We Wanted Tech

“We wanted workers, but we got people instead.”  This line from Max Frisch didn’t just give George Borjas the title of his most recent book.  At last Friday’s immigration conference in St. Cloud, Borjas declared it his all-time favorite immigration epiphany.  The point, he explained, is that immigrants aren’t just machines that produce stuff; they have broad social effects on our culture, politics, budget, and beyond.

Borjas is right, of course.  In fact, he doesn’t go far enough.  After all, even machines aren’t just machines that produce stuff.  They too have broad social effects on our culture, politics, budget, and beyond.  If you look closely at any major technological development, you can justly say, “We wanted tech, but we changed society instead.”

Consider cellphones.  When they were first introduced, you might picture them as more convenient phonebooths.  But they’ve revolutionized not only our society, but our psychology.  Many human beings now interact with their phones more than they interact with fellow human beings; go to any public place and you will see this to be true.  Even when we are talking to fellow human beings, cellphones have changed the tone and tenor of our conversations.  When I casually chat with my friends, for example, we often fact check each others’ assertions.  And cellphones are crucial for social media, which has dramatically swayed not only public discourse, but elections and policy.  Without Twitter, would Donald Trump’s candidacy even have been able to get off the ground?

When driverless cars come, they’ll disrupt our whole society again.  Commuting time will plausibly skyrocket, especially in high-rent areas.  If you can relax – or even sleep – in your car, why pay $1M for a tiny apartment downtown?  Indeed, once you get rid of the driver’s seat, we’ll probably turn cars into small motorhomes, so “living out of your car” could become an alternative lifestyle rather than a tale of woe.  And what will happen to all the truck drivers, taxi drivers, Uber drivers, and delivery drivers?

Still not convinced?  I trust you’ll admit that nuclear technology did more to the world than slash electric bills.

Verily, we wanted tech, but we changed society instead.

How should you react to this truism?  You could say, “Duh, everybody knows this already.”  That’s my knee-jerk reaction to Frisch’s quote, too.  But both “duhs” are too dismissive.  “Obvious once you think about it”≠”Obvious.”

What else is there to say?

1. You could retreat to agnosticism.  “Well, there are direct economic benefits, plus an array of intangible social effects.  We don’t know how to measure these intangibles; we don’t even know if they’re good or bad.”  This is basically what Borjas said about immigration in his Friday talk.  There’s no reason we couldn’t generalize it.

Reaction: Philosophically, agnosticism of any kind is incoherent sophistry.  We always have some information.  We can and should combine this information with common sense to form reasonable guesses about whatever question is on our minds.  Crucially, “information” includes psychological evidence about the errors to which the human mind is prone.  And one of the best ways to keep your guesses reasonable is openness to bets.

2. You could start by measuring the direct benefits, then see if any of the broader social negatives are plausibly in the same ballpark.  If not, the standard conclusion still goes through despite the complexity of the world.

Reaction: Once you factor in the value of time, this is typically the best approach for laymen.  It’s a quick way to resolve a wide range of policy disputes, especially if you embrace some version of weak deontology rather than consequentialism.

3. You could try a lot harder to study the measurement of so-called “intangibles.”  This might require a massive research program to fill in the enormous gaps in our knowledge.  Or perhaps if you play around on Google Scholar, you’ll discover that many researchers have already measured the stuff you imagine “no one knows.”

Reaction: This is the best approach for experts.  If you do good work and/or publicize it, you also help laymen reach the truth with modest mental effort.  So earn your paycheck!

Whatever you conclude, know that immigration is nothing special.  Everything has broader social effects.  These complexities are no reason to defer to popular prejudice, which is what I suspect Borjas hopes we’ll do.  Instead, these complexities are a reason to think broader and work harder to get the best answers we can.

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Owning the Past

Nobody asked but …

My excellent fellow writer and contributor here at EVC, Kent McManigal wrote a piece recently in which he pointed out that racism is not a permanent affliction.  It is only enduring when the holder of racist views continues to stoke that fire.  I believe, for instance, that the Governor of Virginia has tried to dodge the bullet instead of owning his past.  It appears that he has given no evidence that he is no longer a holder of racist views.  Please be aware that I know that a negative cannot be proven, but a preponderance of evidence can support a change of sentiment.  So far, in my opinion, the Governor has not shouldered his burden of persuasion very well.

Kent used himself as an example, and I was inspired by it.  I grew up in the middle south, in the “border state” of Kentucky.  But as with every place else, human stupidity ruled the roost.  A racist atmosphere blanketed daily life.  Black people were ignored and separated.  The only counter influence I ever had was from my mother, a native of the Boston, Massachusetts area — she was an egalitarian generally, but she was saddled with preconceptions of a Boston sort — one group of snobs may be believed as better than some other group of snobs.  As for myself, the established order was set so I hardly even knew that black people existed.  But my purpose today is not to recite details of my personal trip from biased state A to biased state B.  As regards race, however, state B is far ahead of state A.  Everybody is on a journey from biased to unbiased in any particular area.  I have a bias against hominy, but I have grown to like grits, corn nuts, hoppin’ john, and pozole.  I have a bias against a collective of human beings, but I have grown to like voluntaryists, individualistsanarchists, entrepreneurs, libertarians, agorists, philosophers, Austrian-school economists, objectivists, and empiricists.

