Day of Solidarity with Black Atheists/Nonbelievers

Day of Solidarity
As Naima Washington’s blog-post on Black Skeptics noted, these sort of events tend to be decried as “balkanization”, “dividing the Movement”, or similar crap:

when we ask everyone in the secular community to celebrate along with us, and we set aside one day out of the entire year to do so, there’s a problem! Last year, some very intelligent and insightful atheists declared efforts to organize a Day of Solidarity for Black Non-believers as segregation! Those same people are otherwise dead silent about the segregation, hostility, and alienation directed towards black atheists within the secular community year-round.

This is bullshit.

What events like the Day of Solidarity, the Women in Secularism conference, the African Americans for Humanism conference, etc. do is a)discuss issues not given much space or weight in the “general” (rea:, male, white, straight, cis dominated) conferences, groups, or writings; and b)highlight speakers and activists not given much space in the same “general” venues. To complain about them because we “shouldn’t have to” have such separate events is a lousy, blinkered argument for not having such events, or not supporting them. After all, we “shouldn’t have to” have skeptics or atheist conferences either, since that’s how all people ideally should deal with the world anyway, right?

So on that note, here’s my (admittedly measily) list of black atheists, skeptics, and nonbelievers that write stuff everyone should read:

Bridget R. Gaudette, contributor to Black Nones, blogger at Freethoughtify and Emily Has Books; she also currently has a kickstarter going for her next book: Grieving for the Living, so go contribute!!
Ian Cromwell, also a contributor to Black Nones, blogger at The Crommunist Manifesto
Anthony Pinn, author of African American Humanist Principles and The End of God Talk
Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat and the forthcoming Godless Americana, contributing blogger at Black Skeptics
G. Andrews AKA Flexx, blogger at Human2O

Shock Doctrines and Hurricanes

The “Shock Doctrine” is a term coined by Naomi Klein in the book of the same name. It’s basically the idea of using (or even fabricating) crisis situations to push through privatization and other neo-con reforms that wouldn’t be possible in situations when people are less scared, less panicked, and more in control of their political process. The book mostly focuses on the big instances, generally when governments are overthrown (Chile’s military coup, the fall of communism, the end of Apartheid, and more recently, the abduction of the Haitian president by the US and France and installation of an Interim Government that was meant to (but failed) push through a lot of privatization before a new democratic government could be elected).

However, the Shock Doctrine can be used on a smaller scale, and without a government collapse, as well.

The largest current example would be the Debt Ceiling clusterfuck, in which the Tea Party basically squeezed a ridiculous amount of concessions out of the Democrats, because previously they had managed to scare a country in a recession into believing that increasing the debt ceiling without making significant cuts (or, in some instances, raising the debt ceiling at all) would make the recession worse. the attacks on Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare are also more of the same: a nation traumatized by a massive recession being pushed into fucking themselves over even more. same with the stripping of union-rights in many states in the name of budget-cuts. More localized uses of the Shock Doctrine can also be found at the city level: first in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and now increasingly in other cities as well, assorted real and manufactured crises are used as opportunities for selling off public schools; after NO, the other city suffering the worst of this is Detroit, where an “emergency manager” (a state appointed local dictator with the power to override city government decision in the name of protecting the budget) has been on a cutting-spree destroying what’s left of Detroit’s public education (this included a highly successful school for teen mothers, which had been originally scheduled for closure and will now be operated as a charter school).

And now, with two disasters hitting the East Coast one after another, they’re doing it again: Eric Cantor holding earthquake relief hostage, Boehner and Cantor holding hurricane relief hostage, and Ron Paul saying there should be no federal aid for places devastated by the hurricane at all. And while Paul’s comments are really just the equivalent of Bachmann’s statements about not ever voting for raising the debt ceiling (meaning, they won’t affect policy this time, but they do tug at the Overton Window), Cantor and Boehner may well get the cuts from a Democratic party and president very used to caving to Republican demands.

And here’s the thing: the near future holds a lot more such “opportunities”. Not only are all these cuts going to continue giving the US economy shock after shock, there’s a long list of natural disasters (made worse and more frequent by AGW) waiting to happen and be exploited. already on the horizon are, for example, spikes in food prices as this year’s crop has been killed off by floods and drought. And the 2011 hurricane season, predicted to be even worse than 2010, is only half done, as well. It will be followed by blizzard season, flood season, tornado season, fire season, and again another hurricane season.

And each one of those is another opportunity to cut and privatize public services.

More short thoughts

1) Oil Rig Islands + no building codes = one storm away from societal collapse

2)I wish my fellow legal immigrants/children of immigrants would stop using the “but I/my parents did immigrated the right way and waited in line” argument to dismiss humanitarian concerns of illegal immigrants. That argument would only make sense if those who got in illegally would have gotten in legally if they just followed procedures, which is patently untrue

3)spammers are now pretending they’re pingbacks; fascinating

4)Google eBooks is evil; I’ve impulse-bought a number of books I accidentally stumbled upon while doing assorted internetty research (currently, it’s Bathsheba’s breast:
women, cancer & history

“post-modernism”, physics-style

The ubiquitous use of “post-modernist” as an insult meant to describe some sort of uber-relativistic, solipsistic mental-masturbation has always bugged me. Post-modernism was a very important development that deconstructed the illusion of humans (or “scientists” or “men”, depending on the topic) as objective observers of reality. It posited humans as interpreters of reality, who constructed models, symbols, make a counter-intuitive reality comprehensive to brains that never had any “reason” to evolve the ability to do so. And yet, people sneer at post-modernism and constructivism (the idea that reality is constructed by people) as some sort of wooey, New Agey “everyone can have their own reality and their own facts” sort of BS.

