Quantifying Social Science Units

17 01 2012

The positional advantage enjoyed by classes of individuals–privilege–is an important factor in operation of social systems. I worry, because particularly on the left, it is considered a very important–often the most important–factor, but I don’t know exactly what it means, or, more to the point, how it works. Reified from an explanatory concept to a concrete concept, it is often little more than a rhetorical cudgel that can have a desultory effect on civic discourse, and thus become trivialized. It should go without saying that exactly because privilege in some sense or another “operates,” its trivialization is a real problem.

Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene was a revelation to me in high school, at least to the degree I could understand it. I re-read it every few years, and so when the 30th Anniversary Edition dropped* I was particularly excited, the added sections and footnotes serving something like hidden bonus tracks. When I got to the short section where Dawkins first suggests the existence of “memes,” the cultural (or social) equivalent of genes–indivisible units of learnable cultural information, I recalled for the first time really disagreeing with it when I first read the book. It was almost viscerally unpleasant. The short excursus on memetics is dissonant from the rest of the book, which while packed with thought experiments and analogies is actually pretty stolidly scientific and meticulous.

A week or so ago a Twerkuffle** broke out between various political writers and journalists on my Twitter timeline. The details of it aren’t important; the relevant portion is that the word “privilege,” as in “racial privilege,” was used a number of times, and I had a reaction similar to that I had when first encountering “memetics”. This got me thinking about what the two concepts–“meme” and “privilege”–have in common and why they strike a resonant tone with each other in my mind.

Social scientists, and the journalists/essayists (I’m just going to call these people “writers” from now on) who synthesize social science for public debate, have always had trouble with this kind of thing. From the Enlightenment until probably around Marx’ time, political philosophers and other intellectuals had a sort of tic where they would reify concepts to explain observable behavior or historical conditions–you know the tic I’m talking about; it was usually expressed by Capitalizing the first letter to make it seem Big and Important and deserving of a Proper Noun. This is actually a kind of logical fallacy, and it makes reading a lot of the early modern philosophers so grating. I don’t believe in an Over-Soul that can actually act on the natural world. It’s like when you meet someone who says they don’t believe in a god but they do believe in an “energy” that we’re all a part of. That’s nice, but it’s also either meaningless or just employing a synonym for god.

Dawkins raises and moves on from the idea of memes in just a handful of sentences, but the “work” on them has been plentiful, and the concept has certainly entered popular consciousness. What bothers me is when they are treated as actual, concrete entities that can be studied somewhat quantitatively, but they haven’t been properly defined. Remember that in The Selfish Gene Dawkins was advocating for the “gene-centered” view of evolution by natural selection. A debate then raging (and still on-going) in evolutionary biology was at what “level” natural selection operated: are “traits” selected? Individual organisms? Groups? Entire species? Dawkins and his fellow travelers were arguing that in fact natural selection is unconcerned with anything of a “higher” level than genes–he famously said that bodies are nothing more than machines meant to ferry genes around. Evolution is the process of differential survival of competing alleles in a genome.
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Obamacare and the Privatized Social Safety Net

16 11 2011

For all my discontent with “left neoliberalism” and its pervasive influence, it’s nice when you get some concrete specifics, as applied.

In my piece on the constitutionality of the individual mandate, I argued that the Affordable Care Act created a distressing precedent, whereby the government addresses inequality-causing market failures through broad requirements of consumers to protect profits as a precondition to regulations and requirements of capital. The administration’s thinking in creating the individual mandate was undergirded by left neoliberal preference for “market solutions,” as much as by an over-cautious political calculation whereby industry had to be placated before social ills could be addressed.

And lo and behold, unbeknownst to me, the Hon. Brett Kavanaugh, a D.C. Circuit Judge appointed by George W. Bush, was saying the same thing, although from the opposite perspective. In his dissent to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision upholding the Act’s Constitutionality, Kavanaugh characterizes the individual mandate as an example of legislative ingenuity in a new era of “privatized social services”:

The elected Branches designed this law to help provide all Americans with access to affordable health insurance and quality health care, vital policy objectives. This legislation was enacted, moreover, after a high-profile and vigorous national debate. Courts must afford great respect to that legislative effort and should be wary of upending it.

This case also counsels restraint because we may be on the leading edge of a shift in how the Federal Government goes about furnishing a social safety net for those who are old, poor, sick, or disabled and need help. The theory of the individual mandate in this law is that private entities will do better than government in providing certain social insurance and that mandates will work better than traditional regulatory taxes in prompting people to set aside money now to help pay for the assistance they might need later. Privatized social services combined with mandatory-purchase requirements of the kind employed in the individual mandate provision of the Affordable Care Act might become a blueprint used by the Federal Government over the next generation to partially privatize the social safety net and government assistance programs and move, at least to some degree, away from the tax-and-government-benefit model that is common now.

Courts naturally should be very careful before interfering with the elected Branches’ determination to update how the National Government provides such assistance. Cf. Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964); NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1 (1937). The significant implications of a Commerce Clause decision in this case – in either side’s favor – lead to this point: If we need not decide the Commerce Clause issue now, we should not decide the Commerce Clause issue now. I therefore would not strain to sidestep the Anti-Injunction Act.

(emphasis added)

In other words, Kavanaugh seems to be saying, the individual mandate may appear unconstitutional in the same way that the Civil Rights Act (Heart of Atlanta Motel) and the National Labor Relations Act (Jones & Laughlin Steel) did because it is novel, as they were. But novelty, or new-ness, isn’t proof of unconstitutionality; it may just augur a new era of legislative instruments. Kavanaugh, rightly I think, sees the Affordable Care Act as the first step in that new era: an era where the government, rather than redistributing wealth or restructuring economic relationships to address social ill, fuels capital’s ability to act on the assumption that the “spontaneous order” of consumer choice and entrepreneurial acumen will cure social ills.

