Thursday, November 28, 2019

Patriotic and Politically Correct Thanksgiving Myths

The old patriotic Thanksgiving myth says that the Pilgrims suffered through a hard winter, and then a Native American named Squanto acted as translator and let them make contact with his Wampanoag tribe, which taught them to plant corn. After a prosperous year, they had the first Thanksgiving, a feast with the Wampanoags, who became their miliary allies.

The new politically correct myth says that, in the years that followed, the Pilgrims deliberately wiped out the Wampanoags to take their land, just one example of Europeans wiping out Native Americans.

The facts are more complex. The Wampanoags made this military alliance because their population dropped when they caught infectious diseases that the Europeans brought to America, and their weakness led the Narragansett tribe to their west to invade their territory.  They formed a military alliance with the Europeans because they needed their help to defend themselves from being wiped out by another tribe of Native Americans!

All through human history and prehistory, groups of people have expanded their own territory by wiping out or driving away other groups of people. It goes beyond human history: populations of chimpanzees expand their territories by ambushing and killing individuals from other nearby populations, and populations of ants war with any nearby ants that are not genetically related to them.

The evolutionary reason is obvious: if a population of humans or animals increases the size of its territory, it is able to grow larger. Populations that have a genetic predisposition to take over land from weaker neighbors grow faster than those who don't, so this disposition spreads through the gene pool.

The politically correct seem to think that this tendency to expand is a trait of Europeans and not of their innocent victims, but it is actually a tendency of humans, chimpanzees, ants, and many, many other species of animals.

Rather than politically correct recriminations about the past, we need to realize that we are all have this same potential, so we can all rise above tribalism and see that our loyalty to humanity as a whole is more important than our loyalty to our own group.


Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism, based his philosophy on this claim: "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. The said truth is that it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong."
As an empiricist, he had to base his moral philosophy on observations of people’s actual behavior, falling into the error of claiming that what people actually do is a basis for deciding what people should do.  But there is an even more obvious error here.
Nature impels us to seek pleasure and avoid pain for ourselves and for a small number of relatives and friends, but nature obviously does not impel us to believe that everyone else’s pain and pleasure is as important as our own. In fact, hedonist philosophers before Bentham’s time, such as the Epicureans, based their ethics on pain and pleasure one’s acts cause to oneself, not to others.
How does Bentham jump from the empirical observation that people seek pleasure and avoid pain to themselves to the moral judgment that people should maximize pleasure and minimize pain for everyone?  There is obviously another principle that we do not know empirically added to the empirical observation that we people seek pleasure and avoid pain - something like “we should consider all people to be equally important” or “we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us” - and this added principle is not known by empirical observation of people’s usual behavior.
If this moral principle can be known by other means than observation, then it is plausible that other moral principles might be known by other means than observation - including principles that override the idea that the goal of life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Do We “Own Ourselves”?

The philosopher Robert Nozick argues for libertarianism by saying that we “own ourselves.” If the income tax is used for programs that help the poor, the government is taking people’s money, which is equivalent to coerced labor, which is equivalent to slavery.
Of course, the comparison to coerced labor is obviously absurd.  An income tax law that lets me work at my current job and takes one-third of my earnings is much less coercive than a law that says I must leave my job and work without pay for the government one year out of every three.  And the comparison to slavery is even more obviously absurd: a law that says I must work for the government one year out of three is much less coercive than slavery, which means that I must work for my owner every year and that my owner can sell me to another owner.
It is not as obvious, but I think we can reject the idea that we “own ourselves” on the ground that we have obligations to others. For example, we clearly have a strong obligation to our children and we have some obligation to everyone, as we can see through these two thought experiments.
Imagine that someone has a child and, a few months later, says, “I am a libertarian, and I believe that I own myself. If I want to use some of my income to raise my child, I can choose to do that; but if I want to spend all of my income on myself, I can also choose to do that. Laws that say I have to pay child support are taking my income, which is equivalent to coerced labor, which is equivalent to slavery.” Virtually no one would agree that it is morally right to choose to abandon your child and spend all your money on yourself, and this implies that we have special obligations to some people and do not “own ourselves” completely.
Imagine that someone is walking down the street and sees a car hit another pedestrian, drive away without stopping, and leave the victim lying on the street bleeding. No one else is around to report the accident. This person says, “I am a libertarian, and I believe that I own myself. If I want to dial 911 and call an ambulance, I can choose to do that, but if I want to keep going to the restaurant where I am having dinner and don’t want to waste time calling an ambulance, I can also choose to do that. If anyone says I must call the ambulance, it is like defending slavery. Virtually no one would agree that it is morally right to go to dinner rather than calling the ambulance, even if you don’t know the victim and have no special obligation to him, implying that we have a general obligation to all people (at least in certain extreme situations) and do not own ourselves completely.
The idea that we can do what we choose because we “own ourselves” is clearly untenable.  There are good reasons that people should have a large realm of freedom, but the idea that we own ourselves is not one of them.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Transhumanism