— Kilgore Forelle

 

 

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“Deep State” Isn’t What You Think

You’ve probably been hearing about the “deep state” recently, with some pundits saying it’s a danger and others saying it doesn’t even exist.

It’s real, but it’s not the conspiracy theory some would have you believe. Its reality shouldn’t be controversial; it’s there for everyone to see and experience.

The “deep state” is, in simple terms, the government bureaucracy. It is all those parts of government that don’t change from one presidential administration to the next.

When presidents change, the new president hires new people to run the various government agencies, but most employees in the massive agency keep their job. The new boss depends on the experience of those who have been in the job through multiple administrations to keep things running.

Since their jobs are safe, they get entrenched, and in some positions, feel invulnerable because of their experience and years in the job. When no one else even understands or knows for sure what they do, how can they be replaced?

Thus, you have a “deep state.”

Some people want to turn this recognition of reality into evidence of paranoia.

Sure, when you involve powerful agencies such as the CIA and FBI, opportunities for abuse are probably irresistible. It’s likely that some will come to see themselves as the real power behind the scenes and see the elected officials as figureheads to be tolerated as long as they don’t upset the status quo too much.

Some of them undoubtedly act on this power.

Scenarios of “deep state” presidential assassinations and other undemocratic schemes are thrilling, but the majority of the damage is done to your liberty by the everyday governing, which goes on openly, in front of microphones and cameras.

The state, both deep and broad, has been tightening the noose around the necks of Americans almost from the beginning.

The state has been preventing the people from choosing to uncouple from an out-of-control federal government since Mr. Lincoln’s war to repeal the Declaration of Independence. It has been violating the Second Amendment since at least 1934. The state keeps the tax records that are used to entrap and enslave the people. It steals, compiles, and stores your private data. All in the name of governing you.

Yet people worry about what the mysterious parts of “deep state” might do to other parts of this enemy organization? This seems like displaced concern to me.

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On Yoga Pants

Paradoxically, at a time when #metoo started and continues, yoga pants are becoming more and more common as daily attire worn by attractive women. I am in no way complaining, quite the contrary, I welcome this evolution in fashion. It seems this trend started before #metoo, actually. I don’t know for certain, but isn’t this trend evidence that woman feel safer than they used to? Yoga pants are practically a color skin on a naked body, yet women everywhere are wearing them out and about, and quite comfortably so. This seems like progress to me. What do you think? And that’s today’s two cents.

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Now More Than Ever, It’s Clear the FBI Must Go

The New York Times reports that “[i]n the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.”

That’s an interesting way of putting it, but let’s try another:

Enraged at the firing of their director, and suspecting the firing might portend a threat to their place and power in the American political establishment, FBI officials went to war with the president of the United States. They redirected taxpayer money and government resources away from anything resembling a legitimate law enforcement mission, putting themselves instead to the task of drumming up a specious case that said president is an agent of a foreign power.

This is exactly the kind of bovine scat subsumed by the recently popularized term “Deep State” — an entrenched bureaucracy, jealous of its prerogatives and bent on the destruction of anyone and anything it perceives as dangerous to those prerogatives.

I’m far from the first writer to point out that this latest news reflects nothing new. Yes, it’s over the top, but it pretty much sums up what the FBI does, and what it has done for the entirety of its 111 years of existence. It attempts to protect “America”  — which it defines as the existing establishment in general and itself in particular — not from crime as such, but from inconvenient disruption.

That’s why the Bureau under J. Edgar Hoover surveilled (and attempted to blackmail) Martin Luther King, Jr. That’s why its COINTELPRO projects illegally infiltrated and attempted to disrupt domestic political groups in the Vietnam era. That’s why the FBI had the material that COINTELPRO operator Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”) leaked to journalists  by way of attempting to succeed Hoover as the man who brought down Nixon.

Trump is no Martin Luther King, Jr., but he’s certainly disruptive. That, not some cockamamie theory about a Russian mole in the White House, explains the FBI’s declaration of war on his presidency.

Almost exactly a year ago — after the FBI officials got caught destroying evidence in a  probe of its investigations of Trump and of Hillary Clinton — I suggested that the time has come to abolish the Bureau.  This latest news confirms that judgment. The FBI guards its own power, not our freedoms. It’s just too dangerous to keep around any longer.

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Rainwater’s Motivated Reasoning

Lee Rainwater was one of the most prominent liberal sociologists of the Great Society era.  He spent 23 years at Harvard; here‘s the Harvard Gazette‘s memorial to his work.  To be honest, though, I never heard of him until last week.  Yet after I stumbled upon his 1966 Daedalus article, “The Crucible of Identity: The Negro Lower-Class Family,” I was surprised that any academic would so candidly admit to motivated reasoning.  When I discovered that he was an intellectual leader of his generation, I was stunned.

