Dominance: Material vs. Rhetorical

Do the rich dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Rich people run most of the business world, own most of the wealth, and are vastly more likely to be powerful politicians.

In another sense, however, the rich aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Rich people are great.  We owe them everything.  They deserve every penny they’ve got – and more.  People who criticize the rich are just jealous failures,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

Do males dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Males run most of the business world, hold most of the top political offices, hold a supermajority of the most prestigious jobs, and make a lot more money on average.

In another sense, however, males aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Males are the superior sex.  We owe them everything.  We need to protect males from women’s emotional abuse and financial exploitation, and show them the great deference they deserve,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

Do whites dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Whites run most of the business world, hold most of the top political offices, hold a clear majority of the most prestigious jobs, and earn above-average incomes.

In another sense, however, whites aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Whites have built Western civilization, the glory of the modern world.  Almost everything good in the modern world builds on white Europeans’ efforts.  The people of the world need to acknowledge how much they owe to the white race, and apologize for their many insults fueled by their own sense of inferiority,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

My point: There are two very distinct kinds of dominance.*  There is material dominance – control of economic wealth and political power.  And there is rhetorical dominance – control of words and ideas.  Intuitively, you would expect the two to correlate highly.  At least in the modern world, however, they don’t.  Indeed, the correlation is plausibly negative: The groups with high material dominance now tend to have low rhetorical dominance.

Isn’t material dominance clearly more enviable than mere rhetorical dominance?  On balance, I suspect so.  Still, many people who could have won material dominance invest their lives in acquiring rhetorical dominance instead: intellectuals, activists, and religious leaders are all prime examples.  Why do they bother?  Because man does not live by bread alone.  Material dominance gives you luxuries, but rhetorical dominance makes you feel like you’re on top of the world: “I can loudly praise what I like and blame what I dislike – and expect the people who demur to meekly keep their objections to themselves.  Or even feign agreement!”

Conflation of material and rhetorical dominance helps explain why liberals and conservatives so often talk past each.  Liberals feel like conservatives dominate the world, because conservatives run the government half the time, and conservative-leaning groups – the rich, males, whites – have disproportionate influence over the economy.  Conservatives feel like liberals dominate the world, because liberals run the media, schools, and human resources departments.  In a sense, both groups are right.  Conservatives have the lion’s share of material dominance; liberals have more than the lion’s share of rhetorical dominance.  In another sense, though, both groups are wrong.  In the contest for overall dominance, both groups are roughly tied.  Both groups feel like underdogs because both yearn from the kind of dominance they lack.

Due to the endowment effect, moreover, both sides get angry when the other intrudes on “their” territory.  Thus, even though leftists have a near-stranglehold over research universities, the rare academic center that promotes free markets or social conservatism blinds them with rage.  99% rhetorical dominance?  We’re supposed to have 100% rhetorical dominance!  Conservatives have a similar, though less hyperbolic, reaction when business adopts liberal causes.  “Sensitivity training?!  Give me a break.”

The dream of both movements, naturally, is to hold all the dominances.  The conservative dream is a world where they consolidate their lead in the world of business and take over the whole culture.  The liberal dream is a world where they purge the last vestiges of conservative culture and bring business and the rich to their knees.  (The latter rarely means outright expropriation; I think even America’s far left would be satisfied if they could sharply increase regulation and regulation – and hear business and the rich repeatedly shout, “Thank you, may I have another?”)

When you put it this way, of course, both dreams sound like nightmares.  Neither liberals nor conservatives even dimly internalize Spiderman’s principle that “With great power comes great responsibility.” Both are epistemically vicious to the core, so habitually drunk with emotion they don’t even know what sober rationality looks like.  Frankly, I’d like to see both of these secular religions fade away like Norse mythology.  Since that’s unlikely to happen, however, I’m grateful to live in a world with an uneasy balance of power.  Or to be more precise, an uneasy balance of dominance.

* I suspect Robin Hanson will say that I’m conflating dominance and prestige.  Maybe a little, but when I picture “rhetorical dominance,” I’m picturing words and ideas that intimidate more than they inspire.  General point: You can have material prestige and rhetorical prestige as well as material dominance and rhetorical dominance.

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Reverse Birth Control: A Thought Experiment

Some prominent sociologists argue that teen pregnancy, when it occurs, is functional.  Teen pregnancy is a foolish life choice for middle-class teens, because they’re sacrificing bright futures.  Lower-class teens, in contrast, don’t have bright futures to sacrifice, so why wait to become a parent?  I’m skeptical of the underlying counter-factuals, but never mind that.  Frank Furstenberg’s “Teenage Childbearing and Cultural Rationality” (Family Relations, 1992) rebuts the functionalists with a thought experiment that is as powerful as it is concise:

[I]f they had to take a pill for a month in order to become pregnant, relatively few teenagers, especially those of school age, would become parents. And, if they had to obtain permission from their parents to take that pregnancy pill, very few parents would give their consent.

In other words, the main source of teen pregnancy is just impulsiveness.  If youths act on their immediate feelings, pregnancy swiftly follows whether they want to get pregnant or not.

