Regress of Authority: My Theory on The Foundation of Noetic Structures

While beginning to draft a post offering my theory on why I write what I write, think what I think, and do what I do, I found it essential to explain my theory of the origin of noetic structures. Another thing I found is that a cursory search will not turn up a satisfactory explanation of what a noetic structure even is; allow me. A noetic structure is a web of all an individual’s beliefs, the vast majority of which depend on other beliefs. A noetic structure, if drawn out, would show all the ways in which beliefs depend on each other for validation in the mind. In order to believe that you’re sitting in front of a screen, you need to believe that your senses give accurate representations of the external world, the existence of which you must also hold true. If you’ve ever entertained a child who asked you a simple question and followed it up with an endless string of “whys,” you’ve taken that child on a tour of your noetic structure.

Any non-self-referential (circular) noetic structure would have to contain some foundational, or ‘basic,’ beliefs that are not justified with reference to other beliefs. Strictly speaking, the only beliefs of this nature that stand up to philosophical scrutiny cannot be used as justification for others, but as a matter of convention, we accept the existence of the external world and other minds along with all that they imply. Beyond those two, most seem to take as given the reliability of ‘experts.’ You believe protons exist, but you’ve never seen the evidence for yourself; you take it on faith that the chain of claimants from the community of people directly observing subatomic particles to the person who told you they exist have been reasonably prudent in their assessments of the claim. From whence comes this faith on which modern humans’ world views rely? My claim is that it comes from Mom.

My theory assumes that infants regard their most immediate care-givers as essentially gods, capable of manipulating the whole of reality (as the infant sees it) on a whim; They can remove, fear, discomfort, and hunger with ease and right when its needed. Some anecdotal evidence for the continuance of this view into early childhood can be seen when toddlers run to mom to save them from a monster, something they seem not to know mom is woefully ill-equipped to handle. As they grow up, children only assent to the claims of others with mom’s blessing. “Listen to what Ms. Vicky has to say, she’s very good and has a lot to teach you,” “My mom says Billy only says Santa isn’t real because he got coal in his stocking this year.” Consistent reinforcement of the epistemic authority of teachers, books, and other knowledgeable adults is what weens children off of absolute deference toward their parents and ultimately empowers these other sources of knowledge with the ability to imbue new claimants with epistemic import.

I find the anomalous cases in which parents refuse to relinquish some measure of epistemic control the most compelling evidence for their place at the base of almost everyone’s noetic structures. Family-centric cults are probably the most glaring example of children discrediting sources for lack of their parents approval, but everyday religion provides ample evidence of otherwise intelligent people who’ve been through no special religious education foregoing their normal criteria for belief in favor of deferring to their parents’ beliefs. Of course the mechanism doesn’t remain the same as a child with any sort of freedom grows and thence comes the market for pseudo-academics and social niches for any crazy belief you can imagine. Once parents let children engage with society and its customary populist mode of argument, they need to defer to sources beyond themselves to repel the counter-current provided by outsiders.

My claim is ultimately that parents have the requisite tools to control which sources their children will take as credible, although control over content will scale with either the parents ability to exercise direct and absolute control over their child or the relative popularity of the desired content in society. Once you’ve ceded ground to schoolteachers or neighbors, it’s very easy to have sewn the seeds of your own incredulity. In principle though, the absence of any parental concession seems to guarantee a very shallow noetic structure, while liberal concession leads to many layers of differently weighted authorities whose claims are more susceptible to an informed sense of judgement.

Dissonance: Fun for Everyone

I suppose I’ve been beating up on the political left a bit lately, but I want to take this chance to remind my readers that I’m an equal opportunity hater. This won’t be a make-up post simply shaming the right for something, but it will begin a long regress toward my libertarian mean. Republicans and Democrats often find some neat rhetorical symmetries in their constant battle to differentiate themselves whilst remaining indistinguishable from a policy point of view and some of these symmetries often reveal glaring inconsistencies in their underlying ideologies. A pair that I’ve recently hit upon both revolve around the already ridiculous issue of immigration.

