Against Economics, Against Rigour

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I’ve been trying to grasp why mainstream economics considers itself the superior approach over  heterodox disciplines like Post-Keynesianism or Marxism.  After reading a couple of papers, and articles, a constant argument that appears is the one of rigour.  Mainstream economics is mathematically axiomatic, that is, it begins from a  set of primitive assumptions and then derives a whole system through self-consistent mathematical formalism.  Usually this is contrasted with heterodox approaches like  Post-Keynesianism, which are seen as less coherent and ad-hoc, with some writers referring Post-Keynesianism as  “babylonian babble” and not superior to a pamphlet.   Even if some heterodox economists use mathematical modelling, they do not follow from some axiomatic method, but are ad-hoc implementations.

What interests me about this argument is its definition of science.  According to many mainstream economists, heterodox economics isn’t a science.  The main reason given for the unscientific status of heterodox economics is that the latter lacks internal coherence, that it is not rigourous. As mentioned above, mainstream economics claims rigour by  deriving its propositions from mathematical inference  that begins with a set of axioms. It is by the usage of this rigour, that mainstream economics defines itself as a science.

If a field  claims to be scientific, it must justify its own status.  For better or worse, in the west,  the status of science is epistemically privileged. In other words, an activity can assert more legitimacy than other modes of producing knowledge by claiming the mantle of science.  Therefore mainstream economics by arguing for its scientific status due to an axiomatic coherence, while denying that same mantle to heterodox economics, is implicitly arguing that heterodox economics is an inferior epistemological approach and unscientific.

A common retort against the mathematical rigour of economics is that its coherent mathematical frameworks don’t necessarily correlate with empirical reality, which calls the scientific status into question. However this argument has been done to death, probably by people much smarter than me. What I find interesting is the idea that inferential coherence is a necessary condition for science.  In fact the argument being made by mainstream economists is that even if heterodox economics may arguably be able to explain some empirical phenomena mainstream economics cannot, heterodox economics is less scientific because it lacks internal coherence. Therefore, mainstream economics claim a necessary condition for science is rigorous logical coherence.

Where does this definition of science as rigorous logical inference comes from? There is only one natural science, which is physics, that approximates this sort of rigorous coherence, that is,  that there is a set of primitive axioms that lead to a whole system of knowledge by the application of rules of mathematical inference. Even then, the mathematical rigour in physics is often inferior than in economics, given that physicists don’t do mathematical proofs as much as economists. The rest  of the natural sciences are less rigorously formulated – many of them are a “bag of tricks”  that are heuristically unified. This is because anything more complex than a system of two interacting particles is mathematically intractable due to nonlinearities.  A good example is  psychology.  Although psychologists assume that certain personality traits are a manifestation of chemical processes in the brain, there is no rigorous mathematical inference that connects psychology to brain chemistry –  these scales are unified heuristically and qualitatively.  There are similar examples in biology, where in theory, morphological evolution is coupled to chemical evolution of genes, but the rigorous, mathematical linkage of both scales is close to impossible.

How  did the  definition of science as mathematical inference came into being? It is certainly not the normative self-consciousness of scientists, who see themselves as Popperian. Popper’s theory treats the evolution of science as a process where propositions  are falsified by empirical evidence only to be replaced by  better explanations – it does not say anything about “logical rigour”.   Nor this definition is descriptive, as shown in the previous paragraph, because most natural sciences aren’t as rigorously self-coherent as mainstream economics.   Weintraub  argues that the current  axiomatic approach to mainstream economics can be traced back to Gerard Debreu, an important french-american economists of the 20th century.   In the first half of the 20th century,   David Hilbert and Bourbaki (a pseudonym used by a group of french mathematicians) attempted to axiomatize mathematics, given the discovery of non-euclidian geometry in the 19th century. Before non-euclidian geometry,  geometry was thought to derive its axioms intuitively from the world – the truth-value of the axioms were self-evident.  An example of an “intuitive” axiom in euclidian geometry is that parallel lines don’t meet.  However 19th century mathematicians  realized that they could create self-consistent, alternate geometries where parallel lines could meet. An alternative geometry that starts from non-euclidian axioms  was self-consistent if rigorously inferred through mathematical rules.  This led Hilbert and Bourbaki to develop a more axiomatic approach to the study of mathematics. Debreu, who learnt mathematics from the Bourbaki school, brought this axiomatic way of thinking to economics.

Today this axiomatic approach  is very obvious in the average graduate economics curriculum. For example some of the classes emphasize writing mathematical proofs! I am very close to competing a PhD in physics and I only experienced very basic proofs at my undergraduate level in a  linear algebra class.   After that I never wrote a single proof ever again.  Yet, economics, which arguably has had less empirical success from its mathematics,  requires more mathematical rigour than the average paper in physics.  This tells me that the economist’s emphasis on rigour is not inspired in the example of the successful, natural sciences, but it’s endogenous –  from within. If anything, it shows that mainstream economics is at most a bizarre synthesis of philosophy and mathematics, owing more to these abstract fields, than to any of the existing natural sciences.  Therefore, mainstream economics should be described as more of a  mathematical philosophy than  a science.

The case of the arbitrary rigour of economics has interesting implications in academia at large.  An uncharitable person would say that the spurious mathematical rigour of economics is simply  gate-keeping for a professional guild.  The extremely technical skills required to master mainstream economics  limit the supply of would-be economists, generating a manageable number of rent-seekers that can be paid handsomely.  But this probably extends to much of academia as well.   Academia is peppered with examples where “rigour” and “method” are elevated with no obvious epistemic justification. One has to wonder if appeals to rigour are more often than not guild building in order to justify large pay-checks by limiting the supply of the participants.  The trope of “how many angels can dance on the tip of a pin” is a famous example of this spurious rigour.  Medieval theologians were accused of developing  beautiful, often rigorous and coherent systems, that deal with questions of no intellectual consequence.   Similarly, the same phenomenon probably emerges in some sector of academia, given that rigour and opacity are a cheap way of signalling expertise to institutions in order to justify large salaries.

