A Philosopher's Blog

Poverty & the Brain

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on July 14, 2017

A key part of the American mythology is the belief that a person can rise to the pinnacle of success from the depths of poverty. While this does occur, most understand that poverty presents a considerable obstacle to success. In fact, the legendary tales that tell of such success typically embrace an interesting double vision of poverty: they praise the hero for overcoming the incredible obstacle of poverty while also asserting that anyone with gumption should be able to achieve this success.

Outside of myths and legends, it is a fact that poverty is difficult to overcome. There are, of course, the obvious challenges of poverty. For example, a person born into poverty will not have the same educational opportunities as the affluent. As another example, they will have less access to technology such as computers and high-speed internet. As a third example, there are the impacts of diet and health care—both necessities are expensive and the poor typically have less access to good food and good care. There is also recent research by scientists such as Kimberly G. Noble  that suggests a link between poverty and brain development.

While the most direct way to study the impact of poverty and the brain is by imaging the brain, this (as researchers have noted) is expensive. However, the research that has been conducted shows a correlation between family income and the size of some surface areas of the cortex. For children whose families make under $50,000 per year, there is a strong correlation between income and the surface area of the cortex. While greater income is correlated with greater cortical surface area, the apparent impact is reduced once the income exceeds $50,000 a year. This suggests, but does not prove, that poverty has a negative impact on the development of the cortex and this impact is proportional to the degree of poverty.

Because of the cost of direct research on the brain, most research focuses on cognitive tests that indirectly test for the functionality of the brain. As might be expected, children from lower income families perform worse than their more affluent peers in their language skills, memory, self-control and focus. This performance disparity cuts across ethnicity and gender.

As would be expected, there are individuals who do not conform to the generally correlation. That is, there are children from disadvantaged families who perform well on the tests and children from advantaged families who do poorly. As such, knowing the economic class of a child does not tell one what their individual capabilities are. However, there is a clear correlation when the matter is considered in terms of populations rather than single individuals. This is important to consider when assessing the impact of anecdotes of successful rising from poverty—as with all appeals to anecdotal evidence, they do not outweigh the bulk of statistical evidence.

To use an analogy, boys tend to be stronger than girls but knowing that Sally is a girl does not entail that one knows that Sally is weaker than Bob the boy. Sally might be much stronger than Bob. An anecdote about how Sally is stronger than Bob also does not show that girls are stronger than boys; it just shows that Sally is unusual in her strength. Likewise, if Sally lives in poverty but does exceptionally well on the cognitive tests and has a normal cortex, this does not prove that poverty does not have a negative impact on the brain. This leads to the obvious question about whether poverty is a causal factor in brain development.

Those with even passing familiarity with causal reasoning know that correlation is not causation. To infer that because there is a correlation between poverty and cognitive abilities that there must be a causal connection would be to fall victim to the most basic of causal fallacies. One possibility is that the correlation is a mere coincidence and there is no causal connection. Another possibility is that there is a third factor that is causing both—that is, poverty and the cognitive abilities are both effects.

There is also the possibility that the causal connection has been reversed. That is, it is not poverty that increases the chances a person has less cortical surface (and corresponding capabilities). Rather, it is having less cortical surface area that is a causal factor in poverty.

This view does have considerable appeal. As noted above, children in poverty tend to do worse on tests for language skills, memory, self-control and focus. These are the capabilities that are needed for success and it seems reasonable to think that people who were less capable would thus be less successful. To use an analogy, there is a clear correlation between running speed and success in track races. It is not, of course, losing races that makes a person slow. It is being slow that causes a person to lose races.

Despite the appeal of this interpretation of the data, to rush to the conclusion that it is the cognitive abilities that cause poverty would be as much a fallacy as rushing to the conclusion that poverty influences brain development. Both views do seem plausible and it is certainly possible that there is causation going in both directions. The challenge, then, is to sort the causation. The obvious approach is to conduct the controlled experiment suggested by Noble—providing the experimental group of low income families with an income supplement and providing the control group with a relatively tiny supplement. If the experiment is conducted properly and the sample size is large enough, the results would be statistically significant and provide an answer to the question of the causal connection.