A common retort offered by conservatives against those criticizing their position on wealth redistribution is that marginal investment spending is more socially beneficial than marginal consumption spending, populist translation: we’re taxing “job creators.” The assertion is often coupled with a diatribe about how “it’s not a fixed pie,” i.e. investment can grow the economy and subsequently raise living standards across the board or allow for more beneficial redistribution at some later date. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” “the wealth will trickle down,” etc.

When it comes to immigration, however, the pie gets very fixed, very quickly. While economic theory and all the empirical evidence from the last 40 years has shown immigrants to add to the division of labor and indeed “grow the pie,” they only come to “steal” jobs from Americans by “accepting freely offered employment from American businesses.”

On the other side you have Democrats, the steadfast defenders of laborers everywhere and the unions that bring them dignity. What people tend to miss is that unions, while often increasing compensation for their own members, do so at the expense of scabs and aspiring professionals everywhere. There are many people willing to accept unions jobs for lower pay, and I think it’s fair to say that this willingness is indicative of their being in greater “need.” They are denied jobs because the labor market is either too selective or restricted in quantity, both on account of higher union compensation. Then there are people who see union compensation as an entry signal, grad students being a perfect example. They pour resources into getting credentials in hopes of getting the return of a comfortable and protected position, but often find themselves in debt and out of luck, or in the very unenviable position of adjuncts.

The dissonance? Those on the left tend to be more sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, whose situation is almost perfectly comparable to those of scabs and aspiring professionals. The American Union insists on keeping out wage and job competition, so would be immigrants are forced to live in squalor to protect the well-being of people no more deserving than they are.

All in all, the left have a better excuse in that it’s much more likely they are just ignorant of the disemployment and rent-seeking effects of unions. But of course, ignorance of the law is mitigating at best, not a full-fledged excuse. Happily, I think this leaves this post’s conservative bashing credentials slightly stronger on balance…

People Who Complain About Growing American Income Inequality Are Sorry Excuses For Cosmopolitan Thinkers

Here is the kind of chart they like and here is another.

Here is a powerful theoretical explanation for stagnant or stalling average wages in a country and a world where many many more people are far far better off then they were in the 70s.*

Conjecture on why the theoretical explanation almost certainly applies:

The Second World War left the (only recently) industrialized world in ruins. While Europe and Japan rebuilt, American capital and infrastructure were wholly intact. When you consider the huge relative advantage of working in an industrialized economy to begin with, it becomes very hard to understate the significance of the United States’ position at the time. Moreover, Women had not broken into the peacetime workforce and bid down the wages of men. Median/Average income was at an all time high, shocking.

When would we say all of these socio-economic/historical factors began to shift against the lone male American household income earner? Hard to venture a better guess than the 1970’s. The European and Japanese recoveries/miracles were hitting full swing, we opened trade with China, women started entering the workforce in droves and the US economy hit a rough patch. By the time the domestic economy turned around, foreign competition in the labor market was well established and Reagan’s more liberal immigration policy coupled with the recovery to increase the number of low-income earners entering the American economy from abroad.

These trends have largely continued through today and they have been a boon to everyone. It would be very difficult to show that the median American family, or indeed the median Chinese or Indian family is not much better off than they were 40 years ago when we had so much more domestic equality. Technology and efficiency gains have been huge and they’ve been distributed all over the American economy; you’re reading this online article over free wi-fi on your smartphone, you’re no one-percenter and your parents would be awed by your lifestyle at this age.

So America’s middle class of old is in far better shape, the new middle class is lightyears ahead of what was likely third-world poverty a generation ago, but our focus needs to be the fact that we all live like shit because the greed and privilege of 3 million Americans making more than $250,000/yr is robbing us of the life we deserve. The truth seems to be that the middle class were the privileged ones, getting to press buttons and pull levers for fat suburban incomes while the rest of the world lived in real poverty. Now that those people who were once desperate have joined the global economy and proven themselves no less skillful than their American counterparts, the latter have lost their privilege that came at a great price to many millions of people and now sulk despite still living in the lap of luxury.

