Friday, September 30, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 3a

I am not ... asserting that humans are either genial or aggressive by inborn biological necessity. Obviously, both kindness and violence lie within the bounds of our nature because we perpetrate both, in spades. I only advance a structural claim that social stability rules nearly all the time and must be based on an overwhelmingly predominant (but tragically ignored) frequency of genial acts, and that geniality is therefore our usual and preferred response nearly all the time ... The center of human nature is rooted in ten thousand ordinary acts of kindness that define our days. — Stephen Jay Gould

Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903) was an English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, and sociologist. He coined the term “survival of the fittest” as a way of characterizing Darwin’s natural selection theory. But the term is avoided by modern biologists, because the phrase can be misleading. The problem is that the word "fit" is frequently confused with a state of physical fitness. In the evolutionary meaning, "fitness" is the rate of reproductive output among a class of genetic variants. 

Darwin introduced the phrase as an alternative to "natural selection" only in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species published in 1869. He intended it to mean "better designed for an immediate, local environment". Darwin’s “struggle for existence” is an abstract metaphor, not an explicit statement about bloody battle. Reproductive success, the criterion of natural selection, works in many modes: Victory in battle may be one pathway, but cooperation, symbiosis, and mutual aid may also secure success in other times and contexts. Darwin explained his concept of evolutionary struggle in On the Origin of Species:

I use this term in a large and metaphorical sense including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals, in a time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which shall get food and live. 

But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought.... As the mistletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on birds; and it may metaphorically be said to struggle with other fruit-bearing plants, in order to tempt birds to devour and thus disseminate its seeds rather than those of other plants. In these several senses, which pass into each other, I use for convenience sake the general term of struggle for existence.

Nevertheless, during much of the twentieth century, the science of evolutionary biology was dominated by the idea of ruthless competition. Competition among individual genes, or organisms, was assumed to be the principal driver of evolutionary change. Cooperation, meanwhile, was viewed as a major problem in evolutionary biology because it presumably required altruistic self-sacrifices (which was considered a wrong-headed assumption) and was not in any case considered to be a very important phenomenon. 

Darwin’s own chief disciple, Thomas Henry Huxley, advanced this “gladiatorial” view of natural selection (his word). Huxley maintained that the predominance of bloody battle defined nature’s way as non-moral (not explicitly immoral, but unsuited as offering any guide to moral behavior). He said that any human society set up along these lines of nature will devolve into anarchy and misery. Therefore, the chief purpose of society must lie in mitigation of this struggle. Study natural selection and do the opposite in human society, was his advice.

This apparent discordance between nature’s way and any hope for human social decency has defined the major subject for debate about ethics and evolution ever since Darwin. For Darwin and other leading British evolutionists, the expression "struggle for existence" posed no problem. Huxley’s solution has won many supporters – nature is nasty and no guide to morality except, perhaps, as an indicator of what to avoid in human society.  A contrary view contended that Darwinism undermines morality by claiming that success in nature can only be measured by victory in bloody battle.

Russian intellectuals reacted negatively to what they perceived as injecting British enthusiasm for competition into evolutionary theory. They concluded that Darwin had greatly exaggerated the role of Malthusian overpopulation giving rise to competition as the main force behind evolution. The name most closely associated with this line of thinking was Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist, zoologist and political scientist. 

In 1902, Kropotkin published his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, which gave an alternative view of animal and human survival. He argues that the struggle for existence usually leads to mutual aid rather than combat as the chief criterion of evolutionary success. Human society must therefore build upon our natural inclinations (not reverse them, as Huxley held) in making a moral order that will bring both peace and prosperity to our species. 

Kropotkin did not deny the presence of competitive urges in humans, but did not consider them the driving force of history. He argued that "it was an evolutionary emphasis on cooperation instead of competition in the Darwinian sense that made for the success of species, including the human'. '...the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community.' It was not ‘survival of the fittest’ but ‘survival of the friendliest’. In the last chapter, he wrote: 

The animal species [...] in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits [...] and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development [...] are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress. 

The mutual protection which is obtained in this case, the possibility of attaining old age and of accumulating experience, the higher intellectual development, and the further growth of sociable habits, secure the maintenance of the species, its extension, and its further progressive evolution. The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 2b

What’s fascinating is that most guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment remained hesitant to apply ‘tough’ tactics at all, even under mounting pressure. Two-thirds refused to take part in the sadistic games. One-third treated the prisoners with kindness, to Zimbardo and his team’s frustration. One of the guards resigned the Sunday before the experiment started, saying he couldn’t go along with the instructions. In Why Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment Isn’t in My Textbook, there is a quotation, from John Mark, who had been one of the guards in Zimbardo's "experiment." It's from the July/Aug, 2011 issue of the Stanford Alumni magazine: 

"During the day shift, when I worked, no one did anything that was beyond what you'd expect in a situation like that. But Zimbardo went out of his way to create tension. Things like forced sleep deprivation — he was really pushing the envelope. I just didn't like the whole idea of constantly disturbing people and asking them to recite their prisoner numbers in a count. I certainly didn't like when they put a guy in solitary confinement.

"At that time of my life, I was getting high, all day every day. I got high before I went to the experiment; I got high on my breaks and lunch. I got high afterwards. I brought joints with me, and every day I wanted to give them to the prisoners. I looked at their faces and saw how they were getting dispirited and I felt sorry for them.

"I didn't think it was ever meant to go the full two weeks. I think Zimbardo wanted to create a dramatic crescendo, and then end it as quickly as possible. I felt that throughout the experiment, he knew what he wanted and then tried to shape the experiment — by how it was constructed, and how it played out — to fit the conclusion that he had already worked out. He wanted to be able to say that college students, people from middle-class backgrounds — people will turn on each other just because they're given a role and given power.

"Based on my experience, and what I saw and what I felt, I think that was a real stretch. I don't think the actual events match up with the bold headline. I never did, and I haven't changed my opinion."

The big problem with the Stanford Prison Experiment had always been that it was so unethical that no one dared to replicate it and so Zimbardo had for decades been the final authority on the subject. But then, two British psychologists designed an experiment for the BBC to answer the question: what happens to ordinary people when they don a uniform and step inside a prison? Bregman says that it was an effort to sit through the resulting 4 hr. program because nothing much happened. The main difference from Zimbardo's experiment was that the psychologists didn’t tell the guards what to do. All they did was observe. 

Things were just getting started when one guard announced he didn’t feel suited to the role of guard: ‘I’d rather be a prisoner, honestly …’ On day two, another suggested sharing the guards’ food with the prisoners to boost morale. Then on day four, when it looked like some sparks might fly, a guard advised a prisoner: ‘If we can get to the end of this, we can go down the pub and have a drink.’ Another guard chimed in, ‘Let’s discuss this like human beings.’ Or, as the Sunday Herald summed it up, ‘What happens when you put good men in an evil place and film it for telly? Erm, not that much actually.’ 

From a scientific perspective, the experiment was a resounding success. Haslam and Reicher (the psychologists who conducted the study) published more than ten articles about their results in prestigious academic journals. But the BBC Prison Study has since faded into obscurity, while people still talk about the Stanford Prison Experiment. This exposes a harsh truth: if a study shows the negative side of human character, it will receive wide publicity; if it shows the good side, it will be ignored.

The Stanford Prison Experiment attempts to show what today’s social psychologists call situationism: the idea that people’s behavior is determined largely by what’s happening around them. If you put people in certain situations, they are more likely to be racist or sexist, or they may lie or cheat. But continued to its logical extreme, situationism, according to one psychologist, “has an exonerating effect”. “In the minds of a lot of people, it tends to excuse the bad behavior … it’s not the person’s fault for doing the bad thing, it’s the situation they were put in.” 

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 2a

“Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality.” - Oscar Wilde

In the 1970s, sociologist Erving Goffmann introduced the concept of ‘framing’ – each of us views the world through a mental picture frame which enables us to make sense out of our jumble of experiences. In Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman discusses some of the most well-known narratives of modern times - the novel Lord of the Flies, the end of the Easter Islanders, Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram's Obedience Experiment, the Bystander effect etc. All of them give prominence to the negative side of human character. But the popular interpretations of all of them have major problems.

Take Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo’s experiment is one of the two or three most famous experiments in the history of psychology. It is depicted in movies, television and introductory psychology textbooks. In the years that followed the experiment, Zimbardo would grow to be the most noted psychologist of his time, becoming president of the American Psychological Association. In the decades since the experiment, millions of people have fallen for Philip Zimbardo’s setup. He has repeatedly emphasized his view that this experiment reveals much that is significant in understanding what happens in real prisons.

