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September 04, 2007

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Nato

"The question may have been more pressing in the past than today. Society has better sticks and carrots than it used to. We have more effective police forces, and we also have sophisticated credit reporting systems that make it hard to escape the shadow of an unpaid debt. Meanwhile, those who play by the rules have much longer lives in which to enjoy lawful pleasures, and far more ways to earn, invest, and spend money. We have, I suppose, greatly narrowed the range of people and situations where a rational calculus over realistic prospects would favor choosing crime. We can do without transcendental compensators better than the Middle Ages could."

A brilliant paragraph, intellectually and morally.

Nathan Smith

Thanks! :)

Of course, just because society may not need transcendental compensators as much as it did in the past, doesn't mean they're not useful. It may be that America's continued religiosity is one reason that we are able to reconcile social order with higher levels of inequality, and therefore with greater incentives for work, innovation and entrepreneurship, than Europe. A modern society destitute of transcendental compensators *may* be viable, but it the ceiling of prosperity it can achieve may be lower.

From the religious point of view, it's good that churches' role in providing transcendental compensators for good behavior is now widely regarded as superfluous or even wholly forgotten about. When power relies on the church as an instrument of social control, the Christian message is often distorted and corrupted. Institutionalized Christianity generally to some extent, and Catholicism in particular, still bears the scars from being drafted into the service of the state.

Thomas

The main reason not to steal is that it hurts the efficiency of society, and thus reduces the quality of living for everyone, including the thief. The principles of evolution then indicate that a society of cooperators will outperform a society of back-stabbers, the former surviving to evolve more complex and efficient social dynamics, and the latter trending towards extinction.

Does America have a higher social order than Europe? The US has the world's highest incarceration rate per capita!
http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0818/p02s01-usju.html

A lot of good all of that "churching" has done us, it's made us all villainous criminals! The US also has one of the highest rates of debt per capita, one of the poorest education levels among developed nations, and one of the poorest health care systems among developed nations. We have high GDP per capita that is financed through borrowing, and we have to work more hours than almost any other nation. Sub-prime mortgage lenders are in the red, and there will be record mortgage defaults in October. The US is threatening to attack Iran which would decrease world oil production by a non-trivial amount, and some predict that peak production will occur sometime next decade. We are in deep doo-doo if we don't get significant policy changes in our government. (Vote Ron Paul!)

Nathan Smith

Um, much silliness here. It trails off into irrelevant politicking at the end, but to reply to the first points:

"The main reason not to steal is that it hurts the efficiency of society, and thus reduces the quality of living for everyone, including the thief."

No. This is a laughably primitive fallacy of composition. Individual welfare is not the same as social welfare, and it's quite possible in theory and often the case in practice that an action injurious to social welfare benefits an individual. A successful burglar may causes losses to homeowners and motivate much wasteful investment in locks, cops, etc., yet get away with it and do very well for himself, personally.

"The principles of evolution then indicate that a society of cooperators will outperform a society of back-stabbers..."

It is extremely dubious whether "the principles of evolution" are applicable here, since the time-scales of human history are clearly insufficient for genetically-based evolution to be effective, and it's not clear what alternative evolutionary mechanism if any is being proposed. The evolutionary mechanism of natural selection would reward successful thieving-- and, even more so, rape-- at the individual level. How this would interact with evolutionary operations at the societal level is not clear, but the point is moot until some non-genetic evolutionary mechanism is proposed.

"Does America have a higher social order than Europe? The US has the world's highest incarceration rate per capita!... A lot of good all of that 'churching' has done us, it's made us all villainous criminals!"

I'm aware of the incarceration rate, of course. One might cogently use that as evidence that America maintains social order through effective policing (criminals get caught and thrown in jail) and that there is no need to appeal to "transcendental compensators" to explain it. But to say that we're "all villainous criminals" is childish-- obviously the vast majority are not-- and the attempt to prove thereby the inefficacy of religion is almost equally silly, since the criminals, even if there are more than in Europe (which does not follow; we might just be better at catching the criminals, or more severe in punishing them) comprise only a tiny percentage of the population. They comprise far fewer than the non-religious, so the incarceration rate is logically consistent with religion being 100% effective in preventing crime by its adherents. All the inference here is radically flawed.

