Who Gets to Sit in First Class Airline Seats?

October 25, 2014

This was a question exercising Richard Wolff, a self-styled Marxist economics professor, in a recent talk on Alternative Radio. Its programs monotonously demonize capitalism or U.S. “imperialism.” Wolff’s talk was in the former category, mocking the idea that the market is some perfect mechanism for producing ideal economic outcomes (an idea nobody actually holds).

UnknownHis airline seat conniptions were prompted by being flown First Class to some speaking gig. He liked it – in contrast to flying “steerage,” and as a card-carrying leftist was rankled by the inequality.*

What we have here, Wolff said, is a “distributional problem.” And he held forth at some length with alternative, putatively fairer ways to (re)distribute First Class seats. Anything but just selling them, to people willing to pay.

manna-from-heavenThis “distributional” fixation shows the fundamental mistake of lefty economics. Wolff sees First Class seats – and, by extension, any other good or asset – as just out there, as though created by some sort of spontaneous generation, like manna falling from the sky, the only question being how to divvy them up (with everyone, presumptively, having equal entitlements).**

Wolff recognized that if First Class seats are conferred by one of his egalitarian methods, rather than sold, airlines would make less profit. But, he said, “who cares?”

images-2This too shows the magical thinking of leftist economics. As though profit is somehow ill-gotten, illegitimate, exploitative, and all goods and services ought instead to be forthcoming, somehow, free of profit. Magically.

Now here’s reality. If airlines couldn’t profit, they wouldn’t fly. You wouldn’t have seats, First Class or Sardine class. And all the people who work for airlines wouldn’t have jobs.***images-3

Maybe you think air travel, and all other goods and services, should be provided by government, for public benefit, with no dirty profit. Some countries actually do have government-run airlines. They tend to be mismanaged white elephants that suck money from taxpayers and out of public budgets, subsidizing air travelers at the expense of everyone else.

First Class seats, that Wolff calls a “distributional problem,” are not in fact some good that’s out there waiting for an economics professor to allocate. They would not exist if they weren’t profit centers. And, while it’s true that to fetch high prices UnknownFirst Class seats have to be cushy, the takers are less beneficiaries than they are victims, albeit voluntary victims; sheep being sheared. Because in relation to “steerage,” and the amenities First Class seats entail, they are stupendously overpriced (that nice glass of wine effectively costs you hundreds). It’s really an extortion racket: pay up or suffer the indignity of mixing with the peasants.

In fact airlines get the bulk of their profits from First Class. Without that, regular seats would have to cost much more, probably pricing out most travelers, who wouldn’t fly at all, making the whole enterprise unviable. images-1First Class travelers subsidize the rest, so air travel is affordable to ordinary folks, and planes get filled, airlines can operate and make a little profit, and everyone is better off.

That, Mister Marxist Professor Wolff, is market economics, and it’s a damn good thing.

By the way, when I said “a little profit,” I wasn’t being cute. In fact, the airline industry, over its entire history, has made very little profit at all, in relation to the vast amount of investment. Unknown-4Competition has seen to that. So the public has received the colossal benefit of trillions of miles of transportation, provided essentially at cost. The meager profit garnered by airlines is surely a small price to pay for what we gain.

That again is market economics. A damn good thing.

* Though, as my wife noted, he didn’t refuse the seat, switch with some more deserving traveler, or fly economy and donate the difference to the poor.

** I’ve written about John Rawls’s famous book, A Theory of Justice, similarly treating wealth as just something out there, to be distributed, with nary a word about its creation.

*** On one flight I was treated to an ad wherein the airline’s head extolled all the numerous employees who made the flight possible, many unseen by passengers. I was indeed struck by the vast complexity of the enterprise, and how oblivious most of us are to all the cooperative efforts of the legions of people who make our civilization work.

Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates” – Puritan History

October 22, 2014

imagesAs this 2008 book’s title suggests, Sarah Vowell is a funny writer. Yet also a serious one. She writes serious books in a funny way. This one is actually a substantive chronicle of, and rumination upon, the Puritans who founded Boston. She quotes liberally from original sources. Interspersed with wisecracks.

images-2I wonder if her name – it means a type of letter, after all – had something to do with Vowell’s becoming a wordsmith. Such serendipities are more common than chance alone would produce. That a disproportionate percentage of people named Lawrence are lawyers, and Dennises are dentists, is a documented fact. (Or perhaps an urban legend.) Though her own name is misspelled, Vowell is a very good writer. The book’s last few sentences are a killer.