Well, imagine my glee when, while reading an article in Skeptic about Stephen Hawking’s 2010 book The Grand Design, I come upon a discussion of Hawking’s “Other Controversial Theory”: Model-Dependent Realism.
The article in Skeptic explained MDR in the terms very similar to the ones the social sciences have been using for years (but with more neurologyscience*), and the more I read about it, the more it seems to be the very same thing. But this time, it comes from a source not so easily dismissed by nerd-snobbery: the world’s most famous physicist**. A relevant quote from the book:

[Model-dependent realism] is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth. There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality. Instead we will adopt a view that we will call model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations. This provides a framework with which to interpret modern science. According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If there are two models that both agree with observation … then one cannot say that one is more real than another. One can use whichever model is more convenient in the situation under consideration. It might be that to describe the universe, we have to employ different theories in different situations. Each theory may have its own version of reality, but according to model-dependent realism, that is acceptable so long as the theories agree in their predictions whenever they overlap, that is, whenever they can both be applied.
According to the idea of model-dependent realism …, our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the outside world. We form mental concepts of our home, trees, other people, the electricity that flows from wall sockets, atoms, molecules, and other universes. These mental concepts are the only reality we can know. There is no model-independent test of reality. It follows that a well-constructed model creates a reality of its own.


So: I’m going to have to read that book now, just to make sure I’m not entirely deluding myself about this (wouldn’t want to end up like those morons who think relativity and quantum physics “are what Eastern religions have been saying for millenia”), and if it turns out to be that MDR really is a physicy version of constructivism/post-modernism, next time someone sneers at those concepts because they’re primarily used in the social sciences (and, *gasp* the arts and humanities), I might have to link them to a discussion on MDR and/or suggest the book to them.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

*dum… dee… dum…
**Yes, I’m fully aware I’m making an appeal to authority. However, nerd-snobbery is an argumentum ad hominem, and I find that, in non-formal discussions, those two cancel each other out nicely. So, to get those who commit the ad hom against constructivism to get past their mistake, I present them with an authority their tribalist brains might be willing to take seriously. In terms of intellectually honest debate, this might be cheating a bit, but fuck it: if it gets the morons to pay attention to such important concepts, it might be worth it.

medium-length thoughts about economics

1)my textbook is trying to kill me. I nearly fell of my chair when I read the following paragraph:

Our discussion of resource pricing is the cornerstone of the controversial view that fairness and economic justice are one of the outcomes of a competitive capitalist economy. Table 12.7 demonstrates, in effect, that workers receive income payments (wages) equal to the marginal contributions they make to their employers’ outputs and revenues. In other words, workers are paid according to the value of the labor services that they contribute to production

It does no such thing.

That Table 12.7 is only showing that given two resources, their price, their productivity, and the resulting profit, you can calculate the least expensive and most profitable combination of the two resources, which indeed tends to fall in the area where marginal revenue of adding a unit of a resource = marginal cost or adding a unit of a resource. Which has fuck all to do with real markets. Because in real markets, a hell of a lot of the necessary information is impossible to come by (for example, accurately calculating marginal revenue from a unit of labor is near impossible. seriously, how does one calculate the marginal revenue of CEO A over the marginal revenue of CEO B? one doesn’t, and can’t considering their pay is established a priori, before they’ve had a chance to create any marginal revenue at all); plus, they disappeared the ever-necessary ceteris paribus that accompanies such mathematical games with very limited variables. What may be true for a mathematical game with only a few variables will not be true in a real-world situation with fuckloads of variables, including human error and human biology.

2)And not only is the content of the textbook trying to kill me, so is their language-abuse:

It is no coincidence that the service occupations dominate the list [of 10-fastest growing US occupations for 2006-2016]. In general, the demand for service workers in the US is rapidly outpacing the demand for manufacturing, construction, and mining workers.

well, no, it’s certainly not a coincidence. That’s because you can’t have a coincidence with only one variable. You need at least two, so that they can, you know, coincide. Of course, it could be that the paragraph meant to say “it’s no coincidence that service occupations dominate the list while the demand for service workers is rapidly outpacing…”, but that would be so blatantly obvious, it would not be worth the paper it’s printed on. I’m thinking the word they were looking for here was “surprise”, as in “It’s no surprise that the service occupations dominate the list.”