Finally, I think the unjustified emphasis on rigour when not warranted is unhealthy for democracies.  Often, many problems that are meaningful to humanity at large, such as issues of political and economic nature, require the mass participation of society in order to build an engaged citizenship.  Spurious rigour and credentialism are ways to build a technocratic hierarchy that is not necessarily justified. In the absence of authentic knowledge, rigour becomes simply a guild-like mechanism for confining meaningful problems to a set of fake experts that decide the fate of whole nations, often in the interests of a reduced elite. A socialist, democratic society would require a more egalitarian epistemology than the one that exists today.

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The World-System Versus Keynes

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The most incredible  modern lie is the one of nation-state sovereignty.  From the left to right,  the relative success of an administration is aways interpreted as a function  of endogenous variables the nation-state can  supposedly control.  In the case of the right wing, they see the perceived failure of their society as related to the government not closing the borders, running high deficits,  or allowing companies to outsource jobs.  From the left’s perspective, the nation-state is simply not running high enough deficits to fund more social programs, not supporting full employment policies, or refusing to raise the minimum wage. Meanwhile, a totalizing world-system pulsates  in all corners of the planet,  with flows of information, commodities,  securities, and dollars  creating a complex system that subsumes the sovereignty of most nation-states.  In the heart of this world-monster,  there is a hierarchy of nation-states, with some states having more influence and control  over the world-system than others.

Recently, with the advent of the Great  Recession in 2008, many people in the left, some of them self-proclaimed socialists, have been doubling down on the myth of national sovereignty.  They see the economic crisis, and the continuous casualization of workers, as an opportunity to administrate the nation-state in the “right way” to reverse these trends. They see themselves as holding secret truths and insights about the economy that neoliberals don’t truly fathom.  Only if these social democrats had the opportunity to apply  the right ideas, ideas that they claim have been pushed out of the political and academic mainstream for venal reasons, they could fix the economy.

What are these right ideas?  In the first half of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes had already developed a toolkit for any eager leftist technocrat to  manipulate in order to attenuate economic crisis.  He, in contrast to the classical economists that preceded him, argued that sometimes the market did not clear, which generated a recession.  By market clearing, I mean that the supply of commodities wasn’t balanced out by  their demand. This is sometimes referred as Say’s Law.  Another important aspect of the failure of Say’s Law is the existence of unemployment, given that there is more supply of labor than demand.  While classical economists argued that economic crises could self-correct themselves and eventually clear, by for example, lowering the wage of workers or cheapening commodities,  Keynes argued that these recessions could persist for a very long time without the aid of governmental fiscal and monetary policy. According to Keynes, some of the reasons the markets fail to clear are: (i) workers will not accept wage cuts, (ii) recession would make investors risk averse, causing them to save their money rather than invest, and (iii) mass unemployment and risk aversion would decrease the buying of commodities.

Keynes thought that the state could  force the market to clear through fiscal and monetary policy.  He argued that in the case of recession, aggregate demand is lower than what it should be, and this in turn, caused negative feedback loops that halted the economic engine (e.g. the underconsumption of commodities). In order to stimulate demand, the state could increase the amount of money in the consumer side by: (a) public spending on infrastructure in order to employ the previously unemployed, (b) lowering taxes so that the consumer has more available money. Meanwhile,  the state could stimulate demand through monetary policy by lowering the interest rate so that consumers and investors can buy an invest through cheap loans and credit.  This monetary policy was thought to cause inflation because it would increase the money supply by allowing low interest/cheap borrowing, but at the same time, this policy was thought to cure the greater diseases, which were mass unemployment and low aggregate demand.   Keynes’ policies often required deficit spending, that is the government spending more than they acquire, usually by accruing debt. Furthermore, Keynesian policies  tend to trigger inflation because they increase the money supply. However the Keynesians thought that this inflation was a necessary evil to cure unemployment.

In the 1970s, however, economic crisis displaced Keynesianism into the fringe.  The rapid increase of the price of oil coupled with a large money supply created a crisis. These high prices discouraged companies from investing, given that production costs were too expensive and inflated. The Keynesian approach to dealing with crises was not applicable since unemployment was coupled with low demand and inflation (stagflation), which ran contrary to the Keynesian consensus of the time. So it seemed that inflationary policies, such as increasing the money supply, wouldn’t solve the stagnation and unemployment problem.  In response to the crisis, some economists, like the monetarist Milton Friedman, claimed   that Keynesian monetary policy was at least partly responsible for the crisis given its inflationary nature.  Friedman argued that in order to cure the recession, governments should reduce the money supply.  Therefore in accordance to Friedman’s prescription, the Fed in the United States sharply increased interest rates, which ran contrary to Keynesian policy. This tightening of the money supply by the Fed is thought to have aided in the resolution of the crisis. The empirical falsification of Keynesianism because of the stagflation crisis, coupled with a protracted cultural war by classical economists such as Hayek, Friedman etc., and the shift of power towards financial speculators,  displaced Keynesianism into the fringe of heterodox economics that exists today.

Nowadays Keynesianism has been rebranded into all sorts of heterodox disciplines that found a place in Left. Keynes became a darling of the Left for three reasons: (i) melancholy for the post-WWII welfare state and cheap credit, (ii) a consumer-side perspective (e.g. focus on aggregate demand) that seems to value working class consumers over capitalist suppliers, and (iii) the idea that capitalism is crisis prone in contrast  to the the neoliberal orthodoxy of economic equilibrium.  Some of these rebranded Keynesian theories go under different names, such as Post-Keynesianism and Modern Monetary Theory.  Although these Post-Keynesian theories are not exactly isomorphic to the original theories and prescriptions set by Keynes, they all roughly agree with the main heuristics, mainly that the state should strongly intervene in the market, and that an increase of money supply and government spending should be used to counter crisis rather than neoliberal austerity.  Finally, all these approaches rely on one particular thing (which I will show later on why it’s flawed), which is the strength of the sovereignty of the nation-state.  I will focus on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) as an example given that it is one of the more contemporary iterations of Keynesianism.