On the other side are the 1%: A tiny minority of people with highly specialized skills that few have learned despite many having the chance because they are that difficult to master and that dismal to learn even though they are the skills that let you make extremely important decisions about the structure of production that effect the income and consumption of millions. Given the boon to living standards we’ve seen due to globalization and the successful adoption of new technologies on an industrial scale, I’d say the people organizing it deserve quite a premium over the people stamping jars and balancing cash registers.

The moral of the story is that the people narrowly focusing on the slightest possibility that wealthy middle class Americans have been given a raw deal are they same people who call themselves champions of the poor and proponents of progress. My understanding is that humanism was progress in the 17th century and 19th/20th century nationalism was the conservative backlash; yet many on the left prioritize a return to a world of abject poverty for billions so a select few among their countrymen needn’t feel inferior to an even more select few, though this connection very likely does not occur to them. They are, at the very least, myopic, if not outright selfish and malicious in their drive to cultivate an elite that coheres to their aesthetic.

 

 

*The second graph was the best I could find in a lengthy search, nothing on global median income, but an endless trove of the headlining charts. This heavily underscores my point.

Completing the Redistributionist Trilogy

There is a third popular argument for redistribution that falls somewhere in between the argument from justice and the pragmatic argument. Fittingly, it’s a hybrid of the two. Despite constant attempt to re-brand it, it is the argument from reparations.

Any one who has come across them understands that arguments from reparations are riddled with potential pitfalls ranging from problems with predicting alternate realities, to measuring effects, to estimating the decay of effects over time, to it being unclear whether wealth today was actually derived from crimes passed, or whether there are undesirable social consequences for groups paying or receiving reparations etc. etc. etc. My concern may actually lend some precision to a reparationist case, but cost it considerably in terms of scale. Those who can reasonably be held accountable for crimes whose effects span generations are few in number and small in wealth compared to the demands of those who feel they are its victims.

Basically, any individualist account of slavery or similar atrocities can hold accountable only those people who directly devised or carried out criminal orders. That means the small group of powerful men who devised slave expeditions and those who came to own slaves as well as those who were directly involved in the handling of slaves in between. If it sounds like a substantial part of the population from whom white Americans, consider that this excludes everyone involved in building the ships, guns, nets, clothes, and food for the slave expeditions themselves and everyone involved with every other industry in the western world who wasn’t a slave owner, wrangler, or conspirator.

I suggest that, while many of these other people profited from the slave-trade and other atrocities through exchange with those responsible, burdening them responsibility for any wrong-doing in the entire structure of production leading back to them would be supererogatory and, as a consequence, wildly inefficient (i.e. causing people to surrender huge amounts of utility to transactions costs).

So, even if we can clean up everything else about reparationist arguments, the money just isn’t there, unless you want to convict the blameless for not plunging us into a dark age by tracing every possible moral consequence of their micro-decisions.

Admirable Leftists Are Teachers

In my last post, I criticized the argument for redistribution as justice; People below a certain standard of living have claims on the property of others by virtue of their existence alone. I find this line morally repugnant in the same way I imagine its proponents see vast inequities in wealth as morally repugnant. It’s truly an impasse of sentiments for which I can hardly imagine an agreeable form of adjudication.

The most popular alternative argument for progressive wealth redistribution is a pragmatic one. This argument is far more noble in my view for more than just its susceptibility to empirical and theoretical testing. The view simply states that a more even distribution of wealth allows for larger swathes of the population to have the time and resources to grow both in number and human capital leading to a bigger pie for all. The argument is more pro-human, pro-progress and anti-the political vitriol of the “soak the rich because they’re rich” entitlement argument.