The standard description of Zimbardo’s experiment is as follows. In order to gain insight about the behavior of prisoners and guards in real prisons, Zimbardo and his colleagues constructed a simulated prison in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University. Then they recruited 21 psychologically healthy male college students and randomly assigned 10 of them to be prisoners and the other 11 to be guards. The prisoners were to be held captive in the simulated prison around the clock for two weeks, and the guards were to serve duty in the prison on eight-hour daily shifts, so there were always at least 3 of them in the prison at any given time. For this, they would be paid $15 a day.

The results, in brief, were that the guards behaved toward the prisoners in “negative, hostile, affrontive and dehumanizing” ways. The prisoners behaved alternately in rebellious and passive ways. At one point, on the second day, they ripped off their clothing and identification numbers while shouting curses at the guards. Later, five of the prisoners reacted with such extreme emotions that they were removed from the study before the end of five days. By the end of the sixth day the behavior of the guards and prisoners had spiraled to the point that Zimbardo decided to end the experiment early. "These guys were all peaceniks," he said of the students chosen to be guards. "They became like Nazis."

The standard interpretation: In a prison, one group has power over another and the powerless group is stripped of their individual identities. This  creates extreme, maladaptive responses that are characteristic of the responses often seen in real prisons. Those in power become abusive, and those subject to that power become immature, passive, and rebellious. These effects do not have to do with differences in original personality (because in the experiment, the subjects were randomly assigned to roles). Rather, they result from the situation in which people find themselves. 

Bregman writes, ‘Philip Zimbardo’s study wasn’t just dubious. It was a hoax.’ A major problem with the experiment is with its 'demand characteristics'. Any characteristics of a psychology experiment that let research participants guess how the experimenters expect or want them to behave are referred to as demand characteristics. In any valid experiment, it is essential to eliminate or at least minimize demand characteristics. In this experiment, the demands were everywhere.

Zimbardo claimed in many interviews that his prison ‘guards’ turned sadistic of their own accord. Subsequent revelations about the experiment reveal that the guards didn’t even have to guess how they were supposed to behave; they were largely told how by Zimbardo and his associates. In his relatively recent book, The Lucifer Effect (which I have not read but is quoted by Bregman), Zimbardo mentions a meeting with the guards that took place on the Saturday preceding the experiment. There could be no mistaking his instructions:

We can create a sense of frustration. We can create fear in them […] We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. They’re going to be wearing uniforms, and at no time will anybody call them by name; they will have numbers and be called only by their numbers. In general, what all this should create in them is a sense of powerlessness.

Is this not an overt invitation to be abusive in all sorts of psychological ways? The supposedly independent scientist had, by his own admission, drilled his guards. They hadn’t come up with the idea to address the prisoners by numbers, or to wear sunglasses, or play sadistic games. It’s what they were told to do. And, when the guards did behave in these ways and escalated that behavior, with Zimbardo watching and apparently (by his silence) approving, it would have confirmed in the subjects’ minds that they were behaving as they should.

Most of the subjects stuck it out because Zimbardo paid well. They didn’t get the money until afterwards. Guards and prisoners alike feared that if they didn’t play along in Zimbardo’s dramatic production, they wouldn’t get paid. Not only that, on the Saturday before the experiment started, Zimbardo was already talking about ‘we’ and ‘they’ as though he and the guards were on the same team. Which meant that the story he later told about losing himself in the role of prison superintendent as the experiment progressed couldn’t be true. 


Sunday, August 21, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 1b

For decades, what the primatologist Frans de Waal called 'Veneer Theory' used to be the dominant biological view of human nature. It regarded genuine kindness as either absent or an evolutionary misstep. Morality was a thin veneer barely able to conceal our true nature, which was entirely selfish. In the past couple of decades, however, Veneer Theory has been increasingly questioned by new evidence to the contrary. For example, anthropologists demonstrated a sense of fairness in people across the world and economists found humans to be more cooperative and altruistic than the Homo economicus view would allow.  

When we behave horribly, we are called 'animals' but when we behave generously, we are called 'humane'. We like to think that our finer characteristics are the result of our culture and have nothing to do with our evolutionary history. But as Stephen Jay Gould said, ‘Why should our nastiness be the baggage of an apish past and our kindness uniquely human? Why should we not seek continuity with other animals for our “noble” traits as well?’ Morality is a direct outgrowth of the social instincts that we share with other animals. 

In the Origin, Darwin drew no distinction between man and other organisms. At the heart of Darwin’s theory  is the denial of humanity’s special status. Humans, just like any other species, were descended, with modification, from more ancient ancestors. Even those qualities that seemed to set people apart — language, wisdom, a sense of right and wrong - had evolved in the same manner as other physical traits, such as longer beaks or sharper incisors. Evolution has shaped people to be altruistic by instilling within us a genuine concern for the fate of certain other individuals. 

Darwin wrote an entire book about animal emotions, including their capacity for sympathy.  Having companions offers immense advantages in locating food and avoiding predators. Darwin’s writing massively contradicts Veneer Theory. He speculated, for example, that 'The social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.' After over 40 years of observation of primate behavior, Frans de Waal  contends that concern for others is their natural conduct. 

It appears that social animals are wired to cooperate and to reduce stress by seeking each others’ company. Many types of social interactions may be best understood in terms of a non-zero-sum game with multiple winners. Darwin had this idea long before scientific studies of animal behavior when he noted that natural selection would opt for “the feeling of pleasure from society”. Studying primate biology brings us closer to the truth than studying Hobbs, which is that we are social to the core. 

Anyone who says that large-scale cooperation is beyond our nature knows too little about primates, including ourselves. Research with other primates has shown that the propensity to forgive can be shaped heavily by one’s cultural experiences. Separate infant monkeys from their mothers, and they’ll grow up to be less conciliatory than is typical for their species. Raise them among individuals from a more conciliatory species, and they’ll become more conciliatory than is typical.

It’s not that religion and culture don’t have a role to play, but the building blocks of morality predate humanity. We recognize them in our primate relatives, with empathy being most conspicuous in the bonobo ape and reciprocity in the chimpanzee. Moral rules tell us when and how to apply our empathic tendencies, but the tendencies themselves have been in existence since time immemorial. Biology holds us “on a leash,” said biologist Edward Wilson, and will let us stray only so far from who we are. 

This also means that the reputation that Darwinism has gained of painting nature as a cold, unforgiving theater is misplaced. The idea that Darwinism has to be replaced in our daily lives so as to build a moral society are based on a profound misreading of Darwin. Since he saw morality as an evolutionary product, he envisioned an eminently more livable world than the one proposed by many of his followers, who believe in a culturally imposed, artificial morality that receives no helping hand from human nature.

The most common theory about our earliest ancestors is the “Man the Hunter” hypothesis. But early hominids were largely defenseless creatures of small stature and had body structures that would have made them less efficient hunters compared to other predators. They much better fit the profile of prey species, vulnerable to a large variety of carnivores. It makes sense to relabel “Man the Hunter” as “Man the Hunted”. It is highly likely that these creatures lived in large groups for protection requiring individuals to be highly social and cooperative. 

It is only because of the prevalence of Veneer Theory that it was believed that goodness is not part of human nature, and that we need to work hard to teach it to our children. Children were seen as selfish monsters, who learn to be moral from teachers and parents despite their natural inclinations. They were seen as reluctant moralists. But experiments have shown that moral understanding develops astonishingly early in life. Infants under one year of age already favor the good guy in a puppet show. The puppet who nicely rolls a ball back and forth with another is preferred over one who steals the ball and runs off with it.

Darwin noted that the only uniquely human expression is blushing, an observation that has stood the test of time. Blushing is an evolutionary mystery that must be particularly perplexing for those who believe that exploitation of others is all that humans are capable of. Such a signal makes no sense for a born manipulator. Blushing tells others that you are aware how your actions affect them. This fosters trust. We prefer people whose emotions we can read from their faces over those who never show the slightest hint of shame or guilt. 

Recent studies support a view of the emotions as rational, functional, and adaptive. Compassion and benevolence are rooted in our brain and biology. For example, helping others triggered activity in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate, portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. People who develop the need for psychiatric intervention are those who have become alienated and antisocial. It works this way only because we are not born as loners. Our bodies and minds are not  designed for life in the absence of others. 

German and Japanese aggression once shook the world, yet only a few decades later it is hard to think of two countries more pacific. Sweden spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe, yet it is now an icon of nurturing tranquility.  Our expectations for ourselves play a strong role in shaping our behavior. It is important that we get out of the rut of giving cooperation and fairness secondary roles in the evolution of cohesive and smoothly functioning social groups. “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” wrote Orwell .


Monday, August 8, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 1a

(I am a conformist in every sense of the word, but, curiously, I like reading about views that question the status quo. The minority view is more interesting. So I thought of writing a few posts against the prevailing individualistic, grasping, violent view of human nature but it became much longer than I expected. I have divided the posts into sub-sections and numbered them 1(a), 1(b), 2(a), 2(b) etc. But it must be remembered that the divisions between different sub-sections are porous.)