Modern Monetary Theory’s basic premise is simple:  a nation-state that issues its own currency cannot go bankrupt given that it can print more of its own money to pay for all necessary goods and services.   Another way of stating this theory is that governments don’t collect taxes for funding programs and services. Rather governments literally spend money into existence, printing money in order to pay for necessary services and goods. Taxes are just the government’s mechanism to control for inflation. In other words, taxes are the valve used to  control the money supply. MMT therefore argues that since money is in the form of fiat currency,  it’s not constrained by scarce commodities such as gold and silver, and therefore it is a flexible social construct. So governments don’t need to cut social programs in order to increase revenue – they could simply spend more money into existence in order to pay for social programs. Furthermore, the government can  enforce full employment by spending jobs into existence  – the state can create jobs through large-scale public works, and then print the necessary money to pay the workers. In a sense, MMT is another iteration of the Keynesian monetary heuristic that increasing the money supply is a good way to solve high unemployment and crisis.

Imagine the potential of MMT for a leftist!  The neoliberals  arguing for austerity and balanced budgets are talking nonsense – the state can simply spend money into existence and therefore pay for welfare and other public services, and also use this new minted money to employ the unemployed! If the increase of money supply triggers inflation, the state can simply tax more, fine-tuning the quantity of money. If only the MMTer would convince the right technocrats, we wouldn’t have to deal with the infernal landscape of austerity.

However, the idealized picture presented by MMT is missing key variables.  Ultimately,  an MMT approach would be  heavily constrained by national production bottlenecks.  In order for MMT approaches to work, the increase of demand caused by the sudden injection of money should be able to be met by the production of  the desired commodities.  In an ideally sovereign nation, society would be able to meet the demand of computers, medicine, or food by simply producing more of these commodities. We may refer to a country’s capacity for producing all the goods it needs as material sovereignty.

However this is where the fundamental achilles hill of MMT (and Post-Keynesianism in general) lies.  Most countries are not materially sovereign at all. Instead, they depend on imports in order to meet their demand on fundamental goods such as technology, fuel, food or medicine.   In the real world, countries have to buy forex currency (e.g. dollars) in order to be able to import necessary goods. The price of the dollar in terms of another currency is not in control of the currency’s issuer. Instead it’s a reflection of the economic and geopolitical standing of that nation amidst the current existing world-system. Whether the dollar is worth 20 or 30 Mexican pesos has to do with Mexico’s  position in the global pecking order, and this exchange rate, if anything, can be made worse by the adoption of Keynesian policies. For example, if Mexico suddenly increases its own currency supply, the Mexican peso would simply be devalued in contrast to the american dollar, making its ability to buy the necessary imports diminished.  This puts a fatal constrain on a nation-states ability to finance itself through simple monetary policy.

The economic castigation of “pro-Keynesian” countries by the world-system is a cliche at this point.  To name some examples:  Allende’s Chile,   Maduro’s Venezuela, or pre-2015 Greece. In the case of Allende, the sudden increase of the money supply by raising the minimum wage created a large unmet demand and also eventually depleted the country’s forex reserves (there was also economic sabotage aided by the United States, but this also reinforces my argument).  In the case of Maduro, Chavez ran large deficits, assuming the high revenues from oil will last long enough. Greece overspent itself through massive welfare and social programs.  Although Greece doesn’t have its own currency, it still engaged in a high deficit fiscal policy that led to its default.   If these countries had their own material sovereignty, such as being able to produce their own food, technology, and other necessary goods, the global order would not have been able to castigate them so harshly. Instead, what ended up happening is that foreign investors pulled out,  the national currency plummeted, and their forex reserves depleted,  making these governments unable to meet the national demand for necessary goods through imports or foreign capital injection.

The above scenario reveals a fundamental truth about capitalism – national economies are functions of global, exogenous variables, rather than only endogenous factors.   Keynesian policy is based on the idea that nation-states are sufficiently sovereign to have economies that depend mostly on endogenous factors. If  the nation-state’s economy depend solely on  national variables, then a Keynesian government could simply manipulate these variables in order to get the desired outcome of  its national economy.  However it turns out nation-states are instead firms embedded in a global market, and their fate ultimately lies in the behaviour of the planetary world-system.  The nation-state firm has to be competitive in the world-system in order to generate profit; this implies that inflationary policies, large debts, and state enforced  “full employment” are not necessarily healthy for the profitability of the firm.   Furthermore, it means that the leftist nationalists that want to, for example, leave the eurozone in order to be able to issue their own currency, are acting from misguided principles.

Given the persistence of the totalitarianism of the world-system, no matter the utopian schemes of leftist nationalists and their fringe hetetodox academics, it’s infuriating to witness how the Left has lost its tradition of internationalism. Instead, the Left, since the advent of WWII, has been pushing for “delinking” of the world-system, whether it’s through national liberation during the 60s, or more recently, by leaving the euro-zone, fomenting balkanization in countries like Spain or the United Kingdom, etc.

The world-system can only be domesticated to pursue social need with the existence of a world socialist government.  Regardless of how politically  unfeasible the program of world government is, its necessity follows formally from the existence of a world system. Only through world government could socialists have sufficient sovereignty in order to manipulate the economy for social need. In fact, the Keynesians indirectly point at this problem through their formalism.  Post-Keynesian theories such as MMT start from the idea of a state having material sovereignty. Yet, the only way for a state to have material sovereignty, and therefore be able to manipulate endogenous variables for its own economic ends, is to subsume the whole planet into some sort of unitary, democratic system.  A planetary government could then manipulate variables across the planet (e.g. both in China and in the United States) to enforce social-democratic measures like full employment or a welfare state, without dealing with the risk of international agents castigating the economy, or having to import goods from “outside”.  But the funny thing is that once we have global. fiscal and monetary policy, Keynesianism becomes irrelevant, given that market signals can be supplanted by a planned economy.