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Socialism Sucks, and Everyone Ought to Know It

Today my friends Bob Lawson and Ben Powell have released their new Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World.  Intellectually, EconLog readers will know the score, but Socialism Sucks embeds good economics and economic history within an irreverent travelogue.  Modern socialist rhetoric is so ahistorical and otherworldly that it’s great to hear reports about what North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba are actually like.  Along the way, Lawson and Powell thoughtfully explore the whole “That’s not real socialism” slogan. Quick version: Contrary to First World socialists, it’s the hell-states that are real socialism, and the success stories of Scandinavia that are fake socialism.

I actually had the privilege of workshopping the draft of this book.  Some of the attendees urged Bob and Ben to rewrite the book to appeal to young progressives, but I insisted that this was a task for a completely different book.  Socialism Sucks speaks to people with common sense and a sense of humor who simply don’t know much about socialism.  That includes 95% of American conservatives, who normally have negative feelings about the socialist label but who couldn’t tell you about the Holodomor, the Gulag, the Great Leap Forward, or the Laogai, much less the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or the Killing Fields.  Talk radio is going to try to angry up its listeners anyway, so it might as well angry them up against smug nostalgia for a totalitarian idea that murdered over a hundred million people and reduced dozens of nations to slavery while claiming to be the greatest of heroes and humanitarians.

Do Lawson and Powell really think that young self-styled American socialists are plotting mass murder?  Do I? My answer, at least, is, “I severely doubt it, but I shouldn’t have to wonder.”  When activists gush about the glories of socialism as if the Soviet Union never existed, all people of common decency should be horrified.  The right response to the slogan, “We want Sweden, not Venezuela” really is, “The Venezuelans didn’t want Venezuela either, but that’s what they got.”

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The Bayesian Prisoners’ Dilemma

Suppose someone sends you a new article claiming X.  Intuitively, we think, “This will either make you more likely to believe X, or have no effect.”  Once you understand Bayesian reasoning, however, this makes no sense.  When someone sends you an article claiming X, you should ask yourself, “Is this evidence stronger or weaker than I would have expected?” If the answer is “stronger, ” then you should become more likely to believe X.  However, if the answer is “weaker,” then you should become less likely to believe X.

Thus, suppose you initially consider X absurd.  When someone sends you some evidence in favor of X, you should update in favor of X if the evidence is less awful than expected.  You should update against X, in contrast, only if the evidence is even more awful than expected.

Similarly, suppose you initially consider X absurd, but your brilliant friend nevertheless defends it.  The fact that a brilliant person believes X is evidence in its favor.  Given his brilliance, however, his arguments should only persuade you if they are even better than you would have expected from one so brilliant.  When a great mind offers mediocre arguments, you shouldn’t merely be unmoved; you should be actively repelled: “That’s the best you can do?!”

Example: One of the smartest people I know routinely sends me pro-“social justice” links on Twitter.  As a result, I think even less of the movement than I previously did.  If even he fails to defend his view effectively, the view is probably truly devoid of merit.

What, however, should I conclude if this mighty intellect simply stopped sending me links?  One possibility, of course, is that he’s given up on me.  Another possibility, though, is that he’s exhausted his supply of evidence.  At this point, he’s got nothing better than… nothing.

The strange upshot: While Bayesian reasoning seems to imply that persuasive efforts are, on average, ineffective, there is a reason to keep arguing.  Namely: Failure to argue is, on average, an admission of intellectual defeat.  And by basic Bayesian principles, this in turn implies that the continuation of argument is at least weak evidence in favor of whatever you’re arguing.

Stepping back, you can see a somewhat depressing conclusion.  When people are perfect Bayesians, argument is a kind of Prisoners’ Dilemma.

If your opponent keeps arguing, you want to keep arguing so it doesn’t look like you’ve run out of arguments.

If your opponent stops arguing, you want to keep arguing to emphasize that your opponent has run out of arguments.

As a result, both sides have an incentive to argue interminably.  Which, as you may have noticed, they usually do.

Is there any ejector seat out of this intellectual trap?  Yes.  You could build a credible reputation for talking only when you have something novel to add to the conversation.  Then instead of interpreting your silence as, “I’ve got nothing,” Bayesian listeners will interpret it as, “I’ve rested my case.”


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The Discouraged Suitor

Labor economists occasionally have a crisis of faith.  After years of scrutinizing the unemployment rate, they suddenly remember… discouraged workers.  Who are they?  They’re people who want a job, but aren’t officially unemployed because they aren’t actively searching for work.

This is a serious problem – and a serious flaw with official unemployment rates.  True, we should not forget the Prideful Worker Effect – the workers who say they want a job, but refuse to do any job for which they’re genuinely qualified.  But if you take introspection half as seriously as I do, you can hardly deny that lots of people find job search extremely demoralizing.  When your whole ego and sense of self are on the line,  one needs Stoic determination to keep looking in the face of multiple rejections.  Every parent has seen even the sweetest of children surrender to despair.  Does anyone seriously believe that human beings cease to have these emotions by their eighteenth birthday?

