Social-Climbers Vs. Stuff-Builders
October 31, 2010, 5:34 pm
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Saw news of another one of those ‘liberal gene’/’what makes a liberal’ studies. I won’t bother linking it because (1) you will have no trouble finding it if you really care and (2) it’s so stupid and pointless. I wonder why academic researchers are so interested in studying psychological/biological differences between conservatives and ‘liberals’, in which it miraculously turns out that conservatives are conservatives because they are fearful/closed-minded whereas ‘liberals’ are ‘liberals’ because they are adventure-seeking and open-minded? Hah hah. I do enjoy me some funny rhetorical questions.

I’m not going to do a study of my own (because it’s so stupid and pointless) but here is the broad outline of what my alternative thesis would be. I’ll give credit to this Marginal Revolution commenter for coming quite close to the truth by saying

people want free-market competition in areas where they are strong, and protection and regulation in areas where they are weak

To expand on this a bit, one would therefore expect the following patterns to cluster together.

  • eloquence, charisma, and charm – i.e., ability to win large numbers of other people over, be ‘cool’
  • a system in which the above traits by themselves, with no additional effort, make you well-rewarded and maximally powerful over other people – i.e., ‘liberalism’ (leftism)

Similarly, these go together:

  • foresight, focused work-ethic, ability to build things, devotion to close friends and family
  • a system in which the people with these traits get to keep the maximal fruits of their labor in the things and institutions they build – i.e., conservatism

A lot of other things simply follow from these two disjoint polarities of human skill (social-climbing, vs. stuff-building). This explains why ‘liberals’ view the government as a form of extended family whereas conservatives view the government as, at best, an intrusion into their family. It explains why ‘liberals’ want a maximally-powerful state whereas conservatives want basic defense from the state and little else. It explains why ‘liberals’ are impressed by degrees and awards (i.e. credentials and accolades that socially-skillful people have won from navigating social institutions) whereas conservatives are skeptical of them. It explains why conservatism is so closely aligned with minimizing taxes (letting stuff-builders keep the stuff they build) whereas at times it seems that almost the entire motivating drive of ‘liberals’ is to always and ever-increasingly make taxes as high as possible (to maximize the amount of stuff that is aggregated under the control of the credentialed charismatics).

This is why the archetype of a ‘liberal’ is Barack Obama – accoladed and credentialed up the wazoo, eloquent in a vague and substanceless way, easily able to win large numbers of strange people and acquaintances over (while apparently having few actual close friendships), never has accomplished or built an actual tangible thing in his life. It’s far more difficult to identify the archetype of a conservative – it might be, say, Sam Walton of Wal-Mart, though people probably don’t know enough about him to be sure, or for calling him an ‘archetype’ to actually be useful. This is because if conservatism had an archetype, it would have to be someone who is not a politician (or ‘celebrity’) at all, the modern vocation of ‘politics’ being essentially antithetical to everything conservatives stand for.

The point is, it’s easy to identify these two orthogonal human skills – social skills, and building/industriousness skills – that correlate with ‘liberalism’ and conservatism respectively. Both skills are useful, of course. But it’s only natural that people who see themselves as naturally, lopsidedly better (whether due to genetics or not) at one or the other are attracted to a social system that maximally rewards their particular skill set.

Healthcare, healthcare
October 26, 2010, 9:25 am
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My first stab at one of these movies. I hadn’t realized till recently that this was actually a free web-based service people were using to make them. Kind of clever, although (surprisingly) I’m a bit less comfortable wading into what becomes almost literal sock-puppetry than you might think.

Anyway, this is a dialogue representing what the great “healthcare” debate had always sounded like to me. And…enjoy:

Grand Convoluted Theories To Explain The Obvious
October 24, 2010, 3:21 pm
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An emerging theme in some recent posts – people seem attracted to grand, elegant theories that explain what is already obvious.

Below I addressed the Robin Hanson theory that the left v. right divide traces back to foragers vs. farmers, when the obvious reality is that in both cases we’re just talking about property rights being violated vs. respected.