Unknown-2Boston was founded in 1630 by a different lot from the 1620 Plymouth Rock Pilgrims. Their leader and governor was John Winthrop; he’s the main character in this book, mostly portrayed sympathetically. (Vowell confesses she fell in love; though later she calls him a “monster.” Fickle woman!)

Also prominent is Roger Williams. Now, I have a thing for Roger Williams. I happened to live for 11 years with his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grand-daughter.* So I almost feel kin to him, or as much as a Jewish kid from Queens could.

UnknownWe first meet Williams among the early Boston Puritans. These people took their religion very seriously. I’ve always felt that if religion really were true, folks should take it more seriously. But Roger Williams took religion to an even higher level of seriousness than even your standard Puritan. Vowell quotes the letter he sent his wife upon learning she was very ill – not just a sermon, but one exhorting her to prepare for death. Nice.

I’m always struck by the certitude such people felt about their faith. Didn’t they realize millions of others had entirely different beliefs? Indeed, they spent a lot of effort massacring them. Yet never seemed to ponder the impossibility of knowing who’s right. (Most believers still don’t.)

Roger Williams was a titan of certitude. His inability to soft-peddle his convictions – he considered his neighbors insufficiently Puritan – got him kicked out of the colony. Thus was Rhode Island founded.

images-3Now here is the stunning thing. People then were typically killed over religious minutiae. Vowell talks of Mary Dyer, hanged in Boston for religious boo-boos. In Europe the Thirty Years War was raging, with vast slaughterings for God. Williams might have been expected to run Rhode Island as a theocracy brooking no dissent from his harsh views. Yet, zealot though he was, he also – bizarrely, for the time – fervently opposed coercion in matters of faith. Thus Rhode Island was established as a haven of religious tolerance. There, truly, was born this wonderful American idea of letting people think what they like.

images-4Religious liberty was enshrined by Williams in Rhode Island’s Royal Charter. And RI was the last of the original states to ratify the Constitution – holding out for the addition of a bill of rights.

One criticism of this book. Winthrop was famous for his “city on a hill” sermon, so often invoked by Ronald Reagan. Vowell takes this as a pretext for a vicious diatribe against Reagan (and drags in Bush 43 as well). She quotes liberally from Mario Cuomo’s speech mocking Reagan because in America’s “shining city on a hill” there are people suffering. Unknown-1But Reagan never meant the metaphor to describe an achieved state. To the contrary, it was aspirational – what America aims for, and works for. To do a Cuomo on him for that is just mean spirited, as is Vowell’s attack. It is neither clever, enlightening nor amusing. Why does she see fit to introduce (and hammer at length) her partisan political opinions in a book about the 17th century?

But to some people nowadays everything is political, and they are so imbued with (what seems to them) the righteousness of their views, they cannot ever desist from being in your face with them. They’re almost like . . . well, the Puritans.

* Not really special. A typical person 11 generations back would have a lot of modern descendants. And conversely, everyone today has a lot of ancestors back that far – 2,048 to be exact. The number doubles with each generation going backward; so after a few dozen your roster of ancestors would exceed the entire human population. How can that be? Well, your family tree is tangled with everyone else’s. We are all related.

China: The Arrogance of Unchecked Power

October 18, 2014

When I visited Russia in 1994, and a traveling companion asked, “Can we do such-and-such?” I replied, “Why not, it’s a free country.” Being able to say so felt great.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong

That was then.

I was also one of those optimists thinking that as China grew richer, it must become freer. But for now at least, it’s the opposite. President Xi Jinping is consolidating power to a degree unmatched since Mao, and what had been a glacially slow democratization has gone sharply into reverse.

To induce Britain to peacefully surrender Hong Kong in 1997, China made solemn promises for a transition to democratic home rule. Those promises have now been thoroughly flouted, with the regime refusing to countenance any sort of popular sovereignty. And, of course, beating and jailing people who protest.

But with unchecked power, you can do what you want, no matter how vile. Hong Kong today is the most visible manifestation. But Xi’s regime is engaged in an all-fronts assault upon anything and anyone viewed as even remotely challenging to its control.

Ilham Tohti was an ethnic Uighur economics professor at a prestigious Beijing university. He’s from Xinjiang, the (originally) Muslim far-west province, where long-simmering resentment at Chinese rule has been greatly enflamed by China’s ferocity in trying to stamp it out.