Human nature is not nearly as bad as it has been thought to be. — Abraham Harold Maslow

At the beginning of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, a band of prehistoric hominids has been driven from a water hole by another clan. One of them picks up a bone and realizes that he can wield it as a weapon. He and his band use their newfound power to beat one of the other clan members to death. This violent act enables them get their water hole back and marks the Dawn of Man. He throws the bone up into the sky, where it turns into a satellite orbiting the earth.

One should examine the assumptions behind this story instead of accepting them blindly. Are competition and conflict really the only reason for human progress? The story of how we became human is an important one, not just from a scientific point of view but because it informs our beliefs about human nature. The current belief in self-interest  tells us that to behave morally is to invite others to take advantage of us. It shapes what we teach our children, both at home and in the schools. 

The dominant views expressed by people around us, the messages we receive from the news media, etc. shape our patterns of thought. These views influence most of our behaviors but they are rarely questioned. If, during a job or performance interview, we are asked to describe ourselves, our answer will very much reflect the dominant expectations of that time. Our appearance, self-perception, and social behaviour are entirely determined by the messages we receive.  By encouraging us to expect the worst in others, it brings out the worst in us. 

Research has shown that people tend to act according to what they see or hear is the common behaviour. When visitors to a national forest read signs that asked people not to steal petrified wood because a lot of people had stolen wood in the past, theft actually increased. People had concluded that since many had the habit of stealing wood, it was okay for them also to do so. Over 2,500 college students from twenty-three countries, were surveyed and the counties that had higher rates of corruption, tax evasion, and political fraud were also the countries that had higher rates of lying. 

You are no longer surprised by accountants validating the books of fraudulent companies or doctors being little more than marketing agents for the pharmaceutical industry. It is common to hear people who are uneasy about the occasional side effects of economic wheeling and dealing being portrayed as namby-pambies just not up to the rigors of the marketplace. As a result of the self-interest model's influence, our bonds of trust have taken a heavy beating in recent years.

Such negative assumptions have guided most realms of human affairs, from policy making to media portrayals of social life. As our science enters further into the domain of the human heart and mind, we come to see our lives less in terms of joys, virtues, sins, and miseries and more in terms of chemical imbalances, hormones, good moods, and depressions — material problems which can be tackled by technological solutions, not moral challenges with which we must learn to live. As Issac Asimov said, 'The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.'

There are two contrasting views about human behaviour. One school of thought regards humankind as essentially good, and sees it as society’s task to ensure that our benevolent disposition comes to the fore. The other believes humankind to be essentially bad, and wants society to act as a police officer, to curb our evil tendencies as much as possible. One side is highly altruistic, and focused on ‘give and receive’; the other is highly egotistical, and focused on ‘divide and rule'.

The latter view has become dominant today. It results in a mechanistic, fear driven society that can be manipulated.  Politics becomes a place where the strongest groups dominate and the weaker pay the costs of defeat or neglect. There is a definite correlation between what humans think of themselves and what they become. Assuming the worst about people often brings out the worst in them without their realizing it. It's a clear case of the old statement - "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist". 

According to Hobbs, human life in a state of nature was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. It resulted in ‘a condition of war of all against all.’ He assumed that anarchy can be tamed and peace established if we all just agree to relinquish our liberty and put ourselves into the hands of a solitary sovereign who he called after a biblical sea monster: the Leviathan. Hobbes’ thinking provided the basic philosophical rationale for directors and dictators, governors and generals down the ages to grab power. You are often told that ‘knowledge is power’ but it is more true to say that ‘power is knowledge’.

The condition we face is much like that described in Bertolt Brecht's play, The Exception and the Rule. On Brecht's stage a handful of characters wander through a pattern of actions that show a moral universe turned upside down. What is good is made to appear evil; justice and injustice trade places. A coolie attempts to do a good deed. He is killed by his employer who sees the coolie's gesture as a threat from a class enemy. The murderer is placed on trial but is acquitted in a judgment that finds his behavior perfectly reasonable under the circumstances. In his poem The Second Coming, Yeats describes such a situation:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

What matters more than the model of human nature that you choose to use is to realize that you have one in the first place, because then you have the power to question and change it. As Keynes once admitted, it was ‘a struggle of escape from habitual modes of thought and expression … The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in the old ones which ramify. . . into every corner of our minds.’ Conceptual locks are far more powerful than factual locks. 

In the posts that follow, it would appear that I have over-emphasized human cooperation and under-emphasized the competitive and self-aggrandizing aspect of human nature. But the assertions about the negative aspects of human nature have become so common that it was necessary to indicate the overwhelming importance which sociable habits play in Nature and human society. Individual self-assertion is something quite different from the petty, unintelligent narrow-mindedness which goes for “individualism” and “self-assertion.” 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

An award for gaffes

Have you heard of the 'Foot in Mouth Award'? It is awarded by the Plain English Campaign for "a baffling comment by a public figure." The award was first made in 1993, when it was given to Ted Dexter, the chairman of selectors for the England cricket team.  Politicians have been recipients of the award more times than any other group of people. The list includes some familiar names. Here is a sample:

Alicia Silverstone - The American actress, star of Clueless, was awarded in 2000 for her comment: "I think that Clueless was very deep. I think it was deep in the way that it was very light. I think lightness has to come from a very deep place if it's true lightness."

Richard Gere - The American actor was presented with the award in 2002 for his philosophical comment: "I know who I am. No one else knows who I am. If I was a giraffe and somebody said I was a snake, I'd think 'No, actually I am a giraffe."

Boris Johnson - He is a regular contender for the prize. He won in 2004 for his comment: "I could not fail to disagree with you less." His second win in 2016 was secured by the unsinkable: "Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a Titanic success of it."

Naomi Campbell - The English supermodel picked up the award in 2006 for saying, "I love England, especially the food. There's nothing I like more than a lovely bowl of pasta."

George W. Bush - Bush's award was made during his final year in office as President of the United States (2008). Entitled a "Lifetime Achievement Award", it was given not for a single quote, but for his continued "services to gobbledygook". His gaffes were described as covering a large number of topics, and included comments such as "I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe – I believe what I believe is right", and, "I hope you leave here and walk out and say, 'what did he say?'"

Silvio Berlusconi - The former Italian Prime Minister received the award in 2011 for comments such as "I am pretty often faithful", when talking about fidelity in 2006, and describing Barack Obama in 2008 as being "Handsome, young and also suntanned".

Mitt Romney - U.S. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney received the award in 2012 for making gaffes like: "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me" and "I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that's the America millions of Americans believe in. That's the America I love."

Donald Trump - He was at the time of the award (2015) campaigning for the Republican nomination in the 2016 US presidential election. The Plain English Campaign said that Trump was "unrivalled". In particular the campaign cited his remarks on Mexican immigrants: "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." It also cited his remarks on John McCain: "He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured."

(I heard that every Republican president makes you nostalgic about the previous Republican president. Trump made you feel that Bush was a wise, compassionate guy with a nice sense of humor. Can you imagine a time when you will be nostalgic about Trump? Maybe Trump II?)


Friday, July 15, 2022

Tocqueville on Religion - II

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America also offers a philosophic account of why a free society necessarily requires a religious foundation. A free society depends on freedom of thought and discussion, it certainly includes a right to question conventional opinion. But it would be a mistake to think that this freedom requires an unfettered skepticism about all things or a willingness to treat all ideas as open to question. On the contrary, all societies depend in some degree or another on shared beliefs or “opinions men receive on trust.” 

It is not possible for societies or even for individuals to arrive at all beliefs on the basis of the unguided, independent thinking of each individual. This, Tocqueville claims, is an “inflexible law” of the human condition. “If man were forced to prove to himself all the truths he makes use of every day, he would never finish; he would exhaust himself in preliminary demonstrations without advancing.” Having neither “the time because of the short span of life, nor the ability because of the limits of his mind,” man cannot establish by his own efforts all of the convictions that he needs; those that claim to have done so are dishonest or deluded.

Accordingly, an individual is “reduced to accepting as given a host of facts and opinions that he has neither the leisure nor the power to examine and verify by himself.” The functioning and prosperity of society therefore require “that all the minds of the citizens be brought and held together by some principal ideas; and that cannot happen unless each of them sometimes comes to draw his opinions from one and the same source and unless each consents to receive a certain number of ready-made beliefs.” All societies, and especially free ones, require some intellectual unity, which in turn supports a unity of the citizens’ sentiments.

The limited power of the individual human mind makes it impossible for common ideas on moral and religious questions to arise from the spontaneous and unregulated thought of each individual. Religion, Tocqueville thinks, is the most important source of common beliefs for citizens. Here he is careful to note that his defense of society’s religious consensus is undertaken not with a view to what is good for religion, but instead with a view to what is good for society. Such religious beliefs are evidently useful “even if one wants to pay attention only to the interests of this world.” Tocqueville is concerned not with the salvation of souls but with the preservation of a decent political order. Such an order depends, however, on the preservation of commonly held religious beliefs. 

