Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Look, The OWS People Have A Point, But...

Update: Matt Zwolinski does a better job of explaining the same point.

As previously noted, I tend to vacillate between sympathizing with the OWS protests and just being tired unto death of the entire bloody thing. I feel compelled, however, to respond to Jason Thibeault's assertion that science lends all necessary clarity to the OWS protesters' position. Science (or stats, really) does amply demonstrate that there's a whopping great income disparity between the 99% and the 1%, but I don't think that's at issue here. I can't (nor, really, would I want to) speak for "the right-wing media", but my own perception of "vagueness" on the part of the OWS protesters stems not from any question about the existence of massive income inequality but rather from their fuzziness in identifying what went wrong and/or what they'd like to see happen to fix the problem.

Call me callous, but I start to tune out whenever anyone says "economic injustice". Vast income disparities are not sufficient, in and of themselves, to indicate that a system is unjust; "just" societies that exhibit such disparities have been successfully defended by smart folks on both the left (Rawls) and the right (Nozick). One need also demonstrate that the disparity stems from violations of the law be they isolated or systemic. It's at this point that the OWS movement starts to exhibit an insufficient level of specificity (or "vagueness", if you prefer).

Like I said above, I do sympathize with OWS; various and sundry Wall Street financial types are probably getting away with lots of things. The problem is that blanket assertions that banksters are getting away with murder are pretty much useless by themselves; good, long-term solutions will require us to identify the structural factors that enabled criminal behavior. That, in turn, requires relatively precise identification of the crimes involved.

Which, of course, assumes that criminal behavior within the financial community was a leading cause of the current economic cluster fuck. If you go and read up on the causes of the current financial crisis, however, you quickly find out the following:

  • There are lots of them.
  • Some of them stem from private sector activites and some from public sector policies.
  • It's hard to tell how much any single cause contributed to the crash.
  • There's not a whole lot of blatantly criminal behavior.

If anything it looks like a lot of the hardships that people are facing these days are ultimately the result of regulatory failure. Which sucks1, but "regulator failure" != "injustice". And, also, "regulators" != "banksters". Which kinda makes it look like Wall Street, while not a wholly innocent scapegoat, is receiving more opprobrium than it deserves.

1 And brings to mind the quote that "the people get the government they deserve".

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Might As Well Just Give Them Bats And Let Them Hash It Out Directly

I find myself wearied... wearied wearied wearied... by all the back and forth between the various representatives of the 99% and the 1%. Predictably, the former want the rich to pay more taxes while the latter, being rich themselves, obviously want to keep their money. In a lot of ways this an echo over the perennial battle over the minimum wage; one side (probably well-correlated with the 99%) wants to raise it and the other wants it to stay as it is (or lower it or do away with it entirely). The two sides deploy their proxies, fight for political dominance, and eventually hash out some sort of temporary armistice that lasts only long enough for the most recent battle to get lost down the memory hole. And then the whole damn thing starts up again.

The problem, it seems to me, is that each side's default starting position misses the point. It does no good to automatically assume that the rich are overtaxed (or undertaxed); the inevitable outcome of such a conflict is that the various groups end up paying taxes in direct proportion to their political power. That's hardly the basis for a fair system of taxation. People who are genuinely interested in solving the problem ought instead to ask "What does a fair system look like?" or, more directly, "How can we know when someone is (over/under)-taxed?".

Now admittedly that's a difficult question, but from where I'm standing it seems you ought to have at least a pencil sketch of an answer before you open your mouth. I'm continually gobsmacked (yes, gobsmacked) by people who give the appearance of never having thought about the question at all, and only slightly less annoyed by people who cite some idiosyncratic interpretation of the ability-to-pay theory which falls apart under the most casual scrutiny (you run into that a lot in Seattle). Even if we accept the broad premise that the 1% aren't currently pulling their weight under any reasonable theory, how do we know where the proper balance lies? Should they pay 40%? 50%? If they could live comfortable lives while rendering up 90% of their income should we require them to do so?

