin, and Christine O'Donnell are exemplars. I'd add Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, and maybe even Kurt Schlichter to that list.

Mr. Schlichter fails on two counts. First, he disagrees with some fundamental, Libertarian principles, which cause me to doubt his dedication to Liberty. Libertarians believe in free markets, free trade, and open borders. Mr. Schlichter opposes all three.

Second, he's a utopian. As a former Trotskyist I'm totally familiar with utopianism, and am heartily repelled by it. Down that road lies mass murder.

Let's take the utopian dream first. Mr. Schlichter wants to abolish the EBT Card. He devotes a chapter to how welfare cheats are scamming the rest of us by shopping at Walmart. These people, he suggests, should be required to Get A J-O-B.

So let's see how that plays out. Take the city of Detroit as an example (other examples will include much of Appalachia), where anybody with any ambition, talent, and skill has left town. What you have left in Detroit are 600,000 people who are not only unemployed, but completely unemployable. Even if you reduced the minimum wage to zero dollars and zero cents, these people would be unable to find a job.

They are missing the basic skill set. Leave aside any technical skills or the three Rs--just consider things like, for example, being able to take shit from customers and still keep smiling. Or possessing a wardrobe that's presentable outside of the 'hood. Or an ability to defer gratification until the next payday.

Or having a reliable, cost-effective way of getting to and from work. The Liberals will have us build expensive bus and light-rail systems that will cost vastly more than any payroll is going to cover. I like Megan McArdle's suggestion--simply give a reliable car to inner-city poor people who are otherwise capable of working (there are probably a few).

Mr. Schlichter's strategy of hurling mean-spirited invective at them isn't going to help much. I would like to hear his ideas for a cost-effective way of enabling these people to hold a job. He offers none, so I'll volunteer some suggestions for him.

  • The machine-gun approach. Shooting 600,000 folks wouldn't cost much. It does raise a few ethical problems, but anything is justified for the sake of the Utopian Vision. Judging from his language, I think this is Mr. Schlichter's preferred solution.
  • Put them all in jail. It ruins lives, but that's not Mr. Schlichter's problem. On the other hand, 600,000 people x $30,000 to keep each one in prison for a year, and you need a lot of money. And that's just for Detroit. Not cost-effective.
  • Deport them all to Canada. That might work for Detroit, but I don't think it'd work for Appalachia or anyplace else in America.
  • Fund a whole bunch of make-work projects in the 'hood, like they did during the Depression. It'd be fake work supervised by a bunch of unionized, corrupt, federal employees. That's probably not even Mr. Schlichter's model of a utopia.
Sorry, but the EBT Card is the only cost-effective solution to this problem that anybody has thought of. Conservatives might win an election based on phony moral outrage--the pro-utopia crowd--but they'd lose the next one because there is no other practical solution. We need EBT Cards for the same reasons we need Social Security, the police, and the military. Those institutions protect us from the failings of human nature. And human nature will fail outside of any utopia.

In his diatribe against the EBT Card he goes off on a rant against Walmart. He thinks that Walmart invented the EBT Card, or something. In truth, Walmart lives in the reality-based community, rather than in some utopian-inspired pipedream. Their customers are the poorer half of Americans, and thus disproportionately they will use EBT Cards. The (Bill) Clintonistas take great credit for taming inflation during the 1990s. I don't give them any credit. Instead, the responsible party is Walmart, which by insisting on "Always Low Prices" improved the standard of living for all Americans across the board, especially for poor people.

Beyond that, Mr. Schlichter has apparently never lived in small, Midwestern towns, where Walmart is a staple for middle class families such as mine. His remarks are insulting.

But more--in the last half of the twentieth Century, 400 million Chinese were pulled out of poverty. Now I doubt Mr. Schlichter will consider the progress of such untermenschen to be especially noteworthy, but most of us will disagree. Indeed, it is one of the greatest accomplishments of the human race. Sam Walton (along with Norman Borlaug, Malcom McLean, and--yes--Deng Xiao Peng) deserves the lion's share of the credit. Without him, it would never have happened.

Beyond selling to poor people, Walmart's primary sin is that it's big. Per Mr. Schlichter, big business is bad, and small business is good. The only reason he gives is that small businesses are part of the Conservative constituency. In other words, they're future cronies. He advocates for crony capitalism--the only difference is that he'd choose a different set of cronies than the Liberals do. To my mind, this is a distinction without a difference.

A government thumb on the scale in favor of small business is as bad as the other way round. The government has to support free markets. Sometimes that will lead to big business, and sometimes small. Mr. Schlichter is right to oppose crony capitalism in principle, but he fails to do so in practice. He is against the free market.

He's against free trade. He opposes importing "crap" from China. So he supports higher prices and a lower standard of living for Americans. He's also against open borders, but that's the topic for another post.

So I don't see how this guy is a small government Conservative. He wants the feds to regulate labor markets, company sizes, trade, and immigration. This is what most people call Liberalism, or what I'd call disaster.

I'm being tougher on Mr. Schlichter than is fair. I actually agree with most of what he says. But he's a victim of either sloppy thinking, or instead he's caving to the Stupid Wing of the Republican Party. The book is entertaining and engagingly written. As a summary of political tactics it's well worth reading.