Intuitively, it makes sense that an adequate family income would generally have a positive impact on the development of children. After all, this income would allow access to adequate food, care and education. It would also tend to have a positive impact on family conditions, such as emotional stress. This is not to say that throwing money at poverty is the cure; but reducing poverty is certainly a worthwhile goal regardless of its connection to brain development. If it does turn out that poverty does have a negative impact on development, then those who are concerned with the well-being of children should be motivated to combat poverty. It would also serve to undercut another American myth, that the poor are stuck in poverty simply because they are lazy. If poverty has the damaging impact on the brain it seems to have, then this would help explain why poverty is such a trap.

 

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Automation & Administration: An Immodest Proposal

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 5, 2017
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It has almost been a law that technological advances create more jobs than they eliminate. This, however, appears to be changing. It is predicted that nearly 15 million jobs will be created by advances and deployment of automation and artificial intelligence by 2027. On the downside, it is also estimated that technological change will eliminate about 25 million jobs. Since the future is not yet now, the reality might be different—but it is generally wise to plan for the likely shape of things to come. As such, it is a good idea to consider how to address the likely loss of jobs.

One short term approach is moving people into jobs that are just ahead of replacement. This is rather like running ahead of an inextinguishable fire in a burning building—it merely postpones the inevitable. A longer-term approach is to add to the building so that you can keep on running as long as you can build faster than the fire can advance. This has been the usual approach to staying ahead of the fire of technology. An even better and rather obvious solution is to get out of the building and into one that will not catch on fire. Moving away from the metaphor, this would involve creating jobs that are technology proof.

If technology cannot fully replicate (or exceed) human capabilities, then there could be some jobs that are technology proof. To get a bit metaphysical, Descartes argued that merely physical systems would not be able to do all that an immaterial mind can do. For example, Descartes claimed that the ability to use true language required an immaterial mind—although he acknowledged that very impressive machines could be constructed that would have the appearance of thought. If he is right, then there could be a sort of metaphysical job security. Moving away from metaphysics, there could be limits on our technological abilities that preclude being able to build our true replacements. But, if technology can build entities that can do all that we can do, then no job would be safe—something could be made to take that job from a human. To gamble on either our special nature or the limits of technology is rather risky, so it would make more sense to take a more dependable approach.

One approach is creating job preserves (like game preserves, only for humans)—that is, deciding to protect certain jobs from technological change. This approach is nothing new. According to some accounts, one reason that Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine was not utilized in the ancient world was because it would have displaced the slaves who provided the bulk of the labor. While this option does have the advantage of preserving jobs, there are some clear and obvious problems with creating such an economic preserve. As two examples, there are the practical matters of sustaining such jobs and competing against other countries who are not engaged in such job protection.

Another approach is to intentionally create jobs that are not really needed and thus can be maintained even in the face of technological advancement. After all, if there is really no reason to have the job at all, there is no reason to replace it with a technological solution. While this might seem to be a stupid idea (and it is), it is not a new idea. There are numerous jobs that are not really needed that are still maintained. Some even pay extremely well. One general category of such jobs are administrative jobs. I will illustrate with my own area of experience, academics.

When I began my career in academics, the academy was already thick with administrators. However, many of them did things that were necessary, such as handling finances and organizing departments. As the years went on, I noticed that the academy was becoming infested with administrators. While this could be dismissed as mere anecdotal evidence on my part, it is supported by the data—the number of non-academic administrative and professional employees in the academics has doubled in the past quarter century. This is, it must be noted, in the face of technological advance and automation which should have reduced the number of such jobs.

