I feel like my view on how preferences work is sort of opposite to that of mainstream philosophy. I see in philosophy a lot of talk about what we should prefer. What is the good? What goals should I pursue? What is the meaning of life? That kind of thing.

To me that’s a strange question to be asking. I view preferences as basically a starting point: we are built with a utility function shaped by whatever works best to maximize the survival of our genes. Some parts of that are pretty obvious: sex is fun, getting injured is painful, etc. Higher drives are only slightly more difficult to understand: we want power, we want to cooperate and help each other, we want to be loved… it’s all pretty explicable with some uncontroversial assumptions about the evolutionary pressures on our recent ancestors.

With the preferences question dissolved into “follow the dictates of the utility function that’s built into your mind” the meaning of life becomes “enact your preferences.” When you look at the world and see that it’s not the way you’d prefer it to be, try to push it in that direction.

In this reading altruism stops being something we are trying to justify philosophically and starts being a contingent preference that we as humans just happen to have. I’m not altruistic because there’s some objective moral argument showing that’s the correct way to be, I’m altruistic because I care what happens to other people I want them to be happy and healthy and free. It would be perfectly reasonable for some entity to have the exact opposite preference from me (preferring people be sad, sick, and enslaved) and not be any less rational. My description of such a perfectly reasonable and rational entity is “evil” or “my enemy” because its preferences strongly diverge from mine in an irreconcilable way.\

Usually having very different preferences doesn’t have to lead to conflict. If you really want to build a giant pyramid and I really want to feed the hungry there’s no reason for us to be in conflict. We can engage in mutually beneficial trade and both be better off for the other party’s existence without having any overlap in our goals. Of course it’s also possible that with no more fundamental conflict than that one of us can take an action that dramatically conflicts with other’s preferences if that’s what is the best strategy.

Ultimately then what a society should look like is a group of people with sufficiently similar / non-conflicting preferences that they can all basically get along. This isn’t really that hard with humans since our preferences are mostly pretty similar. Of course similar preferences doesn’t ensure we’ll get along – I want that piece of bread, you also want that piece of bread… Fortunately while plenty of people are willing to harm others to accomplish their goals, few have their core goal as “fuck over other people.” Building a good society implies keeping out those rare sadistic sociopaths, and designing incentives for the rest of us so we don’t step on each other’s toes while pursuing our various preferences.

The failure to do that is the big problem with capitalism. It sets things up so there’s this group of people, capitalists, who have a gigantic amount of power, and very different interests in terms of how they’d like society to be run. In certain key ways what benefits the capitalist class hurts society as a whole and vice versa. Workers may compete with each other,  The goal of a “classless society” is not for everyone to be the same, or even to have the same standard of living, but to prevent that division into conflicting classes of people with starkly different interests.

Of course all of this discussion of a “good” society is based on my preference for what society should look like – one in which everyone should be maximally able to pursue their preferences, constrained only by the degree to which those preferences conflict with other people’s preferences. If someone’s core drive is “allow the market to operate without limit” they won’t really see much value in what I’m going for. What hope there is for convincing people of anything is that core drives are usually something a bit more primal than an opinion about market economics. Someone can have the exact same preferences as I do, but a different belief about how to enact those preferences. When that’s the case we can have a nice factual discussion about what really is the best way to get those preferences enacted, and if we’re both sincere one or more of us might even be convinced by the other.

So if you wonder what the meaning of life is just think about what you want, and what strategies are available to achieve that goal. Learning a lot about the world will almost always be a good idea since otherwise there’s a good chance you’ll end up pursuing your goal in an inefficient or even counterproductive way (see everyone with sincere but idiotic plans to make the world a better place). Building up your own capacity (gaining power one might say) to act is also a good go-to in any situation, especially when the thing you want to do is a big, difficult task. And finally, find your allies. I guarantee you don’t have unique preferences. There are definitely some people out there who want the same thing as you and agree on how to make it happen.

So good luck enacting your preferences, and don’t stress about the fact that the preferences you have are based on random evolutionary contingency. There’s no better thing they could be based on that would make you feel any better, and it’ll still feel just as good to accomplish your goals.

Interest Groups

I think all groups pursue their own interests. Ethnic groups, economic classes, whatever, any identifiable group will produce at least some effort towards advocating for the interests of that group, whatever they are. The problem with capitalism isn’t so much that capitalist are any morally worse than any other group, it’s just that they have so much power as a group that when they start pursuing their interests they end up completely dominating everyone else and throwing the whole system out of whack. This is what makes worker cooperatives so attractive. You remove capitalists as a group and give the social power they used to have to the workers – a much larger group, with interests that are much more similar to the general interest.