Ilham Tohti

Ilham Tohti

Tohti was a critic of China’s policy, and actually a rare calm voice of moderation. But charged with “separatism” he was sentenced in September to life in prison and confiscation of all his assets.

The advanced Western nations (and many copycats) have arrived at a social model wherein governmental power, and especially the power of any one person, is checked. This is more than merely political; it’s a mindset, a way of life, and once achieved it seems to stick. But attaining this level of maturity may be harder than optimists, like Francis Fukuyama (and me) imagined, and if you haven’t got there, everything remains up for grabs. Thus, China; and Russia; and creeps like Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka, Sisi in Egypt, Ortega in Nicaragua, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Chavez (and his derisory successor Maduro) in Venezuela, and so on.*

Unknown-1Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, argued that humanity’s long ideological struggles have finally ended in a rout by liberal democracy and market economics. He recently published a new book, basically saying, “Not so fast.” The rub is not any virtue in authoritarianism but, rather, problems internal to democracies. America is becoming politically dysfunctional and paralyzed. But Fukuyama’s original argument was that (classical) liberalism feeds our most fundamental human needs. That’s still a powerful counterforce against alternatives; I’d far rather live in a declining USA than a rising Putinist Russia!

The 1992 book ended with a metaphor of wagon trains: some have arrived at their destination while others remain out in the wilderness having lost their way or beset by troubles. But ultimately, Fukuyama said, all will get there.images-4

I still believe that. But a perfect polity exists only in Heaven (and maybe not even there).

* But note Iraq, where despite having eight years to ruthlessly entrench himself, Maliki could still be ousted by the political process; a hopeful sign.

Our Jordan Adventure

October 14, 2014
Elizabeth, going native

Elizabeth

This seemed a good time to visit the Middle East. So we went to Philadelphia. That was the ancient Greek name. Before that, Rabboth-Ammon; thus, today, Amman.

The country is named for the River Jordan – the river of metaphor – “I’m only going up over Jordan” – The Ur-River – “Michael, row the boat ashore.” Would’ve been nice to see it. We didn’t.

Therese and me at Petra

Therese and me at Petra

The “we” included my ever cheerful ace travel partner Therese. Up at 5:30 and out the door at 5:40? Sure, no problem.

We were visiting our daughter Elizabeth, 21, living in Amman studying Arabic. Having an Eid holiday break, she organized a tour for us. English speakers being rare, it was great having Elizabeth as our Arabic-speaking guide; especially negotiating with cab drivers. (It’s a point of honor for Elizabeth not to overpay.)

She is also studying the Zaatari refugee camp, near Amman, a reminder that conflict is not far away. And helping out at Questscope, an NGO, developing a “youth empowerment” program. Amman is full of seemingly unoccupied young men – potential jihadist recruits. The project aims to give them better outlets for their energies.

Therese climbs a sand dune at Wadi Rum

Therese climbs a sand dune at Wadi Rum

Historical context: In 1948, the UN partitioned the British-run Palestine territory, creating Israel and an Arab state – Jordan. Israel, in the 1967 war, took a big piece of Jordan – the West Bank. (In the national museum a large map labeled all the surrounding nations; Israel (including the West Bank) was called “Palestine.”)

Monarchy is not my favorite system, but Jordan been blessed with unusually enlightened monarchs. After the ’67 war, King Hussein did something astoundingly smart – renounced all claim to the West Bank. So Jordan could get on with life, not wasting its energies in futile irredentism. (Palestinians take note.)

Jerash

Jerash

In Amman we joined up with one of Elizabeth’s Questscope pals for a car trip to Jerash. Along the way we saw many roadside pens with sheep and goats, often with a skinned carcass dangling from a scaffold, apparently for sale for Eid holiday feasting. One also continually saw little cubical concrete or cinderblock structures, some utilized for storage or mini-stores, but more often rubbish strewn, never completed, or half ruined. Aborted construction seemed ubiquitous. Also used tires – sometimes arranged in decorative megaliths.

powerlineMostly we traversed bleak scrubland desert, whose most notable feature was electric power lines and telephone poles. But this is important. In many places (particularly Africa), lack of such infrastructure is a big factor inhibiting economic development.

bagpipes

Jerash was ancient Gerasa. (In Roman times, the area, including Philadelphia, was called Decapolis, part of Syria.) The ruins are well preserved. In the amphitheater, two guys in full Arab regalia performed rousing Scottish (!) music on drums and bagpipes. I told my wife, “Here’s what we missed with no Scottish independence celebration to go to!”