These are questions which can be answered; people will disagree, of course, but its not like we're trying to figure out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But the fact that nobody seems to be asking them in the first place inclines me to ignore the entire fucking discussion.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Is It Racism, Or Is It Something Else?

Crommunist just put up an interesting post over at Free Thought Blogs about conducting research into the cognitive bases of racism. In general I think such research is a worthy endeavor; knowing that particular bits of our brains are prone to making to making certain types of categorizations is probably conducive to reducing racism in the long run. However, I think there's a huge methodological hurdle that must be considered when evaluating the import of such research: There's no empirical test for the presence of racism.

That sounds like excuse-making, I know... bear with me for a few paragraphs. What got me thinking along these lines is the following bit from Crommunist's post:

I lay the blame firmly at the feet of our stupid mammal brains. We forge unwarranted connections between variables, weaving false causation from whole cloth. When we see women kept out of the boardrooms, for example, despite the line in our Human Resources policy manual that specifically says we won’t do that, our brains helpfully fill in the blanks for us – obviously women aren’t there because women aren’t supposed to be. I mean, once you remove the most obvious barrier, that’s the same as fixing things, right? If those lazy broads can’t even figure out how to walk in the door we so magnanimously opened for them, we can shift the blame right back to them, can’t we?

I agree with Crommunist on this to a large degree; my gut tells me that discrimination (on the basis of gender rather than race in this case) is a (perhaps major) contributing factor to the lack of women in the boardroom. But if we're going to claim to be "doing science" we need more than just gut feeling; the proposition in question must be testable and, more importantly, falsifiable. Before we can say "Aha! Sexism!" we must identify some set of facts that would lead us to say "Aha! Not sexism!".

I suspect that many people, upon reviewing Crommunist's example above, would say "But of course it must be sexism; what other explanation could there be for the gender imbalance?". To which I reply "I don't know, but the mere presence of an imbalance proves nothing one way or the other". Consider, as a counter-example, the NBA. African-Americans are overrepresented; they make up 76% of the players but only 12% of the US population. Clearly there is a racial bias in hiring within the NBA; there is a marked tendency to prefer African-American players over... say... Asians. It does not, however, follow from there that this is evidence of racism at work.

Racism is not merely differential treatment by race, nor is sexism merely differential treatment by sex; said treatment must also be unjustified. To continue the NBA example: Asians tend to be shorter, on average, than African-Americans. Since there's a premium on height in basketball this fact could account for the observed difference. Or, it could be the case that NBA coaches secretly hate Asians and are using height as a convenient subtext to avoid hiring them. Again, my gut tells me that one explanation is more plausible than the other, but I'm not sure how to subject that observation to scientific scrutiny.

Which brings me back to Crommunist's post and eir discussion of the suit/jumpsuit research. What does the default condition look like in this case? That is to say, what sort of outcome would we expect in the absence of some racist subsystem somewhere in our brain? One possible scenario is that ambiguous faces would split 50/50 regardless of clothing, reflecting an utterly unbiased categorization system. But it might also be the case that the brain takes into account the fact that blacks are more likely to have low-status jobs than whites when categorizing ambiguous faces, in which case we should expect the type of bias exhibited in the research. How do we determine the baseline against which the effects of racism are to be compared?

I think that's the heart of the matter; from where I'm sitting it doesn't look like its possible to establish such a baseline. Racism manifests itself indirectly in the physical world; racist thoughts and motivations may lead to specific actions, but its a category error to label an action as "racist". Methodological naturalism, on the other hand, deals only with what can be observed; it can verify that a particular set of circumstances occurred, but is unable to speak to the motivations which lie behind them. Since racism is ultimately about motivation this would seem to remove it from the domain of scientific observation. Which means that research such as that cited by Crommunist is interesting, but ultimately of less import than it seems at first blush.

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