I have always distrusted transhumanism, the idea that we should improve the human species through genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and other new technologies, because I don't think we have the wisdom to make good use of such power.

Imagine what would happen if genetic engineering were perfected.

If there were reproductive freedom, so individuals could decide how there children are engineered, I expect that would be a significant minority of parents who would engineer their children to be successful athletes. Some would make their children bigger and more muscular than normal, so they would be successful football players. But when their children grew up, they would have to compete with other children who were engineered to be football players. Parents engineering the next generation would have to make them even bigger to out-compete the new normal for football players, but they would be competing with those whose parents did the same.  After a few generations, we would have a subspecies of football players who look more like the Incredible Hulk than like humans.

I expect the majority of parents would engineer their children to make them more successful economically. We would have lots of children who are good computer programmers, but fewer parents would engineer their children to be critical thinkers.

In there were not reproductive freedom and the state controlled the sorts of genetic engineering allowed, I expect that democracies would allow people to be engineered to meet the demands of the economy at the time. People would think that they were helping the children by making it easier for them to get and keep jobs, but once again, there would not be much call for critical thinkers.

Of course, it would be much worse in dictatorships. No doubt, the Kim Jong Uns of this world would engineer their people to be docile, so their dynasty could remain in power indefinitely.

My doubts were confirmed when I read that Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire accused of sex trafficking, has long been fascinated by transhumanism and was planning to make a contribution to improving the human race by spreading his own DNA by bringing women to his New Mexico ranch and having twenty women there at any time who have been impregnated by him.

In addition to being charged with sexual trafficking of girls as young as fourteen years old, Epstein has lied about the identities of his clients, about his wealth, and his personal achievements. These are not exactly the character traits that we would want to spread through the population - but it seems that transhumanists are likely make decisions based on egotism rather than on improving the human species.


Friday, July 26, 2019

The Parable of Unemployment

Once upon a time, there was a small nation in a valley nestled in the remote mountains. The mountains were so high that these people were isolated from the rest of the world, and the soil of the valley was so fertile that they were always able to grow all the food they needed.  They had to work long hours laboring in the fields, but this work produced enough food that they were healthy and happy.
Then, one year, one of the laborers invented a new way of sharpening his plow that let him plow his land more quickly, and all of the other laborers began sharpening their plows in the same way so they could do their work more quickly. 
And one of the laborers invented a new way of sharpening his scythe that let him harvest more quickly, and all of the other laborers began sharpening their scythes in the same way so they could do their work more quickly.
Now, the people had a new problem: the problem unemployment.  Because laborers could plow and harvest more quickly, this nation no longer needed all its laborers to produce its food. Some of the laborers were laid off, and everyone had to contribute to a public welfare fund to support the unemployed.