These jobs take many forms. As one example, in place of the traditional single dean, a college will have multiple deans of various ranks and the corresponding supporting staff. As another example, assessment has transformed from an academic fad to a permanent parasite (or symbiote, in cases where the assessment is worthwhile) that has grown fat upon the academic body. There has also been a blight of various vice presidents of this and that; many of which are often linked to what some call “political correctness.” Despite being, at best, useless, these jobs continue to exist and are even added to. While a sane person might see this as a problem to be addressed, a person with a somewhat different perspective would be inspired to make an immodest proposal: why not apply this model across the whole economy? To be specific, a partial solution to the problem of technology eliminating jobs is to create new administrative positions for those who lose their jobs. For example, if construction jobs were lost to constructicons, then they could be replaced with such jobs as “vice president of constructicon assessment”, ‘constructicon resource officer”, “constructicon gender identity consultant” and supporting staff.

It might be objected that it would be wrong, foolish and wasteful to create such jobs merely to keep people employed as jobs are consumed by technology. The easy and obvious reply is that if useless jobs are going to flourish anyway, they might as well serve a better purpose.

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Automated Trucking

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Science, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on September 23, 2016

Having grown up in the golden age of the CB radio, I have many fond memories of movies about truck driving heroes played by the likes of Kurt Russell and Clint Eastwood. While such movies seem to have been a passing phase, real truck drivers are heroes of the American economy. In addition to moving stuff across this great nation, they also earn solid wages and thus also contribute as taxpayers and consumers.

While most of the media attention is on self-driving cars, there are also plans underway to develop self-driving trucks. The steps towards automation will initially be a boon to truck drivers as these technological advances manifest as safety features. This progress will most likely lead to a truck with a human riding in the can as a backup (more for the psychological need of the public than any actual safety increase) and eventually to a fully automated truck.

Looked at in terms of the consequences of full automation, there will be many positive impacts. While the automated trucks will probably be more expensive than manned vehicles initially, not need to pay drivers will result in considerable savings for the companies. Some of this might even be passed on to consumers, resulting in a tiny decrease in some prices. There is also the fact that automated trucks, unlike human drivers, would not get tired, bored or distracted. While there will still be accidents involving these trucks, it would be reasonable to expect a very significant decrease. Such trucks would also be able to operate around the clock, stopping only to load/unload cargo, to refuel and for maintenance. This could increase the speed of deliveries. One can even imagine an automated truck with its own drones that fly away from the truck as it cruises the highway, making deliveries for companies like Amazon. While these will be good things, there will also be negative consequences.

The most obvious negative consequence of full automation is the elimination of trucker jobs. Currently, there are about 3.5 million drivers in the United States. There are also about 8.7 million other people employed in the trucking industry who do not drive. One must also remember all the people indirectly associated with trucking, ranging from people cooking meals for truckers to folks manufacturing or selling products for truckers. Finally, there are also the other economic impacts from the loss of these jobs, ranging from the loss of tax revenues to lost business. After all, truckers do not just buy truck related goods and services.

While the loss of jobs will be a negative impact, it should be noted that the transition from manned trucks to robot rigs will not occur overnight. There will be a slow transition as the technology is adopted and it is certain that there will be several years in which human truckers and robotruckers share the roads. This can allow for a planned transition that will mitigate the economic shock. That said, there will presumably come a day when drivers are given their pink slips in large numbers and lose their jobs to the rolling robots. Since economic transitions resulting from technological changes are nothing new, it could be hoped that this transition would be managed in a way that mitigated the harm to those impacted.

It is also worth considering that the switch to automated trucking will, as technological changes almost always do, create new jobs and modify old ones. The trucks will still need to be manufactured, managed and maintained. As such, new economic opportunities will be created. That said, it is easy to imagine these jobs also becoming automated as well: fleets of robotic trucks cruising America, loaded, unloaded, managed and maintained by robots. To close, I will engage in a bit of sci-fi style speculation.

Oversimplifying things, the automation of jobs could lead to a utopian future in which humans are finally freed from the jobs that are fraught with danger and drudgery. The massive automated productivity could mean plenty for all; thus bringing about the bright future of optimistic fiction. That said, this path could also lead into a dystopia: a world in which everything is done for humans and they settle into a vacuous idleness they attempt to fill with empty calories and frivolous amusements.