More recently I noted that women all seem to think men are “threatened” by women with careers, when the obvious reality is that a woman’s career simply doesn’t bring anything of value to the table for a man, anymore than a woman’s ugliness would.

Parents develop and purport to believe in theories about finding ‘good schools’ with ‘good teachers’ to which to send their kids and do a bunch of ostentatious ‘research’ about it and spend a lot of ostentatious money to do it, when the obvious reality is that parents just want to buy things like a high-status, non-lower-class (and low-class-racial-group) peer group for their kids.

And those are just the posts on my front page…

So why exactly are people attracted to these convoluted theories, instead of just acknowledging the obvious realities there in front of their nose for them to see? I plan to work up a convoluted, psychological theory about all this and promise to blog about it at some point.

Why Men Don’t Care About Womens’ Careers
October 24, 2010, 2:24 pm
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Neo makes the observation that women with high-status careers tend to have a harder time finding a mate. As he says, in part this is because men don’t care about a woman’s career. But that only really scratches the surface. Because, why don’t men care about a woman’s career?

Let me throw this out there as the main reason:

Because in any future relationship with such a woman, men instinctively know they would either (a) have to be the breadwinner anyway, regardless of how well she does in her career, or (b) not be the breadwinner, not make more money – and be thought of as an unmanly beta. The implicit choice – for a man considering whether to go long-term with a high-status career woman – is (a), or (b). And neither is appealing. Is it?

If with such a woman, a man could check out of his career and just go with (b). Or, he could stick with the high-status-career woman, but (a) still have to focus on his own career, and face the proposition of being a two-high-powered-career couple, with salaries to match but (more importantly – to the man), with the lack of focus on home life that results.

Which option is supposed to be appealing to a man?

This isn’t feminist, or enlightened of me, to put out there. But more importantly, I think it’s the truth: a woman’s high-status career is bringing nothing to the table that is of any use to a man. It’s not like he can think “well she’s making $X so I can slack off”. (Or, he can think that, but be beta.) So her career does not relieve him of any responsibilities. It doesn’t help him. All it does is take her attention and focus out of the home for extended periods of time. But his attention and focus has to be out of the home for extended periods of the time (because he’s a man – unless he wants to be thought of as not one).

In this way, a woman having a powered career is about as much use and appeal to a man as if she had a time-consuming hobby. For women, careers are options. For men, they are obligatory. If a woman with a JD or an M.D. had a family and decided to take time off for the career, absolutely no one would think twice about it. Good for her! But if a man were to do the equivalent – raised eyebrows. Oh, there might be a bunch of faux “I think that’s great!” comments from certain types, but they wouldn’t really mean it. Deep down.

The man can’t “check out” of his career, and still be a man, and still think of himself as doing his part for his family. The woman can. And everyone knows this deep down. This is why women with high-status careers have no appeal to the typical man. It is as if they are advertising that they have a distracting hobby that will take her away from him, not help him, and make his life more difficult. And then they wonder why they don’t have suitors, and blame it on men being “threatened” by their being “strong” women with vaunted careers. It’s closer to the truth to say that by focusing so much on their own careers, they are preparing for having lives without men. And so – often – that’s exactly what they get.

This is a Neanderthal, retrograde thing to say. And it is what I think.

UPDATE: This notion of men finding strong/career woman “threatening” is a bit fascinating to me. So many women go around saying this that I can only assume it’s what they actually believe. But if you think it through logically & take to heart what I’ve written above, saying “men don’t want career women cuz they find career women threatening” is almost like saying “men don’t want ugly women cuz they find ugly women threatening“. In a way I suppose it’s true (probably, men are ‘threatened’ by the prospect of being attached to an ugly woman for life!) but this sort of thing is a grand reach for some esoteric, psychological, phobia type explanation to explain what really has a far more obvious and straightforward explanation.

The Torture Continues
October 24, 2010, 12:55 pm
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So now the Giants are going to the World Series. Of course last night’s game went down to the ninth inning, the Giants clinging to a one-run lead on the road, and the closer facing Ryan Howard with two baserunners, that he’d walked. Of course.