The Economist’s Advice

Foreign visitors to this nation were very rare, but fortunately, one was there at the time: an American economist. He explained to the people that this was the beginning of their industrial revolution.  From now on, they would keep discovering new inventions that would let them get their work done more quickly. 
The economist told them that there was one way to avoid employment. A few of the people had to start producing advertising to convince everyone to eat more. Each year, new inventions would let the people get their work done in 2 percent less time, and so each year the advertising had to convince people to eat 2 percent more food.  Then, the country would need all of its laborers to produce the food that people ate, and there would be no unemployment.
And one laborer stood up and said: “We already eat all the food we need to keep us healthy.  Instead of eating more each year, why don’t we work less each year?   Instead of eating 2 percent more, we could work 2 percent less each year. Then we would have all the food we need, and we would not have to work as much.  Each year, we would have more time to sing songs and to tell stories and to play with our children.”
But the American economist answered: “You have obviously never studied economics. You cannot survive without economic growth.”  And because he was an expert, the people followed his plan.
The advertising workers went around the country telling the people that it was glorious to eat more than your neighbors. When the country’s traditional festivals came, the advertising workers organized eating contests and gave awards and honors to those who ate most.  Soon, the people began to believe that the person who ate the most was the person who they should admire the most.  Now, the people all the food the country produced, and they still wanted even more.

The Doctor’s Advice

Ten years later, the American economist visited the country once again, and he happened to bring with him a traveling companion who was a doctor. The people asked him how well they had succeeded at following his plan.
The American economist saw that the laborers had adopted many new inventions that let them produce 25 percent more food than they had the last time he was there, and he saw that each laborer ate 25 percent more food. The economists said that this was a growth rate of about 2 percent a year – not a bad growth rate, though it would be even better if they ate 3 percent more each year. But the most important thing, the economist said, was that they were eating enough to create jobs for everyone.
But when the American doctor who was traveling with the economist looked at the people, he said that they were suffering from an epidemic of obesity, and that they would die young unless they did something about it.  He recommended that, after finishing the day’s work, the laborers should spend an hour jogging each day to keep their weight down.
And one laborer stood up and said: “Inventing new tools that let us do our work more quickly should make our lives easier, but instead it has made our lives harder.  We have to work as long as we always have, and we also have to spend an extra hour jogging at the end of the day.  If we all shortened our work hours by 2 percent each year instead of eating 2 percent more food each year, our lives would be easier, and we would not have make the extra effort to keep our weight down.”
The American doctor answered, “Eating less would keep your weight down, but I cannot comment on your ideas about work hours, because I am not an economist.” And then the American economist answered: “You have obviously never studied economics. You cannot survive without economic growth.”  And because they were experts, the people followed their plan.

The Ecologist’s Advice

Ten years later, the American economist and doctor visited the country once again, and they happened to bring with them a traveling companion who was an ecologist. And the people asked the visitors how well they had succeeded at following their plan.
The American economist said that they had succeeded again, just as well as they had the last time he was there: there were many new inventions that let each of them produce 25 percent more food than they had ten years ago, and each of them also ate 25 percent more food. That was a growth rate of about 2 percent a year – not a bad growth rate, though it could be better. Most important, they were all eating enough to create jobs for everyone.
But the doctor said that they had not succeeded.  Even though they were all jogging an hour a day, they were eating so much more food that they were even more obese than they were ten years ago.  The doctor said that they should start jogging two hours a day to try to keep their weight down.
Then the ecologist looked at the farms in the valley and he said that their topsoil was being depleted.  For many centuries, the people grew just enough food to keep them healthy, and they did not deplete the soil.  But now they were growing much more food than they used to – and, the ecologist said, the valley could not sustain production of so much food in the long run.  He said that the land was still producing food now, but the topsoil was getting thinner each year.  In a few years, the topsoil would become so thin that crops would not grow and there would be a great famine in the valley.
And one laborer stood up and said: “Inventing new tools that let us do our work more quickly should make our lives easier, but instead it made our lives harder and now it threatens to kill us all.  If we all shortened our work hours by 2 percent each year instead of eating 2 percent more food each year, then our lives would be easier, we would not have to jog to keep our weight down, and we would not deplete the topsoil of our valley.”
The American ecologist answered, “Growing less food would stop the topsoil from being depleted, so there would not be a great famine in the valley that would kill many people. But I cannot comment on your ideas about work hours, because I am not an economist.” And the American economist answered: “You have obviously never studied economics. You cannot survive without economic growth.” 
And the laborer answered: “I have never studied economics, but I do have common sense.  I know that we will survive as long as we can produce enough food for ourselves.  And I know that we will not survive if economic growth depletes our topsoil and causes famine.