Amid the ruins, a local fellow latched on to us and helpfully pointed out various details. Of course I knew he expected a tip, but was taken aback when he insisted on 30 Dinars (while repeating, “I’m a Muslim”). I wound up giving him 20 Dinars ($28), and though he feigned displeasure, it was wildly excessive. Well, it was our first day.

Petra

Petra

Then we took a bus to Petra, the amazing capital of the Nabataeans (flourished in the first centuries BC and AD). Access is through a long, very narrow, deep gorge; the city’s main features were mostly carved right out of the rock. We had to climb for hours, a more strenuous challenge than I’ve had in years; but my 67 year old carcass managed it.

Nabataean coin

Nabataean coin

Nabataean coins are very cool and I’d have liked to find some nice ones. Many tchotchke sellers there did have coins – garishly made to look like what a tourist might imagine for ancient coins. When one guy pressed his fakes at me and I laughed them off, he asked if I would recognize real ones. Then he showed me two coins – one, an Aelius denarius (rare), at least a realistic fake, the other a little bronze, genuine but miserable and worthless.

imagesThat Petra and the Nabataeans are integral to Jordanian identity was evident from our later visit to Amman’s national museum. Really nice, especially on linguistic history. One placard called the advent of alphabetic systems the democratization of knowledge, since it made reading and writing much easier to learn. Also noteworthy there were the oldest large-size human statues ever found, dating before 7500 BC.

At Petra, Elizabeth asked a guy at the visitor center what we should expect to pay for a taxi to Wadi Rum. Not only did he find an answer, he made some calls and arranged the ride, for a price at the bottom of the range. Such helpfulness is something we’ve found throughout our many travels (except of course in France). The Jordanians were lovely, save only for one kid who threw garbage at us, shouting “haram!” (“Non-kosher”)

Our deluxe accommodations at Wadi Rum

Our deluxe accommodations at Wadi Rum

That taxi trip – an hour and three quarters – cost all of 30 Dinars ($42; made me wince again at what I’d given the “guide” at Jerash). The car radio was tuned to a Russian talk show. I asked the driver if he spoke Russian. He said no.

Wadi Rum was our desert “Bedouin camp” experience. Well, it was no tarted-up dude ranch. The guys in Arab dress lounging and conversing around the camp fire looked like they came out of some old picture book.

Aqaba. Can you spot the camel?

Aqaba. Can you spot the camel?

Next, like Lawrence and his 1917 Arab rebels we marched on camelback across the forbidding Nefud desert to Aqaba. Actually, we took another taxi (one hour; 25 Dinars; but the guy had to drive to Wadi Rum from Aqaba to get us). Aqaba has become a major seaside resort town.

We took another bus back to Amman. Midway there was a smoking break, when almost everyone got off to puff.

Amman’s main art museum (privately funded) was eye-opening – contemporary art from developing nations, nearly all Muslim. Not ethnic ghetto stuff, but interesting and accomplished work at the highest level. But ordinarily we never see it, not even at the international art fair we recently attended in Dubai. Yet another aspect of how the Muslim world is cut off from the wider global culture.

UnknownOn our last day we took yet another bus trip, to the Dead Sea. Swimming in it was a bizarre experience, like floating atop a vat of jello. Also bizarre was observing the Dead Sea mud bathers.

Jordan is a good country. If ISIS attacks it, mine had better be there. With boots on the ground.

Transcendence – Another AI Movie

October 11, 2014

images-1Since I believe Artificial Intelligence (AI) looms hugely in our future – I had to see Transcendence, the latest AI movie. It’s a lot darker than the last one, Her. (See my review.)

Will (Johnny Depp) and Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are husband-and-wife AI scientists, who have created PINN, a computer-based intelligence with self-awareness (maybe). Max is another, who has succeeded in uploading a monkey’s mind to a computer (maybe). imagesRIFT is a Luddite terrorist group fearing AI will cause humanity’s demise (though exactly how was never clear to me).

RIFT shoots Will with a radioactive bullet; he has a month to live. So, they meld his and Evelyn’s work with Max’s, to upload Will’s mind to PINN before his body conks out. This is RIFT’s nightmare; they manage to destroy the PINN computer, but too late to stop Will from escaping out into the Internet – where he is now, well, everywhere. With access to all the information and data in the world.