Tocqueville argues that human beings desire freedom but not an unlimited freedom. When they have firm moral convictions rooted in firmly held religious beliefs, they can be confident that they know how to exercise power justly, but what if they lose their religion and therefore become uncertain about what is morally right while nevertheless retaining a certain decency? In that case, they will no longer want to govern themselves, because they will find the responsibility frightening and oppressive. At this point, they will come to think that they can solve their problem by simply submitting themselves to the state, letting their rulers decide all things for them. He writes in Democracy in America

There are religions which are very false and very absurd ; but it may be affirmed, that any religion which remains within the circle I have just traced, without aspiring to go beyond it (as many religions have attempted to do, for the purpose of enclosing on every side the free progress of the human mind), imposes a salutary restraint on the intellect; and it must be admitted that, if it do not save men in another world, such religion is at least very conducive to their happiness and their greatness in this. 

This is more especially true of men living in free countries. When the religion of a people is destroyed, doubt gets hold of the highest portions of the intellect, and half paralyzes all the rest of its powers. Every man accustoms himself to entertain none but confused and changing notions on the subjects most interesting to his fellow creatures and himself.

His opinions are ill-defended and easily abandoned: and, despairing of ever resolving by himself the hardest problems of the destiny of man, he ignobly submits to think no more about them. Such a condition cannot but enervate the soul, relax the springs of the will, and prepare a people for servitude. 

Nor does it only happen, in such a case, that they allow their freedom to be wrested from them; they frequently themselves surrender it. When there is no longer any principle of authority in religion any more than in politics, men are speedily frightened at the aspect of this unbounded independence. The constant agitation of all surrounding things alarms and exhausts them. 

As everything is at sea in the sphere of the intellect, they determine at least that the mechanism of society should be firm and fixed; and as they cannot resume their ancient belief, they assume a master. 

For my own part, I doubt whether man can ever support at the same time complete religious independence and entire public freedom. And I am inclined to think, that if faith be wanting in him, he must serve; and if he be free, he must believe. 


Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Tocqueville on Religion - I

Alexis de Tocqueville’s four-volume Democracy in America (1835-1840) is commonly said to be among the greatest works of nineteenth-century political writing. It is regarded as the first-ever analysis of democracy to dissect its pathologies. Many of his observations were both astute and prescient (which is remarkable considering that he was only in his 30s). 

He was a liberal, but, as he once said, a “new kind of liberal.” “One of the noblest enterprises of our time,” he added, would be to show that “morality, religion and order” do not need to be opposed to “liberty and the equality of men before the law.” Tocqueville stood out as a friend of religion who was also a friend of freedom. The remarkable feature of his thought was that he believed religion was essential to preserve liberty contrary to what hard core secularists thought. 

Thus although he emphasized that the separation of church and state is necessary to political liberty, he could say in Democracy in America  that religion “should be considered the first of [the Americans’] political institutions”. Probably the most important reason for his support of religion was that Tocqueville thought that organized religion was the only possible long-term counterweight to some of the main threats democracy faced. Democracy fosters intellectual and moral habits that can be deadly to freedom: the tyranny of the majority, individualism, materialism, and democratic despotism.

Rather than attempting to push religion out of the public sphere, he welcomed it, provided that its influence was indirect and it did not try to dominate the public sphere. For Tocqueville, the only way for either freedom or religion to prosper in the long run was by recognizing that they were mutually necessary, and mutually beneficial. He wrote not as a religious teacher aiming to propagate a particular faith, but instead as a political analyst interested in the kind of religious beliefs necessary to uphold freedom and democracy. He wrote not with a view to preserving completely intact a particular religion, but instead to discover the religious essentials of the free society and to explain how and to what extent they can be preserved. 

“Most religions,” he contends, “are only general, simple, and practical means of teaching men the immortality of the soul.” This teaching “is the greatest advantage that a democratic people derives" from religious beliefs and is what makes these beliefs “more necessary to such a people than to all others.” Religion is “only a particular form of hope,” one that is “as natural to the human heart as hope itself.” He reminds us that as responsible citizens of a democracy, we must take care to preserve the country’s inherited religious traditions. This is a difficult task because democratic conditions tend to undermine religion.

According to Tocqueville, democracy presents a new form of freedom that displaced the servitude of the ancient and medieval world. But, he thinks that this democracy carries within it the possibility of new forms of servitude. Democratic freedom is also a form of power: the power of the people to rule. This power carries with it new possibilities for abuse, and Tocqueville accordingly emphasizes the importance of religion’s ability to impose a necessary limit on the majority’s power. He sees the danger of majority tyranny. He sees that human nature is flawed and that human beings in any form of government are prone to do injustice to each other if they are not restrained in some way.

What “is a majority taken collectively,” Tocqueville asks, “if not an individual who has opinions and most often interests contrary to another individual that one names the minority?” If we can “accept that one man vested with omnipotence can abuse it against his adversaries, why not accept the same thing for a majority?” Men do not change their “character by being united,” nor do they “become more patient before obstacles by becoming stronger.” Accordingly, Tocqueville concludes that the vast power held by the democratic majority carries “consequences” that are “dire and dangerous for the future.”

I take the example of a future time, in the 20th century, when ruthless ideologies like Nazism and Communism arose and took hold of certain countries. These atheistic ideologies held that everything was permitted in society’s interests, even to the extent of destroying certain categories of citizens that were held to be socially undesirable. Tocqueville sees religious belief providing people with a sense of immovable moral limits which he viewed as necessary because of the protection it provides for the rights of those outside the majority, who are subject to the majority’s power. 

On the basis of these arguments, Tocqueville seeks to correct the anti-religious thinkers of his day — and those of our own day - who think of  religion as nothing but a source of oppression, and promote public atheism as a guarantee of freedom. For such men, “the freedom and happiness of the human species” require us to believe that human beings can be understood as nothing more than an accidental aggregation of matter and not as beings with souls. When such thinkers “attack religious beliefs,” Tocqueville argues, “they follow their passions and not their interests.” That is, they neglect the interests of society while following their anti-religious feelings instead.

In reality, Tocqueville argues, religion “is much more necessary” in a “republic” than in a “monarchy,” and “in democratic republics more than all others.” It is safe to give the people power to rule only if they believe that there are moral limits on their power that they must respect and their belief in such limits is sustained by their belief in religion.

Many people think of individualism as opposed to despotism. But in Democracy in America, Alexis de  Tocqueville warns that naked individualism may lead to democratic despotism. Excessive forms of individualism and materialism make citizens indifferent to their public duties and therefore undermines their ability to sustain the spirit of cooperative citizenship on which self-government depends. He says that “it constantly leads him back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart.” 

The despot, Tocqueville observes, “readily pardons the governed for not loving him, provided they do not love each other. He does not ask them to aid him in leading the state; it is enough that they do not aspire to direct it themselves.” This will make people as a whole surrender their right to govern themselves, handing themselves over to the rule of an all-powerful government directed by one man or perhaps a small elite.

There are some activities which can be undertaken only if you have a belief in after-life. By teaching the existence of an afterlife with rewards for virtuous living, religion gives men the confidence to undertake certain community activities that the self-interest of individualism prevents. Without such beliefs, doubts would inevitably stifle men’s public-spiritedness. The religious belief in rewards and punishments after death sustains such sacrifices by making their rewards certain. David Sloan Wilson writes in Evolution for Everyone 

A given religion adapts its members to their local environment, enabling them to achieve by collective action what they cannot achieve alone or even together in the absence of religion. The primary benefits of religion take place in this world, not the next. 

Reaching a similar conclusion by a different route, Hannah Arendt felt that  totalitarian elements dominate modernity, and that in a mass society there would always be a majority of people whose dedication to their own social and private interests would make them easy prey for party machines and demagogues (The Portable Arendt). "For the really horrific discovery of totalitarian regimes had been that mass conformists - "job holders and good family men" - were much more pliant, dedicated, loyal, and abundant agents of extermination than the criminals, "fanatics, adventurers, sex maniacs, crackpots" and social failures of the mob. She writes:

The mass man whom Himmler organized for the greatest mass crimes ever committed in history bore the features of the philistine rather than of the mob man, and was the bourgeois who in the midst of the ruins of his world worried about nothing so much as his private security, was ready to sacrifice everything - belief, honor, dignity - on the slightest provocation. Nothing proved easier to destroy than the privacy and private morality of people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives. 


Monday, June 13, 2022

Social limits of growth – IV

Positional goods were once free, taken for granted and seemingly plentiful, and thus social relations were rarely mentioned by classical economists. Hirsch shows that they were implicitly assumed. Taking Adam Smith’s economic analysis in The Wealth of Nations and  his social analysis in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Hirsch summarizes his views as follows: “[Men] could safely be trusted to pursue their own self-interest without undue harm to the community not only because of the restrictions imposed by the law, but also because they were subject to built-in restraint derived from morals, religion, custom, and education.” Smith’s position is a far cry from the celebrations of the dominance of self-interest that one finds today.