Happily, there’s a silver lining: If you ever become a worker, strong social norms rise to your defense.  Imagine you fail to find a job.  If anyone mocks your failure, virtually everyone will take your side.  The same applies if a bystander snarks, “I guess your very best just isn’t good enough, haha.”  Until you finally land a job, parents, friends, and total strangers will share a bounty of comfort, hope, and friendly advice on how to do better.

Yes, you may prefer to brood alone.  Social norms, however, insist that discouraged workers need to be encouraged even if they don’t want to be encouraged.  If you say, “I can’t find a job,” you will hear a barrage of questions: “Where have you looked?”  “Are you using social media?”  “Maybe you’re aiming too high?”  “Have you asked your friend, Jim?”  Or even: “The economy’s picking up; have you tried re-applying anywhere?”  You’ll also enjoy an abundant supply of truisms: “You’ve got to keep trying,” “We all fail, but you can’t give up hope,” and “There’s no harm in asking.”  A tad annoying, but these questions are the expression of a valuable social norm: Encourage the discouraged.

Once you take the plight of the Discouraged Worker to heart, you might wonder, “Are there any major analogous social ills that I’ve also overlooked?”  The first that comes to my mind is what I call the Discouraged Suitor.  Lonely people normally search for a mate; they’re analogous to the conventional unemployed.  Some lonely people, however, are analogous to Discouraged Workers.  Such people want to find love, but the dating experience is so depressing they stop trying.

Denying the existence of Discouraged Suitors is as dogmatic as denying the existence of Discouraged Workers.  In both cases, people face a challenge of epic proportions: convince an employer to hire you… or convince a stranger to love you.  When the stakes are this high, failure is scary.  Unsurprisingly, then, we commonly respond to failure with despair: “I’ll never find a job” or “I’ll never find love.”  Discouraged Workers silently endure deep feelings of uselessness.  Discouraged Workers silently endure deep feelings of loneliness.

There is however one major difference: Social norms on the treatment of Discouraged Suitors are none-too-supportive.  Parents and friends naturally urge the lonely to persist in the pursuit of true love: “There’s someone out there for everyone!”  Yet social norms have also long allowed public mockery of the socially awkward and unattractive: “You’re 25 and never had a girlfriend, heh!”  In recent years, moreover, norms against sexual harassment have become stricter and vaguer.*  Is asking a co-worker out on a date sexual harassment?  What about asking twice?  Sure, the probability that you will be fired for one vague affront remains low.  The typical Discouraged Suitor, however, is already petrified of rejection.  When the norm shifts from “Let them down easy” to “Zero tolerance for sexual harassment,” many lonely people choose the safe route of silent sorrow.

Personally, none of this affects me.  I met my wife when I was nineteen, and have never dated anyone else.  Along the way, though, I have met many silently suffering lonely souls.  If Discouraged Workers deserve sympathy, don’t Discouraged Suitors deserve the same?  Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that Discourage Suitors have a right to be loved or even liked.  Like everyone else, however, they should be treated with good manners.  Indeed, since Discouraged Suitors rarely speak up on their own behalf, should we not make an extra effort to consider their feelings?

* Morrissey, one of my favorite singers, has said made multiple inflammatory comments on sexual harassment, but there’s a kernel of truth here: “Anyone who has ever said to someone else, ‘I like you,’ is suddenly being charged with sexual harassment.  You have to put these things into the right relations. If I can not tell anyone that I like him, how would they ever know?”

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“España Es Como Una Madre”

Our most memorable Uber driver in Madrid was a young Pakistani man.  We gave him twenty minutes; he gave us his odyssey.  Too bad I failed to record the conversation, because this would have been a great interview to broadcast on Spanish radio.

Our driver’s story: Back in Pakistan, he lived in hunger, so he left home to seek his fortune.  In popular parlance, he became part of the “European migrant crisis.”  He traveled solo, journeying from Pakistan to Iran to Turkey.  Then he zigzagged around the EU, passing through Greece, Romania, Germany, Italy, and France.  Our driver gave few details, but each of these countries treated him badly.  He had to hide from the authorities, and could not legally work.

After three months, however, he reached Spain – and his life turned around.  My Spanish sources tell me that migrants must normally wait three years to receive work permission, but my driver somehow managed to get his work papers almost immediately.

Three years later, he speaks Spanish, has plenty to eat, and loves his new home.  Indeed, he practically describes Spain as a libertarian paradise: work hard, don’t hurt people, don’t steal, and you’ll have a good life.  Using his Spanish travel documents, he was even able to visit Britain.  He liked it, but saw no hope of ever legally working there.

My Spanish is very poor, but I had no trouble understanding our driver when he gushed, “España es como una madre” – “Spain is like a mother.”  He didn’t say a word about government benefits; he was overjoyed to live in a country where he could live in peace and get ahead by working hard.  Though we didn’t even have a language in common, he was my kind of guy.  The American Dream is also the Spanish Dream, because both are the World Dream.

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