Category Archives: Ramblings

Donald Trump: Evil, or Just Stupid?

It’s been quite interesting to see two competing narratives emerge in the liberal media in the past few weeks. The seeds of this split have been present since the Republican primary last year, but Trump’s first few weeks in office have thrown it into sharp relief. His first acts and executive orders might have been expected to “pick a winner” and prove out one of the two theories, but instead we are left with still more questions.

What is the million dollar question then? It’s simple: is Trump (or Steve Bannon, or whoever is whispering in his ear most of the time) evil, or just stupid?

Jake Fuentes makes a reasonable argument for “evil”, and the same sentiment can be found less clearly expressed in a number of places advocating for violent resistance and protest. Others, such as author John Scalzi, view the last week of chaos as the product of stupidity, not “11-dimensional super-chess political moves”. Scott Alexander spends a lot of time dumping on Trump and then concludes that despite his other short-comings, “he does not… take marching orders from the KKK”.

I find a lot of the arguments on both sides unconvincing. Hanlon’s razor (“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”, probably since there is a lot more stupidity than malice in the world) suggests that stupid should be our default assumption. From that perspective it is hard to see the Trump administration’s actions as anything more than bumbling incompetence. However the argument baked into this position is that because Trump is incompetent, he can’t also be evil. He’s greedy and lazy, sure, and a garden-variety racist, but not actually a true-believer Nazi.

This isn’t really convincing to me because it doesn’t appear to adequately explain the sequence of events surrounding e.g. the DHS’s organized defiance of a federal injunction. When layed out one after the next, it seems like an awfully extreme coincidence for bumbling incompetency to have sent the United States so cleanly down the path to a fascist coup d’état. On the other hand, pretty much everything else Trump and his administration have tried has seemed like one gross mis-step after the next, and it would be weird for them to be so methodical with their fascism and so sloppy with everything else.

So which is it? It could, I suppose be both. Trump (or more likely Bannon) is a legitimate fascist planning a coup and kind of a moron, one who just happens to have gotten lucky on all the things that really matter. But this still seems unlikely; a better explanation would be that luck is running the other way: Trump is a garden-variety idiot whose incompetence and rhetoric has led the US to a potential civil war by accident. Because we are imagining a final destination, the steps taken down the path look intentional even when they’re not.

In the end, it may not matter. Contrary to popular aphorism, this is a case where the destination matters a lot more than the journey we took to get there. Even on the still-decent odds that the US remains a liberal and democratic republic, the rule of law will continue to be sorely tried, and from those stress fractures will bleed human rights.

Take heart from the most likely explanation: if Trump is just a lucky moron, then at least nobody in power is actively trying to dismantle the United States. Who knows, there’s a tiny chance somebody in the inner circle might actually realize the effect their policies are having and put a stop to the madness.

And even if they don’t, nobody’s luck lasts forever.

On Spandrels, and Intrinsic Value

just finished writing a post and now I’m writing another one, what madness is this? I’m writing this as kind of a very-very-extended footnote to that post, since I couldn’t figure out how to write actual footnotes in the WordPress editor.

Specifically, I want to explain briefly the way I used the word spandrel in that post, since it is not a common usage, and may in fact be a usage I simply made up. I like it.

Originally, a spandrel was an architectural term for the space between an arch and its enclosing frame. In more recent times it has been borrowed by biologists to mean a biological characteristic which evolved as the byproduct of some other adaptive characteristic, and so may not necessarily be adaptive itself.

In my previous post I borrowed it yet again, by referring to the idea of intrinsic value as “a spandrel of human cognitive architecture”. The spirit of the definition should hopefully now be obvious and follows the biological one fairly closely except in that I am referring to thoughts and cognitive architectures instead of genetics and evolution. You may even take my usage to be memetic spandrels (as opposed to the genetic spandrels of the biological definition) though that honestly feels a bit stretched.

The most confusing part of this whole thing is that there are fairly obvious ways in which intrinsic values can be adaptive in an evolutionary psychology sense. Let’s try this again.

Go read How An Algorithm Feels From Inside. That central node in the second neural network diagram, the “dangling unit”, is a spandrel of human cognitive architecture. Just as it feels like there’s a leftover question even when you know a falling tree made acoustic vibrations but not auditory experience, it feels like there’s a leftover thing-in-need-of-value even when all your instrumental values have been accounted for.