DSA Cryptocurrencies

Cryptocurrencies (or just alternate currencies generally) are actually a pretty neat idea for getting around resource limitations.

Imagine if the DSA created a new currency: DSA Bucks (DBs). These can be used to pay your group dues, get into group events with cover charges, or buy DSA merchandise at a rate of $1 per DB. You can get them by buying them at that price from the DSA, or by doing stuff for the DSA or selling stuff to the DSA in exchange for payment in DBs. There could then be the standard cryptocurrency online marketplaces allowing people to sell their DBs for dollars, presumably at a steep discount since obviously a $1 DSA coupon is not worth anywhere near a $1. Still, there would be some demand since everyone in DSA is paying dues, and there’s a lot of money to be saved by buying DBs at a discount and paying dues in those rather than donating the dollars directly. If there’s a decent sized marketplace, which there presumably could be if this was rolled out at DSA chapters nationwide, the currency starts to gain real value and the DSA essentially becomes a currency issuer.

Negative Carbon Taxation

Carbon taxes are basically the perfect policy. Set a desired maximum level of carbon output, estimate the tax needed to get to that level, and levy it. Adjust as needed to keep at target level, which should itself be gradually declining. That’s all pretty standard.

A thought occurred to me today that a nice improvement would be to include a “negative carbon tax” in the package. The idea would be to make adding carbon to the atmosphere and taking carbon out of the atmosphere equivalent. Whatever amount you would have to pay for emitting a certain amount of carbon, you’d receive for taking that amount of carbon out of the atmosphere. So if you see an opportunity to remove carbon from the atmosphere, you’d have an incentive to take it and get paid. And indeed, a whole carbon capture industry could come into being, effectively getting paid by the government to remove carbon from the atmosphere on whatever scale they can manage. This could of course be paid for by the carbon tax, which would by definition be plenty of money as long as more carbon is being emitted than is being removed.

Libertarians and Anti-Trust

Libertarianism is a fundamentally incoherent ideology. It only makes sense if you hold certain assumptions that just aren’t true. The core one of these is the assumption that perfectly free markets will naturally be competitive. The libertarian idea is that monopolies and oligopolies and that sort of thing can only result from government intervention, and that if there was no government every market would be competitive and efficient. This used to be a pretty plausible thing to believe back when it was first thought up in the 1800s. But now we know that’s just not how things work. Government can certainly intervene to create monopolies or hurt competitiveness, but they’re not required. It’s perfectly possible for businesses to use economies of scale and shady deals with other businesses to destroy competition in whatever market they’re in without any help from the government. And meanwhile, the government is the only entity with the power to break up monopolies, and prevent them from forming in the first place.

Competitive markets are an incredibly powerful tool for promoting innovation and efficiency. However, they’re also an incredibly delicate tool that needs careful maintenance. If left to their own devices they break and turn into a series of rent seeking monopolies and oligopolies. There’s a real debate to be had about the merits of markets versus central planning. What’s not really debatable is that if you’re using markets you need to keep them working properly or you have the worst of both worlds: one big organization without the pressure of competition running everything, but controlled by rent-seeking capitalists rather than planners who are at least trying to produce good outcomes.

Political Coalitions

I define people who are basically on my team politically like this. We agree on a basic humanist, consequentialist worldview of wanting to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And we agree that the basic plan for how to accomplish that is to organize politically, take control of the state, and use state power to transform society in a positive way. We agree that what that basically looks like is increasing the size of the welfare state and democratizing decision making in both the public and private sectors.

And that’s it! We might disagree on the details, but if the above describes you then you are my ally in that project. If it doesn’t then we can still totally be in coalitions together, but eventually there’s something serious that we’re going to have to fight about.

Marx is like Jesus

Marx is like Jesus. He had a lot of great qualities and important lessons to teach us, but he’s not god.

Right-Left Progressive-Conservative

People use political labels pretty haphazardly, it is what it is. There’s no real right or wrong definitions, but we can aim for ones that at least cut reality at the joints and illuminate more than they obscure about the people they’re labeling. So here are my definitions:

Right-Left: To be on the right means to be in favor of concentrated wealth and power. To be on the left means to be in favor of dispersing wealth and power widely.

Progressive-Conservative: To be a progressive means to be part of a political movement to make positive change. To be a conservative means to be against whatever it is the current progressive movement wants to do. We can also add “reactionary” to this category, which is actually pretty similar to progressive except the change they want to make involves a reversion to a real or imagined past state of affairs.