I am officially 50% balder and 50% grayer from having watched that torture. What an exciting game. I hate it so much. And the best/worst part it, they’re going to go the World Series and do the same thing all over again. Just kill me now.

Shovel Fantasies
October 20, 2010, 3:28 am
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I gather (not that I read/heard it directly) that President Obama admitted somewhere that there’s basically no such thing as a ‘shovel-ready project’ for the government to dump ‘stimulus’ money on. Lefty-blogger reaction to this has been entertaining, to say the least. Imagine you’re Matthew Yglesias or Ezra Klein and you lavished who knows how many keystrokes and man-hours in 2009 writing blog post after blog post about how ‘stimulus’ could and should be used on ‘shovel-ready projects’. And now here’s President Obama, the guy whose torch you thought you were carrying, saying they don’t exist. How do you react? You play defense that’s how! Serious, desperate defense. And so you write articles and blog posts. Many, many of them. Making convincing, substantive arguments such as: There are too ‘shovel-ready projects’!

Amusing, but it stems from what was always a somewhat ugly side of this whole silly ‘shovel-ready’ meme. Basically, what ‘shovel-ready’ was always about was upper-middle-class lefties openly fantasizing about putting armies of peasants to work doing things that…upper-middle-class lefties wanted done.

Imagine you’re a young, well-off, ‘stuff-white-people-like’ type left-wing blogger, and you like to go to walkable downtown areas to eat in trendy restaurants. You spot – let’s say – some trash on the ground, a chipped sidewalk, a dried-out plant fixture next to the non-functioning fountain on the corner.

‘How ugly,’ you think. And this makes your otherwise nice, yuppie evening 0.2% less pleasant. But then a light-bulb goes off in your head: ‘Wait! What about all those unemployed people I keep reading about?’, you think to yourself. ‘Couldn’t they be, like, put to work fixing this stuff up for me?’

Those aren’t the sort of words anyone uses to put forth the viewpoint, of course. But it amounts to the same sentiment. And if you don’t believe me, here’s Matthew Yglesias proposing using federal stimulus to fix ‘potholes, cracked sidewalks, or other minor problems’ (that he has noticed/photographed). He also mentions sidewalks here, here, and here. The message comes through loud and clear: Matthew Yglesias walks on a lot of sidewalks, and when he does, by gum, he wants them looking spiffy!

So (therefore) that’s what tax money should be spent on. Employing the peasants to clean up and arrange the things around Matthew Yglesias’s life and lifestyle, so as to make it more pleasant and convenient. (Also see: high-speed rails, bridges, shiny bus terminals, spiffy electronic signs, etc.)

There’s a common rebuttal to what I’m saying and it is: but don’t you want things to be nice? It’s nice when things are nice! So what’s wrong with suggesting that if we’re gonna do stimulus, it be used to make things nice? (Etc.) (I may not be painting this rebuttal in the best possible light, I grant.)

My answer is there’s nothing wrong with things being nice and spiffy and infrastructure being great and grand. Nothing at all. But if that’s what you want, pay for it your damn self. When all these people talk about ‘stimulus’ being dumped on ‘shovel-ready’ projects (of their choosing, of course), they’re not talking about them spending their money to improve all these things they want improved. They’re talking about spending other peoples’ money. And those other people may have different priorities and concerns for their budgets, priorities that don’t align so coincidentally well with the obsessions and fixations of a young, hip, well-to-do city dweller. Should a truck driver in Iowa be taxed more (or his children implicitly taxed more, by borrowing) so that Matthew Yglesias has a nice new high-speed-rail line to ride on, more buses for peasants to ride (so that the streets are clearer for him), etc.? Well, certainly Matthew Yglesias thinks so.

The ‘shovel-ready’ story is and always was a seductive one, for precisely the reason that it was a case where openly puerile fantasies (of peasant armies doing labor for you, but being paid with other peoples’ money) could masquerade as concern for the poor and unemployed. And it’s precisely because the story was so seductive that we are now seeing the hissy fit that results when these peoples’ pied piper admits it was all a craven crock of shit. The wonder is not why these people are now reacting the way they are; the wonder is that their arguments were ever taken seriously in the first place.