Proponents of this latter view are environmentalists, not the kind that like trees, but the kind who think your low productivity is a consequence of your father hitting you rather than your having the genes of a father who would hit his own child. If our experiences, exposure and guidance were right and well focused enough, any one could be nearly as productive as anyone else. The reason the low-productivity workers live relatively worse and have children who follow in their footsteps can be put up to a lack of resources which is very difficult to overcome. Obviously, people have broken the cycle in the past and some do today, but the theory is that only a little cushion between each pay check and the hours of work that go into them would give the poor time to develop human capital and be more productive, have better pay, and a greater bounty from which to consume.

So, if you believe this and find yourself a young person in in the 60+ percentile of a developed nation, you become a teacher. The young poor have the time and resources (public education) to improve their human capital and build a better life for themselves and their children if only they’re properly motivated and directed in that time. Thinking as you do, who better to give them that motivation and direction?

As admirable as both the form of the argument and the follow-through of its adherents are, another merit of the argument, its falsifiability, lets it down, if only somewhat. The social science research comes down markedly in favor of genetic explanation for variance in income and intelligence. For income, genetic effects account for about 50% of income variation among men in Finland, a much less genetically diverse country than the United States. IQ studies trend toward 75% heritability. This means that environment can still account for up to half of income variation, but much of this can be put up to extremities much greater than the quality of individual educators.

This is, of course, one of the most contentious debates in academia and all I wanted to say is that there is a more admirable argument for redistribution than the one from justice and it happens to explain why teachers are so much more likely to be democrats without relying on the shoddy self-interested voter hypothesis.

The Best Time to Alienate Readers is Before I Have Any

This. So. Much. This.

Is what a demonstrably intelligent, college educated acquaintance of mine had to say about what was actually just this.

There’s so much I can say, but long windedness on my part doesn’t even do me any good, let alone you. I’ll elaborate two points: first, this is a prime example of populist irrationality. By populist irrationality, I simply mean that, given the underlying values, the proposed solution does more harm than good. Second, the irony of those values which claim to abhor selfishness, but are themselves motivated only by the sense that some owe others merely for existing and irrespective of what they have to offer in return.

First:

Let’s assume we have some minimal standard of human dignity that it is our sworn duty to uphold for all people at any cost. According to the article, this entails independent living space with climate control, an automobile, access to Western medical care, cable internet and telephone service with ~$25 a day left over for food and miscellany in addition to at least 120/168 hours of sleep/leisure per week. Assuming no effect on the prices of these goods, no transactions costs, no misallocations of capital, and no negative production change as a result of fewer hours worked, all we would need to do is double world GDP and distribute accordingly.* While all of those assumptions are far off the mark, simply redistributing income after production is a much sounder strategy to uphold a given standard of living than what the populist view suggests: raising the minimum wage.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, the emotionally satisfying response is the one that holds sway in the market for intellectual garbage. If people were genuinely interested in rectifying what they see as an inequity, they would understand and admit to disemployment effects and misallocations (high skill workers taking low skill jobs that pay like high skill jobs). Beyond that, they’d advocate that workers be paid what the market will bear in the interest of allocating to maximize gains from trade and leave no resources idle so that a redistribution after the fact could be maximally effective in improving the lives of the least well off. The appeal of the minimum wage vis a vis this suggestion is that it pays workers for their toil, which advocates interpret as desert, forgetting that low skilled workers are providing very little value to the society that is supposed to satisfy their compensatory expectations. 

Second:

“Human beings are worth more than that. Anyone who works 40 hours a week (nevermind 74 hours) ought be able to take care of all the basic necessities in life.”

By virtue of birth, humans are entitled to take more from the people who were here before are willing to give them for whatever it is they do. Those people never had any say in whether or not you were born, but now that you’re here, they owe you what you think is fair and anything less is criminal. In all sincerity, I’d like someone to explain to me why they’re the selfish ones.

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*Assuming an adult population of 5.5 billion at $24,000 annual income (a bit less than the article suggested) the total comes to ~132 trillion 2012 WGP was ~71 trillion.