3)Unrelated to my text-book, I’ve found the term for a phenomenon I’ve been observing in people who talk and write about economic issues: goal displacement.
Goal displacement is when the means to achieve a goal either become the goal, or become more important than the goal. So, when I read articles about the Chinese economy were the writer says that China needs to get its population to save much much less of its income to increase consumer-spending to improve the economy, I know that the writer is suffering from goal displacement: a healthy economy is a means by which the well-being of people is to be accomplished. to diminish the well-being of people to make an “improve” the economy is turning the means of achieving something into a goal unto itself.

Homework-induced epiphany…

…possibly laced with a good dose of Dunning-Kruger, so I’d appreciate it if people more edumacated in economics would point out if I’m missing something or drawing ignorant conclusions.

Anyway, I just finished slogging through the math-heavy section of my economics textbook that dealt with different forms of economies, most notably “pure competition”, “monopolistic competition”, “oligarchy”, and “pure monopoly”. This being the textbook I previously described, it did not contain any human beings and stressed economic efficiency a lot. And of course there’s only one system that produces both allocative and productive efficiency (meaning that resources in the system are allocated in the most “desirable” way, and that everything is produced in the cheapest possible way): the pure competition.

Anyway, so here’s how that’s supposed to look in graph form:

on the left is what an individual company’s curve would look like, on the right is the graph for the entire industry. Now, I’m mostly interested in the right left chart. that dot saying P=MC=minimum ATC is the point at which production supposedly occurs in a company in a purely competitive economy. p=price of each unit of product, MC=marginal cost (i.e. the cost of producing and selling one more unit), ATC = average total (i.e. variable and fixed) cost cost, (i.e. average cost of each unit sold). so the point at which each of these companies produces is the point at which the price for each unit sold is exactly the same as the cost of producing it.

Think about this.

This means this company is making zero economic profit. It’s not supposed to make any, in the long term. If it did, that would mean it is producing at a point on the demand-curve above ATC, the difference being the profit. And you achieve efficiency only if you don’t produce above minimum ATC.

According to that model, profit is inefficient.

Now, the graph on the right claims that some profit is being made even with efficient production. That’s the orange part called “producer surplus”. How this producer surplus comes about out of a market made up by companies which all function like the one in the right chart, I don’t know, and that’s the part where I’d really love a real economist to step in an explain.

Anyway, back to the single company. The one that isn’t supposed to make any economic profit in the long-term. What human thought-process would make a person enter such a market, where businesses operate at zero economic profit? What person adds to their workload for no profit? Now, I can see that there’s a group-profit here. After all, things are being produced. And if you’re a laborer, then you’re getting paid, because your wage is part of the variable cost included in the ATC. But what’s in it for the individual entrepreneur? Wouldn’t it be more profitable to such a person to not go into business, and instead use that otherwise unprofitably invested time to, I don’t know, plant a vegetable garden to reduce food-costs instead?
The answer my textbook provides is about short-term fluctuations: sometimes demand for a product rises, which causes price to rise creating a short-term window of profitability. This is where more businesses enter the market, supply rises, and profit goes back down to non-profitable levels (for balance, sometimes demand shifts in the other direction and short-term losses result). But then what? The model seems to say that the companies then just go on blithely producing things at no profit (because shutting down is more expensive), but is that realistically really what would happen? A whole industry full of businesspeople not earning much of anything on their business, and being ok with that? I find that hard to believe. What seems to happen in the real world is that businesses attempt to prolong that small window of profitability for as long as possible. I can think of two common ways of doing this.

1)The window of profitability is created by an upward (or rightward on the graph) shift in demand. Creating a continuously shifting demand-curve would create a continuously open profitability window, even when more and more businesses enter the market or expand production capabilities to satisfy the demand. Thus, growth-economics and the never-ending race upwards until we run out of resources.

2)The window of profitability is profitable because the number of companies was sufficient for a lower demand, thus introducing a temporary shortage in producing businesses, and thus a price-spike. Businesses could attempt to keep that level by driving new businesses out of business, buying them, merging, etc. And once you’ve started that process, you have very little, AFAICT, that prevents that process from continuing past the original point and turning this “purely competitive” market into an oligopoly. Oligopolies, btw, are inefficient but very profitable.

So here’s two things. One, shouldn’t libertarians hate large profits, since they’re a blatant sign of economic inefficiency and a sign that the market isn’t working? And two, how exactly does a perfectly competitive market remain so, when there’s no rational motivation to create and maintain a business that makes no profit in the long-term?

I’m thinking an explanation of how the left chart leads to the right chart could probably answer those questions. But without that answer, it just doesn’t make any fucking sense.

My Economics Textbook (part two)

Let’s start today’s post with the following quote(emphasis mine):

Some economists say that ghe distribution of annual consumption is more meaningful for examining inequality of well-being than is the distribution of annual income. In a given year, people’s consumption of goods and services may be above or below their income because they can save, draw down past savings, use credit cards, take out home mortgages, spend from inheritances, give money to charities, and so on. A recent study of the distribution of consumption finds that annual consumption inequality is less than income inequality. Moreover, consumption inequality has remained relatively constant over several decades, even though income inequality has increased.

after reading that, I had to go check when this book was originally published. I mean, we’ve just been through a massive economic crisis caused in part precisely by consumption being greater than income. And we’ll be spending a LOT of time recovering from it! At the end of that article is an even more stupid quote from The Economist:

More than 70 percent of Americans under the official poverty line own at least one car. And the distance between driving a used Hyundai Elantra and a new Jaguar XJ is well nigh undetectable compared to the difference between motoring and hiking through the muck. … A wide screen plasma television is lovely, but you do not need one to laugh at “Shrek”.
Those intrepid souls who make vast fortunes turning out ever higher-quality goods at ever lower prices widen the income gap while reducing the differences that really matter.

