June 2011

That’s supposedly what the manager of the Mets once said, but continuing with last post’s legal theme it can apply to the law as well. Employment discrimination law, more specifically, where businesses instituting programs to avoid being sued don’t know what qualifies as discrimination and the just as uncertain judges look to said programs for their own cues.


A couple days ago I read a post at Volokh on the meaning of “common law” in the seventh amendment, and how at the time it would have been intended to distinguish from “largely long-defunct” courts of equity. I was reminded of that when I read Roger F. Devlin saying that family courts are not subject to judicial review because they are courts of equity rather than law. I thought most of that was just civil rather than criminal law and treated the same, but I guess not. If it’s not based on law, that throws a wrench in my argument that simply scrapping marital/family law would solve most paleo/manosphere complaints. I’m dubious about the whole notion of equity or fairness, law is at least something written down and promulgated by government so its actions are predictable. I suppose if private parties trusted a third party to give mutually beneficial outcomes it could make some sense, but a government monopoly is another thing. I suppose I should read up on what the hell courts of equity are anyway to have an informed opinion. Wikipedia has little to offer, and seems to contradict Devlin.

I spoke with professor Mark Pennington of the University of London recently on the application of Hayekian thought to deliberative democratic theory, in particular that of Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson (hereafter “G&T”), elaborated in their book Why Deliberative Democracy? The interview is available here. I will claim at the outset that I am receiving my understanding of G&T’s arguments from Pennington, relying only on his reading of their work (with the exception of a synopsis of her thought which I’ve read but can no longer find the link to). I say this now to avoid prefacing the following with “According to Pennington, G&T…” ad nauseam.

The interview is fairly brief for a topic that could be the basis of a days long conference, but brevity has its benefits, and in this case the interview is 30 minutes, or the amount of time it takes me to drive to work.

Pennington dissects G&T’s arguments against the market and in favor of deliberative democratic methods, both (a) pointing out how markets are superior to their alternative in cases where substituting one for the other is a theoretical possibility , and (b) criticizing some of their other ideas as being undesirable altogether.

For an example of (a),  G&T claim that markets take consumer preference as a given, giving little thought to the formation of new tastes and challenges to the status quo, and in this way a conservative phenomenon in contrast to their deliberative democratic alternative, which would allow for the articulation of idiosyncratic perspectives and thus dynamic and superior democratic problem solving. Pennington points out that in fact markets are far more fluid and flexible than their political counterpart, which necessarily (though inaccurately) aggregates the views of the small number of politically engaged citizens to form public policy that is then “locked in” until the next election cycle.

As for (b), G&T support Identity Politics as a way of giving voice (and power) to minority perspectives and concerns, which from a Hayekian perspective is insufficient to account for individualized notions of what it even means to be any given category of minority, and from a broader liberal point of view unhealthy as a way of highlighting and politically sanctioning group differences. Of course, if you notice a contradiction between G&T’s criticism of the market and their support for identity politics, you’re in the same befuddled camp as Pennington.

Another point mentioned is the inherent bias of deliberative democratic theory in favor of the chattering and educated class, with its emphasis on explicit and highly public discussion, as opposed to the happenstance and chaotic interaction of real people in their day-to-day lives and their myriad ways of problem solving. As Pennington has it, to believe that deliberative democracy can know the solution to such problems and recreate, or better yet, improve upon civil society’s mechanisms for doing the same is to suffer from the “synoptic delusion.”

The conversation hints at a potentially much larger one on the frustration public intellectuals feel with the market’s resistance to justification at a normative level. It is an “amoral elephant,” a mass of discrete individuals operating with partial knowledge to achieve goals more humble than what the political class would prefer, and with no collective end in mind.

Pennington’s recently written a book, Robust Political Economy, and contributes to the blog Pileus, so check it out.

Getting into the actual material of “Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches”, there’s interesting stuff I didn’t know before about things like Hindu farmers putting triangular yokes on unwanted calves so they get kicked to death while claiming they weren’t intentionally killed and the surprisingly low ratio of cows to oxen in the northern Indian “cow belt”. But what caught my attention to bring up here was some passages on culturally mandated sexism. “Apart from childbearing and related sexual specialties, the assignment of social roles on the basis of sex does not follow automatically from the biological differences between men and women […] I no more expect men to dominate women simply because they are taller and heavier, than I expect the human species to be ruled over by cattle and horses […] If I had knowledge only of the anatomy and cultural capacities of men and women, I would predict that women rather than men would be more likely to gain control over the technology of defense and aggression”. He goes on to imagine an alternative where women raise their boys to be docile and girls to be aggressive, and polyandry is more normal than polygyny.