There are, of course, many dystopian paths leading away from automation. Laying aside the usual machine takeover in which Google kills us all, it is easy to imagine a new “robo-planation” style economy in which a few elite owners control their robot slaves, while the masses have little or no employment. A rather more radical thought is to imagine a world in which humans are almost completely replaced—the automated economy hums along, generating numbers that are duly noted by the money machines and the few remaining money masters. The ultimate end might be a single computer that contains a virtual economy; clicking away to itself in electronic joy over its amassing of digital dollars while around it the ruins of  human civilization decay and the world awaits the evolution of the next intelligent species to start the game anew.

 

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Taxing the 1% II: Coercion

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 11, 2015

As noted in my previous essay on this topic, those with the highest income in the United States currently pay about 1/3 of their income in taxes. There have been serious proposals on the left to increase this rate to 40% or even as high as 45%. Most conservatives are opposed to any increase to the taxes of the wealthy while many on the left favor such increases. As in the previous essay on this subject, I will focus on arguments against increasing the tax rate.

One way to argue against increasing taxes (or having any taxes at all) is to contend that to increase the taxes of the wealthy against their wishes would be an act of coercion. There are more hyperbolic ways to make this sort of argument, such as asserting that taxes are theft and robbery by the state. However, I will use the somewhat more neutral term of “coercion.” While “coercion” certainly has a negative connotation, the connotations of “theft” and “robbery” are rather more negative.

If coercion is morally wrong, then coercing the wealthy into paying more taxes would be wrong. As such, a key issue here is whether coercion is wrong or not. On the face of it, the morality of an act of coercion would seem to depend on a variety of factors, such as the goal of the coercion, the nature of the coercive act and the parties involved. A rather important factor is whether the coerced consented to the system of coercion. For example, it can be argued that criminals consented to the use of coercive force against them by being citizens of the state—they (in general) cannot claim they are being wronged when they are arrested and punished.

It could be claimed that by remaining citizens of the United States and participating in a democratic political system, the richest do give their consent to the decisions made by the legitimate authorities of the state. So, if Congress creates laws that change the tax rates, then the rich are obligated to go along. They might not like the specific decision that was made, but that is how a democratic system works. The state is to use its coercive power to ensure that the laws are followed—be they laws against murder, laws against infringing the patents of pharmaceutical companies or laws increasing the tax rate.

A reasonable response to this is that although the citizens of the state have agreed to be subject to the coercive power of the state, there are still moral limits on the power. Returning to the example of the police, there are moral limits on what sort of coercion they should use—even when the law and common practice might allow them to use such methods. Returning to the matter of laws, there are clearly unjust laws. As such, agreeing to be part of a coercive system does not entail that all the coercive actions of that system or its laws are morally acceptable. Given this, it could be claimed that the state coercing the rich into paying more taxes might be wrong.

It could be countered that if the taxes on the rich are increased, this would be after the state and the rich have engaged in negotiations regarding the taxes. The rich often have organizations, such as corporations, that enable them to present a unified front to the state. One might even say that these are unions of the wealthy. The rich also have lobbyists that can directly negotiate with the people in the government and, of course, the rich have the usual ability of any citizen to negotiate with the government.

If the rich fare poorly in their negotiations, perhaps because those making the decisions do not place enough value on what the rich have to offer in the negotiations, then the rich must accept this result. After all, that is how the free market of democratic politics works. To restrict the freedom of the state in its negotiations with rules and regulations regarding how much it can tax the rich would be an assault on freedom and a clear violation of the rights of the state. If the rich do not like the results, they should have brought more to the table or been better at negotiating. They can also find another country—and some do just that. Or create or take over their own state.

It could be objected that the negotiations between the state and the rich is unfair. While the rich can have considerable power, the state has far greater power. After all, the United States has trillions of dollars, police, and the military. This imbalance of power makes it impossible for the rich to fairly negotiate with the state—unless there are rules and regulations governing how the rich can be treated by the greater power of the state. There could be, for example, rules about how much the state should be able to tax the rich and these rules should be based on a rational analysis of the facts. This would allow a fair maximum tax to be set that would allow the rich to be treated justly.