Liberal-Authoritarian: To be liberal means to be tolerant and have a “live and let live” attitude. To be an authoritarian means to believe that there are correct and incorrect ways of doing things that need to be enforced.

I would consider myself a left-progressive-liberal. I’d say the modern Democratic Party are mostly centrist conservative liberals, while the modern Republican Party is composed of right-wing reactionary authoritarians. I call the Democrats conservatives because they’re for the most part just trying to defend the gains of past progressive ages rather than make any particular new ones. Even the new policy prescriptions they have are mostly about shoring up systems that are coming apart (healthcare anyone?) rather than embarking on some bold new plan to improve people’s lives.

The American culture wars are pretty much fought based on the liberal-authoritarian axis, on which the country has been steadily moving in the liberal direction for decades. And really that’s for the most part what elections are won and lost on, since those tribal culture war issues are what really seems to get people riled up. Meanwhile we’ve been moving to the right for a few decades despite there not really being much of a popular outcry for doing so because that’s what the right-reactionaries driving the Republican Party really care about.


The State of the Economy

After the financial crisis central banks lowered interest rates as far as they could. This has the effect of stimulating more lending, which creates more money, which then gets spent. The idea is that the money will be invested and this should stimulate the economy because that investment will entail employing people, utilizing resources, building, doing, etc. It should put the spare capacity in the economy to work.

The problem is that that’s not what happened with most of that money. A little leaks out into the real economy, but in general there’s no profit in investing in expanding productive capacity, because our whole problem is that demand is too weak. If factories are already operating at half capacity, why invest in building new factories? So instead of being spent on investments that require buying goods and services, it’s been spent on buying assets. It’s spent on real estate, stocks, gold, bitcoin, bonds, etc. This can be a great financial decision for the investors, but buying more of all that stuff doesn’t put any spare capacity in the economy to work, it just raises the price of that asset class.

So now we have gigantic bubbles in every conceivable asset class, but still a lot of spare capacity in the economy. The Fed is raising interest rates because they’re worried about those bubbles, while people who care about the real economy are saying “Are you crazy? You’re reducing the stimulus now when the economy’s still so fragile?” This is a hard decision for the Fed, since there’s no action they can take that won’t make one of those two major problems worse.

Luckily for those of us who don’t work at that Fed, there is a silver bullet we can use to solve this problem. It’s just not anything the Fed has access to. The way to fix things is with fiscal rather than monetary stimulus. Rather than throwing up our hands and saying “How can we possibly get businesses to use this spare capacity?” we just have the government use it directly. This can come in the form of handing out money to people through the welfare state in order to boost both demand and their living standards, or in the form of spending government money on the infinity of badly needed public goods that have gone underfunded for decades.

You might say “But wait! How can we afford all this?” That’s a stupid question! Just kidding. But seriously, the federal government is in charge of money. It owns the literal and metaphorical printing presses. It’s literally not possible for it to be unable to afford things. The only limitation is that printing too much money can cause inflation. Luckily though we have a great tool for combatting inflation: raising interest rates! As you may remember, that’s what the Fed desperately wants to do now even though inflation has remained low, because it’s what’s needed to deflate these crazy asset bubbles.

This has all been about our specific current situation, but it’s also a thesis on a shift we need to make in how we think about government spending. Currently the idea is that the Fed sets interest rates at the sweet spot where it utilizes the economy’s spare capacity without going overboard and causing inflation and bubbles. Government spending is treated as just one more source of demand in the economy among others, and is constrained by the need to borrow money at whatever interest rate the Fed sets. What we need to do is have government spending come first. We spend as much as is needed to make sure that the economy is running at full capacity all the time. And then we use interest rates to control bubbles and inflation without worrying that if rates go high it will result in wasted capacity and the accompanying unemployment and economic distress that comes with it.

JC: Son of god

I never realized what a blatant ripoff of the Julius Caesar story the Jesus Christ story is. Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: JC is the son of a god. He consistently forgives those who have done him harm, wowing everyone with extravagant displays of mercy and forgiveness. He is betrayed by a friend and brutally murdered. His body is displayed on a cross with stab wounds for all to see. But then when all seems lost he returns from the dead and makes all well. Going forward he is honored as both the son of a god and a god himself. Of course Caesar didn’t literally rise from the dead; he was replaced by his grand-nephew Octavian who changed his name to Julius Caesar and took over Caesar’s role in Roman society, and proceeded to found Caesar-worshipping cults. Seems perfectly plausible that one of those took a weird turn when transposed into the Judean context and mutated into Christianity.