flwyd: (Vigelandsparken face to face)
Religions are moral exoskeletons. If you live in a religious community, you are enmeshed in a set of norms, relationships, and institutions that work primarily on the elephant to influence your behavior. But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix, you might have to rely somewhat more on an internal moral compass, read by the rider. That might sound appealing to rationalists, but it is also a recipe for anomie—Durkheim's word for what happens to a society that no longer has a shared moral order. (It means, literally, “normlessness.”) We evolved to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago.

Societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic socieites have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies every known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).
— Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, "Religion is a Team Sport."

While many European countries have low native birthrates, the successful ones have high immigration rates. I see this as a transitional phase in group selection. Haidt argues that religious communities and practices are a group adaptation: groups of humans with a strong religious bond are able to overcome free rider problems and outcompete—as a group—groups which are less cohesive or whose cultural practices are less effective at bringing collaboration to fruition. For most of human history, one's membership in a religious group was generally from life through death: leaving a religious group meant leaving a tribe, or having a conquering tribe's religious system forcibly replace the conquered tribes.

But now large group "superorganisms" (including religions, nations, governments, and companies) don't have to be tied to a human lifecycle. In the 21st Century, humans have considerable ability to move between groups. Much as an animal organism doesn't die as its cells come and go at a steady pace, a paper entity can grow and thrive so long as it can get a continual influx of new resources, even if those resources shift focus to providing outcomes beneficial to the group rather than reproducing on their own. This is particularly true for companies: two parents often work for different companies; a baby born to the couple is not generally part of either company's culture; and there's no assumption that the child will grow up to be part of the company as an adult. Workers might be part of a company for a few months or a few years (and rarely more than half their lives), yet companies like IBM and UBS are older than roughly half of the countries in the UN.
flwyd: (Om Chomsky)
I started reading Paul Graham when he wrote A Plan for Spam, and I wrote a masters' thesis examining several variants on Bayesian spam filtering. He generally writes insightful articles about creating tech startups, in large part because he's a domain expert on startup companies.

Graham's latest essay, on income equality is, however, mostly useless. (Perhaps because he's writing about economics and society, about which he is not a domain expert.) He published a simplified version of his argument boils down to the claim that economic inequality is purely a measurement and an outcome. He argues that economic inequality is not inherently bad and that we should instead focus on the problematic subset of causes of inequality. There's a grain of truth in this, but Graham totally ignores the outbound edges from economic inequality in the graph of social ills.

Some specific fallacies in Graham's essay:
Straw man
Graham seems to be arguing against the position that less wealth inequality is always better than more inequality. The end state of such a position is zero inequality, in which all people have the same amount of wealth, which is basically extreme communism. He says "You can't end economic inequality without preventing people from getting rich, and you can't do that without preventing them from starting startups." I'm not aware of anyone who actually holds that position. Even the Occupy Wall St. movement, a melting pot of some fairly radical ideas, wasn't advocating for the top 1% to hold precisely 1% of the wealth; they just thought the richest 1% should own significantly less than 50% of the wealth. The non-vacuous position Graham fails to argue against is the case for reducing income equality, not eliminating income equality.
Anecdotal fallacy
The long version of Graham's essay focuses on startup founders, with Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook founder) and Larry Page (Google founder) as anecdotes. Startup founders are probably disproportionately represented in the top 20 billionaires, but I suspect that they make up a smaller fraction of the full 1% cohort. Even if, as Graham argues, major wealth acquisition for startup founders is socially beneficial, that does little to support his argument that income inequality in general isn't problematic if most of the wealth is concentrated in non-startup hands. Graham's reliance on anecdote is so strong in this piece that he dismisses economic statistics as a way to analyze the situation.
Appeal to consequences
Graham suggests that reducing economic inequality would reduce or eliminate startup culture. Graham basically takes it as a given that startups are good, and therefore concludes that attacking economic inequality would be bad. There is plenty of room for both. Furthermore, startups might not contribute that much to wealth inequality. Initial startup funding generally comes from venture capital firms and individual wealthy investors. A moderately successful startup typically gets bought by a larger company, enriching the initial investors, the founders and early employees, and potentially the shareholders of the purchasing company (if the market reacts positively to the news). Wildly successful startups usually create wealthy founders when the company goes public and the stock market places a high value on the company. In both of these cases, the story is mostly about the already wealthy moving money around, some of which goes to a relatively small number of previously-not-wealthy folks. Even here, Graham doesn't address whether the existing wealth disparity between successful founders, ordinary tech workers, and folks in less-lucrative is better or worse than other potential wealth distributions. Should employees hold a greater fraction of startup shares? Should IPOs be taxed to support poverty reduction efforts? Graham's essay gives no guidance on such matters.

Graham's essay proposes an odd argument of inevitability, too. He cites the exponential curve of technological growth as evidence that economic inequality has historically and will continue to grow exponentially. This seems factually inaccurate: the western has significantly less wealth inequality today than it did under feudalism. I suspect too that technological and economic progress in the post-war era was greatly facilitated by the destruction of significant amounts of wealth which (naturally) disproportionately impacted the rich.

Graham points out the "pie fallacy"–that there's a fixed amount of wealth to go around–and spends much of the essay talking about creating wealth. However, he ignores the fact that many important components of wealth are finite resources for which pie-division is a very important concern. The most notable of these is land, a finite resource whose supply and demand imbalance is being felt particularly acutely in Paul Graham's back yard: Silicon Valley where even educated and skilled workers are finding it difficult to afford housing. A more subtle somewhat-finite resource is consumers. A society in which few people have disposable income is one in which building new enterprises becomes increasingly tough. The lower rate of income inequality in post-war America is an important example (though Graham tries to dismiss it) because well-payed workers play an important ecological role in a growing economy, providing a wide base which can buy new products in turn funding the creation of more new products. Perhaps such an arrangement is unstable: from a relatively equal distribution wealth will naturally accumulate with the institutions and individuals who reliably generate successful business. But perhaps there's another part of that natural cycle in which the wealth becomes too concentrated and the system destabilizes, leading to destruction and redistribution of wealth, starting the cycle anew. If that's the case, should we pursue a "controlled burn" approach of intentional wealth redistribution or should we follow a "forest fire" approach when wealth redistribution comes with little warning and dramatic upheaval?
flwyd: (tell tale heart)
I added [livejournal.com profile] tongodeon as a friend because he created the Red Meat Constructor Set, but his journal is regularly full of insightful political and social commentary and well-written amusing anecdotes.

His views on holiday shopping are quite similar to mine.

Nobody should feel obliged for social or personal reasons to give me a gift. If you would like to do something nice for me, invite me over for tea and games. If you have money you would like to spend so that I will appreciate your generosity, make a donation to KGNU, ACLU, EFF, WikiMedia, or an open source project of your choice. If you find an object you know I would appreciate owning, I thank you for your generosity.

If I don't give you a gift it's because I didn't know what you could use and/or figured you could use the resources you would ordinarily expend in acquiring a gift for me could be more efficiently be used by you to get something you actually need.

If you would like a winter holiday-themed physical greeting from me, provide your postal address and which winter occasion you most enjoy celebrating. (I'm leaving comments public on this post, so if you don't want stalkers to find you, send your address to tstone (a) trevorstone.org.)

I make an exception for white elephants in which everyone finds something they already own, have fun wrapping it, have fun watching other people unwrap it, have fun stealing presents, and go home with an object they don't need but can appreciate (at least ironically).
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