The relation between a state intent on maximizing tax income and the rich can be seen as analogous to the relation between employees and businesses intent on maximizing profits. If it is acceptable for the wealthy to organize corporations to negotiate with the more powerful state, then it would also be acceptable for employees to organize unions to negotiate with the more powerful corporations. While the merits of individual corporations and unions can be debated endlessly, the basic principle of organizing to negotiate with others is essentially the same for both and if one is acceptable, so is the other.

Continuing the analogy, if it is accepted that the state’s freedom to impose taxes should be regulated, limited and restricted by law, then it would seem that imposing limits, regulations and restrictions on the economic freedom of employers in regards to how they treat employees. After all, employees are almost always in the weaker position and thus usually negotiate at a marked disadvantage. While workers, like the rich, could try to find another job, create their own business or go to another land, the options of most workers are rather limited.

To use a specific example, if it is morally right to set a rational limit to the maximum tax for the rich, it is also morally right to set a rational limit on the minimum wage that an employee can be paid. Naturally, there can be a wide range of complexities in regards to both the taxes and the wages, but the basic principle is the same in both cases: the more powerful should be limited in their economic impositions on the less powerful. There is also the shared principle of how much a person has a right to, be it the money she keeps or the money she is paid for her work.

Like any argument by analogy, the argument I have made can be challenged by showing the relevant similarities between the analogues are outweighed by the relevant dissimilarities. There are various ways this could be done.

One obvious difference is that when the state imposes taxes on the rich, the state is using political coercion. In the case of the employer imposing on the employee, the coercion is economic (although some employers do have the ability to get the state to use its coercive powers in their favor). It could be argued that this difference is strong enough to break the analogy and show that although the state should be limited in its imposition on the rich, employers should have considerable freedom to employ their economic coercion against employees. The challenge is showing how political coercion is morally different from economic coercion in a way that breaks the analogy.

Another obvious difference is that the state is imposing taxes on the rich while the employer is not taxing her employees. She is merely setting their wages, benefits, vacation time, work conditions and so on.  So, while the state can reduce the money of the rich by taxing them, it could be argued that this is relevantly different from an employer reducing the money of employees by paying low wages. As such, it could be argued that this difference is sufficient to break the analogy.

As a final point, it could be argued that the rich differ from employees in ways that break the analogy. For example, it could be argued that since the rich are of a better economic class than employees, they are entitled to better treatment, even if they happen to be unable to negotiate for that better treatment. The challenge is, of course, to show that the rich being rich entitles them to a better class of treatment.

 

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Kant & Economic Justice

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 27, 2014
English: , Prussian philosopher. Português: , ...

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One of the basic concerns is ethics is the matter of how people should be treated. This is often formulated in terms of our obligations to other people and the question is “what, if anything, do we owe other people?” While it does seem that some would like to exclude the economic realm from the realm of ethics, the burden of proof would rest on those who would claim that economics deserves a special exemption from ethics. This could, of course, be done. However, since this is a brief essay, I will start with the assumption that economic activity is not exempt from morality.

While I subscribe to virtue theory as my main ethics, I do find Kant’s ethics both appealing and interesting. In regards to how we should treat others, Kant takes as foundational that “rational nature exists as an end in itself.”

It is reasonable to inquire why this should be accepted. Kant’s reasoning certainly seems sensible enough. He notes that “a man necessarily conceives his own existence as such” and this applies to all rational beings. That is, Kant claims that a rational being sees itself as being an end, rather than a thing to be used as a means to an end.  So, for example, I see myself as a person who is an end and not as a mere thing that exists to serve the ends of others.

Of course, the mere fact that I see myself as an end would not seem to require that I extend this to other rational beings (that is, other people). After all, I could apparently regard myself as an end and regard others as means to my ends—to be used for my profit as, for example, underpaid workers or slaves.

However, Kant claims that I must regard other rational beings as ends as well. The reason is fairly straightforward and is a matter of consistency: if I am an end rather than a means because I am a rational being, then consistency requires that I accept that other rational beings are ends as well. After all, if being a rational being makes me an end, it would do the same for others. Naturally, it could be argued that there is a relevant difference between myself and other rational beings that would warrant my treating them as means only and not as ends. People have, obviously enough, endeavored to justify treating other people as things. However, there seems to be no principled way to insist on my own status as an end while denying the same to other rational beings.