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You Aren’t A Vulcan, But a Squishy and Ideological Human

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Scientific rationality is one of the foundations of western civilization.  The discovery of the natural laws  behind the useful work done by a diesel engine, the electron clouds propagating through conductors, and the modus operandi of a virus, has given the  geopolitical upper hand to North America and Western Europe.  So it comes to no surprise that many have attempted to use a similar methodology to uncover the fundamental laws that regulate the human world.

Although this rationalist method of parsing the human world  is intimately coupled with the spirit of anglo-saxon capitalism, with economic marginalism (e.g. Hayek, Samuelson, etc.) being its first coherent expression – there has been a recent, growing rationalist  movement that attempts to bring this perspective to the  culture wars.   Some examples of these  platforms are   the popular blog  Slate Star Codex, and the publication Quilette.   An important animus behind this upsurge is  a reaction against  the  sociological  theories of the Left, such as  structural theories on gender and racial discrimination. Many of these rationalists, instead postulate that the perceived empirical disparities (e.g. gender wage gap,  racial inequality, lopsided  gender and racial ratios in STEM etc.) between races and genders are connected to biological-essentialist variables such as sexual reproductive strategies, or the differences in IQ among races.

It’s hard for me to discuss in a  completely detached and charitable manner these theories, because of my ethnicity, leftist leanings, and utter contempt for  Vulcan-wannabe dudes with shitty STEM degrees.  However I will try to use  peer-reviewed articles that are popular among them  in order to argue that ultimately, their  “rationalist” methodology is fundamentally wrong.  The outline of my argument is as follows:   (i) the only thing these papers  demonstrate is an empirical correlation not causation.  (ii) The reason why they cannot demonstrate causality is that the problems they are dealings have many variables that are extremely hard to isolate. (iii) Because of the large epistemic uncertainty in the casual links, politics become unavoidable. (iv)  Because of politics, this rationalist project collapses, and their vulcan-like rationality becomes a political ideology amongst others.

A good example is the often cited paper by Schmitt et al.   The main thesis is that personality differences between women and men seem to widen in more gender equal countries.  The paper finds a moderate correlation between personality sexual dimorphism and gender equality.  However, what is generally referred is one of the conclusions, which argues that personality dimorphism is not enforced by  stringent  policing in gender equal countries. Rather,  gender equality lets  sexual dimorphic traits diverge into their natural equilibrium. In other words, free societies let women and men express their intrinsic, gendered personality traits that are a function of darwinian processes.

I’ve seen many “rationalist” sources refer to this paper either explicitly or implicitly. It’s seen as one of the most powerful attack against feminist points, such as how certain gendered disparities, like  lopsided ratio of women in some STEM fields,   or the lack of females in certain leadership positions, are product of sociological  and structural factors such as socialization and sexual harassment.  The “rationalist” argues that policies aimed at making certain fields like STEM more sexually diverse, or increasing the number of women in leadership positions, are  misguided and potentially counterproductive.  Very recently, a study also showed that  percentage of women in STEM fields seems to actually decrease as a function of equality,  where in relatively unequal country such as Algeria, about 41 percent of STEM workers are women. This study seems to vindicate the previous study of Scmitt et al.

I am not going to question the methodology behind these studies, but I feel necessary to point out that quantifying things like “personality traits” and “gender equality”, and also aggregating them, is probably not  trivial and riddled with assumptions. However,  even without questioning the methodology, and taking at face value these empirical relations, the papers at most demonstrate the existence of empirical correlations and nothing more. One could try to hypothesize a multiple of causes, including a biological-essentialist link, but ultimately,  these studies only demonstrate a correlation between two empirical measurements, and nothing else.   This is the old adage of correlation does not imply causation.  Here is a very funny site showing all sorts of spurious correlations, such as the relationship between suicides by strangulation and government spending on science. A better way to understand this problem is to imagine a situation where two variables are correlated: A and B.  There are actually four plausible causal explanations for this correlation: (1) A causes B, (2) B causes A, (3} A and B are caused by some variable C,  or (4) the correlation is only a spurious coincidence. Therefore an empirical correlation, while an important result in itself, is not sufficient proof to establish causation.

The issue of causation is very deep and has lead to centuries old discussions in the sciences and philosophy.  For example, the Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that there is no logically consistent way of assuming causation from correlation. However,  my argument isn’t really as absolute, but more practical in an everyday sense. Studies, like the ones I referred above, deal with problems that are too multivariate to convincingly establish a biological argument by just a mere correlation.  In the case of physics and the hard sciences, causation is usually proven through experimentation that isolates all the irrelevant variables, or if lab experiments are not possible, through computational simulations where all the important variables and physical laws are plugged into a computer code.

In the case of other “softer” sciences, such as bio-informatics, social sciences, etc. that deal with complex, multivariate problems that cannot be dissected by controlled experiments,  the important variables are isolated through  statistical techniques that try to take take into account all the relevant parameters.  For example,  here is  a very easy to understand paper that argues against the book of  IQ and the Wealth of Nation, by disproving  the idea that that some biologically detemined  lower IQ of the  “non-white” races leads to underdevelopment in their respective countries, by using a simple multiple regression analysis that takes other variables beyond IQ into account.  Furthermore, in many cases, especially studies with political consequences,  even sophisticated statistical techniques are not enough to establish causation beyond reasonable doubt, given that there is always the possibility of unknown variables not being accounted for.  A famous example is the history of the cigarette-lung cancer link, where it took decades of different types of studies, from lab experiments, to questionnaire based correlations, to establish a causal link. This weakness was obviously abused by tobacco conglomerates, but the point is that even the scientists hired by these tobacco companies at some point began to accept the validity of the evidence, since various research trajectories triangulated into the cancer-cigarette connection.

Now lets go back to the previous statement on how sexual dimorphism in gender egalitarian countries implies an inherent, biologically hard-wired tendency that makes  men in average more interested in engineering than women.    This causal link is almost completely impossible to establish beyond doubt, at least with the known experimental and scientific techniques. This problem is incredibly much more complex than the subject of the cancer-tobacco link.  This complexity arises due to the existence of many social variables interfacing with the career choice of women that are extremely hard to take into account.  For example,  it is obvious that in the most gender, unequal limit, there wouldn’t be almost any women in engineering jobs  (e.g. England in the 19th century)! It is only in today’s particular configuration that this correlation seems to be valid, which already shows the existence of  hidden socio-economic variables that affect these studies.

