On the rift between economics and everything else

The line is often heard: economists are “scientific imperialists” (i.e. they seek to invade other fields of social science) jerks. All they try to do is “fit everything inside the model”. I have this derisive sneer at economists very often. I have also heard economists say “who cares, they’re a bunch of historians” (this is the one I hear most often given my particular field of research, but I have heard variations involving sociologists and anthropologists).

To be fair, I never noticed the size rift. For years now, I have been waltzing between economics and history (and tried my hand at journalism for some time) which meant that I was waltzing between economic theory and a lot of other fields. The department I was a part of at the London School of Economics was a rich set of quantitative and qualitative folks who mixed history of ideas, economics, economic history and social history. To top it all, I managed to find myself generally in the company of attorneys and legal scholars (don’t ask why, it still eludes me). It was hard to feel a big rift in that environment. I knew there was a rift. I just never realized how big it was until a year ago (more or less).

There is, however, something that annoys me: the contempt appears to be self-reinforcing.  Elsewhere on this blog (here and here) (and in a forthcoming book chapter in a textbook on how to do economic history), I have explained that economists have often ventured into certain topics with a lack of care for details. True, there must be some abstraction of details (not all details are useful), but there is an optimal quantity of details. And our knowledge grows, the quantity of details necessary to answering each question (because the scientific margin is increasingly specialized) should grow. And so should the number (and depth) of nuances we make to answer a question.  There is a tendency among economists to treat a question outside the usual realm of economics and ignore the existing literature (thus either rushing through an open door or stepping in a minefield without knowing it).  The universe is collapsed into the model and, even when it yields valuable insights, other (non-econs) contributors are ignored.  That’s when the non-econs counter that economists are arrogant and that they try to force everything into a mold rather than change the mold when it does not apply. However, the reply has often been to ignore the economists or criticize strawmen versions of their argument. Perceived as contemptuous, the economists feel that they can safely ignore all others.

The problem is that this is a reinforcing loop: a) the economists are arrogant; b) non-economists respond by dismissing the economists and ridiculing their assumptions; c) the economists get more arrogant. The cycle persists. I struggle to see how to break this cycle, but I see value in breaking it. Elsewhere, I have made such a case when I reviewed a book (towards which I was hostile) on Canadian economic history. Here is what I said for the sake of showcasing the value of breaking the vicious circle of ignoring both sides:

These scholars (those who have been ignored by non-economists) could have easily derived the same takeaways as Sweeny. Individuals can and do engage in rent-seeking, which economists define as the process through which unearned gains are obtained by manipulating the political and social environment. This could be observed in attempts to shape narratives in the public discourse. According primacy to the biases of sources is a recognition that there can be rent-seeking in the form of actors seeking to generate a narrative to reinforce a particular institutional arrangement and allow it to survive. This explanation is well in line with neoclassical economics.

This point is crucial. It shows a failing on both sides of the debate. Economists and historians favorable to “rational choice” have failed to engage scholars like Sweeny. Often, they have been openly contemptuous. The literature has evolved in separate circles where researchers only speak to their fellow circle members. This has resulted in an inability to identify the mutual gains of exchange. The insights and meticulous treatments of sources by scholars like Sweeny are informative for those economists who consider rational choice as if the choosers were humans, with all their flaws and limitations, rather than mechanistic utility-maximizing machines with perfect foresight (which is a strawman often employed to deride the use of economics in historical debates) . In reverse, the rich insights provided by rational choice theorists could guide historians in elucidating complex social interactions with a parsimony of assumptions. Without interaction, both groups loose and resolutions remain elusive.

See, as a guy who likes economics, I think that trade is pretty great. More importantly, I think that trade between heterogeneous groups (or different individuals) is even greater because it allows for specialization that increases the value (and quantity) of outputs.  I see the benefits of trade here, so why is this “circle of contempt” perpetuating so relentlessly?

Can’t we just all pick the 100$ bill on the sidewalk?

In memory of Christie Davies: defender of the right to joke


As we approach the end of 2017, I remember this year’s sad passing of Christie Davies. Davies was a rare academic beast: a classical liberal sociologist. Despite representing a minority perspective in his discipline, he was able to thrive and leave a mark that will continue to influence scholars for generations.

