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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Sneering at “Conspiracy Theories” is a Lazy Substitute for Seeking the Truth

On the morning of August 10, a wealthy sex crimes defendant  was reportedly found dead in his cell at New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center.

“New York City’s chief medical examiner,” the New York Times reported on August 11, “is confident Jeffrey Epstein died by hanging himself in the jail cell where he was being held without bail on sex-trafficking charges, but is awaiting more information before releasing her determination …”

That same day, the Times published an op-ed by Charlie Warzel complaining that “[e]ven on an internet bursting at the seams with conspiracy theories and hyperpartisanship, Saturday marked a new chapter in our post-truth, ‘choose your own reality’ crisis story.”

After three years of continuously beating the drum for its own  now-discredited conspiracy theory —  that the President of the United States conspired with Vladimir Putin’s regime to rig the 2016 presidential election — the Times doesn’t have much standing to whine about, or sneer at, “conspiracy theories and hyperpartisanship.”

Is Jeffrey Epstein really dead? If so, did he kill himself or was he murdered? If he was murdered, whodunit and why?

Those are legitimate questions. Calling everyone who asks them, or proposes possible answers to them, a “conspiracy theorist” isn’t an argument, it’s intellectual laziness.

Yes, some theories fit the available evidence better than others. And yes, some theories just sound crazy. If someone says a UFO beamed Epstein up, or that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump posed as corrections officers and personally strangled him, I suggest setting those claims aside absent very strong evidence.

But there are plenty of good  reasons to question the “official account.”

Yes, prisoners have committed suicide at federal jails and prisons. But prisoners have also escaped from, and been killed at, such facilities. In fact, notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger was murdered in a federal prison just last year.

Given Epstein’s wealth and power, the wealth and power of persons accused of serious crimes in recently unsealed court documents, the claim of one of his prosecutors that Epstein “belonged to” the US intelligence community, the well-established inability of the federal government to secure its facilities or prevent criminal activity inside those facilities (including the corruption of its own personnel), the equally well-established unreliability of claims made by government agencies and officials in general, and the already flowing stream of admissions that the Metropolitan Correctional Center’s procedures weren’t followed where Jeffrey Epstein was concerned, the question is not why “conspiracy theories” are circulating — it’s why on earth they WOULDN’T be.

No, I’m not saying that Epstein is alive and living it up in “witness protection,” or that he was murdered by a hit team on behalf of one of his “Lolita Express” cronies. I just don’t know. Neither, probably, do you. Nor do those screaming “conspiracy theory!” at every musing contrary to the suicide theory.

Maybe we’ll find out the truth someday. Maybe we won’t. Pretending we already have, and shouting down those who suggest we haven’t, isn’t a method of seeking knowledge. It’s a method of avoiding knowledge.

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Work is Better for Kids than School

Child labor laws sound sensible but they are not.

Places poor enough to need children to work will have child labor whether governments ban it or not.

If banned, it will be unenforceable if it’s widespread, or if enforced, will drive child labor to far worse activities than if it were legal.

Unfortunately, you cannot legislate away scarcity.

Places that do not need children to work in harsh conditions will not have them do so. Laws banning it do not bring this about.

But let’s be clearer about the idea of child labor. It’s very much alive today, even in countries wealthy enough to not need kids laboring.

In the US, children are forced to labor at a desk in cinder block rooms for 13 years. It is mandatory and very difficult to escape. They have no choice over the work or the schedule. They earn no pay. They gain few skills that are valuable later in life. They are shamed and punished if they don’t enjoy it, aren’t good at it, or slack.

These same kids are prohibited from voluntarily offering to work for pay. They can’t go hang around a greenhouse and ask to make a few bucks an hour watering plants. Even if they love plants and learn a ton and the owner would like to have them. It is illegal for them to earn money working at their parents business, or selling YouTube editing services to small companies.

Some still find loopholes and ways to do some kinds of work without getting caught. But the majority of the most interesting and valuable kinds of work are way too legally dubious for companies to mess around paying young people. And minimum wage laws price them out of even the simplest roles.

No wonder young people emerge from colleges in their mid-twenties and enter the workforce with little skill and even less idea what the market values. They’ve been forced out of it for more than 20 years.

Children love to play. And they love to work on goals and things they value. They love being around adults and learning from them. They love helping. They love earning money and the confidence and independence that comes with it.

Instead they are raised away from the free market in a low value master-slave setting and banned from breaking free.

No wonder most people have such an unhealthy relationship to work and wages and commerce and companies.

More freedom to work and less coerced labor in school would be awesome for everyone.

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Power, Not Policy, Drives American Politics

Claiming to speak for “we the people,” the framers of the US Constitution offered it as a tool to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

More than 230 years later, is the federal government doing a good job of delivering on those purposes? A poor job? Or is it, perhaps, up to some entirely different job? Let’s look behind Door Number Three:

According to the late  political philosopher Anthony de Jasay, the modern state is a “redistributive drudge …. If its ends are such that they can be attained by devoting its subjects’ resources to its own purposes, its rational course is to maximize its discretionary power over these resources. In the ungrateful role of drudge, however, it uses all its power to stay in power, and has no discretionary power left over.”

How much discretionary power does the federal government exercise over your resources?

Well, in 2019, actors in the US economy, including you, will produce goods and provide services worth more than $21 trillion. Also in 2019, the federal government will seize and spend more than $4.4 trillion of that $21 trillion.

Nearly one out of every five dollars’ worth of wealth produced in the US disappears down Washington, DC’s gullet. That’s a lot of discretionary power, and it doesn’t account for state or local government expenditures, or for exercises of discretionary power that reduce the amount of wealth created in the first place.