"The US also has one of the highest rates of debt per capita..."

What's wrong with that? Some kinds of debt may be socially problematic, but much, probably most, of it, is the flip side of investment in education, homeownership, and entrepreneurship. It can even be regarded as an indicator that Americans expect their incomes to rise relative to Europeans', an expectation amply justified by the historical record in recent years.

"one of the poorest education levels among developed nations..."

This is simply false, see Indicator A1 at this website:
http://www.oecd.org/document/6/0,3343,en_2825_495609_37344774_1_1_1_1,00.html

According to these OECD tables, the US adult population has an average of 13.3 years of education. Only Norway is significantly higher (13.9), while Denmark (13.4) and Germany (13.4) are slightly higher. Given that US universities are widely recognized as the finest in the world it would probably be accurate to say that the US is the 2nd-best-educated country in the OECD.

"one of the poorest health care systems among developed nations..."

A highly questionable claim; we actually have the best hospitals and doctors in the world, but our rather odd way of financing it creates room for developing statistics that are misleadingly unfavorable to the US. But that's a long debate...

"We have high GDP per capita that is financed through borrowing..."

"Net exports" are excluded from GDP statistics, for better or worse, so our high GDP per capita, which dominates even other OECD countries by widening margins (there are a couple of exceptions like oil-rich Norway and investment-magnet Ireland) is not only indicative of genuine productivity, but actually understates our advantage in consumption terms, since we consume not only what we produce but a lot of net imports as well.

"and we have to work more hours than almost any other nation..."

We *choose* to work more hours than almost any other nation. Long working hours are most prevalent among high-income people who are clearly not forced to overwork themselves because of desperate material want. One reason may be that we like our jobs better: fast turnover in the labor market reflects people looking around for jobs they like, while Europeans are afraid to leave unappealing jobs because of high unemployment. If you have a job you like, you may decide to work more. Another reason is that lower taxes mean we get to keep more of what we earn, which is another reason that GDP differences understate America's advantages.

If my response sounds disdainful, I'm nonetheless grateful to Tom for regurgitating some myths from the canon of liberal folk economics. It's a reminder of the uphill battle that is still needed in order to get many Americans to understand the true degree of America's economic health.

Thomas

The main reason I don't steal is because it hurts others. I'm smart enough that I'm sure I could make quite a good living being a thief, but my well-being is insignificant (to me) compared to the well-being of society.

The principles of evolution apply to everything, not just biology. It's fairly obvious that given a society that does X and another society that does Not-X that one is going to function better than the other (assuming X has a bearing on the functioning of society). Natural selection and descent with modification determine if X is ultimately good or bad for society. It's clear from the historical record that cooperation is good and back-stabbing is bad.

"I'm aware of the incarceration rate, of course. One might cogently use that as evidence that America maintains social order through effective policing (criminals get caught and thrown in jail) and that there is no need to appeal to "transcendental compensators" to explain it. But to say that we're "all villainous criminals" is childish-- obviously the vast majority are not-- and the attempt to prove thereby the inefficacy of religion is almost equally silly, since the criminals, even if there are more than in Europe (which does not follow; we might just be better at catching the criminals, or more severe in punishing them) comprise only a tiny percentage of the population. They comprise far fewer than the non-religious, so the incarceration rate is logically consistent with religion being 100% effective in preventing crime by its adherents. All the inference here is radically flawed."

"We have, I suppose, greatly narrowed the range of people and situations where a rational calculus over realistic prospects would favor choosing crime."

You should have noticed that I was pointing out an irony in your analysis. It was quite amusing to me. I suppose not so much to you. The high incarceration rate is mostly due to the war on drugs. Don't really need any radically flawed inference to show that.

"What's wrong with that? Some kinds of debt may be socially problematic, but much, probably most, of it, is the flip side of investment in education, homeownership, and entrepreneurship. It can even be regarded as an indicator that Americans expect their incomes to rise relative to Europeans', an expectation amply justified by the historical record in recent years."

So you're seriously claiming you're comfortable with our private and public debt? You don't think it's irresponsible even a little bit?