This is the “Singularity” foreseen by Ray Kurzweil (and in my own famous Humanist magazine article), when AI vastly outstrips human intelligence, sending technological advancement into overdrive. images-2Will and Evelyn mastermind a giant underground facility hosting banks of quantum computers, and we get a foretaste of the medical and environmental miracles that the duo had always envisioned as their end goal. Will creates a praetorian guard of seemingly unkillable human-AI “hybrids.”

But RIFT sees all this as curtains for Humanity 1.0 – and ultimately manages to convince Max, the Morgan Freeman wise man scientist character, and finally Evelyn herself. Even the government is secretly on their side!

Nearing the end there is a lot of gunplay and blowing up stuff. Not exactly futuristic – the weaponry was vintage WWII. images-3And frankly, I had a hard time following it. Now, I think I’m no dummy; I’ve even written about the film’s exact premise; and in fact, at one point I turned to my wife and said, carbon nanotubes.” The film never used that phrase, but I inferred that explained what we were seeing (having heard a lecture by Eric Drexler, the father of nanotech; as a speaker, he was a dud). Anyway, even with all this background, I still couldn’t quite follow the confusing, opaque action, nor make sense of the denouement. And if I couldn’t, how could the average Joe Schmoe? This isn’t unique. Why does Hollywood make films this way?

In the end, of course, the “good guys” (who turn out to be the Luddite terrorists!) win. If you call it winning – it requires destroying the whole Internet – which in turn wrecks civilization as we know it, putting us halfway back to the Stone Age. But happily, humanity and the planet are saved. I guess. (Maybe.)

images-6At one point in Transcendence, a character laments that every new technology always inspires irrational fears. Yet the film’s overall message, like many others (Avatar is a prime example), disgracefully sows exactly that kind of fear and distrust of scientific advances. And the concern isn’t abstract – in the real-world nanotechnology and AI already do inspire RIFT-like fear-mongering.

Humanity’s greatest effort is to overcome our limitations, and the fears that hold us back. That’s real transcendence.

George Lakoff: The (Extreme) Political Mind

October 2, 2014

UnknownGeorge Lakoff is a professor of cognitive and linguistic science at Berkeley. His 2008 book, The Political Mind, says “progressives” are losing out because they imagine people think and vote rationally, whereas in fact most are guided by unconscious narrative “framings,” which conservatives more successfully exploit. And that this is destroying America. Because the un-American conservative ideology encompasses “an authoritarian hierarchy based on vast concentration . . . of wealth; order based on fear, intimidation, and obedience;” it’s “anti-democratic;” and so forth.

This sets the book’s tone, on page 1. As if anyone actually thinks that way. Lakoff seems to believe they do; that conservatives really are that nasty – and pursue these evil ends with an equally ruthless disregard for morality and truth. Unknown-1Whereas “progressives” of course are all truth, justice, morality, and the American way.

An example of what Lakoff means by issue “framing” is the locution “tax relief,” which he calls a triumph of conservative spin. He says progressives should push back by stressing what good things taxes make possible. Well, people do understand why we pay taxes; but still would rather pay less than more. Lakoff’s proposed campaign to make us love taxes seems Orwellian – or just plain silly. (And Lakoff himself is not in love with everything taxes buy – he hates military spending.)

Unknown-3Lakoff’s main theme is that progressives wrongly believe they need only give people the facts and they’ll respond rationally. He says progs should instead wrap their advocacy in morality, specifically the morality of empathy, which he casts as the touchstone of prog politics. Thus progs should argue for, say, higher minimum wages not as (allegedly) good economic policy but as moral, the right thing to do, the empathic thing.

Yet – if someone thought like that – he’d be a prog in the first place, would be for higher minimum wages in the first place. But some people don’t think that way and aren’t receptive to such argument. Not because they’re not moral, or empathic, but because they have a different take on morality than progs. (And maybe they think higher minimum wages would be bad economic policy.)

Lakoff’s ideology blinds him to this. His whole book is, “progressives won’t win with rational arguments.” But it’s just as wrong to think they’ll win with emotive moral arguments. People have reasons for what they believe and feel; progs have no monopoly on rationality and morality; conservatives have not only emotive but also rational and even moral reasons for their views. Changing them isn’t a mere matter of how “progressivism” is packaged and sold.

imagesMoreover, while Lakoff preens as though presenting a dramatically new insight, to say that progs have not sufficiently cloaked their advocacy in morality and empathy is, well, bizarre. In fact, the left has forever been shouting from a high horse of asserted morality, empathy and compassion; while loudly vilifying the right as lacking in the same. What planet has Lakoff been living on? (Maybe Berkeley is a different planet.)

