Net Neutrality

Net neutrality is a scam. It’s a horrible, horrible scam, an instance of crony capitalism at its very worst, and millions of people across America have fallen for it. Ajit Pai is right, Tom Wheeler is wrong: “net neutrality” regulations need to go.

Sorry to put that so bluntly. I’m sure many people disagree. But most people haven’t heard the other side of the story. Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson, and Mike Lee put out an OpEd in the Washington Post attacking net neutrality that was entirely underwhelming. They rested their case on the idea that these net neutrality regulations are new and, therefore… bad? The argument isn’t very logical.

Now, I understand why they might frame things in that way. Cruz, Johnson, and Lee are trying to dispel a (common?) misperception that net neutrality is something that was taken away and that needs to be restored. But if you aren’t trying to explain what net neutrality regulations are and why they have only recently been adopted, you aren’t telling the real story.

What is the internet? Just a series of tubes, Ted Stevens told us. And while that’s obviously a silly thing for a silly old man to say, he’s very right about one thing. The internet requires physical infrastructure. Wifi hotspots, fiber optic cable, the servers that we connect through… all of it. Someone has to build that, and that’s what the cable companies do. They are not content-creators; they lay the pipes. Remember all those Verizon commercials, “Can you hear me now?” with the huge army of people in hardhats behind him? That’s Verizon. They’re the network. Same for all the other cable companies.

Being in the cable business is a good business to be in. Everyone needs to use the internet. I’m sure that you have an internet connection in your home. You pay money for that internet connection. How much do you pay? I’m sure that, when you first installed your cable, you were offered a number of different packages, each promising different speeds at a different price. 50 bucks a month for the basic connection, but if you’re going to be doing things like uploading videos, you should really go for one of those $100+ deals. You need the bandwidth.

We accept this practice. It makes sense. And it is important to remember WHY it makes sense. Verizon or Time Warner or whoever is laying a lot of cable, and we need that cable in order to have internet. Everyone uses the same big network of cable, so we all need to pay for that network’s maintenance and growth. We each pay a small amount, relative to our use of that network. If we only use the network a little, we only need to pay a small share of the total costs. If we use the network a lot, we need to pay more. One of those $100+ packages.

Think about how much you use the internet. Think about how much you pay.

Now think about how much Netflix uses the internet.

Not, like, your Netflix account. Netflix, the company. Every time you stream video from Netflix, you are streaming it from their servers. How much do you think THEY pay for their internet bill? I bet they can’t get by on a $50 plan.

The extent to which Netflix uses the internet is simply mind-boggling. In the United States, during peak hours, 37% of all internet traffic is video streaming from Netflix. The other major tech giant content providers also gobble up a massive percentage of internet traffic.

In our minds, we have this lovely image of the internet as a kind of spiderweb, with everyone equally connected to everyone else. In reality, the internet works on a hub and spokes system. A few major sites (Netflix, Google [YouTube], Facebook, etc.) are responsible for a huge portion of internet traffic. So, again… how much do you think they pay?

The actual amount is irrelevant. The point is that when it comes to Netflix’s internet bill, they’re not buying a plan like the kind of plan that you or I would buy. They’re not really buying “a plan” at all. With 37% of internet traffic directed its way, there’s a very real sense in which Verizon is building this massive network FOR NETFLIX and the other major content providers. Now, every connection is two-sided, so when we say that 37% of all internet traffic is going to Netflix, we’re really saying that they are responsible for only half of 37% of internet usage. So Netflix is, as a company, during peak hours, using 18.5% of all of the network capacity in the country.

The cable companies would like Netflix to pay 18.5% of all of their costs. Plus a little more, of course, so the cable company can make its profit. Netflix does not, in any way, want to do this.

But the two are stuck with one another. Netflix needs the cable companies to connect to their subscribers, and the cable companies need Netflix because a network is only as good as the content you can get on it. So neither one can walk away from the negotiating table, but BILLIONS of dollars are at stake in how these negotiations turn out.

So Netflix and the other big content providers got together, made up a story, and told it to John Oliver. And he bought it so hard.

Watch the John Oliver bit on net neutrality. It’s what got everyone up in arms on this issue in the first place. What’s insane is that it’s all right there. I don’t really have to rebut anything that Oliver is saying. He is describing, in the most diabolical terms ever, the common practice of paying more money in order to have access to larger amounts of bandwidth. He avers that this practice is so transparently evil and unfair that no one with good conscience could possibly support it. Why, look at all of these major content providers who have openly declared that “Net Neutrality” regulations are a good thing! That infographic over Oliver’s shoulder when Oliver talks about the companies that support Net Neutrality is the whole story right there.

The simple fact of the matter is that the free market already provides ISPs with sufficient incentive to provide fast connections. The internet did not

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in 2014, so why would cable companies throttle the internet now? Customers value high speeds. If your internet connection is too slow, you’ll switch providers. I’ve done that before. So if the cable companies want to keep your business, they won’t slow your speed down. That’s true if you are a customer or if you are a content creator.

This isn’t to say that there is no potential for abuse here. The problem is that cable companies function like monopolies in far too many markets. That needs to change. Market mechanisms  that ensure quality of service break down when there is no competition. But we don’t need NetNeut regulations for that. We need more competent anti-trust regulations and lowered regulatory barriers to entry for upstart ISPs.

I hope you support a free and neutral internet. I certainly do. That’s why I’m opposed to “Net Neutrality.” It’s an Orwellian name for a crony capitalist scheme to help Netflix, Facebook, and the other major content providers pay as little as possible for their internet connections while giving the government the power to regulate the internet. At best, “net neutrality” will just mean higher prices for regular internet users. At worst,  it means the FCC picking winners and losers on the internet. It’s bad policy. I’m glad it seems to be going away.

Comey: A Dialogue

Mainsteam Media: Donald Trump fired James Comey! That’s very bad!

Trump Voter: Why is that bad? Weren’t you saying he is terrible at his job just last week? Trump fired him. That’s what Trump does. He fires bad people. Haven’t you seen his TV show?

MSM: Trump can’t just fire the head of the FBI.

TV: Sure he can. Nothing against it in the Constitution.

MSM: Well, perhaps he had the Constitutional right to do it, but the optics of it…

TV: What do you mean, “the optics?”

MSM: It looks bad!

TV: It looks bad to you maybe. Looks fine to me.

MSM: I don’t know why you’re not more worried. Firing the head of the FBI is the kind of thing they do in autocracies, not democracies! Trump is violating an inviolable norm.

TV: Hold on. Didn’t Clinton fire the head of the FBI? I think I read that.

MSM: Well, yes, Clinton did fire an FBI head. But that was different. That was for cause. There were ethics violations.

TV: What’s an “ethics violation?” It seems that, if Comey is as bad as you’ve been saying, he’s committed a few ethics violations over the course of the campaign. That’s a cause to fire him, right? Colbert’s audience cheered when he said Comey got fired.

MSM: Comey may have made mistakes, but they weren’t the right kind of mistakes to count as “ethics violations” –

TV: Says who?

MSM: – and anyway this is all beside the point, because Trump didn’t actually fire Comey because of what happened during the election. Trump fired Comey because he didn’t like Comey looking into the Russia connection.