Common Sense

We Americans can learn from the common sense of this laborer. 
During the 1930s, many economists believed the depression occurred because Americans already had most things that they needed, so there was not enough demand for all the products that new technologies allowed us to produce. 
During the postwar period, rather than reducing work hours, America relied on advertising, freeway construction and suburban development to create the demand for new products. Whether or not the products made our lives better, we believed that we had to consume them to create more jobs and to avoid unemployment. 
Today, our consumer economy threatens the global environment, but rather than working shorter hours and living more simply, we are still listening to the economists who tell us that we cannot survive without economic growth. 

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Forget the Singularity

Ray Kurzweil has popularized the idea of the "singularity," the point when computers will become more intelligent than humans, changing everything.

This idea assumes that there is one form of intelligence, general intelligence, and that computers are getting better at it. In reality, there are many forms of intelligence.

Machines became more intelligent than humans at doing arithmetic in the nineteenth century, when the first mechanical adding machines were invented.

Computers became more intelligent than humans at playing chess about a decade ago, when computer began to regularly defeat the world's greatest chess players.  But the computers play differently from humans: human chess masters think about whether a position gives them a strategic advantage, while computers  calculate every possible combination of moves many moves in advance.

Rather than a single moment when computers become generally more intelligent than humans, computers will gradually become more intelligent than humans at one skill after another as programs are developed that reduce one skill after another to calculations - as chess was reduced to calculations.

And it seems that many forms of human intelligence can never be reduced to calculations, so computers will never become good at them.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

What Is the Economy For?

With choice of work hours, we would still need planning to fine-tune the economy in order to avoid inflation, unemployment, and other economic disruption. Keynesian planning became popular in response to the unemployment of the Great Depression. Monetary planning became popular in response to the inflation of the 1970s. If there were a mass movement to shorter hours, new methods of planning would be needed to respond to slower growth.

In one example of the sort of planning we would need, the Canadian economist, Peter Victor, has created a computer model that lets him study how the Canadian economy would react to slower growth or to no growth. The results of running the model differ dramatically as he changes the values for macroeconomic variables such as the savings rate, the rates of public and private investment, and the length of the work week. In one run, the end of growth brings economic instability, high unemployment, and rising poverty. In another run with different values for these variables, the end of growth brings economic stability, reduces both poverty and unemployment by half, and reduces the ratio of debt to GDP by 75%. The second scenario has a higher savings rate, a lower rate of private investment, and a higher rate of public investment, and it avoids unemployment by reducing work hours.
There are very few macroeconomic studies of this sort, and more would be needed to help us develop policies to accommodate wide­spread work-time choice and the slower growth it could bring.
But the key difference in macroeconomic planning would be this: Today, we try to create economic growth rapid enough to give people standard 40-hour jobs. With work-time choice, we would try to create growth rapid enough to give people the number of work hours that they actually want.
Today, the economy must grow rapidly, whether or not people want more products, purely to create more 40-hour jobs. With work-time choice, people would work enough to buy the products they want, and then they could stop.
Our economic debate usually focuses solely on inflation and unemployment, technical questions that only economists can deal with. We also need to ask the underlying human question: What is the economy for?
Obviously, the purpose of the economy is to produce things that people actually want.
Everyone realizes this when they talk about work that we do for ourselves. For example, we do the job of patching the roof because we want to keep the rain from coming in, and when we have accomplished this goal, we stop. We do not keep tearing up the roof and patching it again in order to “create jobs” for ourselves.
But when it comes to the formal economy, we become totally mystified, and we believe that there is a benefit to “creating jobs.” We do not work to produce the things that we want to consume. Instead, we believe we must produce and consume more things to create more work.
If we thought about the human purpose of the economy, we would realize that in the formal economy, as in production for our own use, we should produce what we want to consume and then stop.
Economists have expert knowledge that helps them deal with inflation, unemployment and other economic problems, but ordinary people are the ones who should decide how much they want to consume. The technical questions about inflation and unemployment, which only economists can answer, should be subordinate to the human question about what balance of work and free time gives you the most satisfying life. People should be able to answer this human question for themselves, by making decisions about their own work hours based on their own desire for more income and more free time.