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Posts tagged 'society'

  • Those clowns in Congress


    For the better part of the past year, I've been asking myself on what basis we do, and should, select leaders on the national level. I have been asking myself what it is that the Executive Branch does and should do in its daily operation. I finally have a half-answer.

    The scope of the Executive

    The Executive Branch is huge. Just, massively, mindbogglingly huge. Seriously, click through that list and start scrolling—and compare it to this list of Senate-confirmable positions. There's not even a number attached to the number of confirmable posts; only a range exists. Twelve to fourteen hundred seats are filled by Executive nomination and Senate confirmation. Anyone who has done hiring can confirm that there is no way to vet and organize that many people quickly, especially in the short amounts of time available to an incoming administration.

    A (typical) new administration can set its broad goals, but there is no way—short of freezing time and spending a year between November and January reviewing staffing decisions—to optimally build an organization like that. This is where party machinery comes in.

    I suspect that the two major parties maintain lists of generally qualified candidates, specific shortlists for certain positions, and additionally know who to call to identify talent. Government of this scale doesn't turn on overnight, but with the right networks it might seem to. But this machinery is in many ways a consequence of a long-standing two-party system. There is no easy to conduct a national campaign in a country of 300 million people without leveraging some machinery, and one way to reward key pieces of that machine is by handing out jobs. Patronage is nothing new, and we can safely assume that among those 1400 positions there are bound to be a few sinecures.

    Without describing other possible configurations of the Executive Branch, it's worth pausing to consider if this is the government we want. By their rhetoric, you might suspect that there would be more difference in the configuration of successive governments. Nevertheless, small-government conservatives have traditionally needed to reward their benefactors in the same way that tax-and-spend liberals do—winning national elections is hard—so I suspect the main difference, historically, is in the number of "good faith appointments." That is to say, the person nominated for a seat as undersecretary of the department of we-don't-really-care-about-this could be anyone.

    Executive Priorities

    The New York Times posted an excellent visualization of what issues were most important to Americans at different times. Click through the link and play around for a bit; there are arrows that allow you to navigate through history and not just those surveys conducted immediately prior to elections.

    Anyone with a cursory knowledge of American history can see that there's a clear correlation between the concerns of the day and the specific administrations' actions. The recession of the early 2000s is writ there, as is NCLB; by contrast, domestic issues are predictably overshadowed by "foreign policy" (i.e. terrorism) by October 2001.

    An administration is like the Eye of Sauron: it can see anywhere, at any time, as long as it knows to look there. When priorities turn 180º and it comes time to bring in the back-benchers, an administration's true nature can be revealed.

    To put it another way (that's mostly for my own benefit), a election is decided on who offers the best piecewise linear match to an unpredictable function, and damn the rest.

    "How can you support him?"

    So: how do we decide who should be elected to office? (And not: how should we decide?)

    There are ugly bits, such as party selection machinery (or party non-support, in "unwinnable districts"), the primary system, and so forth, but when it comes to early November, my theory is this: we can easily forgive a multitude of sins, as long as the problem that a candidate offers to solve is sufficiently big that the sins seem small.

    In short, voters act like this: "If I sincerely believe that X" (where X is killing babies, the war on terror, global warming, inequality) "is an existential threat, I would elect Pennywise the Clown to office if I think he can help fix it, despite knowing that kids seem to mysteriously go missing at all of his campaign stops."

    The sins that the right and the left can ignore vary, but both sides ignore sins in roughly equal measure. There are a different ways to win elections in this kind of climate, but one thing is clear: it's a pretty good way to end up with a congress full of clowns.

  • Argumentation

    Internet commenters are among the most informed yet overwhelmed members of modern society. There's a commonly repeated idea among social media companies that engagement drops off at each level—if a site allows consumption without having an account, then consumers will outweigh account holders by some factor (often 80/20 or 90/10); a similar proportion of all account holders actually vote/like/favorite, and a similar proportion of all participants actually create content.

    For a concrete example, think of a major publication like a newspaper. Most people who find their way to news content don't have any personal investment in the source. Most of those who have an account or subscription will never hit an on-site share button. And the people who leave comments and get into polemic arguments are rarer still; often something like one tenth of one percent of all site users.