Against Foragers And Other Ancient Retrogrades
October 19, 2010, 5:47 am
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Still catching up on my Google Reader perpetually-1000+ unread queue, I finally caught up with the Robin Hanson series of posts on “foragers vs. farmers” (click over there & read further dates, there’s more if you’re interested) that I had already seen responses to on other blogs. The basic idea is that ancient humanity were natural ‘foragers’, then with the advent of farming they became ‘farmers’, but with wealth allowing us to surpass farming we (well, some of us – i.e. lefties) are reverting back to our (more “natural”?) ‘forager’ ways. In other words, the lefty-righty divide is just a modern projection of the ancient forager vs. farming divide, and foraging is destined for a comeback.

It’s a somewhat interesting idea, if not all that original. Theories of how modern political fault lines trace back to some ancient fissure are a dime a dozen and have obvious appeal, if (usually) less obvious accuracy or usefulness.

Although it is meant to explain a different phenomenon, this one is actually quite similar to the “Mercurians vs. Apollonians” theory of Yuri Slezkine. That theory primarily addresses the issue of anti-Semitism and related prejudices, by telling a story of society that pits the more martial/real-goods-producing groups (“Apollonians”) against the peddlers/middlemen who support and supply them (“Mercurians”) – with Jews (and Armenians, Chinese in places) being examples the latter. That maps pretty well onto Hanson’s view of the world, since Apollonians are basically just farmers by another name. So in both cases we have theories of society’s dichotomies in which ‘conservative’ is linked to a farming tradition, which seems reasonable enough, and pitted against some ‘other’ tradition that they resent.

Now, Hanson’s view of society seems to lack “Mercurians” altogether, which is an interesting oversight. Does he think their influence is minor? Does he think the farmer-peddler split unimportant for the political fault lines he thinks he’s explaining?

There is a more basic problem with Hanson’s take however, which is that in outlining the traits of farmers vs. foragers – and congratulating himself for how miraculously well they map onto conservative vs. liberal – he (unless I missed it) actually seems to miss the main difference between farmers and foragers, one that is more fundamental than any of the other traits he mentions:

Farmers, by definition, have property.

They have property to protect. They have real assets to lose. They have put real capital – their blood and sweat – into this property. After all, while a ‘forager’ can grab some berries and carry them in his arms, and eat them on the spot, the one salient characteristic of a ‘farm’, any farm, is that it is a sizable plot of land on which incomplete/not-fully-realized work has been done, but whose boundaries and contents can’t be fully held/hoarded by one person alone at all times. And so farmers inevitably need force, or the threat of force, or a principle of property rights (preferably all three) to defend it. No one who is a farmer will lack this concern for property or the need for its defense. No one who is a forager, by contrast, will have an interest in property defense; almost the contrary, in fact.

So sure, there’s a natural conflict between ‘farmers’ and ‘foragers’. This is because people who are farmers respect property rights and by definition have a lifestyle whose very feasibility requires that others do, or are forced to do, the same, whereas people who are foragers, by definition, do not respect property rights, if they even possess the concept at all. Property rights and usage is practically the defining difference between foragers and farmers.

But wait a minute then. We’ve identified that Hanson’s “Type A” group has this trait: doesn’t respect property rights. And Hanson’s “Type B” group: cares about property rights. So lo and behold, has Robin Hanson just discovered the brilliant newsflash that the righty vs. lefty divide traces to whether property rights are respected on the one hand, or treated as malleable and ‘collective’ on the other? You mean right vs. left is about whether people get to keep more of their property or take more of others’??

Stop the presses!

Once you realize that property rights underlie, in a basic and fundamental way, both the forager/farmer divide and the modern culture wars of which it is supposedly the forerunner, it renders the whole ‘forager/farmer’ construct somewhat superfluous. Yet Hanson doesn’t seem to play up, or even mention, the property rights angle at all (or if he does, he touches on it lightly, as I missed it). So it’s as if he’s done a bunch of reading about sports and decided that the San Francisco Giants want to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers because of the resurfacing of an ancient deep-seated hatred between sports teams who have Black uniforms vs. Blue uniforms making them want to beat each other in games – which is true enough, sort of – rather than due to the more obvious, fundamental, and wholly overt fact that they are two groups who by definition have opposing goals that can’t both be achieved (=to win the game).