Here’s what stunned me; Rainwater’s in blockquotes, I’m not.  He starts off promisingly enough:

The first responsibility of the social scientist can be phrased in much the same way: “Tell it like it is.” His second responsibility is to try to understand why “it” is that way, and to explore the implications of what and why for more constructive solutions to human problems.

Then he runs right off the rails:

Social research on the situation of the Negro American has been informed by four main goals: (1) to describe the disadvantaged position of Negroes, (2) to disprove the racist ideology which sustains the caste system, (3) to demonstrate that responsibility for the disadvantages Negroes suffer lies squarely upon the white caste which derives economic, prestige, and psychic benefits from the operation of the system, and (4) to suggest that in reality whites would be better rather than worse off if the whole jerry-built caste structure were to be dismantled.

If you wanted to “tell it like it is,” of course, your goal would not be to “disprove” any ideology, but to fairly evaluate it.  Similarly, your goal would not be to “demonstrate” that responsibility lies squarely upon anyone, but to accurately apportion responsibility.  In any case, it’s hard to understand how both (3) and (4) could be true.  If whites would be better-off if the system were dismantled, how can the “white caste… derive economic, prestige, and psychic benefits from the operation of the system”?  I suppose you could treat “the white caste” as the subset of whites who profit, but then the claim is almost tautologous.  Or you could be really defensive and say, “He means ‘gross benefits,’ not ‘net benefits.’”

Are Rainwater’s words really so damning to his own intellectual tradition?  Well, imagine I wrote:

Social research on the situation of the American immigrant has been informed by four main goals: (1) to describe the disadvantaged position of immigrants, (2) to disprove the nativist ideology which sustains the caste system, (3) to demonstrate that responsibility for the disadvantages immigrants suffer lies squarely upon the native caste which derives economic, prestige, and psychic benefits from the operation of the system, and (4) to suggest that in reality natives would be better rather than worse off if the whole jerry-built caste structure were to be dismantled.

Would any judicious reader trust my work on immigration after this declaration?  No.  Why not?  Because I’m talking like a trial lawyer who wants to win a case.  The whole point of research, in contrast, is to stay open to the possibility that you’re wrong.  Sure, you’ve got suspicions.  But you’re supposed to not only verify your suspicions, but energetically look for counter-evidence!  Furthermore, you’re supposed to not just follow these standards yourself, but monitor your intellectual teammates.  The fact that your intellectual subculture wants X to be true urges self-scrutiny, not self-congratulation.

Speaking of that, how’s this for self-congratulation?

The successful accomplishment of these intellectual goals has been a towering achievement, in which the social scientists of the 1920’s, ’30’s, and ’40’s can take great pride; that white society has proved so recalcitrant to utilizing this intellectual accomplishment is one of the great tragedies of our time, and provides the stimulus for further social research on “the white problem.”

What’s most striking about Rainwater’s article, however, is that he provides a wealth of empirical evidence against his own point (3).  Indeed, most of the article is standard “culture of poverty” sociology, documenting high levels of irresponsible and criminal behavior among the underclass.  How then does Rainwater reconcile his theory with the facts?  Again, by the power of motivated reasoning.

Yet the implicit paradigm of much of the research on Negro Americans has been an overly simplistic one concentrating on two terms of an argument:

White cupidity———–> Negro suffering.

As an intellectual shorthand, and even more as a civil rights slogan, this simple model is both justified and essential. But, as a guide to greater understanding of the Negro situation as human adaptation to human situations, the paradigm is totally inadequate because it fails to specify fully enough the process by which Negroes adapt to their situations as they do, and the limitations one kind of adaptation places on possibilities for subsequent adaptations. A reassessment of previous social research, combined with examination of current social research on Negro ghetto communities, suggests a more complex, but hopefully more vertical, model:

White cupidity creates

Structural Conditions Highly Inimical to Basic Social Adaptation (low-income availability, poor education, poor services, stigmatization)

to which Negroes adapt by

Social and Personal Responses which serve to sustain the individual in his punishing world but also generate aggressiveness toward the self and others

which results in

Suffering directly inflicted by Negroes on themselves and on others.

In short, whites, by their greater power, create situations in which Negroes do the dirty work of caste victimization for them. [original punctuation]

Notice: As an ethnographer of black poverty, Rainwater offers little or no data on “white cupidity.”  Furthermore, a straightforward reading of his own evidence is that irresponsible and criminal behavior is, as usual, maladaptive.  All he directly documents is the final clause – the intra-racial “dirty work of caste victimization.”  Only motivated reasoning allows Rainwater to casually interpret these facts as proof of that the “white caste” is to blame for anything.

You could naturally protest that Rainwater is right for the wrong reasons.  Maybe so, but this protest misses the meta point.  Namely: If a brilliant, eminent, and mainstream scholar of the 1960s could be right for such wrong reasons, the brilliant, eminent, and mainstream scholars of today could easily be mired in their own brand of motivated reasoning.  Indeed, so could you.  Or me.  There’s no easy remedy, but the first step is being hyper-aware that we have a problem.

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