On education, I refer you to the rankings at the bottom of the following article. US in math and science is a terrible 42nd, and a mediocre 15th in general. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/e75e94c0-5df7-11db-82d4-0000779e2340.html

Health care rankings. US is 37th on this list, even though we spend a higher percentage of our GDP than any other country on health care. http://www.photius.com/rankings/healthranks.html


If you think my "folk economics" are amusing, then you'll get a kick out of what actual economists are saying about the points just mentioned. I'm in good company. Are you?

Nathan Smith

Um, 42 out of 125 is actually not SO terrible. 15 out of 125 seems quite good to me, particularly since the countries ahead of us are mostly small countries with small populations. We're way ahead of the UK, Germany, Italy, France and Japan. The fact that we're #42 in maths and sciences suggests that, to balance that out, we must be even better on everything else than our #15 ranking suggests. And these statistics seem to be discussing the total education system, including the primary and secondary stages which are government-run and insulated from market forces and thus not really indicative of the ability of the performance of the American model. The stats I quoted show years of education, which is a better indicator of incentives since they say more about education demand. Anyway, however you slice it the US is a very well-educated country. We're a bit less interested in math and science than some countries, but there's nothing wrong with that: skills and knowledge other than math and science are useful too.

Three cheers for Tom's universal altruism! But I really hope he realizes that he can't coherently ground that idea in evolutionary biology. I've been critical of evolution before and will be again, but I still admire the theory enough to be a bit frustrated with the ham-handed way Tom is abusing it here. There are certain deep ways in which evolutionary theory may be tautological, but you can't just make it say anything you want, and it won't say what Tom is trying to make it say. Society is too new and brief a thing for natural selection and descent with modification to have significantly modified the human organism in order to adapt man to live in what we call civilization.

Sadly, it's true that a lot of economists will sometimes drop their critical lenses and mouth boilerplate liberal folk economics when topics come up in which they're not specialists. But I would be surprised if any professional economist with his economist hat on-- as opposed to, say, a New York Times columnist hat on-- would allow himself to recite quite the type of tissue of distortions that Tom listed above. You couldn't say "we have a high GDP per capita that is financed by borrowing," for example, even if you are worried about the levels of public and private debt, which not all economists are.

In general, many conservative economists would have pretty much the same views on the subjects raised above as the ones I expressed; and actually, some would be more emphatic about the advantages of the American model than I have been. Even liberal economists would usually know enough to concede my points as an "it might be like this..." aside: thus, I think an economist worrying about excessive levels of private debt would acknowledge that increased financial intermediation is typically associated with higher levels of development, that there is reason to presume that "the market"-- the aggregate term for the American population making decisions-- is behaving rationally; that rising debt levels may reflect an expectation of higher incomes; that incomes have in fact been rising; and that if incomes continue to rise private debt levels will generally be sustainable.

For my part, I think it's possible that private and/or public debt levels in the US are excessive and will cause problems down the road; but far more likely not. The implicit liabilities of Social Security and Medicare could be more problematic, particularly since we're dealing with the far stupider political marketplace here... but I think even those matters will resolve themselves non-catastrophically. (Europeans, with their low birth rates, have bigger problems ahead than the US.)

Nato

"Three cheers for Tom's universal altruism! But I really hope he realizes that he can't coherently ground that idea in evolutionary biology. I've been critical of evolution before and will be again, but I still admire the theory enough to be a bit frustrated with the ham-handed way Tom is abusing it here. There are certain deep ways in which evolutionary theory may be tautological, but you can't just make it say anything you want, and it won't say what Tom is trying to make it say. Society is too new and brief a thing for natural selection and descent with modification to have significantly modified the human organism in order to adapt man to live in what we call civilization"

Actually, society of one form or another has existed for far longer than have humans. Even if we only count *human* societies in which actors can track and plan over the long term, it still amounts to at least 5000 generations, which is plenty of time for major changes if pressures are strong and the relevant alleles already available.

Further, I think it's the most accepted belief (though not uncontroversially) that humans are designed to care significantly about the welfare of others qua fellow humans as well as qua storehouses of reciprocal favor. My far-more-controversial belief is that almost all technological societies would be so-designed.