This blindness to the obvious, fundamental common cause between the culture war he’s trying to explain and the analogy he’s trying to use to explain it leads to further problems. Because private property rights are left out altogether (and “Mercurians”, i.e. Jews or any group that is metaphorically-Jewish, are left out as well), in Hanson’s storytelling, ‘forager’ sounds great and natural, whereas ‘farmer’ sounds like a backwards, retrograde aberration. The farmer is essentially stuck in the Middle Ages. It was just a necessary phase that humanity had to go through, but now can outgrow, because of the internet (or something). The basic story is that of the ordeal or the gauntlet: everything was nice and natural; but we had to go through an awkward ‘farming’ phase; but now we’re out the other side and can go back to everything being nice and natural. I can see the appeal of this story, I suppose. It is also preposterous and puerile, not to mention highly one-dimensional.

Because what if you instead told a story like the following – and let me bold the elements that Hanson seems to have omitted:

First, humanity mostly foraged. And they were very very poor, and it was bad for the ecosystem because foragers would ransack one environment for their food and then move on to the next. Then, farming was discovered. It was touch and go for a while due to the natural conflict between foragers and farmers, never fully resolved, but systems of property rights were discovered and defended, by necessity, and due to its obvious superior output, farming survived and dominated. This is in no small part because farming allowed for trade because done with care and intelligence it created surpluses. Trade, in turn, allowed for specialization which made everyone richer. With trade also came cities, and “Mercurians”, a class of people who could serve as knowledge-based middlemen; this lubricated trade and made it more efficient, allowing for greater wealth increases and specialization than previously realized.

I could just keep continuing, on up through The Enlightenment, and Science, and Liberal Democracy (with Better, More Efficient And Therefore More Eco-Friendly Farming showing up somewhere in the mix) – but it’s not really necessary. One can already see that instead of Hanson’s ‘ordeal’ or ‘awkward phase’ story of human society, if you don’t leave stuff out you can actually tell a more normal, plausible story involving society simply (in fits and starts, not always without setbacks) inventing stuff and getting better – one of those inventions being farming, another (related) invention being real property rights.

Yet Hanson makes farming sound like a retrograde aberration that (as a necessary evil at best) interrupted all the beautiful, glorious foraging. Actually, if anything the interruption in question was private property, and far from being retrograde, it was a very important technological advance, a prerequisite for much of the wealth explosion that has come since. The anti-‘farmer’ (i.e., anti-production and property rights) vibe Hanson’s story gives off veers uncomfortably close to Marxian/socialist critiques of ‘capitalism’. But it is those who, like socialists, seek to reject or discredit private property who are the retrograde ones, for wishing to overturn what is (along with trade, and specialization, and cities, and communication, and the scientific method, and republican forms of government) a key milestone in human development, built on other milestones and on which those further milestones depended.

If you squint your eyes it’s easy to fantasize that ‘foragers’ might dominate future society if you pit them solely against the ‘farmer’ straw man (and forget that ‘farming’ serves as a metaphor for ‘being productive’ in the construction). After all, ‘farming’ does sound awfully retrograde and on a manpower basis we do indeed do less and less of it (and good for us!), so hey, maybe somehow technology and Craigslist and Starbuck’s free wi-fi hotspots (or something) will let us all just ‘forage’, blog, and whatnot, thus making the ‘farming’ component of society obsolete. But it’s far more difficult to defend a vision of the future, at least a vision of future human prosperity, in which the actual forager mindset – i.e. a basic rejection of property rights, of future-oriented planning, and of specialization, among other things – is widespread.

So I’m not keen to embrace this metaphor of foragers vs. farmers as explaining lefty-righty divides, and I think it leaves much out. However, if I must use it, I should warn: it is not at all flattering to whoever is meant to be the ‘foragers’ in the analogy.


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