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Memorial Day in the Days of Trump

It disturbs me that in my area of the Central Coast of California, Memorial Day is almost entirely a beach day, a sailing day, a fishing day, and a barbecue day. There is little here to mark the day as one of remembrance for those who died to protect our precious republic (and by the way, to save many innocent civilians, including me). Most of the local people are too sophisticated and too lazy to do anything out of the ordinary on that weekend except pretend it’s summer. And then, some of the population is gone because the university lets out on Memorial Weekend and many students go somewhere else. They are replaced to a large extent by visitors from Silicon Valley forty minutes away on a hard mountain road, and from as afar as the agricultural Central Valley, hours away. The ones and the others want to sit on the beach or go on rides on our famous old fashioned Boardwalk, a sort of permanent carnival. The ocean water is still too cold for almost all adults but the kids will wade in a little. (Frankly, I think few adults around – except surfers – here know how to swim in the ocean but that’s neither here nor there.)

I know that the locals don’t care much about the meaning of Memorial Day because there are only three American flags on my long street, and two belong to my household.

In the vicinity of Santa Cruz, there is one Saturday morning Memorial Day parade. It’s held in Felton, a small, funky town not ten minutes from Santa Cruz proper. It’s in the mountains (as opposed to near the sea). The real estate there is a little cheaper than in Santa Cruz. It’s home to a certain horsey set, not the kind that rides knees to the chest, English style, but those who ride on a Western saddle, with their legs comfortably extended. Its downtown stretches over half of a street with a couple of grocery stores, other small businesses, and one Chinese restaurant (not that good, to tell the truth). But, this is Santa Cruz county so, there is also a mediocre Mexican restaurant that doubles as a fantastic music venue.

In spite of physical proximity, the culture in Felton is strikingly different from the culture of university-anchored, progressive, mock-sophisticated, vegetarian/organic, and often transgender Santa Cruz. For one thing, its population is visibly different. The people at the parade in Felton are mostly light-skinned or Portuguese-washed out olive (but see below), and many of their children have blond hair. Everyone is badly dressed, not poorly dressed just dressed carelessly, even the young women.

The thin crowd does not include many brown skins. I can guess the reasons. The large Hispanic population around here is almost entirely from Mexico. It lives in another part of the county and in Santa Cruz proper. It’s not that Felton discriminate, it’s that immigrants tend to agglutinate around where the first immigrants from their countries take root. It’s almost a random process, in historical terms. Many immigrants and their children appear to be dimly aware of this country’s military history. Mexico had no military history for more than eighty years, after all. This does not promote attention to such fine points. Incidentally, Mexican immigrants and their children don’t, by and large, understand Cinco de Mayo either although it’s an official California holiday made up just for them. Hispanics are welcome in Felton, I believe, but they don’t come and their absence makes a difference. The local culture is different where they are numerous.

The parade in Felton inspires something close to pity but also a little melancholy. It starts at 10 am sharp, as announced. It includes no marching band and few flags. The cub-scouts do carry flags. They look bedraggled although they are on parade. The Mom who is a cub-scout leader is wearing jeans, some example! There is a bagpipe band – something I always enjoy – but it includes only three bagpipes. Mostly, the parade consists of people in automobile vehicles. There are several fire trucks of course. This feels good because, in these parts, fire brigades are mostly composed of volunteers, an American institution if there ever was one. The other cars are there for no particular reason I am able to grasp except one car. There is a guy driving his period muscle car in average condition with the words “For sale” painted in several places. That’s American commercial ingenuity, I think.

From all cars but that one, and from the firetrucks as well, jets of candy aimed at the little children brought by parents to see the parade are issued. There is so much candy that boys on either side of the street start a candy fight during a lull in the parade. Two middle aged women quietly fill a backpack with candy. One is white, the other black. If this is not proof of harmonious race relations, I don’t know what is, really!

The people in the parade and the people at the parade strike me as absent from the current American cultural narrative. You don’t find them in books, you don’t find them in movies, you don’t even find them in TV series anymore. They barely exist in popular music, even in country music. There are pockets of them all over the country, mostly larger pockets than in Felton. No wonder they feel forgotten and are pissed off in often inarticulate ways. No wonder election analysts and the political class is disconcerted by the rise of a Donald Trump. They were mostly invisible until now.

