Monthly Archives: April 2015

What’s the deal with the political spectrum anyway?

I was just reading this Paul Krugman blog post in which he presents a very good explanation of why American politics looks the way it looks, in the context of describing why Rand Paul doesn’t have much of a constituency.

His point is that conservatism is the protection and promotion of traditional structures of authority and dominance. Men over women, white over black, native over immigrant, the security state over citizens, America over other countries, and of course the big one, rich over poor. Liberals (or leftists or progressives or whatever we’re calling that side of the political spectrum these days) are thus the opposite: those who support breaking down these traditional authority structures in the interest of building a better society. Thus, instead of a series of disconnected issues, politics is more unidimensional than you might expect. It’s surprisingly easy to predict someone’s position on the welfare state based on their position on abortion. It’s not about big government versus small government at all – conservatives are fine with using government to reinforce traditional values by banning abortion after all. It’s about how abortion gives women more ability to control their own sexuality and reproduction, rather than having it controlled by her husband, state, religion, or what have you. And of course no surprise that the welfare state is conservative’s biggest bugaboo of all these days – not only does it strengthen the position of the poor against the rich, it strengthens the position of the individual relative hir family / community by providing an alternative safety net.

So thinking about this definition reminded me of another great blog post I read a while back (yes, I read too many blog posts, but that’s not the issue right now!): A Thrive/Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum by Scott Alexander. He brings up a whole different, and also very compelling theory to explain the political spectrum: that conservative policies are geared towards a scary, hostile world, while liberal policies are geared towards a friendly and abundant world. Thus conservatives are pro-military, pro-police, pro-unity, and generally focused on helping yourself and your in-group to survive, and not expending limited resources to help outsiders. Basically, if an action makes sense in the context of a zombie apocalypse, conservatives are in favor. If it would be risky or get you killed in that scenario, they’re against. Leftists then are the opposite: anti-military, pro-dissent, pro-tolerance, in favor of giving aid to the less successful, etc. Basically policies that would make sense in a society where we are safe and have plenty of resources, and the main issue is how to organize ourselves and distribute those resources to maximize happiness and fulfillment for everybody.

This theory works nicely, because it helps explain why there has been a trend towards liberalism over time: the world is becoming safer and richer, so liberal policies are making steadily more sense. This is substantiated by exceptions to the onward march of human progress, say the fall of the Roman Empire, also being marked by retreats from ‘liberal’, tolerant values and towards a more conservative, hierarchical setup. I find that it also meshes well with Krugman’s theory: the established authority structures he describes developed back when the world was not nearly so friendly of a place. Pre-contraception and pre-antibiotics, there were some pretty compelling reasons to avoid pre-marital sex. Pre-gunpowder, it was a lot more possible for a rampaging barbarian army to roll in and ransack your whole country for anything that’s not nailed down – pretty solid reason to keep up the old warrior ethos. Pre-massive 20th century economic growth, there really weren’t enough resources to provide everyone with a decent lifestyle, so why bother with redistribution? Now we have all these structures that don’t make sense anymore in terms of benefiting most people (to the extent they ever did) but are still being pushed very hard by the minority that do benefit from, who as a result of benefiting, have a disproportionate amount of power to make their preferences heard.

So if you agree with me on all this and are on the left, pretty much carry on. Contribute to the onward march of human progress, try to push policy farther left, and just live with the arc of history being (incredibly) long but hopefully bending towards justice. If you’re a conservative, you might have more thinking to do.


How to compete with robots: work for free

A lot of people are worried about robots taking our jobs these days. It’s a valid worry so far as it goes, in that robots are indeed almost definitely going to take our jobs.

The thing is, in any sane society this would be great news. Freeing people from labor is a noble endeavor. The issue is that in our not particularly sane society, having a job is the main way that people acquire the resources needed for a decent lifestyle. This system needs to end. Whether it’s the basic income, or a more radical socialist transformation, it’s vital to get to the point where the average person can not just live, but live well, without any income from wages.

Some people worry that in this scenario people would be bored or unhappy because they’re not working. However, not receiving any income from wages doesn’t mean that you don’t do anything productive. Instead, we would see a gradual merger of work, play, hobbies, and volunteering. Pay would decline in the face of robot competition, and fewer and fewer people would bother to have paying ‘jobs’ at all rather than devoting themselves to their own interests. People would continue performing productive activities that are enjoyable enough to do without getting paid, while unenjoyable activities are taken over by machines. This is because in this scenario, there is exactly one way that humans could outcompete machines: price. Even if a machine is better in every way, so long as a human adds any value, they’re worth having if they work for free.

So that’s how I see the division of labor: humans handle the things we enjoy handling, robots handle the rest. Don’t fight automation; focus on the political challenge of making sure its fruits are shared equitably.

This is why I believe in democracy



I recently discovered the graph above. Check out this link for easier reading:

The message I take from  it is this: our system of government is badly broken, and the solution is more democracy.

If we just implemented the policies that received greater than 50% support in this poll, the country would be astoundingly better off. Even with all the bullshit and propaganda out there, apparently most people pretty much get it.

So the next time you’re cursing the stupidity of the average voter (and lord knows I’m guilty of this), take a moment and remember that the average voter is basically on top of it. Instead, think about the ways in which a supposedly democratic country enacts policies that negatively impact most people, against the will of most people.

Your Brain is God

I just read Timothy Leary’s “Your Brain is God”. It’s an enjoyable read, just 60 pages or so, and Leary is obviously an intelligent and fairly insightful guy. I find myself pretty much agreeing with him in terms of policy prescriptions.

However, his reasoning has one big flaw that gets on my nerves. He has a tendency to be a little too eager to ascribe intentionality to things.

For example, he writes about the existence of “brain castes”. What he seems to be saying is that people’s brains are wired differently, so that they can perform different roles in society. There’s a core of cool insight here: people’s minds do work very differently, and we have a tendency to not realize that and just assume the way our own minds work is the way everyone’s do. The issue is that the causality flows the opposite way: people with minds that work in different ways do end up seeking certain roles in society, at least on average, but there’s no intentionality behind it, that’s just how people having different personality types works. He does similar things when talking about the human brain, and about the biosphere.

I feel a little bad making this argument, since it has the obvious response that he just means it metaphorically, and I’m being a spoilersport by being so literal. The problem is that I have spoken to people who do take this sort of thing literally. It’s important to make clear what’s a metaphor and what isn’t – just ask whoever wrote the bible.