Progressives (Lakoff strangely denies they’re on the “left”) do tend to be baffled when they lose political arguments. images-4Lakoff’s book shows why – not because he’s right about anything but, rather, because the book itself exemplifies the ideological tunnel vision that handicaps the left. If you really believe conservatives want an authoritarian, undemocratic country, ruled by intimidation and heartless corporate power – which Lakoff says on almost every page – you haven’t got a clue.

I’m reminded of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, describing studies wherein liberals were asked to fill out questionnaires as though they were conservatives, and vice versa. While conservatives were pretty accurate in guessing how liberals would answer, liberals did poorly in anticipating conservative answers – because they do tend to harbor the demonizing stereotype of conservatives that pervades Lakoff’s book.

Typifying this obtuseness, Lakoff thinks conservatives’ devotion to free market economics is about one thing only: profit, and the freedom to make profits. Thus, any government intervention that restricts or reduces the opportunity to profit is bad.* But do conservatives really think this way? It’s preposterous. Most are not in business themselves, so why should business profits be the sine qua non of their economic views? No – what any sentient conservative actually believes is that a market economy allowing businesses to profit is desirable not because of the profits per se but because that system benefits society as a whole. You’d never guess this from reading Lakoff.

images-1He is especially scathing about what he calls “neoliberals” whose heart may be in the right place, but who are too coolly rationalistic, not fire-breathing moral scourges like him. So black-and-white is Lakoff’s view of politics that he talks of “biconceptualism” – where people don’t conform to either of his two starkly opposed worldviews, and don’t see an inconsistency. They’re “hypocrites” (though Lakoff puts the word in quotes); or merely confused!

This would apply to me. According to Lakoff’s taxonomy, I actually have a fundamentally “progressive” brain. But I reject most of the prog political ethos. Maybe that makes me especially confused. But I think it’s most progs who are confused, with their heads up their rears on many stances that are illiberal (in the classic sense). To name a few: opposition to free trade, school choice, genetic modification science, and of course their twisted relationship with freedom of thought and expression, which I’ve addressed. (And here’s something delicious on that topic.)

Lakoff says there’s no such thing as a “moderate” center in American political opinion – indeed, he thinks the “mainstream” has shifted way to the right – but it’s the “confused biconceptuals” whom he urges progressives to target with a stepped-up emphasis on empathy. Because empathy is (almost) universally wired into the human brain – even the brains of conservatives, but especially the partly conservative, who should be moveable by such appeals. Yet this seems to contradict the nasty stereotypes with which he otherwise talks about conservatives. He doesn’t seem to notice that inconsistency. Talk about confusion!

At the end of the day, not even most progressives meet Lakoff’s standard for ideological purity. For instance, he says they should have stood up to Bush 43 and opposed domestic surveillance. images-3Well, maybe they should have; many in fact did. But many either felt the surveillance was justified, or else disagreed with Lakoff that opposing it would have been a political winner. Meantime, I seem to recall that a certain amount of Bush-bashing did take place – or, rather, an orgy of it. But whenever Bush comes up in the book, Lakoff says there was far too little Bush-bashing by progressives.

Heaven help us.

* Lakoff sees this as stemming from a “strict father” conservative family mind-frame (as against a prog “nurturing parent” frame), with the market’s rewards and punishments based on merit and effort mirroring patriarchal discipline!

Why Do Richer People Have Fewer Kids?

September 29, 2014

UnknownThe Economist magazine has discussed the “demographic transition” – as people get richer, they have fewer children. It’s a key reason why Malthus’s famous prediction of population outrunning food supply – as well as latter-day echoes like Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich – proved wrong. Population growth has been decelerating; numbers are projected to plateau around mid-century, and fall thereafter. This is largely due to declining poverty; some countries have seen birth rates drop to a fraction of former levels.

But The Economist wonders why richer people have fewer kids, which it labels “biologically bonkers,” because normally animal populations in flush environments reproduce more, not less. Noted are two distinct reproductive strategies: “r-selection,” throwing a lot of offspring at the wall hoping some will stick, versus “k-selection,” having fewer offspring but investing heavily in their success. The latter, The Economist points out, may produce fitter descendants, but not more descendants.  Unknown-2And natural selection (as Richard Dawkins elucidated in The Selfish Gene) targets not quality but quantity, with genes “trying” (not consciously of course) to propagate the most copies of themselves. (It’s simply math: genes that do so become the most common.) That biological logic seems violated by k-selection.