The inability to establish causal links beyond reasonable doubt in many socio-economic problems (e.g. economics) is actually well defined mathematically.   For example, in the case of mathematical physics, the Holy Grail for all these vulcan-like rationalists, the problems that can be solved are extremely limited in scope.   Poincare showed in the late 19th century the exact solution  for the trajectories of more than  two interacting bodies is mathematically non-integrable.  In the 1960s, Lorenz  discovered that despite the sophistication of computers, many multivariate problems, such as the one of simulating the weather,  become intractable after a certain point due to chaos.  These uncertainties are not even a matter of not properly accounting for all relevant variables, but are embedded in the mathematical structure.  So it is quite arrogant to argue with  confidence that a couple of mere empirical correlations are enough to disprove the lived experience of many female students and STEM workers, which point at discouragement from peers, lack of role-models, unwelcoming workplaces etc.

Given the existence of large amount of noise, chaos, and “hidden” variables in socio-economic systems, there cannot be a pure rationalist and “scientific” way of tackling these problems.  The existence of this epistemic uncertainty therefore gives rise to politics in a much more stronger sense, than when dealing with simpler, “mathematical’ problems.   Therefore the cry of “centrists”, “classical liberals”, “rationalists”, Jordan Peterson, etc. of feminism, leftism, etc. being ideological is a case of pot calling the kettle black. Given the epistemic opacity of socio-economic problems, this claim of rationality is simply a bed-time story – a shallow aesthetic consideration for soul-less logical chopping and boring prose. Instead, they have agendas, not unlike the “irrational” leftists and feminists. In fact, if I were uncharitable, I could claim it isn’t reason that animates them, but some burning resentment for women, minorities, feminists etc. invading their spaces.  I am not ashamed of admitting  my own agendas as well, and that’s why this blog is explicitly partisan, and not written in the spirit of some shitty analytic philosophy paper.

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Socialism Versus Economic Growth: the Human Being Is Not Infinitely Hackable

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I am for the rational planning of the world economy in order to fulfil social need (e.g. free time, housing, healthcare, transportation, education etc.), including the minimization of the work day until its eventual abolition.  This would require consolidating current scientific and technological capacity towards the goal of serving these needs.  Yet, I feel this usage of scientific rationality for socialist means is often mistakenly coupled with the idea of  unconstrained economic growth.   In the last couple of years, this idea of growth has become  a  tension in the Left between the so called “de-growthers” and the “prometheans“, the former wish to contract the economy in order to avoid ecological catastrophe while the latter argues that continued growth and progress are necessary for socialism. The debate is quite muddled, and often it is not really related to technical disagreements in political program relating to economic growth, but instead, to fuzzier aesthetic and ideological concerns between the ecologists and the futurists.  On one hand you have quasi-luddites who privilege the local and small over the global and cosmopolitan, and rail against GMOs, and nuclear power. On the other side, you may have sci-fi  “communist” types that want to pave the Earth and colonize Mars.

Much of these debates about growth are anchored around ecology and malthusianism – the idea that planetary constraints demand that humanity downsizes and consumes less.  However, as a socialist, I am not invested in the tension between  mass consumption and an impersonal natural world that I have no affinity with. Rather, I am interested in the liberation of humanity from toil, alienation and material misery.   I therefore  believe that the idea of unconstrained growth is  at best confused from the perspective of a socialist, or at worst, actually detrimental to to the objectives of liberating humanity from quasi-forced labor (wage labor,  peasant labor , slavery, etc.).  This leftist anchor around growth leads me to argue  in this piece the following: (i) growth as a metric for socialism is undefined, (ii) if we measure growth as increased productive capacities then it is antithetical to socialism (productionism), (iii) productionism  has a human limit, given that human beings  can only be optimized into productive workers at the cost of incredible physical and psychological violence.

Growth, from the perspective of  these left debates, is definitely undefined, given that economic growth is usually conceptualized in the context of capitalism. Since GDP  growth is the   telos of capitalism  – the expanding of capital through  reinvestment of profit and exploitation of labour, economic growth is a very well defined process within the market and in that sense, it is a “positive” thing.    For example,  the competency of a politician, whether “left” or “right” is at least partly judged by how much did the GDP grew under their tenure.   In the context of social democrats operating within capitalism and the nation-state, GDP growth is important because the satisfaction of social need is  the side-effect of a  growing economy that can generate new jobs  and more tax revenue. However the fulfilment of social need is not the end goal of capitalism, just the potential byproduct of profit.  In contrast, the telos of socialism is not capital growth, but the rational satisfaction of social need.    Therefore the concept of economic growth in the context of socialist economics becomes undefined.  One cannot use a metric defined in relation to the expansion of capital to judge  the progress of a society that is focused in satisfying needs related to housing, healthcare, education, reduction of the work day, and transportation. Socialist progress cannot be meaningfully quantified in a metric such as GDP, especially in the maximum program of socialism, which would abolish money and private property.

A more universal metric for growth, as opposed to GDP, may be a productionist metric – a function of how much of a particular industrial output is created. This was more or less the metric used for planning in the USSR , under the famous Five Year Plans.  Through a method called “material balances”, the planning agency of the USSR, the Gosplan, would survey all the available raw materials/natural resources, turning them into inputs  that where “balanced” with industrial outputs.  Given the absurdly high production outputs required by, for example, the first Five Year Plan, which demanded the accelerated expansion of heavy industry at the cost of famines, terror,  and slave labor, one could label the USSR as productionist.  This historical human cost of industrialization (both in the USSR and the West) leads to my next argument, that  the intensification of productionist growth depends on the exploitation of human labour –  through either extending the work day so that more industrial output is produced within a single day, or by extracting a surplus that must be reinvested in the development of machinery and techniques.