GDP Fetishism is Anti-Economic

While I will never deny that GDP and other measures of national income are useful metrics, I tend to fall in line with the view that economists, and to a greater extent, people in the public sphere greatly overrate its significance. My view is a relatively critical one because 1) there are important goods that GDP leaves out, 2) there are definite wastes and evils that it counts as goods, and 3) there is no mechanism in the calculation of GDP that serves to cancel the effects of 1) and 2).

The goods left out: production for exchange in kind or by volunteers, any untaxed monetary exchange, the cost of work and the value of leisure. I feel I’ve listed these in ascending order, with the latter two being the most significant. I realize that theory dictates the only reason we work is because the utility of consumption outweighs the disutility of having to work for it, but the ambiguous size of the spread between them really does make all the difference.  Still, shouldn’t everything listed above remain relatively stable in proportion to GDP? When GDP shrinks can we assume that any deference to the underground economy only highlights its status as an inferior market? Certainly the preference for leisure is stable…

A sturdier retort to the fetishists hones in GDP inclusion of various evils. In recent years, government spending in the United States has directly accounted for ~20% of GDP. Factoring in transfer payments and Government spending not contributing directly to GDP, and the figure could easily be 40%. My point is not to say that Government = waste, but there are both some clear-cut instances (half the worlds military spending for 4% of its population, mayors’ extended families always see lush parks and smooth roads popping up in their neighborhoods, etc.) and powerful theoretical explanations (No market test, government slack, favor doling) for why we’d expect government to be more wasteful and even destructive than some other parts of the economy. Also, it’s safe to assume that production would be marginally but significantly lower if actors bore the full social costs of production; we could easily slash GDP by making oil companies pay for the right to pollute…

But just as GDP can be slashed by altering our social institutions in a beneficial way, so to can it be increased by altering those institutions in a destructive or wasteful fashion. Whats odd is that this is the basic economic insight into almost anything, but it seems lost on most economists when it comes to GDP: like any good, we face a marginal trade-off between it and other goods. I presume most economists don’t see it the way I do, not because they’re unaware of all the criticisms I raise, but rather because GDP is the best macroeconomic metric they have and the intradisciplinary norm has been to trivialize its shortcomings.

The consequence is that economist regard any increase in real GDP growth as positive and and decrease as catastrophic. What an unbiased analysis should show is that their are times when GDP grows too quickly and the public has inefficiently shifted their resource allocations away from leisure/non-monetary exchanges/risk-aversion and towards frivolous consumption/investment. In most introductory macro classes, students are taught to fear the “contractionary spiral:” Mike gets laid off, he can’t spend as much at the bakery, so they lay off Juan, who can’t spend as much somewhere else and so on until we’re all paupers. Never discussed is the “expansionary spiral:” Mike thinks his assets will appreciate rapidly in perpetuity, thinking he will be rich forever, his willingness to pay leads him to spend far more than he would otherwise; consumer prices are bid up, followed by factor prices, wages and asset values rise more rapidly, more people feel like Mike. Eventually the market finds a highly leveraged equilibrium and only a small decrease in the speed of the spiral growth will send it all crashing down, leaving people worse for wear and deferring to less preferred consumption, i.e. leisure, barter, etc.

So it turns out GDP is just as easy to manipulate as macroeconomists believe it is. The problem is that GDP has been interpreted as prosperity itself, rather than an indicator of it, largely because few see a problem with the expansionary spiral if only it can be kept going. Unfortunately, in real terms, such a spiral will eventually make leisure (foregoing the disutility of producing) too cheap, and once people start to cash out of the spiral and into happiness, the instability of the thing is revealed. As far as assessing the state of the economy goes, it’s truly an exercise in knowing the current trade-off between measured and unmeasured activity. There’s no doubt that real GDP per capita growth should be the norm, but at what rate is very unclear if you’re not taking sides; 1% per year is well below out running average, but would still see the average person’s income double in the course of one lifetime. As with every decision, quality matters. We can’t just aggregate people’s decisions and say the more the merrier when there may be a lot left on the table.