    So the largest voices online aren't representative of the attitudes of all internet users. Most people are more moderate on most issues, especially ones that don't affect them directly.

    Moderate views don't get much play. Extremists sell more airtime, get more ads, get more shares (especially from people who disagree with them; there is no bad publicity), and often shift the Overton window overall if not counteracted by voices from opposing directions. So a small minority of voices with a large enough soapbox, saying crazy enough things, can often seem to signify a much larger movement than actually exists.

    Arguing against extremes is probably futile. Anyone who watches extreme (left or right) mainstream media can recognize the trope of the moderate seeming to waffle against fringe claims that are "not even wrong," that is, based on misunderstanding or misrepresenting the truth, or otherwise missing the point, such that creating a logical response takes more time than the audience has patience. The counter to this approach, if there is one, is to strike at targets in the same general area as those sought by the media source itself. Viewers are driven by bursts of dopamine: from having insanity re-affirmed, or from gaining a little bit of superiority, for example by feeling like you know something others don't or are participating in something that others aren't. Lifehacks, "what you know is wrong," and feel-good feature stories are examples of this latter.

    No matter how much people rail against clickbait, it's phenomenally successful. The same story presented with an accurate, but urbane headline will never gain the traction that a story with a click-bait headline will, even if the headline is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. Again, most readers of headlines don't read stories; most readers of stories don't read comments. It's a simple fact that most everything that makes it onto your radar from anything other than specialized sources is flat-out wrong, and in most subject areas you're woefully incapable of recognizing the truth.

    What is everyone actually arguing about? The mockery and derision leveled at those outside one's philosophical bubble: what is it actually aimed at, what is it seeking to accomplish?

    I suspect, from listening to aunts gossip at family gatherings and so forth, that people primarily use discussion to establish in- and out-group membership. If you'll tolerate a little bit of evopsych, there has probably been some historical value to making sure that there is a coherent consensus within groups, if only for the sake of creating tribal bonds. You say one thing, and I don't have a particularly strong opinion, so I let you talk and present signs of agreement—head nods, engaged body language, "yeahs" and "uh-huhs"—and that signifies to you that we are part of a group. In times of strife, we will form a defensive unit more naturally and effortlessly by virtue of our pre-developed group bonds.

    I, personally, have seen this play out in person: sports affiliations, nationalities, minor friendships, memberships in similar organizations, all leading to spontaneous group organization in "throw down" situations.

    So far, though, I've only described what is. What should be is a different, more elusive, subject.

    The primary value I place in friendships is the ability to overcome one's own nature. In the past, I've called this "the ability to change your mind," but it's more than this: it's about overcoming prejudice, bias; privilege and oppression, and being better than you're supposed to be. If a person can do that, regardless of their other beliefs or circumstances, I'm likely to care more for who they are. Contrast this with dogmatics: if I ask you, "what would have to happen for you to change your mind," and you're not able to come up with an answer in a matter of seconds, I'm mentally marking you as suspect.

    Further, just as most people don't participate in most things (I, myself, don't comment on newspapers; don't contribute on twitter or deviantart; don't participate in most media I consume), most people don't engage with most situations in their life. Stand at the edge of any busy street corner in Manhattan, and walk out into traffic—people will follow you, regardless of whether it's safe for them. Engagement takes effort; tribal bonding is practically effortless. Habits, too, tend to be effortless. I had to force myself to smoke cigarettes for the first few days; now I have to force myself to try not to.

    Humans excel at doing what they've already done. The brain is plastic, but overcoming a thought pattern strengthened through repetition is one of the hardest things to do. Dopamine-generating click-bait is among the most popular content on the web today; you get much of the same mental reward from reading about how to get your life in order as from actually doing so.

    This is where being overwelmed comes into play. The generation and demographic group I most closely belong to spends countless hours reading about how to be better, watching videos and consuming media presenting repetitions of the same themes and tropes over and over: the bad-ass triumphs, this is how I managed to make an embarrassing amount of money doing what I love, and so forth. We are worn out from countless tiny expenditures of will: today, I will get up early and go to the gym; now I am on the train, and should read something edifying instead of vegging out with bullshit. Every one of these non-habitual choices forms a tiny drain on what will we do have, to the point that by the end of the day there's little left for actual, substantive change.