TV: Come on! Don’t bullshit me. We know that there’s no secret Russia connection. God, you make fun of the right for that Pizzagate thing that happened on some internet message boards, and yet the New York Times trades in the idea that Donald Trump is a Manchurian Candidate for Putin? Every story I’ve read – both in the MSM and on right-wing media – says that Trump was mad at Comey precisely because he knew the investigation was bullshit. Trump was pissed that his name kept on getting dragged through the mud on this Russia thing when Hilary Clinton STILL HASN’T BEEN PROSECUTED FOR REMOVING HIGHLY CLASSIFIED INFORMATION FROM SECURE GOVERNMENT SYSTEMS. Trump has done nothing, and Hilary did something. Of course you’ve got your rationalizations for why Trump should be hounded to the ends of the earth and Hilary Clinton should spend out the rest of her years living comfortably with her millions in Chappaqua. But I’ve never been convinced by that, and I don’t know why you would expect me to be convinced now.

MSM: WOAH, hold on. Let’s forget Hilary Clinton for now –

TV: *smirks*

MSM: – and get back to what’s at issue here, which is Trump firing Comey.

TV: Comey worked for Trump and Comey was bad and Trump fired him. It’s really that simple.

MSM: But Trump didn’t fire him because he was bad. He was bad earlier and Trump praised him! Trump fired him because he was stupid and childish and imperialistic and he wanted nothing more than to –

TV: Fuck you. You say that about every Republican president. You said Bush was a stupid imperialistic child. You said Reagan was a stupid imperialistic child.

MSM: But Donald Trump REALLY IS a –

TV: We’re done here.

************************************************************************

I think the MSM is right in this conversation, and the Trump voter is wrong. But until we start making arguments that will convince a Trump voter and not just stoke liberal anger, Trump’s approval rating won’t dip below 40%. Impeachment (richly deserved several times over just on the basis of the first four months in office!) remains entirely out of reach because we (the Trump-opposed) are not trying to convince Trump voters that he’s bad. We’re trying to convince ourselves that he’s bad. But we don’t need more convincing!

The MSM is too in love with its moral posturing (“Democracy Dies in Darkness!”) to play the role that it wants to play and that it needs to play. A thing isn’t a scandal because the media regards it as a scandal. It’s a scandal if the American people regard it as a scandal. The Comey firing should be a scandal, but it isn’t because Trump voters have not been given a compelling reason to regard it as one. Every piece written on the Comey firing that does not begin and end with a discussion of the nuances of the notion of the rule of law is doing the country a disservice. Pieces that don’t discuss what is really at issue just further feed the perception that this whole affair is nothing more than liberal partisan insanity. Nathan J. Robinson gets it right.

The rule of thumb: If your arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny from the other side’s criticisms, they’re not good arguments.

This is why intellectual diversity is important: Without intellectual diversity, you lose the ability to make good arguments because you lose the ability to subject your own arguments to appropriate scrutiny. As a result, you won’t be able to convince the other side when they are wrong, and you won’t be in a position to know when you yourself are wrong. Without intellectual diversity, the ability to reason well atrophies. Then partisanship takes over. Then the wolves come.

What Insurance Is

Paul Ryan, in defense of the new GOP healthcare bill, argued that Obamacare failed because it forced healthy people to pay for sick people, thereby resulting in a death spiral. Immediately, my twitter feed lit up with people mocking Ryan.

Karen Tumulty wrote “People who are healthy pay for people who are sick. Also known as “health insurance.”” Sarah Kliff, of Vox, wrote “Wait wait wait this is literally how insurance works.” Kliff was responding to Jonathan Cohn, who wrote “Paul Ryan says insurance can’t work if healthy must pay more to subsidize the sick. But this is exactly what happens in every employer plan.” [Sorry, I tried to embed the tweets themselves, but it didn’t work, and so I’m just doing the less technical thing. The citations are accurate.]

So there’s this idea out there. The problem is that it’s a really bad one. Cohn is actually making a better point than Kliff or Tumulty, but this line of argument is fundamentally misleading.

There is a sense in which insurance is a transfer of wealth from healthy people to sick people. If I buy an insurance plan on the open market, pay my premiums on time every month, but never go to the doctor (just because I’m young and healthy and don’t need to), then I’ve given away money and received nothing in return. The insurance company takes that money and uses it to pay the bills of some sick person. So that’s what insurance is: a transfer of money from healthy people to sick people.

But this is the wrong way to think about health INSURANCE. It’s actually not a bad way to think about health CARE. Healthcare is the healing of the sick, a practice which takes resources (time, energy, equipment, etc. etc.) To engage in the practice of healthcare is to dedicate those resources to sick people. Because otherwise those resources might have gone to healthy people, healthcare involves the transfer of resources from the healthy to the sick.

At a conceptual level, that’s just kind of obvious.

But if this is what health CARE is, then what is health INSURANCE? Health insurance is a financial product. You pay a certain amount to a company and they, in return, agree to pay for any medical expenses that might arise (in excess of your deductible, less co-pays, etc. etc. etc.).So when I said earlier that the young healthy person paying for insurance gets nothing, that’s wrong. They get a contract. They get coverage.

The essential point about insurance is that, even if you aren’t using health care at any given moment, that coverage is STILL a benefit. The benefit isn’t the obvious benefit that people think of it as – the benefit of health. Health insurance provides what economists call a CONSUMPTION SMOOTHING BENEFIT.

The idea is this. Let’s say that, as a matter of actuarial statistics, you can be reasonably certain that you will incur about $20,000 in medical expenses over the next ten years. The problem is that, for most people, that doesn’t mean that you need to pay $2,000 to the doctor every single year. It means you pay just a few hundred dollars most years, except for the one year when you have an emergency that ends up costing $15,000. How do you plan for that? How do you budget for it? One year there’s going to be an expense that eats up a huge portion of your income, but you don’t know what that year’s going to be. You’re not even sure if it will ever arrive: maybe you get lucky and have no medical emergencies any time soon.

Insurance is the solution to this benefit. If you’re going to pay $2,000 a year, on average, then why not just pay that much to the insurance company on a set of fixed monthly payments? That’s much better. Your life becomes much less stressful; your financial planning that much easier. You’re willing to pay a little something extra for that: so you actually pay the insurance company $2,100 per year. That regularity and predictability is worth $100 a year, you figure. And that $100 is what the insurance company uses to cover its overhead and make its profit. Everyone wins.

At least, that’s the story about how things would work in an ideal free market. The US health care system has never been an ideal free market, and it’s not likely to be one any time soon. But it’s important to understand the free market story because it helps understand what the BENEFIT of insurance is. The benefit of insurance is NOT HEALTH. It’s CONSUMPTION SMOOTHING.

HEALTH is something that people are willing to pay a lot of money for. Many medical decisions are literally life or death, and people are willing to put forward a lot of money to save their own lives. But CONSUMPTION SMOOTHING? I mean, that’s a nice thing to have. It’s certainly useful; I’d rather have smoothed consumption than unsmoothed consumption any day. I’d even be willing to pay a $100 per year premium to get my consumption smoothed. Perhaps more. Perhaps quite a bit more.

But if, as a matter of actuarial statistics, I should expect to pay $2,000 next year, on average, for healthcare, I won’t buy an insurance contract that asks me to pay $5,000 per year. I’m just not going to pay that much money for a consumption smoothing benefit. Maybe others have different preferences than I do, and they value a consumption smoothing benefit that highly. But, for the most part, you can’t charge someone  $5,000 per year for an insurance contract that is only worth a little more than $2,000 to them.

This is why the “insurance just is healthy people giving money to sick people” line is silly. Insurance is a financial product that provides a consumption-smoothing benefit. Consumption-smoothing benefits are substantial, but not THAT substantial, and people are unwilling to pay huge amounts to obtain those benefits.

What this all means is that, in an individual insurance market, A RATIONAL INDIVIDUAL WILL NOT BUY INSURANCE IF THE RATE IS SUBSTANTIALLY IN EXCESS OF THE ACTUARIAL VALUE OF THAT CONTRACT. THAT was Ryan’s point. And one of the provisions in Obamacare, “Community Rating,” requires that healthy people buy insurance at rates that are substantially in excess of the actuarial value of their insurance contract. This is why young people aren’t buying insurance. This is why the people covered by the exchanges are substantially sicker than anticipated. This is why so many people are worried about a “death spiral” in insurance markets. This is one of the biggest flaws in Obamacare.

And that’s why Ryan’s trying to fix it. I don’t think the GOP healthcare bill is any good. But Ryan’s at least identified a real problem that needs solving. This can’t just be ignored with “Doesn’t he understand what insurance is?” snark. Those making that argument are the ones who don’t seem to understand what insurance is.

At this point, I have to let Cohn off the hook, because the point that he’s making is both different and better than Kliff and Tumulty’s point. Cohn is pointing out that companies don’t buy individual insurance plans for each one of their employees. They buy a group insurance plan, which covers all of their employees. What this means is that an employer and an insurance company will set a price for the group insurance plan, where the value of that plan is determined by the average expected healthcare costs of the company as a whole. So with group contracts, there’s already quite a bit of money-pooling and risk-pooling going on, as the sicker employees of the company receive much more benefit from the group insurance contract than the healthier employees do. So Cohn is correct to say that group insurance contracts already have the kind of healthy-people-paying-for-sick-people that Ryan is criticizing.

But Cohn’s criticism of Ryan is still unfair. Group insurance has the kind of health-people-paying-for-sick-people structure that Ryan is criticizing, but that is a stable outcome in the group insurance market because of features that are particular to employer-provided group health insurance as it exists in the USA. For one thing, these benefits are massively subsidized. Second, and likely more important, employer-provided insurance is presented and thought of as a “benefit,” and its value is not closely interrogated. When employees are told about the size of the benefit package they receive, they receive a dollar number. That dollar number is, typically, a lie. It reflects the average per capita cost of the insurance contract that the employer is providing rather than the actuarial value of the insurance contract (plus consumption smoothing benefit) to the employee in question. Employer insurance is MUCH more generous to older, sicker employees than it is to its younger, healthier employees, and the system is held together by everyone vigorously pretending that this isn’t the case. Everyone is able to carry on pretending because employees are, for the most part, kept completely in the dark about the financial structure behind the benefits they’re receiving. (This isn’t a conspiracy; most people just don’t know or care about things like this, so they don’t bother to try to find out). In the individual market, things are much more transparent. The artifice doesn’t work.

Health CARE is incredibly important. We’re willing to pay quite a lot for it. Health INSURANCE is not. It provides a benefit to your ability to successfully manage your finances, which is useful, but not in a life-or-death kind of way. It’s a mistake to conflate the two, and one of the biggest problems with conflating them is that you start to treat health insurace as being much more important than it is. You can’t charge people too much for their health insurance, or else they’ll just change to buying healthcare directly.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking skills form the foundation of a liberal arts education. The value of a college education does not come from the lists of facts that a student will learn over the course of their education – lists of facts can be found on Wikipedia, which costs infinitely less than a bachelor’s degree at a major university. Students come to school to learn not what to think, but how to think; or so goes the popular refrain. But is instruction in “critical thinking skills” really valuable? It might seem obvious that they are. But seemingly-obvious ideas are often the ones most in need of scrutiny. We need to think critically about “critical thinking.”

The problem is that there are at least two distinct ideas about what “critical thinking” amounts to; we may call these rational thinking and radical thinking. Both rational and radical thinkers examine and question the fundamental assumptions of our discourse. But these two groups have very different ideas about the method and the purpose for which this questioning is carried out.

Rationalists about critical thinking believe that the purpose of critical thinking skills is to obtain a more complete, accurate, and unbiased understanding of the world. In short, rationalists are interested in thinking in ways that are likely to result in beliefs that are true. For radicals, on the other hand, critical thinking is essentially a political act, consisting of the rejection of accepted beliefs and norms within society. And today, humanities departments – with the notable exception of philosophy departments – are mostly populated by radical thinkers. Students in these humanities departments are, accordingly, being instructed in ways to justify resistance to various kinds of authority.

The ultimate source of this debate between rationalists and radicals comes from their differing attitudes towards the concept of truth, and the related concepts of knowledge and rationality. Rational thinkers accept a view called Objectivism about Truth, according to which some (even if not all) facts are objectively true, independent of what anyone happens to think about them. Radical thinkers, on the other hand, tend to be Constructivists about Truth. For Constructivists, objective truth is a myth. Nothing is really true; all so-called ‘truth’ is “constructed” at either an individual or social level, and all viewpoints are “equally valid.”

Understanding the debate between Objectivism and Constructivism means getting involved in some tricky issues in metaphysics and epistemology (the studies, respectively, of truth and knowledge), which is why most people (understandably!) never make the effort. But these two views on truth have immediate implications regarding the nature of knowledge, and thus the proper structure and purpose of education. Accordingly, a basic understanding of this distinction is essential to any understanding of what the modern university is, and what its mission can, and should, be.

So let’s take a look at each view and sketch out its implications.

1. Objectivism and Rational Thinking

We begin with Objectivism. Assume for now that the Objectivist is correct, and there is an objective fact of the matter about the way the world is, at least in some respects. This allows the Objectivist to say a number of things about belief. Beliefs represent the world as being a certain way. Accordingly, if the world really is the way the belief represents it to be, that belief is true. If the world is not the way the belief represents it to be, that belief is false. To give a straightforward example: If you believe Donald Trump is the president of the United States, your belief is true. And if I believe that he is not, mine is false.

So if two people disagree on some question, the existence of disagreement does not immediately render all further discussion moot. If this is a question about which there is a matter of fact (like the question of who is president), one person is right, the other is wrong. And perhaps we can figure out which is which; this is what Wikipedia is good for.

If, as the Objectivist says, some beliefs are true and others false, we can investigate how people form their beliefs, and identify methods of belief-formation that are more likely to result in true beliefs. For instance, looking for evidence, and then believing what our evidence supports, is a process that reliably results in the formation of true beliefs. Beliefs formed in this way are rational.

We often form beliefs using methods that are rational, and thereby come to hold beliefs that are true. We represent the world to be a certain way, and we represent the world as being that way because it is that way, and we used the right kinds of methods for figuring out the way the world is. In these cases, our beliefs are more than just mere beliefs. They are knowledge; in particular, knowledge of objective truth.

Rational belief formation, then, is a way of coming to expand our stock of knowledge by utilizing methods that produce true beliefs. For the Objectivist, this is what “critical thinking” consists in: rational thinking. The scientific method is one such rational belief-forming method. Trusting one’s own senses is another rational belief-forming method. Logical and mathematical proof is another. And so on. Instinctively, most people are Objectivists. So this will all sound familiar and obvious. The Objectivist concept of “truth” is the common-sense concept of truth.

2. Constructivism and Radical Thinking

Now let’s presume that Constructivism is correct; nothing is really true, and what we call ‘truth’ is just a matter of personal or social construction. If this is so, then all the preceding considerations about truth, knowledge, and rationality will need to be completely revised, or discarded altogether.

If nothing is really true, it doesn’t make sense to talk about beliefs as being true or false. What’s true for one person might not be true for another person. Thus, when two people disagree, there’s no objective fact of the matter about who is right and who is wrong. Both are right, in their own ways, and no perspective is any more “valid” than any other.

One of the clearest ways to see the distinction between Objectivism and Constructivism is to reflect on the phrase “true for X,” as in “What’s true for one person might not be true for everyone.” Objectivists never speak this way. For an Objectivist, belief may well vary from person to person, but truth itself does not. Objectivists think that talking about a claim being true-for-so-and-so is confused and misleading, since this way of speaking conflates truth and belief, which are completely different things. For the Constructivist, on the other hand, truth is a personal or social construct. Accordingly, we can only talk about what is true according to one viewpoint or another. Claims are never simply true, they are only ever true-for-so-and-so.

If, as the Constructivist says, “true” is just the label we give to beliefs we accept, then it’s not really correct to say that some beliefs are true and others are false. It’s all just a matter of perspective. If there’s no objective truth for our beliefs to match, then there is no such thing as a method that reliably yields true beliefs. Accordingly, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about rational belief. Similarly, if knowledge is a kind of rationally-formed true belief, we need to discard or substantially revise our conception of knowledge.

How should our conception of knowledge be revised? There are a number of potential answers to be given here, but none have been more influential than the views of French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose works are taught as foundational texts in many humanities departments. According to Foucault, what counts as “true,” and thus what counts as “knowledge” and “rationality” are all socially constructed. Thus, “truth” and “knowledge” are just reflections of social conditioning.

This is not a benign social conditioning. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault depicts the formation of beliefs as an imposition of “power” on the very souls of individuals, as these individuals are conditioned (in positively Orwellian fashion) to echo the dominant attitudes in society. There is no truth. There is no knowledge. There is just the imposition of power, which destroys the self.

Foucault’s views are much more radical than they may seem on their face. As a Constructivist, Foucault believes that all knowledge is just power, with no independent truth to back it up. Thus, his thesis does not just apply to discussions about morality or justice (where these claims can seem the most plausible), but in all areas of human discourse. For a Foucauldian radical thinker, the scientific method is not a rational belief-forming process by which one might discover an objective truth about the world. It is a regimentation of belief by power, which is both dominating and destructive. There is no fundamental difference between scientific inquiry and irrational superstition, no fundamental difference between the belief that disease is caused by germs and the belief that disease is caused by evil spirits. “Rationality” is a myth, as is “truth.” If you think your scientifically-held beliefs are more “true” than superstition, this is just because you have been so dominated by the prevalent paradigm of belief and “knowledge” that you cannot see your own domination, and in fact have become an agent of domination yourself. The term used for this state of thorough domination of belief is hegemony.

So what, then, of “critical thinking?” For a Radical, critical thinking involves the examination of fundamental assumptions – not with an eye to evaluate their truth, but with an eye to recognizing them as the impositions of power. Thus, “critical thinking” is not “rational thinking.” It is a form of political thinking, which aims to use discourse to affect political change by challenging the beliefs that have been used to justify various social power structures. It is, in many ways, the antithesis of rational thinking, since radicals believe that labeling a belief as true or false is essentially an abusive exercise of power. How could it be anything else, if nothing is really true or false? Radicals reject beliefs that are considered “rational,” in order to reject dominant epistemic paradigms and overthrow hegemony.

We should note that, while radical thinking is a form of political thinking, there is nothing essentially liberal or conservative about radical thinking (or rational thinking, for that matter). Radical thinking is typically associated with leftist political thought, but as Lee McIntyre observed in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, conservatives have begun to use radical thought as a way of promoting conservative political ends. “We ought not believe in climate change; that’s just the kind of thing that the liberal elite wants us to believe in, because it lets them take more control of the economy” is an instance of a radical pattern of reasoning, just as much as “We ought not believe in evolutionary psychology; that’s just a way to give cover to the idea that women aren’t as smart as men.”

For the record, I am not taking any stance here about whether the claims of climate scientists or evolutionary psychologists are true. These are simply examples of reasoning processes which are indifferent to the truth of the claims in question. Indeed, only Rationalists concern themselves with the question of whether claims like “Human attitudes are the result of natural selection in such a way that men and women might be biologically predisposed to think differently” accurately represent the world. Radicals judge claims like this (and, indeed, all claims) on the basis of their political implications. For the Radical, there is no objective truth against which these claims may be judged; what is true for one person might not be true for another; “truth” is an imposition of power. Given this, a political standard is the only honest way in which a belief should be judged.

Nonetheless, although radical thinking can come in both conservative and liberal forms, the liberal form is much more likely to be taught on college campuses, given the well-known leftward political inclinations of most academics. Thus, the most common forms of radical thinking identify “power” with viewpoints common among relatively-affluent, straight, white males, and teach opposition to these viewpoints as a way of ensuring a more equitable distribution of power.

It is also worth noting that not all humanities professors are radical thinkers. Again, philosophy departments are typically (though not always) populated by rationalists, and it would be a gross overgeneralization to claim that every humanities department in every university is a bastion of radical thought. But radicals are much more likely to be found in the humanities or social sciences than in philosophy, math, or the hard sciences. A student who rejects the scientific method wholesale, as a form of thought control and imperialism, is unlikely to make it far as a physicist. But that same view is likely to receive high marks if a student advances it in a Critical Theory course.

This, of course, puts the lie to the idea that there is one set of skills – “critical thinking skills” – that students learn in the course of their education. College is, indeed, about teaching students not what to think but how to think. But students will receive very different training in how to think depending on which department they find themselves in.

What I have just described represents two ends of a spectrum of views on critical thinking. Many professors attempt some blending of these two approaches to critical thinking – a bit of iconoclasm mixed in with their science, with equal weight given to both logical and political considerations. But because the radical perspective is supported so strongly by Constructivism, and the rationalist perspective supported so strongly by Objectivism, professors’ views tend to be located closer to the extremes than to the murky middle ground. This is a good thing. We should all recognize the implications of our views, and, in the interests of consistency, follow our commitments to their natural conclusions.

But this, of course, just pushes the problem back a step. In order to say which is the more valuable set of critical thinking skills, we must take sides in the debate between Objectivists and Constructivists. If there is an objective truth, we should be trying to find it. If there is not, a political stance is as good as any to take toward our discourse.

3. The Argument for Constructivism

Thus far, I have tried to state both the rational and radical perspectives in a fair and neutral way. Now, I’ll abandon my neutrality: Objectivism is the correct view on truth. The main argument for Constuctivism is incredibly weak, and Constructivism itself is either incoherent or self-undermining.

The arguments given in this section and the next closely follow those laid out in Paul Boghossian’s wonderful Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism. For those who find this discussion interesting (either because they agree or disagree with the arguments to follow), I cannot recommend Boghossian’s book more strongly. I also recommend Tetralogue: I’m Right, You’re Wrong by Timothy Williamson, a more recent treatment of these issues written to be accessible to a wide audience.

First, we’ll see what the main argument for Constructivism is, and why it is so weak. The main argument for Constructivism proceeds by appeal to the contingent features of the way we use language. Every language is different, and comes with its own stock of concepts that simultaneously determine and limit the expressive power of that language. Recall the old saw that Inuit tribes have many different words for snow. The reason for this is obvious: cultures that develop in snowy climates have needs to distinguish between many different types of snow, and so their language evolved in such a way as to reflect that need. Thus, the way that we use language, and the concepts that we deploy in thinking about the world, are shaped by the contingent circumstances in which our society has developed.

But this means that the way we think about the world is shaped by our contingent social circumstances. Our modes of conceiving and reasoning about the world are inherently structured by our use of language, and different cultures have developed very different languages in response to different social pressures. And it is absurd to suggest that there is one “correct language;” the establishment of a certain kind of language is entirely a matter of social convention, and nothing else. Thus, it follows that there is no way of thinking of the world that is better than any other. All views of the world are equally valid. There is no objective truth.

So goes the case for Constructivism. And this argument may seem compelling at first blush. But look at the structure of the argument. It begins with premises about our language and our concepts, and ends with incredibly ambitious conclusions about the nature of reality itself. But the language we use to describe the world is not the same thing as reality itself. Noting this, one might think that this argument makes an unwarranted leap somewhere. It does.

To see this, consider again the concept of “snow.” Some cultures have developed languages that have different words for picking out different types of snow. We only have one word – “snow” – because there was no need for us to make the kinds of fine distinctions between different kinds of snow that were useful in other cultures. And cultures in tropical climates will likely not possess any words for snow. But just because some cultures have words for snow and others do not, that does not mean that there is no fact of the matter about whether or not snow exists. This is just a reflection of the fact that there is no snow in the tropics. But once you get closer to the poles, snow is everywhere; that’s the way the world is.

The ways in which we talk and think about snow vary from culture to culture. But what does not vary is what kinds of snow there are. In general, our different concepts furnish us with different ways of thinking about the world. But the fact remains unchanged that our beliefs are true if and only if the world is as we believe it to be. Our ways of thinking vary very much from culture to culture. But the world itself does not vary. The world is as it is. No set of representational concepts is inherently superior to any other. But, no matter what concepts we use, there will always be some ways of representing the world that match reality (and are, therefore, true), and some ways of representing the world that do not (and are, therefore, false).

The fact that our ways of using language vary from culture to culture and from person to person tells us nothing about whether or not there is an objective reality. The main argument for Constructivism rests on a mistake: it conflates our ways of describing the world with the way the world is, independent of our descriptions of it.

4. The Argument Against Constructivism

We have just seen that the main argument for Constructivism is flawed. But there is an even bigger problem for Constructivism: the view is incoherent. Remember, Constructivism says that no claim whatsoever is objectively true; the so-called “truth” of every claim is just a social construction. But what about Constructivism itself? Is Constructivism true, objectively? Here, we face a dilemma. If Constructivism is objectively true, then there is at least one objectively true claim: Constructivism itself. So Constructivism’s truth would prove its own falsity. And if Constructivism is false, then that settles that! Thus, Constructivism is self-undermining.

This is an old problem, and the Constructivist’s response to it is unsurprising: he will just deny that Constructivism is either true or false. Constructivism might be true for some people but not true for others – just as anything else is.

But this response is incoherent. To see why, let’s begin by considering some (purportedly) true claim, like “snow is white.” We’ll give this claim a name:

Claim 1: Snow is white.

Now, is Claim 1 true? For the Constructivist the answer is: No. Or, at least, not objectively true. Claim 1 is true only relative to Claim-1-friendly ways of thinking about the world. But relative to other ways of thinking about the world, Claim 1 won’t be true. That’s an important and interesting claim that the Constructivist is making! So let’s give it a name, as well.

Claim 2: Claim 1 is not objectively true or objectively false. It is only true relative to frameworks that are friendly to Claim 1, but it is not true relative to frameworks that are unfriendly to Claim 1.

If Claim 1 is a socially-constructed claim, you can’t really understand what it means to say that Claim 1 is true unless you understand what it means for socially-constructed claims like Claim 1 to be true. In other words, you can’t really understand Claim 1 unless you understand Claim 2.

But is Claim 2 true? For the Constructivist the answer is: No! Or, at least, not objectively true. Claim 2 is true only relative to Claim-2-friendly ways of thinking about the world. But relative to other ways of thinking about the world, Claim 2 won’t be true. The same things we said about Claim 1, we also need to say about Claim 2, since, for the Constructivist, all claims are only “true” relative to some social construction or another. These are all interesting and important insights into the nature of Constructivism. So let’s give this claim a name as well:

Claim 3: Claim 2 is not objectively true or objectively false. It is only true relative to frameworks that are friendly to Claim 2, but it is not true relative to frameworks that are unfriendly to Claim 2.

Now is Claim 3 true? For the Constructivist, the answer is: No! Or, at least, not objectively true…

You can see where this is going. We’ll need a Claim 4 about the frameworks that make Claim 3 true, and then a Claim 5 about the frameworks that make Claim 4 true, and so on to infinity. This is a problem, since these higher-numbered claims are supposed to explain the lower-numbered claims. You don’t really get claims like Claim 1 until you understand Claim 2. And you don’t really get claims like Claim 2 until you understand claims like Claim 3. And so on. Ultimately, Constructivism has no way of explaining itself. Any attempt to explain Constructivism in Constructivist terms throws us into a bottomless mire of frameworks-about-frameworks-about-frameworks.

Of course, some kinds of claims are socially-constructed. Whether or not a certain piece of paper counts as money is, for instance, a social construction. And we can explain what we mean by this; we clarify claims like “such-and-such a piece of paper is money” by appealing to a certain socially-constructed framework, as when we say “that piece of paper is currency according to the social conventions of contemporary America.” In doing so, we are making a claim about the social conventions of contemporary America – and this claim is objectively true. It describes what our social conventions really are. More generally, we explain claims that are true only relative to social frameworks by making objectively true claims about social frameworks. So, if we are not allowed, at any point, to make an objectively true claim, all language will be ultimately unintelligible. This is Boghossian’s coup-de-grace against Constructivism.

To sum up: If the Constructivist holds that even claims-about-other-claims (like Claim 2, Claim 3, etc.) are only true relative to some framework or another, he will become caught in an infinite regress of claims about frameworks, and the view falls into incoherence. If, on the other hand, claims-about-other-claims can be either objectively true or objectively false, then we are entitled to ask whether Constructivism itself is objectively true or objectively false. And since it is self-contradictory to say that Constructivism is objectively true, we must hold that it is objectively false. Therefore, we should reject Constructivism.

These arguments regarding our use of language and our representations of reality are, admittedly, rather abstract. But just recall: on the face of things, Objectivism is by far the more plausible of the two views. No one denies that beliefs and attitudes vary from person to person. But the idea that reality itself similarly varies from person to person is not at all intuitive. We are owed some argument in favor of this counter-intuitive idea. But the arguments in favor of it are bad, and there is good reason to think that this idea is ultimately incoherent.

So we are left with this: There is an objective fact of the matter about a number of things. This objective reality is distinct from our beliefs, and our beliefs aim to accurately reflect this objective reality. Given this, we can, perhaps, identify the thought processes that lead us to have objectively true beliefs for the right kinds of reasons – and these are the rational thought processes. And, sometimes, we will have beliefs that are true because they were formed rationally; these beliefs are knowledge of objective reality.

The whole rationalist package comes back.

Of course, this leaves unanswered a whole host of questions about how we can identify rational thought processes and what counts as evidence in favor of what. But these are precisely the questions that constitute the starting point for inquiry in epistemology. So I won’t try to answer them here.

A certain willingness to embrace iconoclasm and to question even our most sacred beliefs is absolutely valuable. The Constructivist’s reminders that many of our beliefs are the product of social convention and not reasoned deliberation are incredibly valuable as well. And we should also take seriously the Constructivist’s call to take minority viewpoints more seriously, if only because this gives us a wider range of beliefs that we can evaluate for their potential truth. But our tendency to let our beliefs conform to dominant social expectations is a bad thing because conformity can make us insensitive to the truth. We should criticize our basic beliefs and assumptions, and perhaps reject some of them – but only when it is rational to do so.

5. How to Think

The debate between Constructivism and Objectivism is an academic one, but because Constructivists teach radical thinking and Objectivists teach rational thinking, this debate is at the center of what higher education is and should be. Radical thinking should not enjoy the pride of place that it does in the humanities. This is for three reasons.

First, as we’ve just seen, radical thinking is justified by an appeal to Constructivism. But because Constructivism is a seriously flawed theory of truth, the intellectual foundations of radical thought are undermined. We simply have no good reason to be radical thinkers.

Second, if we strip away the talk of cultural frameworks and epistemic hegemony, radical thinking is revealed to be little more than the practice of believing whatever will best support one’s political opinions. But this is not the kind of thing that people need to be trained to do. Psychologists call this kind of thinking “motivated reasoning,” and it lies at the root of partisan animosity and close-mindedness. Radical thinking is the art of fitting one’s beliefs to one’s political opinions, rather than forming political opinions on the basis of the best available evidence about the way the world is. Society would benefit from less of this kind of thinking, not more.

And third, universities are supposed to promote knowledge. And, as we’ve seen, knowledge is true belief that is arrived at through rational thought. Even if radical thinkers endorse beliefs that turn out to be true, those beliefs will not count as knowledge, since beliefs formed in ways that are wholly insensitive to the truth can at best be true by accident, and accidentally-true beliefs are not knowledge. Thus, rational thinking is the only way to come to have knowledge. This is why radical thinking has no place in an institution that is tasked with promoting knowledge.

The goal of a higher education is – and should be – to give students a better understanding of the world as it actually is. Teachers who wrongly think that there is no way that the world actually is are uniquely ill-suited to achieve this overarching goal of higher education. Radical thinkers warn their students away from the truth, because they don’t believe that there is any truth out there to be discovered, and so treat exhortations to finding true belief through rational thought with a deep suspicion. And they pass this suspicion of truth – this “fear of knowledge,” to use Boghossian’s phrase – to their students. Students come to college to learn how to think – and they are being taught the wrong ways to think.

I have encountered students who object to the teaching of formal logic, since they are deeply skeptical about the basic process of labeling propositions as true or false. I have encountered students who have told me, confidently, that they “know all about the way reality is constructed by language.” I have encountered professors who speak dismissively of “so-called rationalists,” and teach their students that the arguments of the great philosophers don’t matter; what matters is the “power” that these philosophers represent and which their arguments either weaken or reinforce. And I’ve watched in horror as a classroom full of impressionable undergraduates nod thoughtfully, and write in their notes “Arguments and reasoning don’t matter. Power is all that matters.”

But of course arguments matter. Of course rational thinking matters. There is a fact of the matter about many things, and we should be trying to figure out what the fact of the matter is. This is how we come to have a more complete and realistic conception of the world. That anyone would teach students otherwise is a tragedy and a crime against knowledge. The value of a liberal arts education does lie in its capacity for teaching students how to think critically. But if the critical thinking skills that students are being taught are nothing more than radical thinking skills, a humanities education is less than worthless. Those who teach radical thinking do great harm to the intellectual development of their students.

 

*****

 

I wrote this a year ago and tried to get it published. No dice. The problem was not, I think, that the piece was bad. I just didn’t know how to get things published in popular media at the time. I still don’t know how to do that. But now I have a blog.

Honestly, I think this holds up scarily well. I mention in the second section of the piece that radical thinking is not essentially left-wing, and that there are hints of a right-wing  manifestations of radical thinking. Well, that right-wing manifestation of radical thinking  came roaring into prominence in the last year. The ideology of Bannon and the alt-right is nothing more than radical thinking on the right. Both Foucault and Bannon view social norms as a kind of horrific thought-control that need to be transgressed, they just have very different ideas about what the relevant oppressive norms are. Both sides in the political melee have abandoned reason for madness in the name of abstract political aims. This needs to change, and the change needs to start in universities. The humanities need to be held to account.

How to Win at Trade

We need to talk about exchange rates and the trade deficit because this is a topic that receives a fairly large amount of attention in the media, but almost all of this discussion demonstrates absolutely no understanding of what is actually at issue. I don’t know who’s to blame for this. Perhaps it’s economists who have done a bad job articulating the core concepts; perhaps it’s the news media for not having the wherewithal to put anyone on air who can actually explain what the issue is. But whoever’s to blame, there seems to be a need for a simple explainer on what economists call “the balance of accounts.” So that’s what I’m going to try to provide here.

The common idea that I see repeated on the news is that there is this competitive enterprise, trade, and the goal is to do the most of it. Exports are great. Whoever is exporting things the most wins, because that means that they are producing the most, which means that their economy is the strongest. If you are winning at trade, you have so much trade you don’t know what to do with it: it’s a trade surplus. If, on the other hand, you are losing at trade, you have so little trade that your citizens are suffering: it’s a trade deficit. The goal, therefore, is to win at trade by accumulating a trade surplus.

That narrative makes emotional sense; it’s been fully embraced by President Trump, who is preternaturally skilled at fostering emotionally resonant narratives. And from a military perspective (more about this at the end of the post), this is a sensible way to think about some aspects of the American economy. But if you’re a typical American consumer who just wants the best for yourself, your family, and your fellow citizens, this is not how you should think about foreign trade. At all. It is, in fact, probably the worst way to think about trade. Long story short: if you want the best for yourself, your family, and your fellow citizens, that means you want a massive trade deficit, not a trade surplus. We are, if anything counts as “winning at trade,” winning about as badly as the Falcons were at Super Bowl halftime. And I’m worried that, like the Falcons, we’re about to throw our lead away.

To understand the significance of a trade deficit, it’s best to think in terms of general economic principles. What is money, and why do we have it? The standard story from Adam Smith, still accepted today, is that having money is vastly superior to a system of barter. If we have to trade with one another by exchanging consumer goods for one another, the economy will be massively inefficient. If I only have apples, and I need some socks, I need to look all over to find someone who has extra socks and needs apples, so I can make the trade. Much better to have a common unit of account – money – to facilitate these trades. I could sell my apples to whoever needs them for money, then use my money to buy all the things I need. This makes me much more productive: I can focus on growing apples, rather than scouring the countryside for useful apple trades.

So imagine that there is a village that has never discovered the wonderful economic benefits of money, and which operates on a barter system. Suppose that a young woman, Ursula, enters this village and has an idea: everyone can switch to using money. The villagers are initially skeptical, but Ursula is eventually able to convince everyone that using money is a good idea. But the villagers have a problem; they don’t have any money! That is, they have all agreed to use paper currency, but no paper currency exists to use. Ursula solves this problem: She prints her own money. The villagers, who currently have no money but want it very badly (since they see the benefits to using it), are willing to trade their goods and services to Ursula in exchange for her money. And at the end of the day, the village finds itself with a working money-based economy, and Ursula finds herself with a huge number of goods that she received from the other villagers. Urusla is immediately tempted to print more and more money, in order to get more and more goods from the villagers. But she realizes that, if she does this, the money she prints will quickly become worthless. So she controls how much money she prints very carefully, making sure only to print enough to replace worn out bills and keep pace with the needs of the village’s expanding economy. The money maintains its value, the villagers are happy to continue using it, and Ursula is able to make a living for herself simply by judiciously operating the printing press without ever having to make anything for herself.

The parable of Ursula is key to understanding the trade deficit. The village economy in this story runs on two kinds of assets: consumer goods and financial assets. Consumer goods are what people ultimately consume, and financial assets are used to help facilitate the production and exchange of consumer goods in a variety of ways. Although financial assets and consumer goods play fundamentally different roles in the economy, you can still trade financial assets for consumer goods. Also, someone needs to produce the financial assets. These two facts mean that, in any economy that contains both consumer goods and financial assets (i.e. any non-barter economy; i.e. every actual economy), someone gets to be the person who produces the financial assets for the economy as a whole, and that person basically gets consumer goods for free.

In the village in our parable, the person who gets consumer goods for free is UrSulA. In the world economy, the nation that gets consumer goods for free is the USA. (Cute, right?) In exchange for these consumer goods, the US trades away financial assets: the US Dollar, US treasury bills, and other stocks and bonds denominated in US Dollars. Many of these financial assets are created by the US Government. Many others are created on Wall Street.

There is incredibly high demand for US financial assets because the US has the strongest economy in the world. US financial assets are all (in one way or another) backed by the strength of the US economy. If you own a government bond – basically a promise, by a government, to pay you some money at some later date – which government would you like to hold that promise from? The government of Venezuela? Greece? Russia? Or the USA? There’s no real choice here. When it comes to financial assets, the rule of thumb really is Buy American. Not only does the US have the money to pay you back, they have to do it. The US government can’t ever just walk away from its debt – that’s actually in the Constitution! Because the US economy is so strong, and because its financial assets enjoy strong legal and Constitutional protections, US financial assets are particularly valuable. Because those assets are particularly valuable, everyone wants them. And because everyone wants US financial assets, we can trade our financial assets to the rest of the world in exchange for their consumer goods. We get Urusla’s job; we get to turn on the printing press and take a nap, so long as we don’t print too much money by the end of the day. That’s an awesome place to be in.

What does this have to do with a trade deficit, you might wonder? The answer is: this is the definition of a trade deficit. Urusla runs a massive trade deficit with her village. She exports money, but that doesn’t count for the economic measure that we label “Exports.” “Exports” are exports of goods. Thus, according to the practices of economic record-keeping, Ursula is exporting nothing to the village, but the village is exporting many things to her. This means that Ursula is running a massive trade deficit. By the common wisdom, Ursula is losing at trade. But if anything, it looks to me like Ursula is winning; she’s getting more than she’s giving. That kind of deal – where the US gets more from trade than it has to give – is precisely the kind of deal we should want for our country. I think President Trump would agree!

The point is that, in terms of trade, having a trade deficit means getting something for nothing. (Specifically, it means receiving consumer goods in exchange for financial assets). It’s really good to have a trade deficit.

So why is the trade deficit so often portrayed as bad? When I was first writing this, I wrote “Honestly, I’d just have to guess here. The trade deficit is portrayed in the media as being so self-evidently bad that the only question is what to do about it; no case is really made that we should think of the trade deficit as bad to begin with. But here are my two guesses for why we do think of the trade deficit as bad.” Then, mere hours later, the Wall Street Journal ran an op/ed by Peter Navarro, director of the White House National Trade Council, where Navarro gave the two arguments I guessed he would.

I would like to personally thank Mr. Navarro. Without his article, I would probably never have taken the step of starting this blog. But his arguments are so bad that they need to be refuted.

So here are the two reasons that we think the trade deficit is bad. First, we are addicted to a certain number in economic statistics: Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. When people talk about “the economy,” this is what they are talking about. When you read in the news that “the economy grew 1.7% last quarter,” what is being reported is that GDP increased at a rate of 1.7% last quarter. By common agreement, GDP is “The Economy.”

GDP is, by definition, the sum of consumption spending, investment spending, government spending (minus taxes), and net exports. It’s the last item, Net Exports (i.e. exports minus imports), that’s important to us. Because GDP is defined as the sum of Net Exports and a few other things, when Net Exports increases, GDP increases, by definition. But having positive Net Exports – exports greater than imports – is just another name for a trade surplus.

Thus, losing at trade – running a trade surplus – raises GDP while winning at trade – running a trade deficit – lowers GDP. And so, perversely, policies that constitute winning at trade are described as “weakening The Economy.”

Why focus on GDP at all? The answer is that GDP is an incredibly important number if you are a Pentagon official planning for a wartime economy. The amount of actual physical stuff that your nation can produce is really important if you need to convert all of the industrial capacity of your economy into producing tanks, planes, and ships, and if the winner of the war will depend on who is able to produce the most tanks, planes, and ships. This is not an abstract concern at all. World War II was exactly this kind of total war, and the US won that war precisely because it had the largest industrial capacity (if not at the beginning of the war, certainly by its end). For national security reasons, then, it is best not to let our industrial capacity atrophy completely. But we’re very far off from that actually happening. We run a trade deficit that is very large compared to the rest of the world (lucky us!), but the trade deficit is small compared to the total size of the domestic economy.

If we care about the domestic economy, consisting of the consumption of goods and services, by citizens, for their material improvement, then we ought not focus on the GDP number as the relevant measure of “The Economy.” And the main reason for this is that trade scenarios that boost the domestic economy weaken the GDP number. Focusing on GDP makes us stupid about trade.

The second reason that people think a trade surplus is good is that China has run massive trade surpluses for the last several decades, and their economy has been growing like crazy. It seems to follow that, should the US copy China’s policies, the US will end up with similar growth. But this analogy overlooks the fact that the American and Chinese economies are coming from completely different places.

Quick world history review: China missed out on Europe’s industrial revolution and fell badly behind the West, technologically, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By the time the world wars ended and the Chinese Communist revolution was over, China was still basically a pre-industrial or early-industrial society. Mao knew that China would have to rapidly industrialize in order to regain a place of prominence in the world. So Mao implemented his rapid industrialization plan, The Great Leap Forward. Subsistence farmers would melt their tools down to make the great factories that would power China into the future! Or at least that was the plan. Millions died in the ensuing famines.

After Mao’s death, the Deng Xiaoping realized that the Chinese would have to open themselves up to foreign investment and technology, to learn from the rest of the world instead of trying to jump to the cutting edge of the industrial age in one fell swoop. China’s currency policy was part of this: they would encourage a massive trade surplus, volunteering themselves to be “the world’s factory,” shipping iPhones and other valuable consumer goods around the world in exchange for pieces of paper with pictures of dead presidents on them. But they really weren’t in it for the worthless pieces of paper. By volunteering themselves as the world’s factory, the Chinese would receive foreign investment and technology, integrate themselves into the world economy, and complete the economic development that had eluded them in the Great Leap Forward.

In essence, the last 40 years or so has been the story of China’s completing an apprenticeship in having an industrialized economy. Like a medieval apprentice, a substantial portion of the benefits of the apprentice’s labor have gone to the master (the US, and the post-industrial West, generally), rather than the apprentice. But in doing the work, the apprentice gains the skills and experience necessary to one day become a master himself. The Chinese have a deep cultural respect for the way that diligence and hard study can lead to excellence.