From this, Kant derives his practical imperative: “so act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.” This imperative does not entail that I cannot ever treat a person as a means—that is allowed, provided I do not treat the person as a means only. So, for example, I would be morally forbidden from being a pimp who uses women as mere means of revenue. I would, however, not be forbidden from having someone check me out at the grocery store—provided that I treated the person as a person and not a mere means.

One obvious challenge is sorting out what it is to treat a person as an end as opposed to just a means to an end. That is, the problem is figuring out when a person is being treated as a mere means and thus the action would be immoral.

Interestingly enough, many economic relationships would seem to clearly violate Kant’s imperative in that they treat people as mere means and not at all as ends. To use the obvious example, if an employer treats her employees merely as means to making a profit and does not treat them as ends in themselves, then she is acting immorally by Kant’s standard. After all, being an employee does not rob a person of personhood.

One obvious reply is to question my starting assumption, namely that economics is not exempt from ethics. It could be argued that the relationship between employer and employee is purely economic and only economic considerations matter. That is, the workers are to be regarded as means to profit and treated in accord with this—even if doing so means treating them as things rather than persons. The challenge is, of course, to show that the economic realm grants a special exemption in regards to ethics. Of course, if it does this, then the exemption would presumably be a general one. So, for example, people who decided to take money from the rich at gunpoint would be exempt from ethics as well. After all, if everyone is a means in economics, then the rich are just as much means as employees and if economic coercion against people is acceptable, then so too is coercion via firearms.

Another obvious reply is to contend that might makes right. That is, the employer has the power and owes nothing to the employees beyond what they can force him to provide. This would make economics rather like the state of nature—where, as Hobbes said, “profit is the measure of right.” Of course, this leads to the same problem as the previous reply: if economics is a matter of might making right, then people have the same right to use might against employers and other folks—that is, the state of nature applies to all.

 

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Lovonomics

Posted in Business, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 9, 2011
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Marriage and other romantic relationships have often been cast as being fundamentally economic in nature. In most cases, this perspective has been taken by those critical of marriage (“marriage is long term prostitution”). However, there are some who take a positive view of marriage seen through the lens of economics. One recent book is Spousonomics, which I have not read. Like most men, I’m not much on reading books on relationships. However, hearing about the book did get me thinking about the general subject of casting a relationship in economic terms.

On the face of it, this perspective makes perfect sense. Legally, marriage is fundamentally about property rights: who owns what and who gets what when the marriage almost inevitably fails. However, that part is so obvious that it is hardly interesting to even write anymore about it.  Instead, I will focus on the view that characterizing relations in economic terms is a “bad thing.”

A case can be made for this being, in fact, bad. After all, deep in our secret hearts we want to believe in a love that is pure and unsullied by such matters as value exchanged and crass things like cash. I do, of course, agree with that. Love should not be about money (although money can kill love) nor should it be regarded as a crude matter of toting up gains and losses. However, I do think that it makes sense to consider relationships in terms of value.

While the feeling of love has value, it is one value among many in a relationship. While this might sound cynical, you can test this yourself: imagine that somehow all you have is love for someone and nothing else. No pleasure in their company, no common interests, and so on. Just someone the existence of love. While I suspect that is not even possible, that would seem to show that love is not the sole value in a relationship and is probably not enough to keep a relationship going by itself.

In addition to love (and one hopes that love is at least present) there must also be other matters of value. These things (though I dislike using that word here) could include the pleasure of the other person’s company, shared interests, emotional support, and so on. It is the sum of these factors that make a relationship worthwhile or not. This is, of course, a matter of value.

But, someone might say, this still seems like crude economics. It makes  relationship like a business merger or an alliance: you should be in it if it creates more value for you than the alternatives. That, one might say, is crass economics.