How much justice, tranquility, defense, general welfare, and liberty does that much discretionary power buy? How much SHOULD it buy?

Personally, I’d say we’re well past the point where giving more discretionary power to the state serves the ends touted in the preamble to the Constitution, and far into a situation where the primary activity of government in the United States is using its power to stay in power.

From any debate between candidates for public office, one may collect a veritable basket full of promises.

But listen closely to the promises and you’ll find that unless the candidate is a Libertarian, they’re  always conditional: Give me more power, give me more money, and I’ll give you X.

Those promises are a pig in a poke: Elect that candidate and you may or may not get some measure of X, but that candidate will definitely get the power.

Even Republican candidates who promise tax cuts tout a “Laffer Curve” equation under which lower tax rates will supposedly produce more total revenue — and with it more discretionary power — for them.

Do you consider keeping politicians in power a project worthy of nearly one out of five of the dollars you earn?

If so, by all means keep voting for candidates who advocate an ever stronger and ever more expensive federal government. There are usually at least two such candidates on your ballot for any office — they’re called Republicans and Democrats.

If not, vote Libertarian. Or abandon politics altogether.

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Did Jeffrey Epstein “Belong to Intelligence?”

In 2008, billionaire asset manager Jeffrey Epstein’s lawyers negotiated a very favorable plea bargain in Florida, under which he served a mere 13 months in jail — in his own private wing, with 12 hours of daily “work release” — on a single charge of soliciting prostitution from a minor (the FBI had identified 40 alleged victims of sexual predation on his part).

Epstein’s in jail again, this time in New York, on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to traffic minors for sex. Again, prosecutors allege at least 40 victims.

A prospective 41st casualty of the case, perhaps not an undeserving one, is Alexander Acosta. As US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Acosta negotiated that sweetheart 2008 plea agreement. Now he faces calls for his resignation as US Secretary of Labor.

How did the plea agreement come about? For an easy explanation,  look to a (supposed) exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s:

Fitzgerald: The rich are different from you and me.
Hemingway: Yes, they have more money.

More money buys more formidable lawyers (in Epstein’s case, Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr). More money usually means friends with more money, and with the influence that goes with having more money. It’s just a fact of life that more money sometimes means getting away with — or at least getting off easier for — things would put you or me in jail for a long, long time.

But another possibility rears its ugly head. In an article for The Daily Beast, investigative journalist Vicky Ward quotes a former senior White House official, in turn quoting Acosta’s response to questions about Epstein during his interview with President Donald Trump’s transition team:

“I was told Epstein ‘belonged to intelligence’ and to leave it alone.”

Yes, we’re getting that quote at third hand. Unfortunately, yes, it sounds plausible.

Suppose you were a wealthy and influential man with wealthy and influential friends — not just celebrities, but business moguls and politicians — from around the globe.

Suppose you held wild sex parties on your private island and invited those wealthy and influential friends, even ferrying some of them to the island on your personal Boeing 727 airliner.

Suppose those wild sex parties included the presence, voluntary or coerced, of  young (perhaps illegally so) women.

That’s pretty good extortion material, isn’t it?

Now suppose a government intelligence agency offered to protect you from prosecution for your escapades — perhaps by leaning on a federal prosecutor to make the matter go away with minimal punishment —  in return for that extortion material?

Is that how things happened? Your guess is as good as mine. But if so, it would be far from the first time that innocent men, women and children have been sacrificed to the false idol of “national security.”

Since World War Two, the United States has built itself into a “national security state” which recognizes no ethical or legal constraints. It’s doesn’t exist to protect the American public. It exists to protect itself. And, too often, it protects the predators among us.

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Monetize Your Anger

Critics of the economics profession often accuse us of “knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  But economists also often antagonize a far larger group – ordinary people who barely realize our profession even exists.  How?  By asking about Willingness To Pay (WTP).  How much extra would you have to earn to add 20 minutes to your daily commute?  How large of a fare discount would be required to get you and your husband to sit separately on an airplane?  Part of the complaint is that questions about WTP are dehumanizing.  The main complaint, though, is that monetizing emotions creates conflict.  Social ties are so important that it’s best not to price human feelings.

Perhaps.  But I can’t help but notice a wide range of cases where thinking in terms of WTP smooths social relations and defuses conflict.  Consider: In a typical day, events occur that make you angry – and angry people are unpleasant company.  When angry, many of us “take it out” on whoever’s around.  Even if you don’t, you’re probably no fun to be around when you’re angry.

What does this have to do with WTP?  Simple: Most of the daily indignities that make us angry are worth next to nothing in dollar terms.  Someone cuts in front of you in line at the supermarket.  Well, what’s your WTP to wait for an extra two minutes?  The milk goes bad.  Well, how much does a gallon of milk cost?  You don’t feel like changing the oil on your car.  Well, what does Jiffy Lube charge?  Commercials aggravate you.  Well, how much does the premium version cost?  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen wealthy individuals rage over $2 problems.

If you respond, “There’s a disconnect between how we feel and WTP,” I completely agree.  My point: If you value social harmony, you should try to bring your anger into line with your WTP.  Especially over the long-run, this is a choice.  When problems arise, you can train yourself to monetize them.  Strive to replace thick description of an outrage (“This jerk in a Mercedes cut me off right before the light turned red, so I was stuck at the Route 50 intersection until the light changed again – and you know how long that takes!”) with a thin price tag (“I lost $1 of time”).  This won’t instantly calm you, but with practice you will gain perspective.

Why monetize your anger?  In slogan form: Because $2 problems just aren’t worth getting angry about. Say it, believe it, and eventually you will (kind of) feel it.  It may seem Vulcan, but it will make you a better human being.

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