First, that must have been written by someone who has never driven a used anything; because my experience with old cars is that they have a very bad habit of breaking down when I need them to get to work most. And of course 70% of poor people have a car; there’s virtually no public transportation system, and living near jobs is unaffordable. In fact, virtually every application I’ve ever had to fill out asked whether I had “reliable transport”, which translates to “do you have a car that won’t break down” in most circumstances. And yet, 30% DON’T have a car, and when oil-prices spiked a few years back people had to quit their jobs because they couldn’t afford putting in enough gas to get to their jobs. To praise America’s car-dependence is some sort of perverse (and the same goes for the “even homeless people have cellphones” argument: of course they do, how else are they supposed to stop being homeless? cellphones have become a necessity for many of them), and so is the “reducing the differences that really matter” comment. The ability to watch TV is “what really matters”? The ability to drive a car is “what really matters”? Really!? And here I thought that would be affordable housing, nutrition, healthcare, and education. You know, the things more and more Americans are simply not able to afford. And I could write a rant about “higher-quality goods at lower prices”, too, since for the ACTUAL things that matter this is often not true. My ancient cast iron pans are worlds better than any newfangled teflon-coated piece of shit I could buy from Walmart and which will fall apart in a year or two. Electronics might be the only exception here.

Anyway, the entire chapter on inequality is like the quote, a longwinded attempt at pretending it’s not so bad. For example, they explain that the rising inequality since the 70’s was primarily caused by a sudden increase in the need for highly skilled workers in biotech, IT, etc instead of blue-collar workers. And then smoothly transitioning into explaining how this increased demand for skill explains the astronomic rise of CEO pay. Which, as far as I can tell, are actually two entirely separate things, but whatever. Also, I was under the impression that the demand for blue-collar work was replaced by a demand for service-industry jobs, which are mostly even less skilled and more importantly not unionized. That, combined with their claim that “incomes have risen in all quintiles, income growth has been fastest in the top quintile” (is that so? I was under the impression that the lowest quintiles were barely, if at all, keeping up with inflation, nevermind an actual rise in incomes) seems to indicate that they want to claim that rising inequality means that no one got poorer, but that plenty of people got richer. Which is pure and unadulterated bullshit.

And then they top this off with a beautiful tu quoque: “Second, increased income inequality is not solely a U.S. phenomenon. The recent rise of inequality has also occurred in several other industrially advanced nations”. Indeed it has. And? It’s still a bad thing. And “in several” implies that it didn’t increase in ALL of them. Did these other nations not have an increased need for IT, biotech etc. professionals? Do they have no need for highly skilled CEO’s and highly paid athletes and entertainers? Or is it maybe that these things alone don’t explain the rising inequality?

Then there’s a chapter on healthcare. In the beginning paragraph is this sentence: “Those with insurance or other financial means receive the world’s highest-quality medical treatment, but many people, because of their inability to pay, fail to seek out the most basic treatment.” While the second half of that sentence is correct, the first is only true for a subset of the insured. Plenty of people with insurance get shitty care, get denied treatments or payment for treatments, have their treatments delayed while the hospitals and the insurance fight over what is or isn’t covered, etc. And then there’s the fact that many insurance plans still don’t cover preventive care (The insurance plan for NDSU students for example only covers visits to the doctor when you’re sick).

Then they do some “international comparison”: they admit that “for whatever reason”, the U.S. has the highest spending, but at least, “there’s general agreement that medical care (although not health and not “preventive care treatment”) in the United States is probably the best in the world.” and what the bloody fuck does it mean to have the best medical care in the world if your preventive care and your health sucks? Anyway, then they list all these awesome things brought to you by the U.S. medical system. And they’re the very same things that the not-best-in-the-world systems in Europe have achieved as well, at much lower costs: rising life expectancy, “most advanced” equipment and technology, virtual elimination of polio, angioplasty, bypass surgeries, transplants, prosthetics, joint replacements, etc. The only point I’m willing to give them is that most of the medical research funding comes from the U.S.

And then comes the section that talks about the Moral Hazard Problem of health insurance. Now, I know that this is hypothetically relevant, but come on… “if their insurance covers rehabilitation programs, some people may be more inclined to experiment with alcohol or drugs”? Really? I’m thinking that belongs into the “hypotheticals I pulled out of my ass” category. Plus, they list people going to the doctor more often and requesting more test as a negative effect of health insurance.