For the rest, well, I would have much to say and have too little time to say it. My shortest comment is "government interference doth make (contingently) irrational economic actors of us all"

Nato

Sorry, "...would be composed of those who are so-designed."

Also, if the individual psychologically identifies strongly with humanity as a whole rather than "my neighborhood" or "my sect" or "my nation," I think it's entirely expected for altruistic impulses originally evolved in the context of stone-age tribal families to extend rather universally.

Nathan Smith

Certainly evolutionary biology provides a basis for a certain altruism towards one's kin, and probably for a limited amount of pity and gratitude. But an organism that seeks to maximize his offspring in a competitive world will certainly not feel that "my well-being is insignificant relative to the well-being of society."

Nato

"But an organism that seeks to maximize his offspring in a competitive world will certainly not feel that "my well-being is insignificant relative to the well-being of society.""

At some point this has to be true, of course, but once again, a gene's-eye view of the context in which we all evolved leads to some findings counter-intuitive to traditional evolutionary viewpoints in which the individual organism is the fundamental unit. My brother shares half my genes. My children share half my genes. From the point of view of my genes, it is just as effective (in terms of self-promulgation) to cause the survival of a sibling as one's offspring. From the point of view of the gene-sets circulating through tribal sub-populations, almost everyone around has significant copies of one's own genes, so if one can save three others in the extended family, this might result in just as many copies of one's genes as saving one's own child. And if the purpose of the individual organism is to cause copies of its genes to proliferate, then its well-being might be relatively insignificant (to that individual's genes) relative to the success of the society.

Of course, humans have also had to deal with internecine squabbles, nearer and farther family factions, etc, so competition and limits on what the relevant "society" is apply. Further, genes can only code for very general dynamics, which manifest differently based on life experiences, contexts and so on. Genes that "coded for" one kind of behavior in the paleolithic context likely resulted in different results (to some extent) in the neolithic, and again in the classical era, and now perhaps "code for" some entirely different set of statistically-significant behavior.

The ultimate theme remains that in the era which had the greatest influence over our genes, coding for broadly-altruistic behavior would have been a fairly successful genetic strategy.

Nato

To be as clear as possible, I put "code for" in quotes precisely because genes do not dictate behaviors. They set up dynamics that have statistically significant results, such that individuals with them will tend toward one thing or another within the assumed environmental context.

Thomas

I don't know why you both are talking about the evolution of genes when the evolution of memes is a bigger factor contributing to altruistic behavior.

Nathan Smith

Memetic evolution is a pretty dubious concept. Genes are well-defined entities whose processes of reproduction and recombination we know. And genes are sufficiently consistent over time that to speak of a "selfish gene" makes sense, even if it doesn't do well empirically: falling birthrates in wealthy countries are a fact about as contrary to the selfish gene theory as you could ask for. Memes are an interesting notion but I doubt the notion can ever be endowed with sufficient analytical clarity to make it useful for the framing of scientific hypotheses.

Nato

"genes are sufficiently consistent over time that to speak of a "selfish gene" makes sense, even if it doesn't do well empirically: falling birthrates in wealthy countries are a fact about as contrary to the selfish gene theory as you could ask for."

Only if you misunderstand how to apply the concept. First off, it's a viewpoint that generates hypotheses, not itself a hypothesis. Second, it is not intended to be used in a vacuum - when using it to generate hypotheses, one must still take into account historical contexts and the speed of evolution. Population growth (and thus gene replication) rates have only fallen very recently in terms of generations, and even the general habit (and opportunity) of extending empathy outside of one's own extended family is fairly recent on evolutionary timescales.

More to say on other things, but no time to do it. Perhaps I will later.

Thomas

Natural language is the analytical framework of memes. The equivalent in biology would be the amino acid combinations of the genetic code. However, genetics is as much affected, if not more so, by the physical geometry of genes as by the actual chemical composition. The equivalent of that in memetics is connotation and the free association of meaning inherent in natural language. I imagine we will one day be able to rigorously analyze memes, just as we will one day be able to rigorously analyze genes (we aren't able to entirely do so just yet).