In Republican Paradoxes and Liberal Anxieties, Ronald Terchek says that people rely on fragments of his work to understand Smithian metaphors or assumptions about rationality and economic markets. They omit critical parts of Smith's theory and, in the process, give us not merely an incomplete Smith but also a distorted Smith. Even though Smith believes that the pursuit of self-interests in economic markets generates social benefits, he warns that such interests are too often driven by deceits that serve our vanities and lead to our own unhappiness.

He argues that although the rise of commerce introduces freedom, it provides no guarantee of a happy, moral life. For Smith, there is nothing about freedom that assures its wise and prudential use. Rather, he sees that free societies have many temptations that, if pursued, invite unhappiness. Therefore he promotes freedom as well as the moral development of agents and sounds both a celebration and a warning about liberty. 

The prominence Smith gives to self-interest is widely known. He repeatedly argues that people have an interest in their own well-being  and that they engage in activities that they think will promote it. But in addition to self-interests, Smith credits people with carrying moral sentiments. Smith claims that we come with natural endowments that enable us to make elementary moral judgments, to rejoice with the happiness of others, and to grieve at their misfortune. Such sentiments "superintend" our passions and desires and prompt us to be attentive to others. 

Also, Smith finds that when one person or a few people hold the preponderance of power and wealth in society, they can be counted on to use these goods to serve their interests, not the interests of those dependent on them for a living and security. Smith repeatedly argues that when wealth and power are combined, the greatest social cost comes from the loss of independence of those who are excluded. Dependencies cause honesty to be routinely penalized. He holds "Nothing tends so much to corrupt and enervate and debase the mind as dependency, and nothing gives such noble and generous notions of probity and freedom as independency."

He warns of the deception of wealth which makes people believe that more personal wealth and power will bring them happiness. He sees wealth giving us the ability to make choices to do things we could not have made without it. However, he finds wealth becomes dangerous to us when we allow it to define our character. He emphasizes individuals who marginally improve and do not make quantum jumps in fortune or rank. When Smith introduces us to those who have earned vast fortunes, we encounter people who find that tranquility has eluded them. 

Usually seen as a champion of increasing national income, Smith nevertheless fears that when national wealth passes a critical point and luxury becomes widespread, the consequences are usually disastrous. He fears that during prosperous times, individuals lose a sense of their limits and refuse to do what is necessary to retain their freedom. In pressing their own immediate interests, they do not secure their long-term welfare but rather buy a little time for their current enjoyment only, in the end, to become dependent on those who care little about them. 

He worries that excessive individualism undermines itself. He holds that self-restraint remains necessary for people who wish to retain their freedom. He acknowledges that background makes the most profound difference in the chances and choices available to people and restricts the autonomy of many in commercial society. He fears that the accumulative, unsettling effects of economic growth serve to demythologize the very restraints that he thinks are necessary for a flourishing, autonomous life and for political legitimacy.

Smith warns about the deception of deference, namely the widely held notion that those who possess great wealth and honor deserve our admiration and respect. According to him, this deception is "the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments." When we are deferential, we excuse our "superiors," even when our moral sense would direct otherwise. Standing in awe of wealth and power, we not only ignore the wise and virtuous, but we also despise and "neglect persons of poor and mean condition.'  Moreover, Smith finds that deference contributes to the legitimization of a regime, its practices, and the inequalities it protects and exonerates.

His good society is characterized by more than markets, diffused power, and freedom. It is a place where politics is not instrumental, and where culture promotes a sense of limits and deference. He is also concerned about the concentration of private power and the pattern of hierarchy and subordination that evolves within civil society, knowing that people can be dependent on private concentrations of power as well as public ones. If any of these latter characteristics are weak or missing it is not at all clear that Smith would automatically approve. 

(Adam Smith's capitalists were all small fry - shop owners, merchants and small scale industrialists. In his time, a 'manufactory' with a dozen workers was a big concern. The market was highly fragmented and wealth and power was not concentrated in a few hands.)

PS: The Theory of Moral Sentiments was Adam Smith’s attempt to explain where morality comes from and why people can act with decency and virtue even when it conflicts with their own self-interest. The book is heavy reading and I gave up mid-way. An accessible account of the work is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.

Monday, May 30, 2022

Social limits of growth – III

In Social Limits to Growth, Fred Hirsch illustrates the psychological problem created by growth using the example of Education. Education has usually been associated with external benefits, based on the assumptions that educated people make better citizens, they are more productive, and all the resulting benefits are not captured in their own higher earnings. For example, they pay more taxes and enhance the productivity of those with whom they work. But education also has a role as a signaling device in the modern economy which may negate these external benefits. 

Education's function as a screening device helps the employer sort out those who can best survive and master an educational obstacle course.  The “quality” of schooling has a relative dimension in which quality consists of the differential over the educational level attained by others. Adding layers to the level to which the competition for credentials is pushed merely absorbs educational resources without adding to the productivity of the winners in the competition.  

When education expands faster than the number of jobs requiring those educational credentials, employers  intensify the screening process. Jobs for which a high school diploma was previously sufficient will then require some college education. Individuals who decline to join the educational upgrading will suffer a devaluation of their credentials in the job market. This means, as the average level of educational qualifications in the labor force rises, a kind of penalty is imposed on those lacking such qualifications

Additional education becomes a good investment, not because it would generate additional income but because you will not be able to maintain the current level of income if others receive more education and you do not. Thus, the utility of expenditure on a given level of education as a means of access to the most sought after jobs will decline as more people attain that level of education. ‘The race gets longer for the same prize.‘

Because ever more people reach higher levels of education (due to well meant “inclusionary” state policies), but at the same time the amount of high-level jobs remains more or less stable, both sides – the employers and the potential employees – face increasing costs of screening. The former are forced to introduce additional barriers, tests and other screening efforts to find the people who fit their needs. Meanwhile, the latter are faced with an ever longer “obstacle course” (i.e., longer education + more intense screening by employers) to get the desired high-level jobs. This clearly makes both sides worse off.

The increase in capacity of the educational sector also has probably increased the attention paid to the quality of education provided. Existing institutions that have many years track record are valued more by employers than new colleges. Not only do they convey information the employers can trust but, in addition, it enables them to buy the elite contacts of the employee. Thus, establishing new colleges end up increasing the demand for an education at existing colleges.  

Even if the absolute quality of education in a particular institution is fully preserved, the previous incumbents of the superior schools would still lose their edge. This loss will force them to demonstrate their proficiency in a tougher or longer course of study. Education enjoyed in its own right is capable of indefinite extension; as an instrument for entree into top jobs, it is not. When you consider education as a screening device, the possibility of general advance is an illusion.

An “inflation” of educational credentials of this kind involves social waste in two dimensions. First, it absorbs excess real resources into the screening process by increasing the length of the obstacle course that employees require for testing for the qualities desired . Second, social waste will result from disappointed expectations of individuals and from the frustration they experience in having to settle for employment in jobs in which they cannot make full use of their acquired skills. 

Considered in isolation, the individual’s demand for education as a job entree can be taken as genuinely individual wants. But satisfaction of these individual preferences itself alters the situation that faces others seeking to satisfy similar wants. Competition among isolated individuals in the free market entails hidden costs for others and ultimately for themselves. What is possible for the single individual is not possible for all individuals. This is true for all higher levels of selection: What is possible for an individual state or an individual country is not possible for all units. Hirsch writes:

‘Once again, it is a case of everyone in the crowd standing on tiptoe and no one getting a better view. Yet at the start of the process some individuals gain a better view by standing on tiptoe, and others are forced to follow if they are to keep their position. If all do follow, whether in the sightseeing crowd or among the job-seeking students, everyone expends more resources and ends up with the same position.

Hirsh is not saying that more educational resources should not be provided. The way the system is structured at present, politicians are forced to make such promises and are under pressure to keep them. As he writes, ‘If theorists of human capital fell into this trap, why expect acquirers of human capital to avoid it?’ But the investments will be a social waste that will just force you to run faster to stay in the same place. Although individuals benefit from isolated action, the sum of benefits of all the actions taken together is zero. 


Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Social limits of growth – II

For his analysis in Social Limits to Growth, Fred Hirsch divided goods into two primary types. The first type was material goods: These are, in a sense, goods as commonly defined in economics. Their consumption generates utility because of the intrinsic characteristics of the good in question. These will generally be called FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods like soaps, shoes, refrigerators etc.). The supply of material goods could be, and was, increased in response to the public’s rising demand for them. 