You may believe this to be true, that it’ll work. But if you do, you have to contend with the fact that the empirical evidence for it is thin; for all the Great Society’s many failures, the replacement of tight regulatory regimes with preference for public-private partnerships and market mechanisms has seen an explosion in income inequality, economic insecurity, household debt, and the concentration of political power.





Can We Just Agree to Disagree?

26 04 2011

Thank you, minority associate, for writing up this stockphoto modeling contract.


Contracts have to be the answer. Nobody leaves a contract perfectly satisfied, but they’ve come to some agreement over their disagreement and walked away better off. If the goal is the most free and equitable human society, then contracts must be a primary medium in which it is accomplished.

Contract law is such a relief. Maybe because it’s a newish area of law, and so just feels more intuitive. Property law struggles under the weight of its feudal and confusing post-feudal roots, and so is full of terms of art (“enfoeffment” “covenant of seisin” “the rule against perpetuities”) and complex, non-intuitive rules. Torts deals with civil wrongs often not based on specific statutes and with extremely flexible or ambiguous rules (when is someone negligent? What constitutes a battery?). Criminal law of course is really ultimately based on social morals and mores. So, where once any felony got you a trip to the…I don’t know, head peeler–back in the day, now there are about seven levels of criminal homicide (murder in the first, second and third degree; manslaughter–both “heat of passion” voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter, which can be reckless or negligent).

Or this thing.


Contract law, though, is straightforward. Not that it isn’t complex, because it is, but rather its complexity is elegant. While facts can complicate just about anything, the rules in general make sense because all disputes ultimately lead back to one question: should the state enforce this promise?

Everything else is left to the individuals or organizations for themselves to decide. So long as the contract isn’t for something illegal (thus why bookies break legs but payday lenders garnish your wages) or made under fraud or duress (Cf., Johnny Fontane‘s personal service contract), the courts just try to figure out what people promised to one another and whether it’d be just to enforce those promises.

In theory, contracts can’t be literally one-sided. Part of the formula to determine whether a promise has been made at all is the doctrine of consideration, which basically means you can’t have a contract unless both parties are giving something up. Both parties also have to agree free of duress or fraud, meaning they were voluntarily giving something up. As far as human interactions go, this is pretty swell.

There’s even a rule that contracts that are egregiously one-sided should not be enforced. Yay!

At the same time, getting a contract is an adversarial process. Both sides are trying to get the best deal they can. Neither side gets everything, but they get something–they always end up in a better position than when they started. Nevertheless, there are two competing interests that must come to voluntary solution. So while negotiations can be competitive, even rough, their resolution must be satisfactory to some degree.

Its this simple fact that draws me to the labor movement as a solution for structural social inequality. Because while collective bargaining agreements don’t leave everybody perfectly satisfied, everybody is nevertheless still ahead–and got to their position through their own voluntary actions.

If the program of the left is to make sure people have truly equal opportunity for material security, it seems backward to wait until wealth has accumulated and then use the power of the state to force them to share it. Why not just take out the obstacles to ideal negotiation and let wealth be distributed by private parties by mutual agreement?

Libertarians believe that anti-trust legislation is unnecessary because individuals will naturally defect from the cartel to seek the advantage of offering a lower price. (The assumption being that monopolies will artificially maintain high prices). Thus their token support for collective bargaining in theory but opposition to it in practice: because unions can enforce a monopoly in a specific workplace, they bar individuals from defecting from the “cartel” to seek a comparative advantage. In practice, collective bargaining is probably impossible without that power.

Empirical proof of the instability of monopolies under natural conditions.


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They Said It Better: Freddie deBoer Edition

17 01 2011

It frustrates me as a lefty that the mainstream political left is allowed only a narrow range of moral and policy positions which all essentially confirm neoliberal, pro-capital, vaguely anti-labor theory. With only Anglo exceptions (the UK, Canada, and Australia) every major democracy–including some of our dearest economic and political allies–have straight out socialist movements and social democratic parties. Look, maybe you disagree with it, that’s not my issue; but why is it so insane to admit them to the debate? How can you have a democracy that excludes a movement that advocates from a class point of view that represents the interests of the vast majority of the workforce, even if you disagree with their approach to satisfying those interests?

Unfortunately, I suck at expressing this frustration. Fortunately, “just a dude” Freddie deBoer does the opposite of suck at expressing this frustration, in that he articulates it very well.
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Is There a Leftist Case Against the State?

6 08 2010

I feel the tension between liberals and the Left. Being on the political Left in the US puts you in uncomfortable position because the national conversation is extremely narrow, and liberals focused on day-to-day governance are pinched from both sides. Those on the broader Left–the “International Left”–come across as contrarians or as puritanical. Petty liberals–those who, broadly speaking, hew to the center-left line of the Democratic Party, embodied by the Brookings Institute, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and public intellectuals like Matt Yglesias or Robert Reich, and politicians like Barack Obama and, formerly, Ted Kennedy–bristle as much at criticisms from the Left as they do to criticisms from the American right wing, and often are more defensive against those criticisms as they see them as coming from an attitude of “purity” or Utopianism.

Before getting to the problems with statism, it is useful to define what I mean by “liberals” and “the Left”.

It is hard to define terms in this debate, because the political spectrum is essentially fluid and the absence of ideological parties with specific manifestos confound categorization. In general terms, the petty liberal left is redistributionist and mildly statist; petty liberals don’t dispute that the foundations of American society are essentially just; rather, they seek to use extant institutions to address distributive problems.
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