The history of class society has shown that economic expansion is contingent to the extraction of surplus from human labor.   The pyramids,  the steam engine,  and the violent transformation of peasants to more productive proletarians  are a function of the coagulated blood of billions.  Economic expansion requires the extraction of a surplus in human labour, whether it is by seizing peasants’ agricultural output, or through the exploitation of proletarians.

Today in the Global North we can see the more humanistic manifestation of the tyranny of economic growth. Although the economy in  core states has exponentially expanded in the last century, the length of the work day has frozen for almost a hundred years.   Not only has the length of the work day remained frozen, but more intensive  techniques are currently applied to dissect the human being in order to rebuild it as a working automation.  We see this with the expansion of the work-day into our inner lives, transforming humans into semi-sentient, individual firms. Socializing becomes networking, love a machine learning algorithm to find a mortgage partner, social media a matter of building a brand.  This transformation of homo sapiens to homo economicus is hard to describe, but I feel it in the marrow of my bones as an immigrant.  Economic rationality  controls the way I move my hands in a professional presentation and also structures my speech,  demanding that I do not betray my foreign sloppiness. For the sake of career and success I must conceal my spirit, which was shaped by a culture where lines are wobbly, time is erratic, and human boundaries less exact.  How could anyone that is human defend this infernal labor camp?  This despair  makes me  sympathetic to “non-model” minorities that are unable to adapt to this padded asylum of white light and right angles, because at some level they are more human than me.

I must reiterate that the above arguments do not necessarily run counter to technological innovation and a planned and controlled growth. My point is that productionism inevitably is a function of human labour, and therefore is at tension with the reduction of the work day.  If the priority of socialism is to expand the sphere of free-time, then inevitably,  reduction of the work-day will be prioritized over mass consumption and productionist growth.   That does not imply that humanity will necessarily live an austere existence with the minimum necessary for survival, but that production will be planned in accordance to use-value, so instead of the bult-in, capitalist obsolescence of large volumes of short-lived consumer goods, we may have a lower volume of long-lived, quality goods. An exact picture of  the social reality within  a world, planned economy is hard to portray at this moment, but the important point is that productionism and consumerism are antithetical to free time.

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Socialism Versus Jordan Peterson: The Case of Complexity Science

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The debate of nature versus nurture has undergone a new political dimension. Although that  discourse was always political, it seems that a combination of mediatic dynamics and academic fortress building has divided the nature-nurture debate into  two ontological camps. In other words, each camp’s language is unintelligible to the other.  On one hand, you have the sociological Left  that posits  that socio-economic discrepancies between races and the sexes are  due to socio-cultural phenomena. For example, centuries of policing gender boundaries (some of which continues today) through both soft suggestion (e.g. gendered roles), and direct institutional violence (adultery laws, banning of women in certain professions etc.) have solidified a disadvantaged position of women in this society. On the other hand, you have the naturalistic “center” or right wing  (e.g. Jordan Peterson) that argues that the lower socio-economic position of women is not a function of structural obstacles, but personality differences that are more or less biologically hard-wired that make women choose less paying professions, or be less confrontational and assertive in corporate settings.

This piece-meal approach, on one hand of the Left’s sociology, and on the other hand, of  the Right’s naturalism, is counter to  a scientific ontology,  which would posit that humans are both social beings and evolved animals.  Even if the Left is correct in that  biological variables are not necessarily relevant to many of the social sciences, the Right’s naturalistic prescription of social problems as functions of biological darwinism makes more intuitive sense to an anglo-saxon audience. This is because  anglo-saxon education is steeped in scientism (e.g.  anglo public intellectuals, such as Dawkins, Degrasse Tyson, etc. are scientists),  and their culture is ill equipped to deal with more sociological  and philosophical arguments (e.g. Weber’s argument about the West’s instrumental reason). So given the scientism of western culture, it is important for leftists to develop a synthesis that outlines when do sociological feedback loop completely overwhelm biological loops, rather than simply eliminating biology from their conceptual framework. I believe this synthesis is possible using the conceptual constellation of complexity science (something I’ve written about before).  To make my case,  I will first outline why the Left is against naturalistic prescriptions. Secondly, I will explore how these sociological arguments were recuperated by liberal bureaucrats and opinion makers (hereby referred as coordinators), and thus made  naturalistic arguments more popular given the backlash to authority. Finally I will sketch a  “complexity science” synthesis  on why is it that social dynamics tend to be more important than biological ones when dealing with human society.

Humans are  animals, the end-product of billions of years of biological evolution that transformed a primal bacteria into a big-brained, bipedal primate that can talk and make abstract, mathematical computations. However  the human being is also a social being, shaped and programmed by various complicated feedback loops that are enforced not only by the most rudimentary kinship unit such as the nuclear family, but by large-scale socio economic structures that extend through centuries and thousands of kilometres (e.g. states).   However,  one of the most ancient and predictable tricks done by the elite is to justify their privileged positions through naturalistic arguments.  For example, in the 19th century social darwinism and racial pseudo-science was used to biologically  justify the privileged position of the white man and the capitalist. Given the reactionary nature of these pseudo-scientific arguments,  revolutionaries and militants began  taking a sociological approach to dismantle the naturalistic myths of power (e.g. Marx) – it’s not biology that has given the capitalist or the white man the head-start, but complicated historical contingencies that gave rise to feedback loops that privileged some castes at the expense of others.  Existing power differentials were not biological telos, but a historical accident.  These sociological arguments formed the theoretical backbones of working class militancy, feminist activism, and anti-racist movements.