    Arguing about pointless shit (or arguing pointlessly about shit) is a drain of similar nature to the above, with the added consequence that it solidifies bullshit thought patterns and makes it harder to think critically about circumstances, and put into effect meaningful change. At this point I could allude to hashtag activism or the meandering lack of purpose demonstrated by the Occupy Movements, but it's deeper than this. We're actively ossifying our thought patterns, as a generation and a demographic, and failing to act meaningfully in any direction. As a group, we care X amount about Y number of topics, but we each care the same amount—and X divided by Z, the number of us in the world, is a tiny fraction of what is required to thrust the spearhead of change.

    Further, some number of us care more about some topics, and some negatively: an active point of discussion would be the gender wage gap, which has been said to be either the greatest inequity of our time or a statistical artifact that represents no more than the cumulative sum of the life choices (and lack of social support for said choices) that we make. So we argue and mock and facepalm at the sheer obtuseness of the other side, missing the point that while all this is going on, some small fraction of society is skimming off all of the cream and most of the milk, and maybe there's another fight we should be preparing for?

    So why do I nitpick others' feelings with logic? Why do I mock fringe elements in the media? So much of what I see and take umbrage at are exclusionary ideas which, while they may represent actual frustrations, are pointless and intellectually vapid exercises in onanism. I have made an effort to never hate any person, only the things they do (to others and themselves), the lies they tell themselves, the efforts they make that, while making them feel better, don't have a chance of producing results. You are in charge of yourself and it's your duty to try to overcome your nature (whether that means a history of privilege or oppression), because if it matters and has value to other people, they're never going to give it to you. And if you're ready to fight for something, why not put your effort into fighting for a thing that will actually improve your situation? The effort spent in the fight to have me find you attractive, even though you have 50% body fat, would be better spent at the gym; meanwhile, you would be likely to live longer, spend less on medical care, and actually feel better every day of your life.

    Meanwhile, if you feel wronged, I can acknowledge your feelings, but if you're important to me as a friend, I want to make sure you are taken care of. Often this means ensuring an actual injustice was done: if someone became your lifelong enemy because of something you did on accident, wouldn't you rather have them know that you were tired that day, or hungry, or just got out of a really painful relationship, than to pretend that their misconception was valid and live life like you are just a terrible person? Turn it around, then. After I acknowledge that what happened was crappy, would you rather believe forever that that person is intrinsically terrible, or would you rather understand why they did that thing, and use that knowledge to help you prevent others from feeling that way in the future?

  • The Prevalence of Talent

    There are limits to what a person is capable of. In a given population, maximum skill lies along some sort of distribution. If everyone were to devote themselves totally to a single pursuit in a given society, people would eventually reach a point where there was a compressed distribution of that skill close to the maximum possible within that society.

    To put this in concrete terms, if everyone in the US decided to devote themselves to football, we would eventually (within a generation or two) see every person within a couple percent of their maximum possible skill in football. The variance could be explained by factors such as lack of motivation, choosing a bad position (a person whose physiology was more suited to being a linebacker devoting themselves to becoming a quarterback, etc.), and normal imperfections of the world.

    Ignoring other follow-on consequences of such an arrangement—such as the selection pressure to breed more capable children—a lot could be said about the population in a world like this. For instance, the total market for talent would be nearly saturated. Many of the people who are professionals today would not be in such a world because of selection pressures. Most people would be better at evaluating others' skill at the common task—not good necessarily, just better. Given that evaluation of skills and performance of them are correlated yet distinct, not everyone would be suited to determine which of their fellow citizens is better than others.

    Consider: in a given domain, not only are there different specialties (quarterbacks and linebackers; percussion, strings, and wind), there are also different meta-specialties and synergies. A football team, due to the nature of competitive games, needs trainers, managers, coaches, strategists, data analysts, businessmen, and so forth. What makes a team successful in a competitive sense (winning games) and what makes a team successful in a business sense (bringing in as much money as possible) are somewhat distinct skills. Getting the attention of customers and getting them to want to spend money is in part due to the prospect of being excited—close scores, a memorable experience, novelty (being part of something no one else is), camaraderie (being part of something others are)—and not necessarily seeing one team utterly destroy another. A single star player is not enough to produce long-term interest: if no one can ever get the ball to the running back or the defense crumples under an offensive drive, no one is going to be interested in the "product" over time.