Charles Taylor, Iris Murdoch, and Me

For Christmas this year I received a collection of essays by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (specifically the Harvard University Press edition of Dilemmas and Connections, 2011). Thus far I have only managed to read the first essay, Iris Murdoch and Moral Philosophy, though I’ve now been through it a handful of times. Taylor’s writing can be dense. Still, the essay raises an interesting problem.

Much of the essay deals with the possibility of axiomatic value (in the moral sense) beyond simple human life, in a form that may not be explicitly religious but is at least deeply spiritual. It is a meandering, fascinating path being explored that clearly is intended to end in religion in some later essay (Taylor is a practicing Roman-Catholic) but none-the-less drew me along a lot farther than I was expecting. I have to acknowledge the pull of some kind of value beyond the secular-humanist: the feeling that may lead a man to religion, or rebellion. It seems undeniable that within many (most? all?) people is this half-felt, unexpressed need for some sort of higher cause.

My instinctive philosophical response, as might be expected by those who’ve read my previous posts, is (over-simplified) an extension of Hume’s Guillotine. A feeling is not a true gap in our metaphysics, and in this case is like any other claim (or question) of intrinsic value: the byproduct of a spandrel of human cognitive architecture rather than anything real in the world.

Here is where my hypothetical interlocutor pounces (this was originally a conversation I had with myself; I’m not crazy, I swear). The guillotine cuts away all intrinsic values, and yet my life is lived by a certain set of these values, the ones more-or-less described by the term secular-humanist. Given my commitment to the truth, there is a conflict, a cognitive dissonance, at play here:

Is it inconsistent to live by a set of values while denying instrinsic value so brutally at a philosophical level?

If it is inconsistent, then by what means shall I make decisions? The resulting life guided by no intrinsic values at all seems incoherent and unlivable. Even the thesis of this direction is incomprehensible, for am I not intrinsically valuing truth and logical consistency in order to reject my secular-humanist values as inconsistent in the first place? I can make no further progress in this branch.

If it is not inconsistent, then by what right do I reject religion? It has no more grounding in empirical truth than my secular-humanist values. Even Occam’s Razor glances off, since I have already admitted to the pull of some kind of transcendental belief. And if I am to add a ninth axiom to the set of eight with which I opened this blog, then on what basis do I choose between secular-humanism, Christianity, Buddhism, or some other far weirder set of ethical values?

I have no answers yet.

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Brexit, Trump, and Capital in the Twenty-First Century

With the recent Brexit vote, and with Trump the presumptive Republican nominee, there have been a number of comments and op-eds comparing the two and talking about the apparently inarticulate rage being expressed by the “unemployed working class” through this political process. The underlying assumption seems to be that sure, maybe these people have the right to be angry at the way they are being failed by the current economic/political system, but isolationism and nationalism are not the answer. It’s not like it actually kind of worked to pull the German economy out of the Great Depression.

But still, let’s take a closer look at why so many people are feeling disenfranchised; maybe by understanding the problem we could, for instance, come up with a damned workable solution. I dream small. This project, of course, takes us right into the arms of Thomas Piketty’s landmark economic work Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

The book’s central thesis is that when the rate of return on capital (r) is greater than the rate of economic growth (g) over the long term, the result is concentration of wealth, and this unequal distribution of wealth causes social and economic instability.

I disagree with this thesis, at least in part. It did, however, make me think about the problem in a different way. So let’s take a look at capital again, but from a more micro-economic perspective, and with a more Bourdieu-ian twist.

Personal Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Personal Capital, as I will use it here (not a standard definition, I know), is all the inputs to the function defining an individual’s earnings expectations in the short and medium term. This includes mostly obvious things like labour, education, and money-in-the-bank. Also note that there is a “break-even” level for this capital (kind of a natural poverty line) at which point the individual becomes financially self-sustaining within the economy. Individuals above this line are in a positive feedback loop; they earn more than they need, and since money is a form of personal capital, that increases their expected earnings even more.

The first part of my thesis, such as it is, is that people in this state tend to be happy. Even if you’re not rich in any absolute or relative sense, if you’re above that break-even line growth occurs, and your life gradually improves. I argue that the current political unrest is due to the fact that more and more people are dropping below this line. The question becomes: why?