However, recently  these initially emancipatory sociological explanations  have been recuperated by a professional caste in a diluted, tragic form. This form does not have the objective of liberating humanity by addressing  material structures that sustain the nightmare of class society.  Instead, these ideas have become defanged into  talking points used by the bosses to discipline how their employees talk, or strings used by human resource cyborgs  to maintain appearances in the atomic wasteland of social media. These new deplorable, liberal coordinators, only concerned with maintaining optics and flaunting  cultural capital,  are unable to defend these sociological ideas, because nothing is at stake for them except television ratings or curriculum vitaes.  Jordan Peterson,  the idiot’s smart man,  by realizing how vulnerable are these clueless coordinators, has made a killing for a living, netting him about sixty grand monthly in his Patreon.  For example, he recently crushed Cathy Newman in a televised debate, which was a cathartic event for his fans. By  uttering the most simplistic and naturalistic  anti-feminist talking points, he made Newman short-circuit, making her repeat stereotypical liberal mantras over and over. Like Quilette recently published, it seemed like Newman hadn’t heard  these really basic arguments  that are routinely used by wikipedia-reading  misogynists   and crackpot “evo-psych” amateurs, and was just caught in some liberal, human resources bubble where the barbarian hordes of angry  dads  are gated away.

Given the inability of the contemptible coordinator caste to  actually defend these sociological arguments from the naturalistic attack in the first place, socialists must  come up with a synthesis on how to address this naturalistic attack and  defend the socio-historical tradition of the left.   As I have written before, complexity science may offer a good outline on how to address these naturalistic arguments.   Complexity science roughly argues that complicated systems cannot actually be reduced to the behaviour of their individual units. Instead, the system  itself creates emergent feedback loops and laws that cannot be simply be derived from the microphysics of the individual unit.  For example, psychology cannot be reduced to the behaviour of the individual neuron, or  how the temperature of a gas cannot be derived from the trajectory of one molecule. Instead these systems must be sometimes treated on their own terms. For example, the Newtonian physics that describe the air flow around an airplane’s wing  is not concerned  with the quantum chromodynamics of quarks.  The science that deals with mental illness operates without a  picture of how neural synapses works. In other words, systems operate on their own level of abstraction that overwhelms the particularities of the unit.  This is the case with socio-economic issues – although it’s true that society is made of evolved animals subject to biological forces,  these naturalistic particularities are overwhelmed by  socio-economic feedback loops.

Let’s use complexity science against Peterson as an example. In his recent debate against Cathy Newman he was arguing that one of the reasons the gender gap persists is because of women’s agreeableness.  According to him, women tend to be more agreeable, and therefore that  affects negatively their  earning potential in highly competitive workplaces. I also found out in an interview he had with Stefan Molyneux  that Peterson associates agreeableness with maternal instinct, ergo it is somehow biologically  hardwired into the female psyche.    The controversial point is not so much whether women are more agreeable or not, but if that agreeableness is a function of biology.  How on Earth would you even begin to prove agreeableness is hardwired biologically in a scientific way? At most, you can make a study  that shows gender and agreeableness are empirically correlated. Although, in the context of scientism, attributing agreeableness to some darwinistic  child rearing instinct “makes sense” in a shallow, common-sense sort of way, that does not mean such a theory can be proven scientifically.  In contrast, a sociologist or anthropologist may document various gender-policing mechanisms, which act as social feedback loops,  where woman are castigated for being combative (e.g. being called a bitch, caricatured as an evil manager etc.) therefore reinforcing female agreeableness as a social strategy, leading to a plausible narrative for the sociological explanation. The point is this – similar how to how the properties of the individual neurons are buried within the emergent laws  that constitute psychology, it could be that the the individual biological wirings of the female psyche are overshadowed  by the socio-economic feedback loops of by class society.

Peterson also claimed that hierarchy is biologically coded into much of the animal kingdom, including humans. Therefore he argued that the sociological explanation for the historical contingency of hierarchies is incorrect, given that our evolutionary ancestors already enforced hierarchies (e.g. lobsters).    However, the sociological explanation of modern power differentials is actually vindicated by the behaviour of early hunter gatherer societies, who some could argue are devoid of the more complicated feedback loops that appear in complex, sedentary societies. Even if these hunter gather societies may operate with  “soft” hierarchies (e.g. the existence of chieftains, leaders etc), it would be ridiculous to put these dynamics in the same order of magnitude as the extreme power differentials existing  in modern class society between a worker versus a president or a CEO. Therefore,  even if  a “soft” hierarchy may be encoded in our biological wiring,  it is completely  overshadowed by extreme  power differentials arising out of socio-economic structures.

I hope that my humble effort at a synthesis may generate some interesting thoughts. I am a firm believer that socialists should justify their positions with concrete arguments rooted in existing scientific consensus, and  therefore the argument against  “naturalism” must not only be philosophical, but based on our empirical understanding of reality as well.

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The Minimal Socialist State Versus Bloated Capitalism

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Perhaps one of the largest, propagandistic triumphs of capitalism is to equate socialism as inefficient, bureaucratic bloat. In contrast, capitalism is portrayed as a lean, efficient system. Many argue that the market, instead of depending on a slow moving, centralized bureaucracy to produce and allocate the necessary goods, automatically balances supply and demand, with the price signal as the carrier of information on how to produce and distribute commodities. However, I believe that socialism, at least the version exposed by Marx, would be a free society with a very lean and bare-bones administrative apparatus (a minimal state). For socialism to be a qualitatively different stage of history than previous class societies, social structures need to be dictated by free time as opposed to the imperatives of slavery, survival and toil. In other words, the time outside the activities necessary for the survival of the human species, must dominate the course of history. This freeing of human life from drudgery and misery requires a lean apparatus that curtails all the extra socially wasteful industries and infrastructures in order to progressively reduce the length of the work day until the eventual abolition of toil. In short, the socialist state must be minimal. First, I will expose the arguments that portray socialism as bloated and inefficient, then I will argue why instead, capitalism is wasteful and swollen, and then I will sketch some of the key attributes of this minimal socialist state.

At first glance, the right wing case against socialism sounds sensible, both philosophically and empirically. In the philosophical realm, it seems unlikely that a central planner can possibly have all the necessary expertise to know what is happening “on the ground”. In the empirical realm, the former socialist bloc was sluggish, bureaucratically bloated, and authoritarian. In contrast, market-based societies appear much more efficient and freer.