I am sorry conservative rationalists like me missed the boat.

An Alternative to the Presiding Theory of Privilege

Recently, debate about systemic privilege has been omnipresent, as fodder for political campaigning and millennial-dominated critique of culture. Peggy McIntosh first wrote about white privilege in a checklist that ultimately offered representation as privilege, e.g., if you can open a newspaper and see your race, if you learn about your civilization in the history books, etc. This classification has mostly been lost to simplifications that pervert its sensible message. Everydayfeminism, one source of modern dogma in line with women’s studies courses, defines privilege as a “set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.” This transliteration is still an interesting exercise in understanding social dynamics and has general applicability; however, when applied to issues such as the gender pay gap (whether the figure is the oft-cited 79%, 93%, lower or higher), often for a privilege of this categorization to be genuinely manifested every single individual involved has to be knowingly sexist, including the victim of the unlevel playing field.

For an example: Joanna is a secretary at a large business firm. She discovers her coworker Jim gets a larger paycheck for the exact same job, and they both take equal days off. She learns she is making $.79 to his one dollar. The federal Equal Pay Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act make this illegal. Now, for Jim’s male privilege (the unearned benefit of larger pay) to continue:

  1. Joanna has to not report it to her boss or the authorities
  2. Jim has to not report it to his boss or the authorities
  3. Her boss has to stay intentionally sexist and not correct the disparity

Only if all of these conditions are met will the situation remain unrectified. This workplace privilege, built by a narrative that pay is different for the exact same job, relies on intentional sexism or surrender of all parties — it loses sight of subtlety completely. The current privilege hypothesis is also not very useful because different groups receive de facto and de jure benefits in different circumstances — no single sexual, racial or gendered group dominates every aspect of hierarchy, though certainly a specific Caucasian demographic dominates most of it. The hypothesis is primitive in this sense, and it is also imprecise in that, because of political correctness, it entirely misses a vital part of the nature of “privilege,” more on that later.

Perhaps in recognition of the failures of this undeveloped adaptation, some modern feminist writers have employed the 1990’s idea of kyriarchy that more adequately describes the modality of experience through position in stratified society. Elisabeth Schüssler Florenza’s kyriarchal system sought to analyze layers of objective privilege overlapped in social milieu. Yet although all feminists cite privilege as an everyday occurrence, the few social justice warriors that have heard of kyriarchy can rarely be relied on to understand its nuanced applicability, and fewer still can appreciate the algorithmic complexity to determine actual systems of privilege. It has been simplified, again, into white, black, male, female, cis- and transgender, and so on. Intersectional feminism — a linguistic attempt to avoid the egalitarian label — still alleges an all-encompassing subordination, and then seeks to recognize exchanges throughout other identity types that further enforce the oppression. This ideological branch could have been one of legitimate merit, except that again its white- and androcentric view of privilege, though broadly qualifiable, disallows universal theorizing. (Producing wildly contingent knowledge.) The system lacks usefulness because its analysis, as interpreted by modern feminists, is embedded into its definition. Abstract discussion of privilege is unachievable.

Talking about privilege with intent to reach further conclusions is not only impossible, but it also feels like a competition just because of self-loathing and thoroughly brainwashed contributions from both sides of the debate. Moving past the caricatures of race, gender, sex or wealth: the only group that suffers on every single front is the physically or mentally disabled, and their representation is horribly lacking, their image pitied, and advocates are few and far compared to organizations for other identities. However, if you want to be completely astute, the only group of people not privileged is those that are not customarily good-looking. It’s the conventionally attractive or wealthy people that harness power, when its not built on pure work, inheritance or entrepreneurialism. Charisma is a part of this. People that are typically thought of as ugly never get the advantage and people of orthodox beauty standards often dominate the masses.  This conclusion can be arrived at from pure observance, and holds more empirical strength than the speculative nature of current privilege theory that consistently ignores the concept of individual cases.