The Relative Value of Labour

Consider the different forms of personal capital as goods in a meta-market, trading against each other. From this perspective, what has changed over the last couple of generations since the second world war? The answer is pretty obvious: the value of unskilled labour has dropped precipitously. Technological automation and a glut of supply from third-world countries have conspired to drive the value of unskilled labour into the basement. Additionally, the value of a college degree has also dropped, though not as sharply and hardly at all in some fields.

This makes it pretty obvious why so many people today are dropping below the break-even line of personal capital; it’s not that they have less capital, but that the capital they have (labour potential and education) is simply less valuable.

The Boomer-Millennial Divide

It has become almost tautological on the internet that baby boomers will whine and complain about how kids today would be doing just fine if they were willing to put in an honest day’s work, and how it’s their own damned fault. Millennials of course put the blame on the boomers; they are working hard and would be doing just fine if the boomers hadn’t ruined politics/the environment/the economy/the world. This conflict is actually a fairly natural one.

In the age of the boomers, labour was quite valuable. A confluence of factors drove the value of labour up to the point where individuals could sit comfortably at or above the break-even point, just on the value of their natural labour. Boomers really could make a healthy, happy, constantly-improving life for themselves just by working hard. They see millennials not succeeding and assume that they can’t be working as hard.

Of course in today’s market, that assumption is no longer true. Labour is so much less valuable that without some extra booster shot of personal capital (maybe a trust fund, or an expensive education in certain fields like hard science), the value of an individual’s natural labour is not enough to let them break even. They kill themselves to make ends meet, but with no hope of their situation ever really improving (they don’t have the positive feedback loop of capital growth working for them) it is no wonder they become disenfranchised. Those presently losing their jobs to foreign labour are in the same boat.

Finding Solutions

It seems then, that the solution to this recent unrest would be to bring as many people as possible back above this break-even point, giving them something to work for and hope for the future. But what do potential solutions actually look like for increasing the level of Personal Capital? Well, to me the obvious ones fall into three categories:

  • Drive up the value of the capital that people already have (primarily labour).
  • Provide people with additional capital such as education.
  • Reduce the break-even point so that existing levels of personal capital are sufficient.

With all this as perspective, the isolationist/nationalist solution isn’t actually all that insane. By putting stringent limits on immigration and trade, that greatly reduces the supply of labour, thus driving up the value of labour once more. Labour is the one piece of capital that everybody already has, rich or poor. It’s not really clear to me if this would be sufficient on its own to return us to the boomers’ golden age, but it will certainly move the needle in the right direction. The “hidden” cost, of course, is all the other terrible side-effects which tend to come with isolationist/nationalist policies. Let’s try and avoid a third world war, shall we?

So what other solutions are there that are less likely to destroy the world? Providing people with a basic income is a pretty straight-forward way to provide people with additional capital. No long-term large-scale system has yet been implemented, but the pilots look promising. Reducing the cost of higher education is also an obvious way to distribute additional (educational) capital.

Unfortunately, it’s not obvious to me how to pay for many of these socialist solutions. Since tackling the second point (providing more capital) is expensive and politically infeasible, and tackling the first point (driving up the value of labour) tends to actually hurt the economy globally in the long run, what about the third point? How do we reduce the break-even point of personal capital?

I don’t know.

Inequality, Brexit, and Trump

Bringing this discussion back to the original topics, I want to make a couple of points.

My primary point of disagreement with Piketty and many modern Bernie-Sanders-esque leftists is that it is not unequal distribution of wealth that is driving the present social unrest. It is quite possible for vast inequality to exist in a system where the majority of people are still above the break-even point of personal capital. I predict that such a scenario would be peaceful, and that people would be generally happy.

It is also quite popular among these same modern leftists to look at the people voting for Brexit and Trump and assume they must be insane to be voting for policies which are not in their own best interests. I disagree again. The policies being presented here are legitimate solutions to the problem these voters face. You may disagree with the trade-offs they are willing to make, but until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, judge not.

Finally, what do I propose we do about it? What political and economic stance does this essay actually lead me to endorse? Again, I don’t know. There is no clear-cut winning answer that I have yet found.

I’m going  to keep looking.