In the chapter on Supply and Demand, we get the following essay:

Ticket prices for athletic events and musical concerts are usually set far in advance of the events. Sometimes the original price is too low to be the equilibrium price. Lines form at the ticket window and a severe shortage of tickets occurs at the printed price. What happens next? Buyers who are willing to may more than the original ticket price bid up the ticket price in resale ticket markets.
Tickets sometimes get resold for much greater amounts than the original price – market transactions known as “scalping”. For example, an original buer may resel a $75 ticket to a concert for $200, $250, or more. Reporters sometimes denounce scalpers for “ripping off” buyers by charging “exorbitant” prices.
But is scalping really a rip-off? We must first recognize that such ticket resales are voluntary transaction. If both buyer and seller did not expect to gain from the exchange, it would not occur! The seller must value the $200 more than seeing the event, and the buyer must value seeing the event at $200 or more. So there are no losers or victims here: Both buyer and seller benefit from the transaction. The scalping market simply redistributes assets (game or concert tickets) from those who would rather have the money (and the other things that the money can buy) to those who would rather have the tickets.
Does scalping impose losses or injury on the sponsors of the event? If the sponsors are injured, it is because they initially priced tickets below the equilibrium level. Perhaps they did this to create a long waiting line and the attendant news media publicity. Alternatively, they may have had a genuine desire to keep tickets affordable to lower-income, ardent fans. In either case, the event sponsors suffer an opportunity cost in the form of less ticket revenue than they might have otherwise received. But such losses are self-inflicted and separate and distinct from the fact that some tickets are later resold at a higher price.
So is ticket scalping undesirable? Not on economic grounds! It is an entirely voluntary activity that benefits both sellers and buyers.

Yes, this is a defense of scalpers. As an explanation of supply and demand, using scalping would have worked; but actually defending it? It doesn’t even work “on economic grounds”, since the scalpers don’t provide a service that wouldn’t be available to the buyers otherwise: the tickets they sell are not tickets that magically add capacity. Rather, scalpers remove tickets from the original supply-pool, and distribute them back to the pool of people wanting the tickets, to whom these tickets are now not available at the original price. They get something for nothing. (and what’s with the implication that scalpers sell “their” ticket? If it’s an event the scalper actually wants to attend, they will. Scalpers sell additional tickets, i.e. ones that have no value to them beyond the price they themselves paid for them).

And lastly, this is another instance of “assume robots”. Imagine for example that the sponsors of the Soccer World Cup decided to price their tickets at “equilibrium price”, which would mean the tickets would go for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The result would be worldwide riots, not a calm “oh well, I can’t afford it, I guess I’ll watch it on TV instead”. NO ONE wants that kind of publicity, especially since it would be likely to result in dead people.

And even in less drastic situations, you REALLY don’t want to price yourself out of theoretical range of too many of your fans. After all, very few sports teams and musical entertainers primarily earn money from their shows. Most of it comes from sales of merchandise and advertisement, with the live performances being more like the “free gift with purchase” enticement that mostly is just supposed to cover the costs of maintaining/renting the venue. With musical events, there’s of course some balance necessary between the need of the venue owners to make a profit and the performers to maintain mass appeal, but only venues that actually strive for a certain level of “elite” appeal would use high pricing to limit the number of people who will show up, in my experience. The entertainment business simply cannot be reduced to its economic components only.

In the same chapter you get another essay, this time proposing a legal market for human organs. Their main arguments for it are that people should be free to make any transaction they want, that this would increase the number of people who sell their bodies at death(!), and that not making it legal just means the trade goes on illegally.

Goddamn robots again. After all, the same argument could be used for selling oneself (or one’s children) into slavery. After all, that also happens on the black market already, it’s economically viable-ish, and will increase the availability of cheap human labor. It’s also still a really shitty idea once we remember that we’re talking about human beings, not robots and their spare parts. Besides, the claim that it would increase the number of people who give their bodies away after death is disingenuous, since it blatantly ignores that there’s already better ways to do that (opt-out instead of opt-in policies), and that no one gives a flying fuck about what people do with their dead bodies; it’s the sale of organs out of still perfectly alive bodies, which actually might still need those organs, that’s the problem.

Lastly, a possibly minor point is also the selectiveness on some of their graphs. For example, when showing examples of countries on the Index of Economic Freedom, they use Hong Kong, Ireland, and the US as examples of “free” countries, but not Denmark; similarly, they use Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea as examples of “repressed” countries, but not Zimbabwe or Syria. This isn’t much, but it still makes it look like you need to be a neo-con country to be free, while all (and only) socialist countries are repressed. Also, that graph is sourced to The Heritage Foundation; not exactly the world’s most unbiased source.

There’s still about 1/3 of the book I haven’t looked through. I expect the same problems to crop up there. If they piss me off enough, and are interesting enough to write about, I might make a third post about them in the future. But I think this is quite a lot of clusterfuckery already, and certainly pretty good evidence that these sorts of textbooks are what produces so many libertarians in this country :-/

My Economics Textbook (part one)…

…or “now I know why this country is infested with libertarians”.