    The football metaphor is limiting, so I will set it aside for now. Consider the following, then:

    There is nothing that everyone does well, so we don't know what the limits of performance are. Given that time and attention are limiting factors in most business relationships, we tend to choose products and experiences not on raw quality but rather on some combination of the above factors, and others: exclusivity, inclusivity, identity, memorability, compatibility, reputation, exhaustion.

    When it comes to occupations, there are two main poles at which work accumulates: that which can only be done by many people, and that which need only be done once. The former is represented by the term "labor": cleaning, cooking, building, advising, teaching. The latter is represented (mostly) by the term "creation": design, invention, research, architecture. That isn't to say that this second set of tasks only need be done once, ever; however, designing a particular (e.g.) car allows for the creation of a practically unlimited number of cars, whereas the construction of a single car doesn't allow thousands of people to drive.

  • Ritualized morality.

    People do certain things because that's how they were brought up. Communities raise children to act a certain way and to value certain behaviors because the communities that survived are the ones that shared rituals and values. Having an undercurrent of common beliefs is essential to extended survival because it cuts out a lot of the bookkeeping discussion that is generated by diverse communities.

    Kohlberg's stages of moral development are useful for understanding this next bit. In short, Kohlberg sees humans as having six possible perspectives on morality, in increasing order:

    1. Selfish, egocentric, only punishment-avoiding: For instance: autistic adults; toddlers
    2. Understand that others are people, too; look for self-interest/quid-pro-quo: Sociopaths; children
    3. Seek conformity; look for reputation as a "good person": Religious hypocrites; pre-teens
    4. Obey laws: Authoritarians; most adults
    5. Recognize that laws are social contracts: Democratic governments (ideally); political scientists?
    6. Seek and apply universal moral principles: Philosophers?

    (I would hypothesize a level above this last, wherein you would recognize that other intelligences in the universe could have a different set of universal morals, but it's hard to discuss that without knowing other real intelligences, and not just sci-fi suppositions.)

    (Also note, that Kohlberg splits the stages of morality into three tiers of two perspectives each.)

    In a society composed of mostly people in the second of the three tiers (phases 3 and 4), having standing ethical and moral frameworks is essential. In fact, given that children are born at phase 1, there will always have to be at least some bootstrapping ethical framework for them to scaffold off of if we ever expect a majority of people to hit the third tier. (It is questionable whether having a majority of people at the third tier is even possible.)

    In general, the people around you are going to be legalistic: what is right is what is comfortable, what I've been trained to do, and what my in-group sees as right. There will be norms they follow only because of habit, like praying even when they don't get anything out of it, and saying to others that prayer helps them. And there will be norms that they follow because they see them as "right", such as not stealing or being deferential to others; seeing the opposite of these things happen will get under their skin.

    In tight in-groups that have persisted through the post-industrial era of youth mobility, these norms generally persist, and they're innocuous as long as members of out-groups don't infringe on their territory. Generally, though, the 100-year old WASP village isn't going to be able to incorporate a huge influx of Pakistani Muslims, even if the latter group at the core has many of the same values viz. the importance of family, religiosity, etc.

    Tier 3 humans would recognize pragmatic practices that enable effective social bonding, which are useful to having peaceful social transactions. Having a certain number of tier 3s in a diverse region can enable the free-flow of people and transactions through the area, even if most individuals remain in tier 2. I can practice limited sharia law in your neighborhood, as long as, when I violate the larger social norms, I am able to defer to the overall social context, even if I am not capable of level five thinking.

    In terms of "burning up" morality, or "morality porn", I believe that the group most susceptible to these effects are those at level 3: they want to be known as a "good person", and not necessarily to do good, so they just need to hit a certain level of expenditure and/or public charity to satisfy themselves: "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others."

    Overall, then, there is a place for ritual: bonding, in-out group designation (in light of this, one should open one's dinner table to out-neighbors in order to lower those barriers), and the development of morality in children and the sustenance of moral actions in the under-developed. But overall, each person should strive to at least understand the role of the social contract, and dispose of those rituals and groupings that cause friction in practical life.

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