The Economists’s suggested answer is that while today r-selection might produce more gene copies, because most offspring survive, the opposite may have been true in the primitive past, in which case k-selection would have better proliferated genes; so evolution programmed us toward that strategy of heavy investment in fewer offspring. In other words, we were bio-engineered for harsh conditions which no longer obtain. Which, somewhat paradoxically, is saving us from the Malthusian trap (by limiting reproduction).

But this doesn’t explain poor people – for whom conditions are still pretty harsh – generally favoring large families. More importantly, it seeks the answer in the wrong place; and this is actually a crucial point for us to understand. While human behavior is heavily influenced by genes, and the corresponding characteristics that evolution bred into us, we are not slaves to our genes. When it comes to behavior, genes give us predispositions, but not ironclad marching orders. Human beings have minds of their own, and other concerns, that can trump genetic predispositions.

images-1That’s free will. An individual with a genetic predisposition toward violence may never be violent. And what we’re talking about here is the most salient example: the one thing our genes most “want” us to do is reproduce, yet many people choose not to.

Thus it’s simply wrong to seek a biological/evolutionary explanation for the demographic transition. The answer lies instead in sociology and economics. Unknown-1People choose family size for reasons unrelated to our evolutionary background. To name just one, for poorer people children tend to be economic assets, helping them earn their bread and protecting their old age. Richer people don’t expect or need such protection or income contribution, and their children tend to be money pits, and a lot of work. Sure, many of us still choose to have some; but the sociological and economic influences are very different between rich and poor and they, not biology, drive the choices. It appears that humanity as a whole is moving toward a k-selection approach: fewer children, but living better lives, because that’s what we prefer, biology be damned.

Note that if poor families do fare better with more children, improving their joint survival, then genes for that behavior should spread (at least among the poor). Yet still, when those people get richer, they can and do ignore such genetic programming.

And that free will aspect is the larger point. Again, we are not like robots programmed by genes or biology; nor, for that matter, are we prisoners of sociology either. Even while all those influences matter, they do not compel us; we can still make our own choices.

images-2Some people think evolutionary biology implies Social Darwinism – leaving the less fit among us to their fate. But here too, the impersonal forces of nature that created us do not control how we choose to live our lives. As biologist T.H. Huxley observed, human society is not doomed to play out “survival of the fittest” but can, instead, work toward fitting more of us for survival. Our mission is not conformity to nature’s process but combating it.

Engineering marvels

September 27, 2014

UnknownA modern 777 jetliner is an absolute marvel of engineering. Yet (unlike on smaller planes) the overhead bins are almost, but not quite, deep enough for standard carry-ons to go in wheels-first. And almost, but not quite, wide enough to fit three lengthwise. So you can only get two in a bin. A tiny modification to their design could have increased the bins’ capacity by 50%.

I used to have a fax machine which required fax paper rolls, which was fine; the rolls were cheap, lasted almost forever, and were a snap to change. Finally it broke and I had to replace it, and found that ones like that are no longer made. Now they’re all “plain paper” fax machines. 'Are you sure that hitting it with a baseball bat will work?'Which sounds great – except that they require these ridiculously bulky cartridges containing rolls of what looks like carbon paper in them, that are quite costly, don’t last very long, and are a royal pain-in-the-butt to change, if you can even manage to figure out how to do it correctly. Moreover, after laying in a supply of these godawful cartridges, I thought to get hold of a back-up fax machine that appeared to take the same ones, only to find that in fact, the cartridge for the second machine is actually a tiny bit different and not interchangeable.

Technological progress – you gotta love it. God bless our engineering geniuses.

Rationality, Optimum Crime, Individualism vs. Collectivism, and the Gambler’s Fallacy

September 24, 2014

UnknownThe Economist’s 5/10 issue* had a piece about the recently deceased Gary Becker – an economist and, really, sociologist. His work centered on the idea that “individuals maximize welfare as they conceive it.”

This “homo economicus” concept has taken a beating lately. Books like Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational show how our decision-making is skewed by illogical biases; and Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness how we’re bad at foreseeing what will make us happy. imagesThus, some trash free market economics because it supposedly assumes an economic rationality by market participants that doesn’t exist. And nanny-state policies are often premised on people not knowing their own best interests.