The second category was called positional goods. There were certain amenities whose supply cannot be increased. Economic growth increases their utilization which increases their relative scarcity. The ozone layer, clean air, drinkable water, natural beauty, land for infrastructure (e.g. roads, sewers) and growing food, antiques etc. are examples. (‘Buy land. They are not making it anymore.’ – Mark Twain). Positional goods have no equivalent in standard economic theory. The focus of Hirch’s analysis was on the interplay between these two divisions of the economy. 

Within the realm of material  goods, all the   accomplishments economists attribute to the invisible hand of the competitive market economy holds true. Economic growth understood as a continuous increase in affluence means that ever more people have their needs in the material sector satisfied – and turn ever more attention to the positional sector. What happens when the material pie grows while the positional economy remains confined to a fixed size? 

Classical economists focused their attention narrowly on mankind’s bodily needs and thereby managed drastically to simplify the economic problem. That made demand and increases in demand always into a good thing, it showed competition to be a beneficent force that diminished monopoly profits and caused market prices to reflect costs and preferences; and it made quantification possible by rendering GDP estimates a simple measure of the economy’s contribution to welfare.

But when positional goods enter the picture, the situation is muddied. So long as material privation is widespread, conquest of material scarcity is the dominant concern. As demand for material goods are increasingly satisfied, demand for goods and facilities with a public (social) character become increasingly active. The limited demand for things with augmentable supply  (material goods) and the unlimited demand for those whose supply is limited (positional goods), have created a great number of peculiarities and problems in our society.

The consumption of positional goods is valued at least partly by comparison with the consumption of these goods by others – e.g., having a manager’s job makes me better off not only because of its intrinsic characteristic (salary, power, freedom etc.), but also because others are not managers. In a further sense, positional goods define our position within the society and are thus socially scarce.

Social scarcity can have differing visible effects. One is physical congestion: the more people acquire the material good “car”, the more frequent are traffic jams. The other is social congestion: this is the case in the area of jobs, where there is limited scope for “leaders”, “bosses” and the like. Furthermore, some positional goods are socially scarce because they generate utility by being physically scarce – for instance, there is limited amount of “picturesque” natural landscapes. Another area where such “direct” social scarcity prevails is in arts: a Picasso is seen as valuable mainly because there is only one of its kind.

The scarcity of a positional good renders different people’s enjoyment of it interdependent, so that one person’s increased consumption  or use of it reduces its availability for other people’s enjoyment. This causes numerous problems. Smog, traffic jams, the deterioration of cities, the spoiling of much natural beauty by overcrowding and too many tourists, the poisoning of the soil and ground water by the burying of toxic waste products are a few examples. 

While the economy as a whole keeps growing, the positional sector gets ever smaller (i.e more scarce) in relation to the rest. This makes positional goods relatively more expensive and/or their quality deteriorates (e.g., due to congestion effects). Also, while any individual has the possibility to attain positional goods, it is impossible for everyone to attain them making an increasing fraction of the population frustrated. Therefore, economic growth is continuously aggravating the problems arising from social scarcity. 

Demands for positional goods tend to grow as general standards rise, a demand that can be satisfied for some only by frustrating demand by others. For most people,  they become objects of desire that the most intensive effort cannot reach.  This creates situations in which individually rational behaviour leads to socially irrational outcomes. Positional competition that is promoted by growth leads to ever more frustration within the allegedly ever better off society.


Friday, May 6, 2022

Social limits of growth – I

It has long been believed, especially in Western societies (contrary to ancient wisdom), that the pursuit of economic advantage is actually a civilizing, moderating influence in society. Many people accept the view that people are motivated to pursue their narrow economic and material self-interests, assume that people support policies consistent with their vested interests, and regard behavior that is not self-interested with suspicion. The assumption that selfishness is the fundamental human motivation rests on the view that selfishness is beneficial, whereas otherishness is costly; people are selfish because they benefit from selfishness. 

We keep hearing material abundance would make it possible for everybody to have enough to be perfectly happy. Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly remarked that if he could put one American book in the hands of every Russian, it would be the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. A person with such a mindset views anything that history, literature, philosophy, or long-standing traditions might have to suggest about the prudence one ought to employ in the shaping of new institutions as romantic babble which can be ignored. Harvey Cox writes in an article The Market as God

Expecting a terra incognita, I found myself instead in the land of déjà vu. The lexicon of The Wall Street Journal and the business sections of Time and Newsweek turned out to bear a striking resemblance to Genesis, the Epistle to the Romans, and Saint Augustine's City of God. 

Behind descriptions of market reforms, monetary policy, and the convolutions of the Dow, I gradually made out the pieces of a grand narrative about the inner meaning of human history, why things had gone wrong, and how to put them right. Theologians call these myths of origin, legends of the fall, and doctrines of sin and redemption. 

But here they were again, and in only thin disguise: chronicles about the creation of wealth, the seductive temptations of statism, captivity to faceless economic cycles, and, ultimately, salvation through the advent of free markets, with a small dose of ascetic belt tightening along the way, especially for the East Asian economies.

The last couple of centuries witnessed an impressive array of scientific discoveries, technical inventions, and industrial innovations which seemed to make the mastery of nature an accomplished fact rather than an idle dream. Many took this as a sign that all ancient wisdom had simply been rendered obsolete. As one chronicler of the new technology wrote in Scientific American: "The speculative philosophy of the past is but a too empty consolation for short-lived, busy man, and, seeing with the eye of science the possibilities of matter, he has touched it with the divine breath of thought and made a new world. " 

The assumption of self-interest pervades the social sciences, particularly economics and psychology. Empirical research suggests that this assumption is wrong or at least overstated. After a lot of searching the economist Joseph Henrich found that the Homo Economicus of economists' dreams does exist but, it is not a human, but a chimpanzee. ‘The canonical predictions of the Homo economicus model have proved remarkably successful in predicting chimpanzee behavior in simple experiments,’ Henrich noted dryly. ‘So, all theoretical work was not wasted, it was just applied to the wrong species.’ As Langdon Winner says in The Whale and the Reactor:

‘To argue a moral position convincingly these days requires that one speak to (and not depart from) people's love of material well-being, their fascination with efficiency, or their fear of death. The moral sentiments that hold force can be arrayed on a spectrum ranging from Adam Smith to Frederick W. Taylor to Thomas Hobbes. I do not wish to deny the validity of these sentiments, only to point out that they represent an extremely narrow mindset.’

Of course, all of economics is not about Homo Economicus. There are models which try to incorporate the complexities of human behavior. There are many results from experimental studies showing that people don’t behave according to the Homo Economicus model of human nature. We are far more cooperative and willing to trust than is predicted by the theory, and we retaliate vehemently when others behave selfishly. But most people who study economics don't go beyond the undergraduate level where such complexities are not discussed.

In Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science, Dani Rodrik says that many economists may have the predisposition of being knee-jerk market fundamentalists but it is certainly not what economics teaches. The correct answer to almost any question in economics is: It depends. Different models, each equally respectable, provide different answers. All the valuable lessons that economics teaches are contextual. They are if-then statements in which the “if” matters as much as the “then.”’

Economists don’t regard physical limits as a major problem because of the potential scope for substitution as a result of technological advance. Thus economic theory focused on explaining how conflicting selfish interests of market participants balance out in a way that results in the production of goods and services according to consumers’ preferences and an efficient allocation of resources to their production. What is not discussed are the ways in which growth creates its own frustrating limits.

The common argument is that even though the masses today could never get close to what the well-to-do have today, they can get most of the way there with patience in a not too distant tomorrow, through the magic of compound growth. If the fruits of aggregate advance appear inadequate or disappointing,  it merely reflects inadequate economic effort or excessive demands by individuals, or poor organization or inadequate capital equipment currently available to them. Too much has been expected too soon. Conventional wisdom thinks in terms of “excessive expectations.” The populace wants it now. It cannot have it now. It is too impatient. 

But in Social Limits to Growth, Fred Hirsch argued that the promise of economic growth which has dominated society for so long has limits that were essentially social rather than physical which made their analysis flawed. The distributional struggle is heightened rather than relieved by the process of growth. He shows why the affluent compete among themselves and how they create social scarcity. Affluence, by creating a kind of congestion, limits the welfare attainable by society as a whole.  

The affluent society is the frustrated society, seemingly incapable of improving the quality of life through greater material quantity. Generalized growth then increases the crush. It is an exact reversal of what economists and present-day politicians have come to expect growth to deliver. ‘To see total economic advance as individual advance writ large is to set up expectations that cannot be fulfilled, ever’.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Bullshit jobs - II

 What about jobs that are just partly bullshit? There are very few jobs that don’t involve at least a few pointless or idiotic elements. To some degree, this is probably just the inevitable side effect of the workings of any complex organization. The problem is getting worse and Graeber calls this trend 'the bullshitization of society' - 'I don’t think I know anyone who has had the same job for thirty years or more who doesn’t feel that the bullshit quotient has increased over the time he or she has been doing it.'