My textbook for my Microeconomics class arrived the other day, and I’ve been leafing through it, reading bits and pieces of it. I have no opinion about the various models presented in there, not being an economist (d’uh), but some of the phrases in it, some of the opinions, and some of the “real-life examples” for economic principles etc. are disturbingly bad. If this is what most college-educated Americans know of economics (and it’s very possible, since the textbook claims to be the most commonly used one), I’m no longer surprised so many of them are libertarians.

Some of it may well be a problem with it being a beginner’s class, and thus full of stuff that’s so simplified, it’s almost wrong. It happens. However, when half the explanations seem to include an invisible “assume a spherical cow population of cheap, expendable, emotionless robots”, the simplifications actually end up being potentially dangerously wrong.

Can’t get even past the preface explaining the changes since the last edition, before we get to this awesome paragraph (emphasis mine):

This chapter addresses the question of whether the world is becoming overpopulated and rapidly running out of resources. It covers topics such as declining fertility rates, the optimal rate of resource extraction, resource substitution, resource resource sustainability, oil prices, and alternative energy sources. An understanding of the basic economic principles of natural resource economics will be critical to future voters and leaders. This micro treatment of natural resource and energy topics is particularly timely since many students are regularly exposed to alarmist views on these subjects

ooooh, “alarmists”, what a wonderful start. Ok then, let’s go to Chapter 15: Natural Resource and Energy Economics. First, we get a fairly decent (as far as I can tell) assessment of demographic development, with the minor smearing-by-omission of Malthus, whose assessment of the dangers of populations was quite right for a world in which two things didn’t exist: female emancipation and reliable birth control. The book only says that he was wrong. Also, a strange paragraph about how women had to have many children just so at least two could survive to adulthood, and that “parents – initially unaware that such a revolutionary change in death rates has taken place – for a while kept having six or more children”. Something tells me that wasn’t nearly as planned and premeditated as it sounds. Like I said, “assume robots”…

Then we go to resource usage: all these doomsayers were wrong because in fact the supply of resources has been increasing. True enough, so far, since we haven’t run out of anything significant yet. And what will happen when we do run out? Well, population growth will stop and reverse, and resource use has also leveled off (Forgetting to mention that many have leveled off waaaaay above sustainable levels while some don’t HAVE sustainable levels at all, and that some have leveled off ONLY on a per-capita basis was a pure accident, right?), and therefore we can conclude that future technology will prevent demand for resources exhausting their overall supply (wut? that would require the ability to increase efficiency to the point where you can create something out of nothing, or replacing it with an equivalent. just what is equivalent to iron? oil (for fuel AND plastics AND medicine)? potable water?!). Oh, and “even if we were to run out of oil, alternatives would quickly become available”. IF we run out of oil? Also, I’d like to know their definition of “quickly”. New stuff only comes quickly to those with money, and these new resources wouldn’t be cheap, merely relatively cheaper than the now extremely expensive oil. Oh, and we’re not going to run out of energy because of “clean coal” and fuel made from turkey guts. Really. And lastly, overexploitation is caused by “incomplete property rights” (because no one ever over-extracts their own resources and companies ALWAYS carefully plan years and even decades ahead instead of worrying primarily about increasing next quarter profits. Just ask the Enron Guys). This is exemplified by the tiresome example of successful vs. unsuccessful wildlife preservation: State-run programs always have massive problems with poachers. Programs that have the local population as “owners” of the wildlife, i.e. in control of the tourism (they run it, they profit from it, etc.) give the population more incentive to protect the animals and not kill them. This is phrased as a “public property vs private property” thing, when in all the programs I’m familiar with the “property” is communal, at the village-level. If it were in fact private, I suspect it would just cause the same situation as with Medieval European”private hunting reserves”: the owner has incentive to protect the forest and the wildlife, but everyone else doesn’t.

At the end of the chapter, there’s a little essay called “Is Economic Growth Bad for the Environment?”. They argue that it isn’t, because rich countries have higher EPI scores. They even have a nice chart that indeed shows a very strong correlation between EPI scores and GDP per person. Which of course tells us fuck-all about economic growth, and conveniently ignores the fact that most extraction and manufacturing, the source of most resource use and pollution, has been outsourced out of these rich countries into the poor countries. And a certain economist whom I won’t name even suggested exporting waste. Plus, even scoring the highest on EPI doesn’t mean it’s enough, if “highest” still means using too many resources, spewing too much CO2 into the atmosphere, degrading arable land, unsustainable use of water, etc.

To round off the “economics and environment” issue, in another chapter, they have this to say about Climate Change:

Economists also stress that the market mechanism, through its system of prices and profits and losses, will make appropriate adjustments based on new climatic realities. Air-conditioner sales may rise; snow shovel sales may fall. Some agricultural lands probably will be deserted; others farther north will be cultivated. The maple syrup industry in New England may shift to Canada. Nevertheless, the transition costs – the costs associated with making economic adjustments – of global warming will undoubtedly be very high unless some actions are taken to reduce greenouse gases. But industrial economies are built on carbon-based energy sources, so the costs of reducing such gases are also quite high. The relevant question from the economic perspective becomes: Will it be less costly for society to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions or simply to try to mitigate their effects?