Further Reading:

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Book Review: A Troublesome Inheritance

This book about race and the human genome (by former NYTimes reporter Nicholas Wade) will neither shock nor surprise the reader already schooled in evolutionary psychology. I, for example, have read much of the antecedent literature, and little of the data was totally new to me (though I still learned a lot). The book is well-written and well-documented. The author is careful not to overstate his case, even while speculating beyond the hard facts.

The principle thesis of the book is that race (and more broadly, ethnicity) is more than skin deep. The book demonstrates--conclusively in my view--that there are genes that influence behavior, and that these are unevenly distributed among racial groups. One example that he describes in detail is the MAO-A promoter sequence, a variable piece of DNA that regulates aggressive behavior.

The book is very careful not to make too much of this. It's not as though there are "Caucasian genes" and "Asian genes." We are all one species, and the races have been separated for at most 50,000 years. At most the races constitute sub-species--such as dog breeds--but Mr. Wade won't even go that far. Instead, the phenomena is much more subtle, and not necessarily observable at the level of an individual.

Genes mutate through natural processes such as cosmic radiation, transcription errors, and whatnot. Most of these mutations are harmless, most of the rest are harmful or even fatal, but a few of them confer some benefit on the individual and his/her offspring. These latter will be propagated throughout the population.

When mutations are very beneficial, they sweep the entire population until 100% of all individuals possess those genes--we say they have reached fixation. Most genes that we have inherited from our mammalian ancestors, along with many human genes, have reached fixation and are common to all human beings. Those genes are what make us human.

But some genes are not so obviously beneficial--they confer benefits only under some circumstances. For example, the gene for sickle cell anemia is beneficial to those who live in malarial climates, but counterproductive everyplace else. It is thus most commonly found among West Africans. These genes do not sweep the entire population, but instead coexist with other variants of the same gene. These coexisting gene mutations are known as alleles.

So it would be easy to claim that White people have one set of alleles, while Asians another set. But that is also an oversimplification. Consider two alleles of a given gene--label them A and B. In Caucasians, allele A might be found in 75% of the population, while in Asians it may only be found in 40% of the population. Thus it's not that each race has a separate set of alleles, but the frequency of alleles varies between the races. By looking at the allele ratio for multiple genes (typically in the dozens) it is possible to determine the race of the individual to within 90% accuracy (i.e., an answer that corresponds to how the person assigns his own race).

So there is no question that race is inscribed in our genes. The second claim is that there are genes for behavior. This seems obviously true--certainly animal behavior is regulated by genes, and it would be strange if that weren't also true for humans in some degree. The elucidation of the function of the MAO-A promoters (among other genes) demonstrates this conclusively.

There are certain complex behaviors that determine social interactions. For example, how big is the circle of trust? A small circle consisting only of kin will predominate in tribal societies. A much bigger circle is necessary for urban individuals who participate in a global economy. However, there is not a gene for "trust." Instead, trust is regulated by a large number of genes, and can be modified by slight changes the frequencies of various alleles. These frequencies probably do not change by much--most people are fairly trusting--and we have neither identified any of the relevant genes, nor successfully measured the frequencies of the alleles. Still, it is a very reasonable hypothesis that evolution can modulate social interactions to optimize the individual's chances in their current environment. Jews, for example, have long lived in urban environments that put a premium on trust--that's why they're successful bankers. Australian aborigines, on the other hand, lived as tribal hunter-gatherers for 46,000 years, up until the arrival of Europeans in the 17th Century--their ability to function as global citizens will be much more limited.

The third thesis is that evolution happens fast. My Trotskyist friends, for example, have long argued that evolution takes "millions of years," and that within the timeframe of human history our biology was static. But with the advent of modern genomics, we know that evolution operates on much faster timescales. It is now possible to measure human evolution to within the last 3,000 years, and that limit is simply an experimental restriction. With better data (that we shall soon accumulate), there is every reason to think that measurable evolution can occur within a few centuries. This is especially true if the environmental driver is very strong, e.g., birth control.

So the claim of Mr. Wade's book is that people evolve to optimize their success in their environment. If that environment is cultural, then cultural traits will soon be inscribed in the genome. China, for example has existed as a unified nation under autocratic rule since 221 BC. That they will suddenly turn into a Western-style democracy just because a few McDonald's restaurants have opened up is surely a silly thesis. Behavioral traits such as conformity, obedience, thrift, hard work, and a large trust circle are likely not merely cultural phenomena anymore--they are part of the genetic heritage. Mr. Wade's book predicts that someday soon we will be able to prove that through an analysis of the human genome. I think he's right.

By demographic measures, the Han Chinese are the most successful people on earth. They are clearly optimized for their environment.

I'll add three comments of my own. First, people like my Trotskyist friends who claim that evolution stopped the minute human beings came along can no longer justify that belief on facts. Theirs is no longer a scientific opinion. Our ability to analyze the genome directly completely discredits that point of view.

Second, the public policy implications of this data are pretty small. It implies that efforts to change people's personality, either through education or economic motivation, will probably fail. Personality is substantially heritable, and the part that isn't heritable is not easily addressed institutionally. Schools can educate students, but they can't build character or instill good citizenship. Those traits depend on culture and genes, neither of which are amenable to schooling. Head Start failed, not because it was bad educational practice, but because it wanted to give its students a personality transplant. That goal was impossible.

Finally, moral claims are unchanged. To put it in religious terms, God Loves You. It doesn't matter what your alleles are--we are all created in the image of God. Or, in more secular language: We hold these truths to be self-evident...

Further Reading: