Minor Irritations

For various boring reasons I chose to teach a once-a-week evening section of American Government this term. I avoided Wednesday or Thursday because we have some other once-a-week classes those nights, and I avoided Tuesday, because last year that was the day of nearly all my daughter’s swim meets. Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights are not in our course schedule blocks for fairly obvious reasons. That leaves Monday. So the class meets Monday, meaning we had the whole first week’s worth of meeting time last night before the students had the chance to do any reading for the course, and we miss the whole second week’s worth of meeting time next week because of MLK day, and it’s the third week of classes before we actually do anything in the class.

Now I find out that my daughter’s swim meets are mostly Wednesdays and Thursdays this year, and Tuesday would have worked perfectly well.

But as that’s the worst thing that’s happened to me in quite a while, I can’t really complain too much.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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64 Responses to Minor Irritations

  1. Pinky says:

    The Republican Party could sweep both houses and win the presidency. That would be something for you to worry about. All education would be privatised and some recorded teaching system would most likely be put in place putting you and other school employees out of work. Think of the money the economic engine would have available for all the Bain capitalists to scoop up.

    Whoopdeedooo

  2. Matty says:

    Umm, a brief check shows that Adrian College is already described on their website as “A private, co-educational college of liberal arts and sciences”. Maybe the Republicans will nationalise them first just so they can then privatise.

  3. Pinky says:

    I thought of that. Maybe they will just popularize recorded sessions to the point where interactive teaching will not be able to compete. Capitalist competition IS a matter of monopolizing industry is it not? Do not the really big boys want it all? Isn’t that was competition is all about at the international level? Are my thoughts here completely wrong?

  4. AMW says:

    Are my thoughts here completely wrong?

    Depends on the industry’s overall cost structure. Firms survive by maximizing profit, not necessarily size. If average cost is minimized at a very large scales of production than profit maximization and size maximization coincide, and firms will likely strive to push out all competitors. If average cost is minimized at small to mid-size scales of production then the equilibrium is for many firms to stay in production.

  5. Pinky says:

    I was hyperbolizing the impact on education of a complete sweep of federal elective offices of government.

    I don’;t think you are completely wrong nor am I.

    The brassy facts of capitalistic competitive drives are that they are not satisfied with any level of achievement less than the entire market. I guess I really don’t know what it is; but, I’ve been deeply in business and I know from experience that just being the biggest operator is not enough. Someplace along the line, the desire to take over completely takes over. There’s only one thing can stop that drive and it is governmental regulations. Oh, oh! I said a dirty word there.

    The best way to regulate the big boys in business is with a graduated taxation system that eventually takes 99% of the income over a certain amount of clear profit. What that does forces the operator to reinvest capital into plant, labor, and community action. At the hay days of the lumbering era, the barons were ripping as fast as they could. Here in Michigan, they got themselves elected to the legislature and voted in ridiculous rules that allowed them to rape and rape and rape the natural resources. Finally, the public rebelled and we have libraries, public parks, and schools all around the state named after the barons who realized they had best put money back into the public sector.

    Check it out. Get yourself a copy of Holbrook’s Holy Old Mackinaw. A great and fun book to read. Here’s a link: http://www.amazon.com/Holy-Old-MacKinaw-American-Lumberjack/dp/0891740392

  6. AMW says:

    There’s only one thing can stop that drive and it is governmental regulations. Oh, oh! I said a dirty word there.

    May main concern is that government regulation is no magic wand to make corporations behave themselves. Those who are being regulated tend to have a lot of influence over the regulators, and can turn the system on its head, creating regulations that stifle competition from smaller firms and allow the bigger ones to stay big.

    As for your proposed regulation of a steeply graduated income tax, I see a few problems. First, I just don’t think that’s a regulation that has a lot of chance of being implemented due to regulatory capture (see above). Second, if the state’s tax revenues increase at an increasing rate with the growth of a given firm, then the state’s incentive is to regulate in favor of monopoly. A monopolist earns more profit than a set of competitive firms. Consequently, the government can enhance revenues more by promoting regulations that lead to one or a couple of really big players in the industry. Finally, the regulation seems inconsistent with your model of business behavior, i.e., that “Someplace along the line, the desire to take over completely takes over.” That sentence seems to argue that firms won’t pay attention to their cost structures when making decisions about their scale of operations. But your solution is entirely based on manipulating their cost structures.

    By the way, if it’s true of human nature in general that “Someplace along the line, the desire to take over completely takes over,” shouldn’t this hold for government as well? Shouldn’t we be worried that if the state gets some regulatory influence over an industry, the regulators desire will be for more and more control over that industry?

  7. Pinky says:

    One of the books I’m currently reading (Thinking Fast and Slow — http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/thinking-fast-and-slow-daniel-kahneman/1100169801 ) is written by Daniel Kahneman who, In 2002, won the Nobel in economic science. The book is about economics.

    An example, I can give you after some deep reading of the book reflects on our present political problems in America—our divided society.

    Read this: John Doe and Jim Smith have an opportunity to increase their combined wealth substantially.

    John has a million dollars and Jim has 4 million dollars for a total of 5 million dollars.

    They are faced with an opportunity to increase their combined wealth up to eight million dollars leaving both of them with 4 million dollars each.

    John is ecstatic!!

    Jim doesn’t like the idea at all.

    John is a winner and he will triple his wealth. Jim is a loser and he will lose 20% of his wealth.

    That tells you something about our current economic problem here in America.

  8. Matty says:

    One of the books I’m currently reading (Thinking Fast and Slow — http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/thinking-fast-and-slow-daniel-kahneman/1100169801 ) is written by Daniel Kahneman who, In 2002, won the Nobel in economic science. The book is about economics.

    Is there a not missing or does the book change radically after the first chapter? Because I just started it and it appears to be about psychology rather than economics.

  9. pinky says:

    Yup. Keep reading. He will tie it all in for you, Read the reviews at Amazon.

  10. Pingback: The Future of Higher Education | The Bawdy House Provisions

  11. James Hanley says:

    Matty,

    Kahneman’s work is in decision theory, and really straddles the line between psychology and behavioral economics, or maybe better to say reveals there is no real line there, but occupies the territorial overlap between those fields. I really really want to read this book, as it touches deeply on the kind of stuff I was reading for my dissertation research, but right now my professional commitment is necessarily tied up elsewhere.

  12. AMW says:

    John is a winner and he will triple his wealth. Jim is a loser and he will lose 20% of his wealth.

    Does the above contain two typos, or does the math make sense in a psychological way? Strictly speaking John will quadruple his wealth, while Jim’s wealth stays constant. Kahneman is too careful a scholar to make math errors unintentionally, but he may be describing the way John and Jim perceive the change in wealth?

    For what it’s worth, I subscribe to Tyler Cowen’s postulate that “all envy is local.”

  13. pinky says:

    Yeah, you’re riight on John Doe and quadruple. I used sloppy thinking about profit and loss.

    If they do a split on their opportunity, their share would be 4 million each. John ends up with four times what he started with and Jim ends up with 80% of what he started with.

    The comparison has to do with raising taxes on the one percenters. The nation would be far better off; but, the one percenters would lose a percentage of their future profits.

    The point gives reason to why the one percenters don’t want to go with the tax increase as it turns them into losers in their minds. Psychologically, that is. They would still win because they would live in a society with an increase in its combined wealth. But, they just don’t give a hoot for America–at least not that much.

    BTW, that was my own story about John and Jim. It was not true to Kahneman’s ideas which would have had Jim starting out with five million dollars, combining it with John’s one million for a total of six million dollars with an opportunity to make eight million dollars of combined wealth. If I could delete the mistaken post I would replace it with a corrected post. Thanx for pointing my sloppiness out to me. That was dumb on my part and courteous on your part. I’ll pay closer attention in the future.

  14. AMW says:

    Pinky,

    Can you explain how your proposed tax plan would provide more money for the bottom 99% of the income distribution than it would take away from the top 1% of the income distribution? Kahneman’s story has John getting more money than Jim loses, so it’s not a simple question of wealth transfer.

  15. pinky says:

    No one can miss the point that if the entire economy is better off, then everyone in the economy will benefit from, the improvement.

    When America is working–private and public services alike–then everyone is better off. The market expands and opportunities are more bountiful.

    I Koch brothers would be better off and so would their descendents.

    Anyway, this IS America, is it not? Aren’t we all in it together?

    .

  16. pinky says:

    Soi the one percent will pay higher taxes on money they earn in the future. What’s the big deal?

  17. AMW says:

    No one can miss the point that if the entire economy is better off, then everyone in the economy will benefit from, the improvement.

    This point seems to contradict your desire to tax the highest income earners. No one can argue that the U.S. economy has grown substantially in the last 40 years. What progressives are unsatisfied with is that the bulk of that growth has gone to the highest income earners. But if it’s true as you state that the economy being better off implies that everyone in the economy will benefit from it, then what is the point in taxing high income earners? Doesn’t their being better off make us all better off? Maybe I’m misinterpreting your meaning.

    Anyway, this IS America, is it not? Aren’t we all in it together?

    That depends entirely on what “it” is that we’re supposed to be in together. On matters of national security, public health and basic infrastructure, yes, our interests are generally pretty well aligned. (Though even on these issues interests won’t always be perfectly aligned.) On other issues we’re certainly not all in it together. And if we truly are all in it together, then why pick out the top income earners for higher taxation? Why not everybody?

    Soi the one percent will pay higher taxes on money they earn in the future. What’s the big deal?

    Part of the big deal is that high income is not equal to high wealth. So high income taxes don’t just redistribute wealth; they also make it more difficult for those who are not wealthy to become wealthy.

  18. Pinky says:

    AMW writes, “This point seems to contradict your desire to tax the highest income earners.”

    I stopped right there figuring that everything beyond that statement would be based on it. I will go back and read the rest of it after I respond.

    I have no desire that anyone should ever have to pay a tax. But, this thing called life seems to require a price be paid for what costs and takes effort.

    America is the most wonderful society humanity has yet experienced and it did not come about as a result of one or a handful of men we call the Founding Fathers. It took a millions of individuals working toward a better tomorrow and without the help of some benevolent dictator.

    Mathematics is an important study–to the furthest extreme. I’m not all that good at it; but, I know it has a great deal to do with what is. I hear tell the galaxies all depend on mathematics. Is that true?

    Whatever.

    We need each other–the rich and the super rich as well as those at the other end of that materialistic spectrum and everyone in between.

    In case you have heard, we’re all in it together–like it or not.

    I’m not wanting to tax any earners; but, it costs a lot of money to create and maintain a society like ours can be in the future–far beyond our dreams.

    History teaches us what happens when individuals compete for rewards, income, utility, whatever you feel like calling it. Sooner or later, the utility of it all gets concentrated in a very small percentage of the people. Finally, when it comes to a certain point, the one with the most gets to be king or chief or emperor or whatever else he or she might be called.

    Taxing highly exfcessive income–not people–stops that process. No one gets hurt and everyone has a good chance of benefitting. To some degree, we are part of an integrity that is bigger than any of us–that’s what Democracy is all about. In fact, it opens up the opportunity for others to accumulate great amounts of wealth.

    What’s your problem with that?

  19. Pinky says:

    I read the rest of your comment. You seem to be overly influenced by the Ayn Rand b.s. that’s been going around lately. You have to be careful what bars you go into. There’s some strange people out there.

  20. James Hanley says:

    Come on now, Pinky, AMW is pretty well versed in economics, and he’s no Randian.

  21. Matty says:

    Part of the big deal is that high income is not equal to high wealth. So high income taxes don’t just redistribute wealth; they also make it more difficult for those who are not wealthy to become wealthy.

    Is that an argument for a wealth tax? Then again this has it’s own problems – For example think of someone who was earning well, though not at the top level, spent that money on an expensive house and is now retired living on a pension much lower than their previous income. Should they be taxed on their wealth including the value of the house even though this will be a much higher percentage of their income than it would have been when they were earning?

  22. Pinky says:

    That “Part of the big deal is that high income etc.” is from AMW.

    I am not so sure about wealth (property) taxes. But, I”m firm on excessive income being taxed–and a rates up to 9i0 %. I see no inconvenience to the wealthy thatr income be taxed progressively. I think history shows us that progressive taxes are not a “redistribution” scheme at all. To the contrary, they provide the society with utiltity to provide the necessary advances that pave the way for more wealth. That’s government’s job–to provide the base necessary to the peace and teranqjuility of a bounding economy.

    Is that so hard to grasp?

    AMW’s gist sounds randian to me. Very much so.
    .

  23. Pinky says:

    Whoops! Another error on my part. Here it is corrected:

    But, I”m firm on excessive income being taxed–and a rates up to 90%–that’s niety percent.

  24. Pinky says:

    Geez. Ninety!

  25. Pink says:

    What are the symptoms of an Ayn Rand fan?
    When I was a kid in my thirties, I first read Atlas Shrugged. It seemed to be great stuff at the time.
    Live is an interesting upward journey through many strata. I am one of the very few and extra fortunate ones to have reached the octagenarian stage. I see life more completely than I did in all its previous stages. Not only do perceptions change; but, values are reprioritized (Is that a word?) in a far less selfish way. We octagenarians think we’re pretty fortunate to be experiencing a stage so many of our contemporaries have never seen–so sad for them.

    I see Rand as promoting a very self centered perspective on life. And, to tell the truth, that’s a very natural and good way to be. But, we’re not a single dimensional expression of life. We see that we belong to a larger unity that gives up on its petty differences. I think there is a much deeper problem about progressive income tax than the simple minded idea being promoted on behalf of the upper classes. To speak as though it’s somehow unfair to tax excessive income as though that makes some kind of sense. What’s fair? We want to build something for the future, do we not?

  26. Pink says:

    This is America and we are a pragmatic people.

  27. AMW says:

    Regarding Rand, I’ve only read The Fountainhead, We the Living, and 2/3 of Atlas Shrugged/i>. I’m pretty sure Objectivists won’t let you in the club if you haven’t gotten all the way through Atlas.

    I am not an Objectivist. For one thing, I’m religious, and that’s a big no-no for Rand. For another, I believe – along with David Friedman – that evolutionary biology makes Rand’s selfish organism model untenable. Genes may be selfish, but the propagation of genes is very often helped by altruism at the organism level. So for reasons secular and spiritual I embrace a certain level of self-sacrifice.

    What I like about Rand is her insistence that need does not equal entitlement. I think she’s basically right on that. Also, her depiction of the horrors of self-sacrifice when it is backed by coercion resonates with me. I’m more than happy to give to my fellow man. I practice charity. I distrust charity done with other people’s money. I also distrust investment done with other people’s money.

  28. lancifer666 says:

    What exactly is “excessive” income? Any amount more than is necessary to feed, house and clothe yourself?

    I have never lived anyway but paycheck to paycheck, but I certainly don’t look at people with high incomes as somehow having “excessive” earnings. If they have legally acquired their wealth it is none of my business how much money they make or how they spend it.

    I fear that this is a moral issue more than an economic one, and frankly I find it repugnant that some people think they can decide how much income other people have a right to make.

    I don’t like it when folks make overwrought emotional arguments based on platitudes and catch phrases, but this country was founded on certain principles, freedom being perhaps the most prominent.

    Pinky, what gives you the right to decide when someone else’s income is “excessive” let alone the right to take 90% of it from them?

  29. Pink says:

    “What I like about Rand is her insistence that need does not equal entitlement. I think she’s basically right on that.”

    That’s the heart of Rand, the way I see it.

  30. Pink says:

    Pinky, what gives you the right to decide when someone else’s income is “excessive” let alone the right to take 90% of it from them?

    I don’t claim that right to dictate; but, claim the right to voice my opinions in this democratic society. We have laws that permit our judgment on questions of taxation. I would like to see some well organized national debates regarding the subject of taxation along with some objective discussions on the subject. American’s deserve to be treated as though they have the inate skill to think things out for themselves. We should see how any politician stands to that policy. Will either party include such ideas as a plank?

    Putting politicians in a representative place is serious business. We should be given better information regarding theory, ideology, and plans for the future. We need vision.

  31. Pink says:

    The Bible tells us that we die where we have no vision…

  32. James Hanley says:

    @AMW,
    For another, I believe – along with David Friedman – that evolutionary biology makes Rand’s selfish organism model untenable. Genes may be selfish, but the propagation of genes is very often helped by altruism at the organism level. So for reasons secular and spiritual I embrace a certain level of self-sacrifice.

    I studied evolutionary theory before I ever got around to reading Rand, and I was struck by the way in which her insistence on absolute self-centeredness was wholly at odds with the reality that we evolved as a social species. In fact our non-human ancestors were already social species. I will quibble with the “self-sacrifice” statement, though. One of the intriguing questions that is not yet fully resolved is whether there is true self-sacrifice (altruism) or whether those apparently altruistic actions really have net positive returns (on average) for the organism. I’m inclined toward the view that they do. But even so that undermines Randian selfishness because it means you can do well by (selectively) doing good for others.

  33. James Hanley says:

    “Pinky, what gives you the right to decide when someone else’s income is “excessive” let alone the right to take 90% of it from them?”

    I don’t claim that right to dictate; but, claim the right to voice my opinions in this democratic society. We have laws that permit our judgment on questions of taxation.

    Of course you have a right to voice your opinion. But while you don’t claim the right to dictate, you do claim that as one member of society you have the right to participate in joining with others to tell someone else they have enough and can have no more. Doesn’t that seem at all like an extraordinary claim?

  34. Pink says:

    Doesn’t that seem at all like an extraordinary claim?

    Perhaps it does to you; but, it seems quite normal to me in a democratic society.
    I think you will benefit from reading Kahneman’s discussion about how people react to losing versus winning and in how risk plays such an important factor.

    The Bush tax cut is a sure thing. If you tax had been in the tens of millions, you have won a great extra benefit. But, it’s not such an important thing that you won the extra benefit. What’s at stake here for such a person is that they will definitely LOSE that extra benefit beginning in January and it is all Obama’s fault.
    .

  35. Pink says:

    But while you don’t claim the right to dictate, you do claim that as one member of society you have the right to participate in joining with others to tell someone else they have enough and can have no more.

    That is a purposeful misrepresentation of what I have written. I have never claimed that one person has enough and no right to more. We all have a right to work toward our fullest potential whatever it may be. I support that drive in myself as well as in all others.

    But, I season that with some reasonable forward thinking. If the ideas being promoted by those with whom you appear to be in agreement are carried out to their fullest place, then one individual will eventually have it all. That one will be king. I am opposed to monarchy. I know that’s a big leap and somewhat simplistic and it does require some slow thinking to get there. We don’t want to go through all the telling.

    When excess income is taxed at a progressively high rate, persons paying the highest taxes are encouraged to invest profits back into their enterprise–whatever it is. That is reflected in ever increasing potential–more profit. That gives meaning to the commentaries that the super wealthy are the job creators. Yes, they are. But, with the impetus created by higher taxes if you don’t reinvest. And, invest in what; equipment, real estate, plant improvement, employee benefits, higher wages, more employees?

    The argument is, why go through all that rig-a-marole when all we have to do is to hold on the the money we are already making? It’s much less expensive to buy a politician than it is to take the risk of investing in the future which is not a sure thing. Buying a congressman is a sure bet. The world could end before we saw any profits, and then what? My P&L would be negative. Oh, woe is me…

  36. Pink says:

    Should there be an allowance against one’s taxable earnings for money invested in foreign enterprise? If I invest five million dollars in some industry over in China, should I be allowed to write that off against my income taxes? And, if I make five million dollars in profit from an investment out of my Cayman Islands account that I made in China, should I have to declare it for income in my U.S. tax reporting? If investments from my Swiss banking accounts earn me money in Russia, why should I pay taxes on it in the U.S.?

  37. Matty says:

    In most of the world money is taxed in the jurisdiction where it is earned and double taxation treaties only come in when someone moves around a lot or has investments in many countries. The US is somewhat unusual in counting worldwide income in tax calculations.

  38. Matty says:

    I will quibble with the “self-sacrifice” statement, though. One of the intriguing questions that is not yet fully resolved is whether there is true self-sacrifice (altruism) or whether those apparently altruistic actions really have net positive returns (on average) for the organism.

    I’ve only read one thing by Rand and it was several years ago, a pamphlet called I think ‘The Virtue of Selfishness. It seemed to me she deliberately obfuscated on this point, jumping from an argument that real altruism doesn’t happen because apparently altruistic actions have a net benefit to concluding that this was an argument for being selfish in our attitudes.

  39. AMW says:

    One of the intriguing questions that is not yet fully resolved is whether there is true self-sacrifice (altruism) or whether those apparently altruistic actions really have net positive returns (on average) for the organism.

    To the best of my knowledge, modern evolutionary theory says that true self-sacrifice is sustainable at the level of the organism, because it can be selfish at the level of the gene. Say I have 10 children, and they’re in a burning building. It may well be the case that I can more effectively propagate my genes by saving those children than by siring other children to replace them. In that case, if I go into the building and save my children, but die in the effort, the sacrifice of my body is a net gain to my genes. Under very simplistic assumptions, even if I only managed to save 2 of them my genes would be breaking even.

  40. Pink says:

    To the best of my knowledge, modern evolutionary theory says that true self-sacrifice is sustainable at the level of the organism, because it can be selfish at the level of the gene.
    .
    I bet that is a highly disputable opinion. And, it sounds Randian to the extreme.

  41. Pink says:

    Other than that, Rand might have been able to see the truth is what Jesus did?

    So many “christians” have this idea that God’s main desire for humans is that they be prosperous.

    Real Christians tothe contrary.

    No wonder America is divided.

  42. Matty says:

    Pink

    I bet that is a highly disputable opinion. And, it sounds Randian to the extreme.

    I think you may be confusing things here, in fairness biologists never helped by describing evolutionary processes with loaded language like selfish but lets break it down a bit (warning this may be long, I may also be giving my grandmother egg sucking lessons but spelling out the basics helps me get my thoughts clearer)

    We start with a classic natural selection model, some organisms have more offspring which results in the next generation having more of their traits. If an animal reduced its number of offspring, say by sharing food with others resulting in being malnourished and less fertile this would be selected out. The result would be a population of animals that act selfishly, not sharing their food, but this would not necessarily mean that they are selfish in a psychological sense of valuing themselves more than others.

    Next we observe that despite this animals often do help others, at the cost of their own reproductive success. The classic example being social insects where the workers give up any chance to lay fertile eggs in order to support the queen. So we have a puzzle, natural selection should weed out inherited behaviours that reduce an organisms number of descendants and yet they do occur.

    The solution came with the recognition of genes as distinct units of inheritance. Suppose we have a gene A that causes a worker ant to be sterile, on a simplistic view A would die out in a generation. However A also has the effect of increasing food supply to the queen letting her lay more eggs and since the queen is the mother of the worker she also carries gene A and so do the new eggs. This means more copies of gene A are produced than would be if each worker laid a few eggs.

    If we look at the worker ant she is being altruistic forgoing the chance to reproduce for the benefit of her mother but if we look at gene A it is being selfish causing both ants to act in a way that increases the number of copies of A in the world.

    There is a lot more to studies of the evolution of altruism but this basic kin selection model is enough to make my point. The important thing in the current context is that this selfishness is behavioural, it is about the effects various actors have not their motivations. As far as I know no one argues that ants actually think about self interest versus helping others and genes certainly don’t. Nothing in the model requires psychological selfishness in the sense of not caring about others because nothing in the model requires any motivations or consciousness at all.

    Finally I should point out that models of selection are intended as descriptions not recommendations. The fact that gene A ‘acts selfishly’ is no more a reason to be selfish in your own behaviour than gravity is an argument for pushing people out of top floor windows.

  43. Pink says:

    I don’t think the instinctual behavior of any genetic messaging is controversial.

    What sets humans apart from their non-verbal language associates here on Earth is the characteristic of thinking, reflecting, considering, i.e., the way our brains work in comparison to ants. Maybe it has something to do with the way we mull things over. I’m sure it’s all part of evolution. But, to compare our relationships to each other as though we were some lower species in the phylums seems controversial to me. Our ability to recall specific events rather than to be controlled by instinct is outstanding in this perspective.

    I think our culture plays THE important role in establishing behavior. What we have in the Ayn Rand case is a sub-group of individuals who have been able to–for whatever reason–accumulate huge amounts of utility and who, further, are acting to protect what they have from losses. Maybe their experience in obtaining their wealth has shown them that someone had to lose in order for them to gain? I don’t think anyone wants to be considered as a loser–not even the altruistic ones. It may come as a surprise to some; but, there are individuals in our society who genuinely are more than willing to sacrifice what they have in order to support the growth of others. I think altruists think things out and quite carefully. It is part of the roles developed in the parent roles of the familial institution which has been such an important force in American society.
    .

  44. Matty says:

    Ah, we’re talking about different things. I misread you as saying that the concept of genetic selfishness in evolutionary theory is itself an advocacy of Randian philosophy. If you are talking about whether that model is sufficient to explain human cultures then we have no disagreement.

    For what it is worth I agree that human culture is sufficiently complex that evolution alone will explain little more than the fact we are social animals and that we are adaptable. I also share your disgust at those who advocate maximising personal gain at the expense of others as a moral position.

  45. James Hanley says:

    AMW: But is that “true” self-sacrifice? That is, if the fundamental value (in evolutionary terms) is genetic propagation, then sacrificing your mere life to save your children may not be truly altruistic, but simply sacrificing a lesser good for a greater good. It requires a particular value-focus, of course, and we’re used to thinking of life as the ultimate good; but from an evolutionary viewpoint, our own live are just a means to an end.

    Pink: The selfish gene theory is not remotely Randian. It’s most prominent popularizer, Richard Dawkins, is actually pretty left-leaning politically, and probably has no patience whatsoever with Randian Objectivism. You’re mixing up a philosophy (Randian Objectivism) with an empirical fact (gene’s primary purpose is their own reproduction).

  46. lancifer666 says:

    James Hanley,

    …(a) gene’s primary purpose is their own reproduction.

    The word purpose implies a willful goal. Genes propagate themselves by virtue of a series of genetic happenstance. I know (assume?) you didn’t mean there was some overarching force or being that gave genes this purpose but it is important to emphasize that evolution is a result of a process that is completely undirected nor does it have a goal or a purpose.

    Many genes are not advantageous to the organism but we don’t speak of them having a purpose of disappearing. They simply peter out just as genes that are advantageous to the organism (or as in social insects the species) propagate.

    Neither one had a purpose. They just formed and the results played out.

  47. Pink says:

    I think we’re getting out of a place where we have actual knowledge.

    I don’t think we understand the deepest purposes of the our genes anymore than we understand the purposes of evolution. We might have some pretty good ideas about how things work; but, we cannot speak authoritatively as though our comments are correct and the others are not. That’s an argument. I have an interesting little book which is a converstion between two highly respected academics, Horkheimer and Adorno. http://www.the-utopian.org/post/12034084404/towards-a-new-manifesto .
    At one point they discuss the value of argument. Is it all about you or me being right and me or you being wrong? What is its purpose? Maybe we should be a little less interested in proving our point and more in uncovering some sensible thinking on this issue?

    Yah think?

  48. James Hanley says:

    Lance–Biologists have struggled with this language problem. They recognize that “purpose” implies intent, which they don’t mean to imply, but don’t really seem to have better words available to use for popularization.

    Pink–Following up on Lance’s points, genes don’t have “purposes” in the sense of having intent, volition, or will. Nor does evolution have a “purpose” in that sense. But we do know what genes do, and the affects of what they do. And we do know that what they do is things that maximize the chances they will be propagated into future generations.

  49. Pink says:

    Evolution does have something to do with messaging. Genes are the messengers.

    If we use biological models to explain an event in societal communications, we are liable to make mistakes.

    Points can get lost in argumentation. I guess arguments are not the best method for teaching.

  50. James Hanley says:

    If we use biological models to explain an event in societal communications, we are liable to make mistakes.

    But given that all societies are biologically based, if we don’t use biological models to explain events in societal communication we may also make mistakes.

  51. Pink says:

    Your point is well taken, J.H.. Howevefr, a well trained sociologist might say using one field of study to explain another is questionable at best–at best.

    Kahnemann makes a point that the study of economics is not as scientific as we might think. He won the Nobel in economics for his psychological approach.

    Go figure…
    .

  52. AMW says:

    But is that “true” self-sacrifice? That is, if the fundamental value (in evolutionary terms) is genetic propagation, then sacrificing your mere life to save your children may not be truly altruistic, but simply sacrificing a lesser good for a greater good.

    From the organism’s perspective it’s the definition of self-sacrifice. From the gene’s perspective it is a gain from exchange. Since Rand’s philosophy is conducted at the level of the organism, I think it counts as evidence against her. We are the product of genes, but we don’t experience life at the genetic level.

    For what it’s worth, I agree with Pink(y) that we can’t be certain that there is no purpose behind evolution. As a scientific question I think it’s accurate to say we can detect no purposeful directive force in evolution. But I also think that one can look at the process for meaning from a philosophical and/or religious perspective.

  53. Pink says:

    The idea of self sacrifice involves a thought out purpose in which the individual intentionally gives up some thing to serve the needs of another.

    I don’t think my genes do that. They have a prescribed job to do and they work themselves to death making sure they do everything possible to accomplish that prescription. They just do what they do naturally. The sign their names with y’s and x’s.

  54. lancifer666 says:

    James Hanley,

    Yeah, I understand the semantic problems but I think the word purpose is just too loaded to use in an evolutionary context.

    AMW,

    As a scientific question I think it’s accurate to say we can detect no purposeful directive force in evolution. But I also think that one can look at the process for meaning from a philosophical and/or religious perspective.

    Yes, one can look for religious or philosophical meaning in evolution but it should be made clear that they are no longer proposing scientific questions. Nor are they going to find any scientific evidence to support their conclusions.

    As a scientist (albeit a not very accomplished one) I recoil at such endeavors. It’s like using a clarinet to stir stew. You can do it, but it is abusing the clarinet and not likely to provide the results you were looking for.

  55. lancifer666 says:

    James Hanley,

    After some thought, I think the word function would be a better choice, when talking about genes, than purpose.

  56. Matty says:

    The only things we know have purposes and goals are brains, mainly human ones but a case can be made for other vertebrates. Because we are so used to dealing with other creatures that have brains our language and thought processes deal more easily with the idea of purpose than the kinds of cause and effect that drive the rest of the universe. Much like people will see :-) as a face when it is really a series of symbols so we see A wants B when we should see A has the effect of making B more likely.

    As for the purpose of evolution, I’m increasingly sympathetic to the view this is a non-question like “what colour is loudest?”

  57. James Hanley says:

    @Pink: a well trained sociologist might say using one field of study to explain another is questionable at best

    I’m not sure there are any well-trained sociologists. That is, sociology as a discipline emphasizes group-level analysis, so of course they tend to hate reductionist approaches–being opposed to methodological individualism they are necessarily opposed to going even further down to sub-individual levels of explanation–but they are wrong about this. It is the fundamental flaw of sociology as a discipline, and without that flaw the discipline as a distinct entity would disappear and be subsumed into other social science fields. All higher levels of social behavior and organization are built upon the lower levels of organismal behavior, which is based in the organism’s biological history. Not all questions at the group level require going that deep, but the discipline as a whole disparages ever going that deep, and that is a critical intellectual error, and at times a critical methodological error.

  58. James Hanley says:

    @AMW: For what it’s worth, I agree with Pink(y) that we can’t be certain that there is no purpose behind evolution. As a scientific question I think it’s accurate to say we can detect no purposeful directive force in evolution. But I also think that one can look at the process for meaning from a philosophical and/or religious perspective.

    @Lance: Yes, one can look for religious or philosophical meaning in evolution but it should be made clear that they are no longer proposing scientific questions.

    I think you’re in agreement that it’s definitely not a scientific question.

    As a religious question I think it would take you into weird territory for just about any current religion, as it’s knowledge none of those religions have ever had to take into account before. Looking at Christianity specifically, I know enough people who are Christians and who understand and recognize the factual truth of evolution that I think it’s both facile and demonstrably wrong to say a person can’t be a Christian and accept evolution. And I don’t think it’s a big theological wrench to accept the idea of God allowing modern whales to evolve from proto-whales, or having an explosion in the number of mammal species after the (near) extinction of the dinosaurs. But when we start thinking about pre-modern species that are definably human, it seems to me it raises some thorny theological issues. Fortunately I’m not a theologian, so I don’t have to grapple with them (I’d be curious to know if there are theologians who are trying to do so, though). And in that Christian context, with God as the author of the universe, asking what is the/God’s purpose of evolution would be a reasonable (it not necessarily answerable) question.

    As to philosophy, I think philosophy can reasonably ask “what does the empirical reality that humans are an evolved species mean for our understanding of humans?” But like Matty I think it would be silly to ask what the purpose of it is, at least to the extent one is working in a completely naturalistic context, which to my mind is the appropriate context for philosophy.

  59. lancifer666 says:

    Sadly philosophy is almost as muddled as a discipline as sociology.

  60. Pink says:

    We should not practice our propensity to curse the darkness. Instead we should just [fill in the blank].

  61. Pink says:

    We could say that the best science–the most vibrant of all–is that science which has not yet come up with any absolute truths.

    Sociology being a sub-school of the greatere Communications Studies school, it is pretty much going through an adolescent stage. Give it some time and don’t get too stuck on absolutes. They have proven their tendency to be dangerous.
    .

  62. James Hanley says:

    Pink,

    If sociology abandons its methodological approach it has a chance to mature. But then I’m not sure it would actually be sociology anymore. I say that as a political scientist who sees too much of the same kind of methodology in my own discipline, and see it as our greatest weakness.

  63. Pink says:

    I hear tell political science is a wash; but, I have long ago given up on believing what I see and hear. I try to believe what seeps to make sense according to my personal experience at life. That’s a luxury you’ll have to wait for when you are an octagenarian. (No rank intended; but, it sounds like it.)

    Sociology is but one of the fields in the over all Communications Studies Super Field. Have you heard? Sociologists have struggled from the beginning. We all know their study is about man and his groups. So, we’ve–pretty much–figured out the politicians and they don’t like it?
    .
    ha ha

    I think it’s funny. Laugh it off. Let yourself go.
    .

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