Nato

Re: Memes
Susan Blackmore wrote "The Meme Machine" in an attempt to see to what use she could put the meme concept in practice. Having read the book, I will say that she didn't prove to me that they were singularly useful conceptual objects, but neither was I totally unimpressed.

That said, one need not treat memes as reified objects to understand the generally darwinian processes that operate on ideas in a population of idea-havers. I don't say that contra Nathanael - he's perfectly clear about where his skepticism lies: he "doubt[s] the notion can ever be endowed with sufficient analytical clarity to make it useful for the framing of scientific hypotheses" I just mean that Nathan's and Tom's positions re: meme evolution need not be at odds. One can bracket the analytical status of memes qua units in a hypothesis while still acknowledging the role of evolutionary processes in selecting cultural ideas (or something) and changing idea distributions (or something) over time in populations.

re: memes vs genes in a discussion of altruism

Tom said:
"The principles of evolution then indicate that a society of cooperators will outperform a society of back-stabbers, the former surviving to evolve more complex and efficient social dynamics, and the latter trending towards extinction."

And Nathan assumed Tom was talking specifically about genes:
"It is extremely dubious whether "the principles of evolution" are applicable here, since the time-scales of human history are clearly insufficient for genetically-based evolution to be effective, and it's not clear what alternative evolutionary mechanism if any is being proposed."

Tom clarifies:
"The principles of evolution apply to everything, not just biology. It's fairly obvious that given a society that does X and another society that does Not-X that one is going to function better than the other (assuming X has a bearing on the functioning of society)"

Nathan misses the pass:
"Society is too new and brief a thing for natural selection and descent with modification to have significantly modified the human organism in order to adapt man to live in what we call civilization."

And rather than point out the disconnect in Tom and Nathan's thread, I just ran with Nathan's side, because there's a separate issue: we are biologically designed so that altruism comes to us naturally*, but not in the modern era as Nathan thought Tom wanted to claim.

*Over a range of circumstances typical to the paleolithic context that had the greatest impact on our genetic makeup. Would-be memeticists never deny the feedback loop (that I've ever seen).

Val Larsen

Since a couple of you are soldiers (I gather), you are better positioned than I to evaluate this supposition. It strikes me that the military is a sector of society in which transcendental compensators are powerfully operative. This probably depends some on the definition of transcendental, but when we honor fallen soldiers as heros, this would seem to be a kind of reward one receives after death, the prospect of which might motivate soliers to act more heroically than they otherwise might.

Nato

Val, though I'd say that there might be some role for TCs, my (limited) personal experience is that the biggest factor motivating soldiers to face the dangerous or ghastly is the desire to protect/not let down/keep common cause with one's fellow soldiers. The second most important factor* is, I think, commitment to the mission (in those cases where it's clearly important). I seriously doubt I would have kept the "schedule" that I did without the constant feeling that lives - some of them of my friends - were on the line.

Of course, the manner in which my work kept them from death or accomplished the mission was mostly through at least one remove, but then, the task I faced was correspondingly less onerous, at least from a personal safety and physical discomfort perspective.

Also, being an unconscious** as well as considered atheist, contemplations of TCs don't come to me naturally.

*Though not entirely separable from the first, for reasons I'll not explain right now

**By which I mean that I've held an atheistic worldview for long enough that concepts related to God don't crop up in my thoughts unless someone mentions them. This wasn't true when I was a "new" atheist.

Nato

Also, consider the possibility that if one *does* survive a dangerous situation, one will have to live with one's actions.

Thomas

I don't know if my joining the Army was affected by any supposed transcendental compensation. To be honest, I was perfectly willing to give my life for the cause (at the time). I considered it a very large personal sacrifice to join the military, but I did not expect any kind of reward or super-compensation for my sacrifice. I considered it a personal duty as a citizen with no mitigating obligations, responsibilities, or disabilities to help defend the nation in a time of crisis. I had no good excuses not to contribute to the effort. I suppose some people out there might join the military for honor and glory, like a Teddy Roosevelt, but I didn't. Actually, I'm a little tired of all of the "hero" rhetoric being thrown around about American troops, because it wreaks of hyperbole and political pandering. Don't ever insinuate that our troops aren't "heroes"! The term "hero" in this country, as a rhetorical device, has become rather vacuous.

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