 For example, take the case of teachers in higher education. They spend increasing amounts of time filling out administrative paperwork rather than teaching. According to a survey, the amount of time American office workers say they devoted to their actual duties declined from 46 percent in 2015 to 39 percent in 2016, owing to a proportionate rise in time dealing with emails (up from 12 percent to 16 percent), “wasteful” meetings (8 percent to 10 percent), and administrative tasks (9 percent to 11 percent). It shows that (1) more than half of working hours in American offices are spent on bullshit, and (2) the problem is getting worse.

This increasing 'bullshitization' accompanied by technological changes has resulted in creation of jobs up with fancy titles with imagined roles. In an essay in the Guardian on corporate rubbish, André Spicer writes, “A century of management fads has created workplaces that are full of empty words and equally empty rituals… Consider a meeting I recently attended. During the course of an hour, I recorded 64 different nuggets of corporate claptrap. They included familiar favourites such as ‘doing a deep dive’, ‘reaching out’, and ‘thought leadership’. There were also some new ones I hadn’t heard before: people with ‘protected characteristics’ (anyone who wasn’t a white straight guy), ‘the aha effect’ (realizing something), ‘getting our friends in the tent’ (getting support from others).”

Fancy designations are just an extension of this phenomenon. Thus you have ’Chief Geek Officers’, ‘Dream catchers’, ‘Gold Miners’, ’Heads of Fire Fighting’, ’Omni-Maestro of Integrated Commerce’, ‘Curator of next-generation digital experiences’ and ‘Preserver of Experience’. You also have ‘Chief Tweeting Officer’, ’Chief Jolly Officer’ and ‘Chief Geeky Officer’. Apparently, a service technician at Apple is called “genius”. More impressive designations that I have seen:

  • Chief Delight Officer (HR) - responsible for connecting people, building teams, reducing stress and promoting a happy work culture.
  • ‘Social Birds’ - look after social media and connect people through various campaigns 
  • ‘Community Data Guerrilla’ - looks after data analytics.
  • 'Chief of Customer Success’ - formerly known as Chief Operations Officer 
  • Crayon Evangelist - oversees all of the company's graphic-design needs  
  • Catalyst - executive assistant/office manager 
  • Creator of opportunities - SVP of business development 
  • Ambassador of buzz - corporate communications associate
  • Digital prophet - attempts to predict trends
  • Chief curator - chooses which items to be featured on homepage 
  • Head of global trends and futuring – progressive strategist 
  • Chief Amazement Officer - founder 
  • President and TeaEO - CEO of a tea company
  • Director of First Impressions - receptionist 
  • Security Executive - A watchman  
  • Chief Hygiene Officer - a cleaner 
  • Chief Talent Acquisition Officer - An HR executive 
  • Vice President of Miscellaneous Stuff - in charge of everything nobody else is in charge of. 
  • Chief Cheerleader - ensures the morale of employees gets a regular boost

PS: — Bill Hicks comedy routine:

Boss: How come you’re not working? 

Worker: There’s nothing to do.

Boss: Well, you’re supposed to pretend like you’re working.

Worker: Hey, I got a better idea. Why don’t you pretend like I’m working?  You get paid more than me.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Bullshit jobs - I

In 2013, the late anthropologist, David Graeber published an article, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (which he later expanded into a book called Bullshit jobs). Huge swathes of people spend their days performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs for the sake of keeping us all working. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? Yet virtually no one talks about it. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. 

The essay went viral almost immediately. Within weeks, it had been translated into German, Norwegian, Swedish, French, Czech, Romanian, Russian, Turkish, Latvian, Polish, Greek, Estonian, Catalan, and Korean, and was reprinted in newspapers from Switzerland to Australia. Blogs sprouted. Comments sections filled up with confessions from white-collar professionals. People wrote to him asking for guidance or to tell him that he had inspired them to quit their jobs to find something more meaningful. 

Graeber defines a bullshit job as a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence. He distinguishes between jobs that are pointless (bullshit jobs) and jobs that are merely bad (shit jobs). The two are often confused but might almost be considered opposites. If you mention the notion of bullshit jobs to someone who hasn’t heard the term before, that person may assume you’re really talking about shit jobs.

Bullshit jobs often pay quite well and tend to offer excellent working conditions. They’re just pointless. Shit jobs are usually not at all bullshit; they typically involve work that needs to be done and is clearly of benefit to society; it’s just that the workers who do them are paid and treated badly. In shit jobs, people are generally treated with arbitrariness and disrespect. Shit jobs tend to be blue collar and pay by the hour, whereas bullshit jobs tend to be white collar and salaried. 

Those who work shit jobs tend to be the object of indignities; they not only work hard but also are held in low esteem for that very reason. Those who work bullshit jobs are often surrounded by honor and prestige; they are respected as professionals, well paid, and treated as high achievers — as the sort of people who can be justly proud of what they do. Hardly anyone would trade in a pointless middle-management position for a job as a ditchdigger, even if they knew that the ditches really did need to be dug. 

Graeber had thought that the percentage of bullshit jobs was probably around 20 percent but it turned out to be much higher. A poll of Britons was conducted using language taken directly from the essay: for example, Does your job “make a meaningful contribution to the world”? Astonishingly, more than a third — 37 percent — said they believed that it did not (whereas 50 percent said it did, and 13 percent were uncertain). (But only 33 percent of workers found it unfulfilling which meant that at least 4 percent of the working population feel their jobs are pointless but enjoy them anyway.) A poll in Holland came up with almost exactly the same results: in fact, a little higher, as 40 percent of Dutch workers reported that their jobs had no good reason to exist. Graeber writes:

How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment? Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, . . . to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. 

For instance: in our society, there seems to be a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: What would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? 

Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dockworkers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science-fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. 

It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs, or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might improve markedly.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralyzing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyze London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. 

It’s even clearer in the United States, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against schoolteachers and autoworkers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry executives who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. 

It’s as if they are being told “But you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that, you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 12b

 Oscar Wilde said, “Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer.” Attempts have always been made to consign Gandhi to the dustbin of history. While everybody likes the idea of nonviolence, few believe it can be an effective policy in statecraft today. I read that the department of education in Odisha published a booklet reportedly stating that “Gandhi died because of an accidental sequence of events.” Apparently in a school in Gujarat 15-year-old children were asked how “Gandhi committed suicide” as part of an exam. 

Every so often someone comes along purporting to unmask the “real” Gandhi, the Gandhi that “no one knows,” the Gandhi who was patriarchal, bourgeois, casteist, a sexual puritan, contemptuous of Africans, an enemy of progress and development, even a “friend of Hitler’. (Gandhi authored two short letters to Hitler, urging him to renounce violence, neither of which the war-time British censors permitted to reach the intended recipient.) Yet Gandhi refuses to disappear. He is everywhere, a spectral presence who is likely to haunt even more. 

Few of Gandhi’s ideals survive today in India, and thus we cannot but declare him a failure. But he tried, he believed, and he lived by what he preached (by and large). This makes him a success, for, as the Gita says, you should do your duty without seeking a reward. Indian movie directors keep alive the ghost of Gandhi. (I know of Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi films.) When some unethical act takes place - politicians planning a riot, prisoner beaten by policemen, officials accepting bribes etc., there will be a  photo of Gandhi hanging on the wall behind. 

In The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi, Makarand Paranjape writes that killing the Father “is not the same as eliminating his influence or presence”. However much India’s elites and middle classes have attempted to relegate Gandhi to the margins, engaging in campaigns of slander, obfuscation, and trivialization, Gandhi continues to surface in the most unexpected ways. He is the (sometimes hidden) face of most of India’s most significant ecological movements, from the Chipko agitation to the Narmada Bachao Andolan, just as he is the face of intellectual dissent, little insurrections, and social upheaval. 

When the Polish workers rose against their authoritarian regime in the late 1980s, they talked of Lech Walesa as their Gandhi, a curious description of the Vodka-guzzling trade-union leader. When Benito Aquino of Philippines was assassinated, the same chant was raised by the crowd,  `Benito, our Gandhi'. Protesting crowds often hold posters of Gandhi and Che Guevara together, two leaders whose world-views were diametrically opposite to each other. The crowd would not even know who these people are.  As Ashis Nandy writes in an article Gandhi after Gandhi, 'For above all, this Gandhi is a symbol of those struggling against injustice, while trying to retain their humanity even when faced with unqualified inhumanity.'