This explains China’s current precarious economic position. China would like to transition to being in the US’s position: living off their economy’s dividends while running a trade deficit. (China is eagerly looking to recruit apprentices of its own in Asia and Africa.) But that means carefully unwinding a lot of the financial and industrial institutions that got China to where it is today. Whether China can accomplish this without incurring a major recession or political upheaval is the subject of much debate. I’m not sure whether to be a China optimist or a China pessimist in the current scenario. But the important point is that the US can’t do what China is doing in order to accelerate economic growth. China is growing rapidly from a low baseline: it’s completing its apprenticeship, and beginning to assume a position where it can directly compete with the US. Attempting to eliminate the US trade deficit and the Chinese trade surplus is viewed by many in the US as a way of undercutting China and halting its economic surge. But as far as I can see, this is at least as likely to aid China in its difficult transition to a post-industrial economy. If we declare that we will no longer allow China to produce goods for our benefit, that might leave Chinese businesses without markets to sell into. But look for unintended consequences: the rebalancing of exchange rates that would result from an elimination of the Chinese trade surplus would make Chinese consumers much more wealthy. The value of the RMB goes up; it becomes cheaper for Chinese citizens to buy imported goods; Chinese consumers then have extra money to buy domestically-produced Chinese goods. Thus, Chinese businesses will likely just produce their goods for the benefit of Chinese citizens, not American citizens. That’s exactly what China wants, and it may be, in some sense, more fair. But why would anyone view this outcome as being in the US’s best interest, either economically or geopolitically?

There are many worthwhile debates to be had over US trade policy, and there are certainly improvements that could be made. But to have these debates rationally, we need to first have a reliable idea of what is, and what is not, an improvement to US trade policy. Unfortunately, too many people are talking as though our greatest strength is in fact our greatest failure.

On the Importance of Free Speech

Today I want to explain a pretty simple idea: why free speech is important. It might silly to say that we need an explainer for why free speech is important, but this is one of those things that goes unquestioned in society right up until it doesn’t, and free speech is under substantial assault these days. And, unfortunately, I don’t hear too many people rising to the vocal defense of free speech. Of course, there are many who have been writing articles in defense of free speech, but these articles typically take a “Everyone needs to love free speech more” line, or a “We need to remind people why free speech is worth protecting” line without ever actually, you know, explaining why free speech is important.

Most of the time, when a defense is given, it is by reference to Mill, who argued that the truth will eventually have out in a kind of free market of ideas. I love Mill, and On Liberty is a classic. But I think Mill’s argument is a little naive. In the long run, it’s possible that Mill is right. But ignorance and dogma can maintain an unbreakable grip on the minds of societies for millenia. See: any system of religious belief. (Except your religious beliefs, of course. Your religious beliefs are all sensible. I’m talking about those other guys’ religious beliefs, the ones who are getting it wrong.) So there’s no real reason to be sanguine about the truth prevailing any time soon. Certainly not before (say) the next election.

No, the real reason we need to protect free speech is that this is the only social norm that will prevent us from killing one another.

Here’s Megan McArdle today, quoting Greg Lukianoff of FIRE:

Lukianoff notes that the illiberal left often argues that the distinction between violence and speech is open to challenge by those who think it is harmful. “When people say that the distinction between speech and violence is a social invention,” says Lukianoff, “I say: Yes! It is a social invention, and it’s one of the most important things we ever came up with.”

First, a point I can’t help myself on. The distinction between speech and violence is not a social invention. Speech is one thing. It’s the communication of ideas. Violence is something else. It’s the use of force to harm others. That is a real difference in the intrinsic nature of these things. People are far too willing to grant claims for the form “X is a social construction.” Very few things are social constructions. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something (probably Marxism).

But apart from that, Lukianoff is making an incredibly important point.

Violence is, according to most moral theories, the kind of thing that can justify violence. If you use violence against me, I can use violence against you, in defense or (perhaps) in retribution. So societies have generally adopted norms according to which violence justifies violence. But it is a further question of whether or not societies will adopt norms according to which speech justifies violence.

Human societies, in their “natural” form (to the extent that this makes sense), will adopt this norm: The idea that speech can justify violence is a natural one. We tend to judge things as deserving of violence when they infuriate us. And speech can easily infuriate us. When someone taunts us, it takes a real effort not to lash out in retaliation. The things we tell ourselves to prevent ourselves from lashing out: “Sticks and stones may break my bones…” “It’s not worth it…” “It would be undignified…” That’s us rehearsing social norms that we were taught from a young age, norms which say that speech does not justify violence. Because that norm – that speech does not justify violence – is indeed, as Lukianoff says, one of the most important things we ever came up with.

Because the simple fact of the matter is that, if speech that infuriates us justifies violence, large societies cannot peacefully coexist. The norm that only violence justifies violence can lead to bad places when society lands in a circle of recrimination. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, and all that. But there’s another stable equilibrium, where everyone refrains from violence, and so no one ever harms anyone else, and so everyone lives peacefully and forms a happy, wealthy society. That stable equilibrium is a great place to be. It’s where we’ve been for a long time, but it’s not inevitable that we will always be there. A circle of recriminations is a stable equilibrium as well. Religious wars can last for centuries.

The problem with the norm that speech justifies violence is that it is basically guaranteed to destroy the stable equilibrium of a harmonious society. That equilibrium exists because, once violence stops, there’s no norm that licenses the violence starting again. Any violence that occurs would be the result of a norm-violation. But if speech justifies violence, the harmonious equilibrium is destroyed when someone commits violence or when someone says something infuriating. Inevitably, in the course of myriad social interactions, some infuriating things will be said. Thus, the norm that speech justifies violence will inevitably end up licensing much more violence than the norm that only violence justifies violence. Societies that embrace the only violence justifies violence norm will therefore be stabler, more wealthy, and less likely to fall into the bad equilibrium of the circle of recrimination.

So that’s why we need free speech. In Rawlsian terms, it’s one of the things everyone would agree to behind the veil of ignorance. All we need to know in order to prefer a free speech norm is the basic game theory of how people respond to normative governance.

There are objections that could be made to this, and maybe I’ll go through them some other time. But I felt it was important to write the basic point down because this isn’t common knowledge. It’s not something that I was ever taught in, say, high school. But these are the important civics lessons that we need to teach our kids. If we don’t, they might get to college and start to think that speech which infuriates them justifies violence. And wouldn’t that be awful?

First blog post

My blog is hereby established.

I’ve never started a blog before, so this is my first “first blog post.” I’ll probably be bad at it.

But here’s me: I’m a philosophy professor, I have a bachelor’s degree in economics, and I have an unhealthy interest/obsession with politics. So I’ll be writing mostly about issues at the intersection of philosophy, politics, and economics. But I’m not holding myself to that. Really, this is a place for me to polish thoughts that have been rolling around in my head by writing them down. Then I’ll put them up on the internet, because maybe someone else will be interested. If not, that’s fine, too.

If I’m going to spend my time thinking about politics instead of writing philosophy, I should at least be writing down my thoughts about politics. That way, it’s not wasting time; it’s writing practice.

I’m anonymous here only because I don’t want this blog to pop up the first time someone on a hiring committee does a search for my name. I don’t know if this blog would help me or hurt me in such a context, and I’m risk-averse. So anonymity it is.

Expect a few posts in quick succession here, since I already wrote one or two short things in anticipation of starting. After that, updates when I feel like it. No idea how often that will be.