First off, what lands further north? The soil-less Canadian Shield? The permafrost currently sinking into the ocean? And this would of course happen at the cost of the forests that are currently covering these areas, but without new forests sprouting up in the abandoned deserts (see Iraq and Egypt for what happens when agricultural lands stop being agricultural).

And secondly, “cheap, expendable, emotionless robots” again. I know this is an economics textbook, not an ethics textbook, but you can’t tell me that there’s even a question about which solution would be better: entire countries are scheduled to become uninhabitable, and I’m having a hard time believing such massive disruptions to settlement patterns(nevermind massive death for a moment; apparently human life, especially brown human life, is cheap) could be cheaper than CO2 emission reduction.

This concludes the environmental part of the rant. Since the post is already pretty long, I’ll stop here, and write the rest tomorrow (I really really will, promise. It’s already partially written anyway).

Against optimism

It occurs to me that I shouldn’t write this post before reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided“, since she probably addresses the same points, much better and more thoroughly than I can right now. But it’s still something that bugs me, on so many levels.

Mostly, it bugs me at the fundamental level of things HAVING to have some positive outcome, as if it was some physical law that on balance, things must work out positively in human terms. The three versions of this that I run into most often are “I believe in America”*, “but still, life is/people are still good”, and the belief that progress is inevitable.

By virtue of living in the US and spending a lot of time on US dominated internet forums, I most commonly encounter the “I still believe in America” version. It seems most often to crop up as a last-ditch rebuttal of the problems people in the US are facing, as if it somehow is capable of refuting just how shitty America actually is, compared to other Industrialized countries (which is especially sad considering they came into the 2nd half of the 20th century well ahead of everyone else, by virtue of not having had a war fought on their soil, and therefore having some spare cash for investing into the future, rather than rebuilding from a pile of rubble). For example, some while ago I was arguing with someone on Pandagon about social mobility. Their argument was their son who, despite not having a college education, has made quite a life for himself in IT. I and others shored up a long list of reasons why this experience was exceptional and cannot be used as an example of American social mobility, while giving evidence for how social mobility and social wellbeing in the US is very low especially compared to many European countries. And that person’s last response in that thread? An indignant whine along the lines of “well, excuse me for still having faith in America”. My response was a rather snarky comparison of theoretical opportunities available to me in the US as compared to Germany, in which the US did not end up looking pretty.

The “but still, life is/people are still good” is very similar to the “I believe in America” thing, but can be used both more broadly (i.e. when talking about non-American things), and more narrowly (i.e. when talking about a specific group of people/situation, American or otherwise). Mostly, I’ve seen it used when talking about something atrocious, like abuse in the military or even systemic problems caused by same(“but still, most soldiers are good kids”), or about the effect Western-centered capitalism has on the non-western part of the world. I’ve seen a combination of these two on an essay on ZNet by a soldier’s mom who first made an extremely long list of epically shitty things the U.S. military, the USA as a whole, and Capitalism caused (torture, war, environmental damage, etc ad nauseam)… and then she did a 180 and started talking about how, despite all that, life was still good, because she got to meet for coffee with neighbors, and a lot of other “little things in life” that were going well for her (and nevermind that because of the things in the first part of her essay, a very large portion of humanity did NOT have access to the stuff in the second part of the essay), and how that meant… something.

The third type is more a (subconscious?) attitude than an actual, formed argument, and it presents itself in many different, often very small and barely noticeable ways. A very obvious variant is the “technology will save us” response to AGW, but it’s generally the conviction that the future will definitely be better (or at least not any worse) than the past. This manifests either as the conviction that, in currently raging battles of the culture wars “time is on our side” and that we’ll automatically win given enough time**, or that the things that have already been achieved (8hr workdays and worker safety, abortion rights, gains in environmental protection, you name it) can’t possibly be undone.

I’m not quite sure why these self-delusions are so prevalent, but it seems people need them to function just as much as many people seem to need religion to function. I vaguely remember reading some article that said people with depression were often better at predicting their chances of succeeding at something, but I can’t remember what causal link they posited (or if they bothered at all), but no matter which way things go, it seems being positively self-deluded about one’s own chance at success is correlated with happiness, and being able to realistically predict ones chances in life is correlated with depression. Anyway, what I have noticed when people show these signs of unwarranted optimism is that they primarily do it to deflect acknowledging being part of a problem (pretty much anything environment- and/or capitalism-related) or someone else one knows being part of a problem (any single comment ever that defends the military by saying that soldiers aren’t evil***), or simply try to protect themselves from being crushed by the enormity of the problem (because, let’s face it, short of moving to a hippy eco village, pretty much everything I (and everyone else in the Western world as well as many people in other parts) do on a daily basis is making things worse: the electricity I use while typing this, the starbucks food I’m snarfing (mmm….cheesecake…wait, what was I talking about…?), the gas I used to drive to Bismarck, the plastic my grocieries come packaged in, etc.), and secondarily to give themselves a reason not to do anything much about the discussed problems. I suppose it’s just not human nature to want to go radical, so people instead react defensively (again, probably subconsciously) by either elevating the small things they do in the right direction to actual problem-solving *coughpriusdriverscough*, or by figuring the problem will solve itself given enough time (or if not itself, then at least with the number of people already being engaged being enough), or by simply erasing the magnitude of the problem.