However, I have two responses. First, that is how you, good reader,  really function. Think about it honestly and  consider relationships you have ended and why. Second, this does not so much cast relations ships in a negative light as economics in a better light. Economics is, of course, based on human relationships (and not the other way around). As such, the reason why relationships seem to be analyzable in economic terms is that economics are forms of human relationships. As such, economics can be analyzable in terms of human relationships-although it is but a narrow set of possible human relations.

So, perhaps we should not say that marriage is a form of economics, but that economics is a form of marriage. Or not.

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Socialism & Democracy

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 11, 2010

While socialism comes in many forms, one classic form involves ownership of the means of production by the workers. In the classic capitalist model, the means of production are not owned by the workers but rather by the capitalists.

This form of socialism began creeping into the United States with the advent of the stock market. In theory, workers could buy stock in the companies they worked for, thus becoming part of the owning class. This blurs the line between worker and owner, just as it starts to blur the line between socialism and capitalism.

Obviously, there is a considerable difference between a full socialist system and one in which workers can buy stocks in companies they work for. After all, owning a few shares of a company is rather different than being an owner in the classic sense.

While socialism is often presented as a great evil in the United States, the idea of a worker owning a business is held out as a great good. A small business in which the employees are also owners can be seen as a socialist enterprise, yet is something praised by conservatives who are against socialism.

Interestingly, the idea of workers having meaningful ownership seems to be consistent with (or perhaps even required by) democracy. In a democracy, each citizen is part of the nation and has a say in how things will go (at the very least, each citizen can vote). In contrast, the classic business model is completely undemocratic: the owner is like a king or feudal lord. He rules from on high and the employees serve at his discretion and usually do not have any meaningful say in the decision making.  In contrast, worker owned businesses would seem to be democratic: business of the people, by the people and for the people.

Of course, it might be argued that the conditions in business are such that a democracy would be ineffective or inappropriate. After all, a business has to make quick decisions and voting would slow things down to much. Also, effective business choices require people who know the big picture and can make the tough choices that are needed for the business to succeed. Allowing the employees to get involved would interfere with this. Also, the employees would tend to vote for things like shorter hours, better working conditions, better pay, maternity leave, and better safety. These would cut into profits for the people who really matter, the top executives.

Interestingly, these same sort of arguments can (and have) been made against democratic forms of government. Likewise, arguments for democracy can be modified slightly to serve as arguments for worker ownership and control of business.

A Virtual Economy

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on March 31, 2010
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Spending money for games that allow you to play in an imaginary world is nothing new. However, a new way has been found to monetize games: selling items within games for real money. While this has been done in various online games against the terms of service of such games, Playfish has this as their business model. Facebook users can play their various games for free, but they buy the items in the game with real money (and lots of it).

Of course, virtual commodities are nothing new. People buy music, videos and software online. It can be argued that the virtual items in online games are similar-after all, they are digital “entities” that are purchased for enjoyment or use. Of course, music, videos and software do seem a bit more “substantial” than items in a video game, but perhaps this is not really a difference in kind but one of complexity.

While buying such game items might seem odd, it actually does make some sense. After all, if it makes sense to buy a song on iTunes because you enjoy it, it seems equally sensible to buy items in a game so as to enjoy the game. While the song might be seen as real, the game item is also real insofar as it creates enjoyment (as Mill argued, anything that can produce an effect is real).

In the case of competitive games, the selling of items does create the obvious problem of game balance and does violate a rather common principle of gamer ethics regarding buying advantages in a game with real money (that is, this is wrong).

Interestingly, this virtual economy is being lauded as not just a rather clever way to make money,  but also as a way to gain excellent data about economic behavior. While gathering such data in the real world can be costly and difficult (and often yield dubious results) the virtual economy in such games can be tracked with  precision.

However, there is the obvious concern of whether or not the online behavior matches real world economic behavior. Another concern is whether the people engaged in the online games differ in important respects from the general population. However, this is certainly interesting to folks who are into economics.

To close, I cannot help but think about Pet Rocks. When I was a kid, some clever people found a way to sell rocks as pets. When I think about people buying virtual things for real money, I keep picturing Pet Rocks.