However, I believe these arguments, although they may sound plausible, are ultimately wrong. The reason why these arguments appear correct, given that many of the socialist states tended to be more authoritarian, inefficient and “backward” than the West, is due to a combination of a couple of factors: (i) pre-modern forms of life that existed in the underdeveloped countries where “socialism” took root, (ii) geopolitical configurations where the periphery (socialist states were peripheral) is in an inferior bargaining position, and (iii) the ideology of instrumental reason in the West, that rationality that values the calculation of the means, over thinking about the end.

In the first case (i), as I mentioned in a previous post, many of the problems identified with the existing “socialist” countries are not formally related to the idea of a planned economy, but are linked to social forms that predated “socialism” sometimes for centuries. For example, clientelism is a large scourge in underdeveloped countries, where informal exchange of favours and services between powerful agents undermine the transparent functioning of institutions. These problems predate capitalism and “socialism” and where even formalized in ancient Rome. In the USSR, clientelism was evident through the way wealth was accumulated by the elite, where high ranking bureaucrats exchanged favours and privileges at the expense of society at large. The opacity of institutions due to these webs of corruption and hierarchies also created feedback loops where the citizen do not trust formal mechanisms anymore, creating the large-scale systemic problems that led to the USSR’s collapse. This generalized state of corruption also lead to various factions of the bureaucracy scamming and conning each other, by misrepresenting and exaggerating (e.g. how many widgets where produced in a factory) in order to lever a career advantage. The sum-total of all these dynamics led to massive wastefulness, scarcity of useable goods, and ultimately terror. The problem of corruption, wastefulness, and terror is common across much of the periphery (including peripheral capitalist states), and is not formally related to socialism.

The second case (ii) is very closely related to to the first case. Due to various historical factors, many of the countries that became “socialist” where peripheral societies (e.g. Cuba, Russia, etc.) that where economically subordinated to other more powerful countries. Their lack of capital-intensive technologies and working institutions made them dependent of the core economies for technologies (e.g. engines, computers, medicine, etc), turning them into bodegas to be ransacked for slave-like labour and cheap natural resources. This dependency not only assured that the periphery (and thus many socialist states) lagged behind, but also created other feedback loops that lead to other dysfunctions. In the case of the USSR, the State was forced to industrialize quickly in order to have the military capabilities to defend itself against a more powerful and hostile West. This fast, frenzied, and unscientific hyper-industrialization that appeared during the first Five Year Plan, created corrupted institutions due to unrealistic objectives that forced, for example, factory directors to inflate their numbers and share dishonest information.

The third case (iii), the focusing on the most efficient way to achieve the means, without thinking about the end, distorts the discussion on what does “efficiency” mean. Capitalism is extremely good at intensive development, where a novel technology or a service, is made progressively cheaper and more advanced as competition forces firms to cut down costs. This leads to the “lean” and “efficient” perception of the West. However, the efficiency that leads to profit, that is the optimization of processes related to the creation of random commodities, is not necessarily the socially preferable form of efficiency. For example, a key socialist demand is the shortening of the work day until its eventual abolition. Defenders of the market, such as Keynes, thought that capitalism by its own devices would create a shorter working day. However, the eight hour work week has persisted in the United States and Canada for about a hundred years, even if the economy grew exponentially in that same century.. Other more banal examples of capitalist “inefficiencies” are the coexistences of vacant buildings with homelessness, and long work-day with unemployment. In short, capitalist efficiency ultimately only concerns itself with profit, and although this logic can lead to various socially beneficial by-products, such as cheap computers and an abundance of calories, capitalism is not concerned with the realization of social-need, therefore it cannot reduce the work-day, create sustainable and psychologically beneficial urban spaces (as opposed to private condo towers and desolate suburban sprawl), and deal effectively with the question of climate change. Ultimately, capitalism, with its creation of random, socially unnecessary market and industries, becomes increasingly bloated. For example, a large percent of the GDP in core economies is related to Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate (FIRE), a sector that would be rendered irrelevant with the abolition of private property.

Ultimately the socialist, minimal state, would shrink the world’s administrative apparatuses (the bureaucracies of corporations, the executive and judicial powers, the administrative bloat of universities) by (a) the abolition of private property, and (b) through planning. The fact that private property is mediated through a contract, whether the contract is digital (e.g. ownership of stocks), or analog (the paperwork of a house), inevitably creates an administrative bloat of gentry-scholar like functionaries, both in the private and public spheres, that have to deal with the regulations, lawyering, and the legalese of these contracts. In addition, the increasingly fractal and abstracted labyrinth of private property creates an informational complexity in the form of FIRE, which is a socially unproductive sector, but is necessary for capital to “grease its wheels”, by bailing out companies through loans, stimulating investment, moving capital shares across thousands of miles at a fraction of the speed of light through optical fiber cables, etc. Once socialism abolishes private property, the informational complexity will be greatly reduced, transferring the world’s labour to socially necessary tasks.

Planning will be the central engine of the minimal socialist state. By planning, through a combination of accountable “planetary” central planners at the large scale, and machine learning algorithms and local committees at the granular scale, industries that are deemed socially necessary (e.g. agriculture, some IT, medicine, etc.) could be preserved and social waste eliminated. This would create a situation where only the minimum tasks required for comfortable survival will be the domain of labour and the  bare-bones State. Once these socially necessary tasks are recognized (through a combination of scientific planning and grassroots consensus), work will only be spent in doing these socially necessary activities, in contrast to capitalism’s arbitrary tasks that have enslaved humanity to toil for centuries. Once labour-time is minimized, the majority of waking hours would not be spend in grind forced upon by survival, but in free time. Socially necessary labour will be rotated by all the citizens, and will be reduced to the social equivalent of “cleaning your room.” Thus socialism will create a different type of efficiency than capitalist optimization. Although socialism may not lead to the most effective janitor, or the most optimized smart phone, that does not imply that it will be more bloated, miserable, and labor intensive than capitalism. This emancipation of humanity from labor is the hidden potential of modernity, and would usher for the first time in history, a society that will be shaped by free time, not the constraints of survival.

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