'My father, do not rest. Do not allow us to rest', said Sarojini Naidu in her broadcast on All India Radio on February 1, 1948, after Gandhi's assassination. "I am not going to keep quiet even after I die”, Gandhi had once declared. The character of Gandhi in the Hindi film Lage Raho Munnabhai says, ‘I was shot down many years ago but my ideas will not die by three bullets, my thoughts will create a chemical imbalance in some mind or the other. Either you put me inside a frame and hang me up on your wall or think over my thoughts.’ After the assassination of Martin Luther King, a cartoon appeared in an American newspaper where Gandhi says to King in heaven:

 


Gandhi strived to live a life in politics which promoted moral values that transcended self-interest and political arrogance. He had come to the conclusion that democracy, like any other aspect of social and political life, would not function in the framework of a meaningless civilization with no sense of ethics and spirituality. His view was that a satyagrahi should wrestle with ’the coil of the snake’ of politics without being bitten by the lust for power. In Gandhi's Theory of Society and Our Times, A. K. Saran says:

. . . if Gandhi was not just a colonial leader who happened to achieve some kind of world fame, but, on the contrary, is a universal figure with relentless and steadfast concern with the destiny of man, then the central question raised by Gandhi, his thought, life and work, is the question of its relevance to our times and this is nothing else or no less than this: Has the voice of sanity any chance at all against the dark, demonic powers of our times?

Gandhi’s critical attitude toward modern civilization is an effort in asking the right questions at the right time about the whole inherited ideas on thought and action. He recognized that the advance of modernity coincides with the banishment of the small man to the sidelines. His ideas are a challenge both to Marxism and laissez-faire economics, which both count on pure economic forces for harmony or justice to prevail. All subtle ideas can be trivialized by portrayal in uncompromising and absolute terms. Don’t underestimate the power of steady misrepresentation.

Gandhi's challenging and fundamental questions discomfit many which makes him inspirational as well as annoying to different sections. The latter group is much larger especially in India and it is even more so because his ideas demand more attention, not less, since his death. He set a bar for ethical action in politics which is unlikely to be ever met in the future and certainly is well beyond the comprehension of the present breed of Indian politicians. They have managed to create a society in which someone like Gandhi would be at a huge disadvantage. That is the tragedy of our times. 

While information and knowledge lies ahead of us and is made more easily accessible by technology, all wisdom seems to be already behind us. As Antonio Gramsci succinctly puts it, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born -- now is the time of monsters.” Gandhi’s message of religious tolerance and non-violence is much more relevant today amidst the religious turmoil and political divisiveness around the world. The quality of his thought has sometimes been lost because of the other images Gandhi has - a shrewd politician and a deeply spiritual figure.  

A group of scholars, thinkers and writers gathered at the Sabarmati Ashram to once again reflect on Gandhi's death as absence and memory. Speaking of Gandhi’s Death brings together these reflections. In it, Ashis Nandy is quoted as saying:

Today, there is an all-round attempt to make Gandhi respectable. I see a lot of young faces in front of me. I hope you will avoid the temptation of seeing Gandhi as someone respectable, as somebody that your parents would like you to be like. 

I would rather want you to see Gandhi as disreputable, unpredictable, at the margins of sanity, and at the margins of everyday life; someone who dares to ask you to look even at your everyday life and your public life, and ask, is it possible for us to envision, to re-visualize or imagine a different kind of public or private life? Is it possible to live everyday life and yet look beyond its everydayness, and is it possible to contaminate your everyday life or the life of the people around you with that vision?”

PS: One of the best tennis quotes of all time was made by Vitas Gerulaitis. He lost 16 matches in a row to Bjorn Borg. He finally won his 17th match and growled at the press conference held later, 'Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.' After reading 37 posts in a row about Gandhi (I had planned over 50 posts!), I can imagine at least one of the two of you still reading these posts,  muttering darkly, 'Nobody makes me read 38 posts in a row about Gandhi.' Have no fear. I have decided to end this series with this post. 

PPS: Some have generously observed over the years that I am intellectually reasonably competent. After reading about my admiration for Gandhi, you may be convinced that such observations are grossly exaggerated. Daniel Kahneman has some words for you In Thinking, Fast and Slow that will make you exclaim, 'I told you so.' 

If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do. My Princeton colleague Danny Oppenheimer refuted a myth prevalent among collage undergraduates about the vocabulary that professors find most impressive. In an article titled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” he showed that couching familiar ideas in pretentious language is taken as a sign of poor intelligence and low credibility. 


Monday, March 14, 2022

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 12a

Stories persuade. As Yuval Noah Harari wrote, the persuasive power of stories distinguished homo sapiens in the animal kingdom. “Much of history,” he said, “revolves around this question: How does one persuade millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work toward common goals.” Whether it was joining forces to fend off a predator or to sail across oceans, the early sapiens persuaded and flourished by telling stories. The most important things in the world exist only in our imagination. But, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting. 

It is common to imagine that only oppressive societies benefit from cultivating public emotions. Yet orators like Gandhi understood the need to reach out and inspire strong emotions in people to inspire them to do the right thing. Kurt Vonnegut says about one woman, 'She was asked what she had learned from the Holocaust, and she said that 10 percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and that 10 percent is merciful, no matter what, and that the remaining 80 percent could be moved in either direction.' Both Gandhi and Hitler seemed to pull similar strings but told stories that pulled their people in opposite directions. In John Dewey’s words, 

“a renewal of faith in common human nature, in its potentialities in general, and in its power in particular to respond to reason and truth, is a surer bulwark against totalitarianism than a demonstration of material success or a devout worship of special legal and political forms.”  

Many people in Gandhi's time and now (especially educated, city-dwelling folk) find his spartan requirements, his vegetarian diet, his preference for natural methods of healing, celibacy, etc.hard to understand. In the first half of the 20th century, communism had a lot of appeal among many educated people. These people saw Gandhi as an obscurantist because of his use of religious metaphors for communication rather than a secular-scientific one, because he preached a moderation of rather than giving-in to one's desires, and strict insistence on non-violence rather than on more manly (to them) violent revolutionary methods. Zygmunt Bauman writes in  Globalization: The Human Consequences:

Not asking certain questions is pregnant with more dangers than failing to answer the questions already on the official agenda; while asking the wrong kind of questions all too often helps to avert eyes from the truly important issues. 

The price of silence is paid in the hard currency of human suffering. . . Questioning the ostensibly unquestionable premises of our way of life is arguably the most urgent of the services we owe our fellow humans and ourselves.

Gandhi questioned what had been taken as settled. He had a positive view of human nature. He was fond of quoting the Mohammedan saying adam khuda nahin lekin khuda ka noor adam se juda nahin (Man is not God but neither is he different from the spark of God). He often said that human nature will find itself only when it fully realizes that to become human it had to cease to be bestial or brutal. He was convinced that without the attainment of the virtue of non-violence, we will share the qualities of ‘our remote reputed ancestor the orangutan’. He was of the view that human beings will stop growing when they cease distinguishing between virtue and vice.

An aspect of Gandhi’s thought which is relevant today is his understanding of the relation between the great world faiths. ’The time is now passed,’ he said, ’when the followers of one religion can stand and say, ours is the only true religion and all others are false’ (Indian Opinion, August 26, 1905). He was particularly influenced by a Jain, Raychandbhai, who introduced him to the idea of the many-sidedness of reality (anekantavada), so that many different views may all be valid. And this includes religious views. Gandhi shared the ancient Hindu assumption that ’Religions are different roads converging at the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads so long as we reach the same goal?' 

He regarded it as pointless, because impossible, to grade the great world faiths in relation to each other. ’No one faith is perfect. All faiths are equally dear to their respective votaries. What is wanted, therefore, is a living friendly contact among the followers of the great religions of the world and not a clash among them in the fruitless attempt on the part of each community to show the superiority of its own faith over the rest. His ’doctrine of the Equality of Religions’, as it has been called, did not move towards a single global religion, but enjoins us all to become better expressions of our own faith, being enriched in the process by influences from other faiths. 

The day after Gandhi was assassinated, a foreign journalist was in South India and witnessed millions of people torn by grief. He had never seen something like this before and asked somebody to explain the phenomenon. The person said, 'Gandhi held up a mirror which showed us the best we could possibly be. Now we fear that the mirror has been shattered.' In Gandhi in His Time and Ours, David Hardiman writes that there have been great moral activists like Mandela, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X etc. (some of whom do not endorse Gandhi's policy of adhering to non-violence at all times) whose quality of leadership parallels that of Gandhi. He writes:

The moral activist puts her or his life on the line by challenging the 'system' to do its worst. Too often, the challenge is taken up, and the activist has been murdered. Each such violent and premature death has been a tragic setback. There is however hope, for people of such ethical power have again and again emerged to pose the question in new ways and to suggest new answers. They have not been perfect beings - they have had their human weaknesses and sometimes made great mistakes. 

Their personal family lives have often been sad, even tragic. But still, they are people who in their fierce and uncompromising moral commitment have soared above those around them. They stand for a human spirit that refuses to be crushed by the leviathan of the modern 'system' of violence, oppression and exploitation, and which aspires for a better, more equitable and non-violent future. In this, they inspire huge numbers. In them, Gandhi - their model - still lives.