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Males Trying to be Men

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on February 5, 2010

I happened to catch the segment on the Daily Show about the “mancession” and related matters. This reminded me of the various “men” movements that have sprung up over the years and how damn silly they are. But first, I will look at some serious issues.

One concern that I have written about before is that men have become the minority in higher education. Naturally, there are some academic branches that are still male dominated. However, the general college population is now predominately female. Interestingly, the feminists who were so very loud when women were the minority are now silent about the plight of men. This situation is, of course, as much a matter of concern as when women were the minority.

Another concern is the matter of economics. The unemployment rate for men is higher than for women and there are indications that women might very well out earn men soon. Economic equality is a good thing (read Mary Wollstonecraft‘s Vindication of the Rights of Women for an excellent argument) and hence we should be as worried about men as we were about women.

If arguments are wanted as to why we should be concerned about the situation that men are facing, we can simply dust off the old feminist arguments for equality and equal opportunity. Naturally, men are still doing well in many ways: men still dominate politics, business and higher education. However, it is wise to be concerned that men might be facing some of the same problems that women faced (and still do).

Now, switching to something less serious: males trying to be men.

The segment I saw on the Daily Show showed males trying to be men by going out into the woods, passing around a talking stick, and speaking about their feelings.

As I see it, joining a male group to cure one’s lack of manliness is like going to a bar to cure alcoholism. Clearly, a male who is passing around a talking stick or standing in a circle to talk about his feeling is hardly a man at all.

I am not saying that a male needs to chug beer, hoot at women, and kill wild animals with his bare hand in order to be a man. I’m just saying that participating in male groups of this sort won’t make a male into a man. In fact, they would seem to clean out any residue manliness the male might have left.

So, what is the way to be a man? There are actually many ways, despite the stereotype of there being just one way. I’ll leave this as an exercise for the reader.

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Is America’s Decline Inevitable?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 27, 2009

The recent economic disaster has raised the old questions about the fall of empires. Now, the questions are being asked about the United States. While the rise of China, India and other countries has left the US in a relatively less elevated position, we have actually be losing ground by declining. Signs of this include the obvious: a weaker economy, talk of moving away from the dollar as the world’s currency, less political clout and so on. Signs also include the less obvious: less brain drain from other countries to the US, less innovation in science and technology, and so on.

One reason for the decline of the US is that the US reached its height in the ruins of WWII. The other great industrial nations were in ruins or were at least badly damaged by the war. While the Soviets did present a challenge, they were (as history showed) burning bright by burning far too hot. The US, whose lands were not directly touched by war, was in a position to become a true superpower.

Now the world has recovered from WWII and the US is thus losing relative ground. Also, former empires such as China and India are reclaiming their former glory and power, thus returning to the world stage in force. These other countries are spending considerable resources on the future: education, research, energy and so forth.

Naturally, some folks might think that the signs are in place: the United States reached its peak and is now in a slow (or not so slow) fall.  It is quite reasonable to suspect that the US must fall. After all, all other empires have fallen and thus empires seem to be analogous to living things: they are born, reach their maturity and then perish.

Of course, while the history is accurate, the analogy is flawed. Living creatures do perish because they cannot replace their mortal flesh. But, an empire need never fall in this manner. Provided it can keep restoring its vigor and the basis for its success, it could be effectively immortal. The challenge is, of course, to pull of this seemingly imposisble task. Of course, it is not actually impossible-just rather difficult.

Even if the United States does decline, it need not become irrelevant nor need it stay down forever. After all, China was once a great empire that fell into a great decline. But China is on the rise and is a great nation once again. Interestlingly, China was rather easily defeated by the Japanese just a few decades ago. But now China is a giant looming over Japan. This, of course, may not last-as an empire rises again it can easily slide down the wheel of history and end up back on the ground.

Whether the United States declines or not is largely up to us. One factor that seems to be driving our decline now is the rot and corruption within our economic and political systems. Perhaps this will be the cancer that brings about our end, or perhaps it is but one disease among many infecting the political body.