Privilege is underdetermined by beauty and humans, per contemporary psychological knowledge, divine facial attractiveness from symmetry. Plato thought that we find things beautiful when we infer virtues from gazing upon them: bridges can summon feelings of strength; sunsets, of harmony; our souls recognize our own need for these stabilities. It isn’t remarkable that humans find symmetry beautiful and then ergonomically categorize faces into attractive and unattractive. (Nor does it mean, however, that asymmetric faces are not beautiful. Aesthetics would reveal more truths in this topic.) Applying this idea collapses the perceived white hegemony, as beautiful people from any walk of life are flocked to from the average-looking majority. Beauty is power like sex is power. When privilege is observed it will be rarely be in the hands of the unattractive.

To extrapolate with the question of the largest burden of oppression and privilege: Where does racism actually come from? It’s irrational, typically xenophobic, and ubiquitous across the continents, as well as millennia old. This theory could be interpreted to suggest that racists hold unreasonable views about other skin colors and ethnicities because of a lack of physical attraction, which coincides with an inability to relate familially and romantically. Systematic racial disparity and racist paradigms would then be caused by hyper-localized, non-diverse beauty standards. It could also be deducted that those of the natural default (without racist tendencies) are capable of nondiscriminatory and cosmopolitan attraction. Now here we see a definite connection between sexuality and bigotry, two contingents only meaninglessly juxtaposed by the mainstream privilege theory.

In conclusion, instead of challenging the conjecture of authoritative gendered dominion, progressives and activists could more benefit from challenging society’s standard of beauty. The standard that tells equally men and women what is and isn’t desirable. The advantages of injecting truth into the politics of self-worth are critical for a society concerned with honest evaluation and individual progress. The individual’s own conception of self-beauty is usually either bolstered by inflated confidence or hampered by poor self-image and has no overlap with how objectively beautiful they are, beauty that is uninvolved from ethnicity, sex or gender.

A note: I imagine myself to be, and from my life opportunities it would seem I am, decently attractive, so in either conviction of privilege I’m decently privileged, as a young white male or as a decently attractive person. Hopefully this grants more credibility to my writing, as if I was unattractive, it would probably come off as tormented and envious. Fortunately I have the chutzpah to stand on the line and propound these ideas regardless. Measures should be taken to highlight the identity group that will forever go without privilege or authority: the ugly people.

Around the Web

  1. Arms in the Several States. This is a great post by a law professor at Fordham (Nicholas Johnson) on the legal history behind the struggle of black Americans to arm themselves in the face of State oppression.
  2. World War I and Australia
  3. Held up in customs: Life in China gave Brittany Griner more than she bargained for. This is an excellent piece on the life of a female (former) college basketball star living in China.
  4. Putin’s Cold New World. This is a piece in Dissent magazine by a Polish Left-wing sociologist who deplores what he thinks of as inadequate protection from the United States. Interesting to read in tandem with the knowledge of factions and rent-seeking that is often addressed here at NOL.
  5. The House sues Obama: Political theatre, political pain. A penetrating insight from Will Wilkinson into the House’s decision to sue the Obama administration. The best account I’ve read of the drama so far.

SOTU: a Masterwork of Co-option.

Sheila Broflovski ‘solves’ the ‘problem’ of ‘obscenity’.

A professor of Political Science at my school described the modern left-right paradigm for the class today — to paraphrase, he summed up the political landscape of the US with the all-too familiar perspective: ‘conservatives want less government, and liberals want more government’.

I opined, silently, in my seat.  Sensing my disapproval, the professor asked if anyone had a differing perspective on the country’s political spectrum.  I raised my hand and pointed out the perspective of this oft-regurgitated axiom of political theory.  rephrased the point: Conservatives want liberty, and Liberals want safety.  When it was suggested by a classmate that I was coloring the axiom to suit my political bent, I defended my choice of language.  This phrasing, I argued, is the happy middle ground between the original, popular formulation that the professor used, and a statement that more closely aligns with my actual opinion: Conservatives want freedom, and Liberals want slavery.

When placed together, these three phrasings of the same observation illustrate the powerful effect nomenclature can have on a statement — and sheds a pinhole of light onto the vastness of the power of language analysis with respect to ideology:

Conservatives want less government, and Liberals want more government.

Conservatives want liberty, and Liberals want safety.