However, while of course we aren’t perfectly rational, nor are we perfectly irrational; we do have some idea of our own interests and desires, and the means to advance them. Hence one’s welfare is more likely enhanced by making choices to serve those interests and desires than if there is no choice. Moreover, Gary Becker importantly argued that maximizing welfare doesn’t just mean income. People understand that money isn’t everything. Health counts 10%.

images-3That was a joke. Actually, health counts a lot, and so do many other things (though money does help getting them). Again, people understand all this and live accordingly – even if not with computerlike rationality.

One sphere to which Becker applied this paradigm was crime. He doubted all crime is deviant or sociopathic, reckoning that some at least represents rational weighing of costs and benefits. While moral inhibitions do come into play, for many they’re not absolutes and can be overridden if the balance of payoff versus risk seems sufficiently favorable.

Unknown-1Becker also pondered crime’s costs. Crime, he realized, is akin to what economists call “rent seeking”—contending over the spoils of productive activity rather than creating new wealth. Conversely, rent-seekers trying to get government subsidization, to others’ cost (trade protectionism, for example) can be likened to robbers. The resources invested in all such activities (whether doing them or combating them) would be better spent on wealth producing efforts. And Becker also suggested there’s an optimal amount of crime in society – while it pays to get crime down to a low level, the cost of eradicating the last bit surely exceeds the benefit. (Certainly in the war on drugs, that excess is huge.)

Unknown-2Two pages later The Economist reported on a study suggesting why Westerners have a more individualistic psychology than collectivist-minded Asians. Led by Thomas Talhelm at the University of Virginia, it focused on whether the main crop has historically been wheat or rice. The relevant difference is that rice required about double the labor per calorie. This forced rice farmers to share labor, evolving a deeply rooted collectivist cultural ethos. And sure enough, the study found that, based on attitudinal questionnaire answers, a collectivist mentality in a locale correlates strongly with an agricultural history centered on rice as opposed to wheat.

Unknown-3The next page: gambling. Many believe in “winning streaks;” and also that bad luck is bound to reverse itself so that losses are recouped. The latter is known as the gambler’s fallacy; because statistics would instead predict reverting to the mean – i.e., “normal service resumed.” And in casinos, “normal service” means the house wins more than it loses (how else would they profit?).

Well, comes a study by Juemin Xu and Nigel Harvey finding, counter-intuitively, that winning streaks are real, while losing gamblers do even worse than reversion to the mean. That is, compared to what pure probability would predict, a win is more likely to be followed by a win, and a loss by a loss. How could that possibly be? The answer lies not in laws of probability, but in behavior. A winning better’s next bet has a tendency to be slightly more conservative and a loser’s next bet a little more reckless.

images-2This is why I read The Economist.

* I’m a little behind in posting these things, I have a backlog.

(Advt) Coming Soon: The Oople iMplant™

September 21, 2014

Get ready for . . .

images-1No more fiddling with buttons or touchscreens.

No more recharging hassles.

No more misplacing it, having it stolen, or dropping it in the bathtub.

No more confusing features to figure out.

imagesNo more pushback from dweebs annoyed by your chatter.

No more dorky glasses on your face.

The future is now.

You’ll never look back.

You may never look anywhere else.

Introducing . . . The Oople iMplant™.

images-2The Oople iMplant™ will be installed directly into your brain. (Our bioengineers have located there a space for it, that you weren’t really using anyway.) Quick, painless, and conveniently available at any Ooplestore.

Here’s how it works: by reading your mind. Yes. After all, it’s right in there, in fact it’s part of your mind. Ever wonder how you know what you’re thinking? Philosophers have puzzled over this for eons. But it doesn’t matter, because whatever way you know what you’re thinking, Oople iMplant™ will know it too. However – and here’s the killer – unlike your old analog brain, confined inside your skull – Oople iMplant™ will be wirelessly connectedto everything!

So, say you need a recipe for ratatouille. Simply think that thought, and Oople iMplant™ will search the web, get an answer, and download it right into your mind. It’s just that easy!

UnknownAnd if you want to phone your girlfriend – merely think it – and Oople iMplant™ will connect you. What’s more, the conversation will be totally private, because it will take place inside your brain. 

If that sounds a lot like telepathy . . . well, welcome to Oople iMplant™!

Unknown-1Can it teleport you too? No.

But we’re working on that.

Oople: “Making tomorrow today.”

 


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