People (and btw, that includes me, in case someone feels like complaining that I don’t do much either) seem to have an extreme need to be “normal” and not be radical too much and on too many things and in too many ways. And sure, it’s not physically possible for any one person to be part of a (radical or otherwise) solution to every problem facing humankind right now, but most people don’t even do what would be within their possibilities. And where this isn’t caused by sheer ignorance, it seems to be caused by fostering this sort of extreme, unwarranted optimism. So, i’m against this optimism that prevents people from realizing that things really could go to shit, and hope for maybe a bit more pessimism and realization that a good future needs to be vigorously fought for and defended against the assholes and idiots of the world.

P.S.:holy shit, this post is difficult to read. waaaaaay too many brackets. sorry :-p

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*I should note that there’s a difference between a “believing” in America in the sense that it’s salvageable and worth fighting for and needn’t be run away from just yet, and a believing in it in that magical-thinking sort of way that seems to assume some magical properties for America that protects it from the historical fates of every other civilization past and present. I don’t necessarily agree with the former either, but it’s a perfectly rational position to take, and even has a certain bravery to it that I just don’t have in me. The latter is just complete bullshit.

**Most notably in the fight for LGBT rights, where the demographics do show that younger people are more ok with gay marriage than older ones; but these demographic changes aren’t “natural”, they’re the result of hard-fought battles for social acceptance fought in the past. and they’re no reason to stop fighting, since a trend like that can be reversed just as much as it can be created in the first place.

***Interestingly enough, only soldiers in the US military are not evil even if the military does bad things (they’re feeding their families who depend on them and that’s why they can’t desert; or they’re doing the best out of a bad situation; or they were duped into joining by the “defend your country” trope and had to stick it out because desertion would have landed them in prison; or a million other reasons), but it never ever applies to German soldiers in WW2, even when they’ve never been within sight of a Concentration Camp and their reasons for joining/not leaving were the same as the reasons American soldiers often give now. But that’s a subject for a much longer stand-alone post which I may even write someday.

medium-length thoughts

1)since in my last post I declared the internet connection to be good, it of course crapped out (apparently, caine and I used too much broadband watching videos, so we’re locked out of the internet for 4 days), which is why I’m posting this from Barnes & Noble in Bismarck, and why the post I was going to write will have to wait. Instead, some mostly shallow, shortmedium-length thoughts.

2)I thought the Minot Daily was unreadably conservative and stupid, but the Bismarck Tribune has them beat, by publishing Ross DoucheDouthat (of “women on birth-control turn me off” and “straight marriage should be special because I like being special” fame) in their Op/Ed section. I’m thinking the only way to sink lower than that is to let O’Keefe or Breitbart write for your paper. Or, you know, turn into the Whirled Nut Daily.

3)I have found my copy of Yes Means Yes, and as soon as I’m done reading Matt Taibbi’s Great Derangement, I’m going to re-read it and take notes. I’m still not entirely sure how to sum up its awesomeness, but I figure writing general evaluations of their sub-themes, plus highlighting their most personally thought-provoking sections will be the way to go here.

4)I’m reading SKEPTIC right now, and one of the articles was about Public Intellectuals, and whether they’re needed, what their use is supposed to be, and whether the Public Intellectual is in decline in the US right now. Fascinating article, especially because it touches on something that I’ve been talking about for a while now: the need for a well educated and voluntarily/happily self-educating populace. The article itself doesn’t really talk about this, but it mentions on the one hand that the role of the Public Intellectual is to do what the average person doesn’t have the resources, education, and time to do (think deep, long, and hard about all sorts of social issues), and on the other the fact that in the US, the quality of the Public Intellectual has suffered, because who becomes a widely known PI is determined by their entertainment value and how well their messages confirm the opinions and biases of the general population, rather than the thoroughness and quality of their argument/presentation. It also mentions that the role of the PI has shrunk to academia, where it used to include artists and other non-academic professions. All of which, as far as I’m concerned, are consequences of the way universities work in the US. for one, as they become more expensive, fewer people go; two, for the same reason, people treat them like paying tuition is buying a degree, thus causing grade inflation and similar loss of quality; three, people treat them like investments in their career, and therefore become Fachidioten with a very narrow education in only the areas they find directly relevant to their future careers. On the other side of this are free(ish) public universities in Europe, where people study “useless” shit for fun, where a larger percentage of the population goes to university, and where in general consider knowing stuff a positive trait. From a directly, purely economic POW, the US model is certainly more profitable, but OTOH it does result in a country full of teabaggers. So yeah, heavily subsidized universities are good for the health of a country, because it produces more, and better quality, Public Intellectuals. Whole populations of public intellectuals, for that matter.

5)So… purely hypothetically… what are the prognoses for Hawaii, in re AGW? Is it still going to be a livable place some 15-25 years from now? For that matter, is much of it still going to exist by then…?