Conservatives want you to be free, and Liberals want you to be a slave. 

The words we chose to use when we frame our thoughts betray our underlying perspective.  Language is the seat of understanding, and can be deconstructed to suggest motivation and perspective.  Analyzing the language used by self-styled ‘progressive liberals’  (forgive the quotes — the term itself is completely removed from cogency as a representation of meaning, as is ‘conservative’.  These two terms as used in modern US politics do not come anywhere near connoting accurate definitions) yields a lexicon that I dub the language of Co-option.  This liberal dictionary is used by a vast majority of the public out of rote; most people do not consider deeply the meaning of the language they use.  Those that speak this dialect knowingly craft the language, and therefore, the thinking, of the larger public who adopts the dialect and spreads the meme and built-in collectivist programming therein.

This Language of Co-option is the language of our classrooms.  It is the language of our politicians.  It is Hegel.  It is Sociology.

Let’s vivisect the following liberal sociological speech pattern:

is bad for society.  We should do so that happens instead.”

To make the point that much clearer, let’s translate the above formulation into political rhetoric:

“For American families, x is a real problem, so our administration is committed to policy so that z will result.”

To define our terms:  the value in this construction represents a ‘problem’ — to be specific, some suggested verifiable disadvantageous phenomena, that would be mitigated by taking action.  These instances exist; we can plug in some terms for our variables to create cogent statements:  Suffocating is problematic for humans, therefore humans should breathe.  This construction is cogent because human beings need to breathe in order to avoid suffocation, which is indeed, harmful to humans.  However, such statements rarely provide people with new insights, because cause and effect tend to be plainly apparent; most everyone knows that they need to breathe to live.  It seems tedious to think such obvious statements would warrant comment, let alone, say, a State of the Union address.

The power of this statement only manifests when coupled with action — the y variable.  The point of x, of stating an obvious ‘problem’, is merely to gain the agreement of the audience to the that will follow.  In fact, in political speech, and need not have any real connection at all.  This effect has been pointed out by others, including the research of behaviorist Ellen Langer, who’s research suggests merely by adding any explanation to a request one can improve the chance of a ‘yes’ in response.

For example, take this phrase from the State of the Union Address last night:

“There are other steps we can take to help families make ends meet, and few are more effective at reducing inequality and helping families pull themselves up through hard work than the Earned Income Tax Credit.”

to simplify:  “Poverty (x) is a problem for people, and we can fix inequality (z) with the EITC (y).”

Let’s break it down critically.  Poverty is always a problem for a family, as it is averse to survival.  If you don’t eat, you starve — as obvious as the sun shining in the sky.  This statement alone is almost as bereft of importance as ‘nice day, huh?’ or ‘how about those (insert local sports team name)!’ The President must have had a reason to make the comment.  The statement made in this way implies poverty is a fixable problem in society, rather than a product of the human condition or the laws of our natural world.  The first law of the human condition is scarcity; there is never enough of any resource to satisfy demand in any economy.  When coupled with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, any natural system in the universe behaves the same way.  POTUS makes the statement about poverty implying a collective problem that can be solved by some action.

The showstopper for libertarians is usually y.  The solution to the problem offered by the state is ALWAYS aggressive force.  In the above example, that aggression is in the form of extortion — specifically, theft of property through threat of violent action via taxation.  This is stated in a positive light as phrased; the Earned Income Tax Credit is sold to the public as a tax break for some people, but comes at the expense of everyone else.  The fact that your government is extorting less money from some than from others is aptly defined as ‘inequality’, but this obvious truth is distorted and reversed completely with Co-optive language to masquerade as benevolence, yielding the aberration cited.

This construct is the essence of the Hegelian ‘crisis, reaction, solution’, and is a hallmark of Co-optive speech and thought, and permeates our zeitgeist.  Freedom-minded individuals hear this language and know just how ubiquitous it is in society — keep it in mind the next time you hear someone spray about what ‘We’ must ‘do’.  Co-option is built in to the culture and mindset of authoritarianism, and in fact, the democratic process itself as naked tyranny of the supposed majority.

Please, feel free to post your co-optive, authoritarian quotes in response below!

Narrating the Decline from a Classroom Desk,