Since Marvin Harris’ expectations are at odds with all of recorded history and anthropology (a point he himself makes), he’d better have a good explanation. For him it is intergroup competition, since his hypothetical ball-cutting matriarchy would not be able to ensure other tribes play by the same rules. I would actually like if he applied similar logic elsewhere (which I’ll get to), but the big problem is his dismissal of factors with “Apart from”. The fundamental fact of the sexes is that sperm is cheap and eggs are expensive, and if you don’t consider the Darwinian implications, you aren’t going to understand sex differences in biology or culture (particularly since he doesn’t think culture is arbitrary, but functional and based on the constraints faced by people who live it). In his discussion of polygamy he mentions how many male fighters are surplus and one man can keep many wives pregnant (one woman obviously can’t provide many husbands with children simultaneously), and he even acknowledges how much of Yanomammo fighting is intravillage and even intrafamily, but he doesn’t seem to attempt imagining how that would work out in a simplified model consisting of a single village/tribe.

He seems to apply a Darwinian analysis at the unit of cultures, but could certainly use some Dawkins. A lot of his ideas seem to be based on sustaining certain population levels in the face of resource constraints, and how infanticide and war (or to be precise, female infanticide to meet the demands of war) is functional for dealing with that. He also discusses how New Guinea tribesmen are “eating the forest” and so must preserve it, but a tribe who refused to commit infanticide and wound up overpopulated and attacked their neighbors, and then ignored the taboo on using abandoned prime farmland to continue expansion would seem to threaten the current Evolutionarily Stable Strategy. Elsewhere he acknowledges that most animals prohibited in the Jewish books of law don’t really need to be since people wouldn’t waste time hunting vultures anyway, but says pork meat is a temptation people must be warned against. But if the problem with pork is that it’s expensive, wouldn’t that be unnecessary like warning Hebrews away from scarce seafood? Perhaps he could have integrated his later chapter on potlatches with the previous one on pig hate and said the prohibition is a mechanism to avoid wasteful potlatches.

Speaking of potlatches, the strangest part about them to me was the simple destruction (rather than mere distributed consumption). He explains that by noting that it was in later periods that their dying culture made do with large surpluses of non-consumables like blankets received from European traders, and that the burning of houses was an infrequent accidental side effect of pouring too much oil in a fire. He also said what we know of the Yanomamo is relatively (a few centuries old) new as a lifestyle. He thinks they were previously hunters, since their main crops were brought over by the Spanish & Portugese. With less meat available, he thinks they war over meat rather than women (despite their claims to the contrary given to Napoleon Chagnon) or they wouldn’t conduct so much female infanticide in the face of a woman shortage. I’ve also found the treatment of gender imbalances strange (dowry rather than bride price in India being more salient to my economically-oriented thinking), suggesting to me that there is not much of a working “market” in females. Female infanticide may be lower among Muslims precisely because men have such control over women and can more easily capture their value. Among the Yanomamo were kidnapping and rape are omnipresent, women are a much riskier investment. On the other hand, there are lots of counter-examples, so my theory is likely wrong.

I picked up Marvin Harris’ “Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches” because I recalled Razib referencing it a couple times and Azar Gat criticizing Harris over his theory of Yanomamo warfare. I’ve only read the preface so far, but it made me think of Robin Hanson. Some quotes:
“In an age eager to experience altered, nonordinary states of consciousness, we tend to overlook the extent to which our ordinary state of mind is already a profoundly mystified consciousness – a consciousness surprisingly isolated from the practical facts of life.”
“Ignorance, fear, and conflict are the basic elements of everyday consciousness. From these elements, art and politics fashion that collective dreamwork whose function it is to prevent people from understanding what their social life is all about. […] We don’t expect dreamers to explain their dreams; no more should we expect lifestyle participants to explain their lifestyles.”

Hopefully Anonymous recommended it a while back, so I watched it. I’m impressed that Charlie Kaufman was able to make this movie and stick so much ridiculous stuff in it without anyone telling him otherwise, and I have to admit laughing at stuff like the forever-burning house, but I can’t say I recommend it. My experience may actually have been better if I had seen it in theater without a pause button available, since I always used it when things were getting too much and I was hesitant about continuing, and without that ability it would have passed right by and finished sooner.

I referenced Laughlin’s book “A Different Universe” here, and now I’ve finally gotten around checking it out. It’s written to be accessible by laymen and contains plenty of humorous asides to help the pop science go down, but I still get the sense it’s beyond me. The point that we rely on robust assemblies of many, many molecules to measure things and that certain phenomena seem to go away as the number of entities in a collection goes down is interesting, but I see that he’s trying to make a broader point I don’t really grasp. He claims that as a physicist he can’t really reject reductionism, so I don’t know what non-strawman position he’s arguing against. He mocks the idea that we can logically deduce the laws of physics rather than observing consistent phenomena observationally (although he mentions General Relativity as something that came from nowhere but Einstein’s brain), but I think even a logician would tell you some non-deduced facts taken as axioms are necessary to get anywhere through logic. He argues that all things perceived as fundamental (such as the laws of the universe we might hope to use as axioms) are really emergent phenomena of collectives. Is that supposed to be “elephants all the way down”? I don’t know.

Some bits like noting the irrelevance of the different possible arrangements of floor tiles to a history of ancient Rome reminded me of Murray Gell-Man’s “The Quark and the Jaguar” on “coarse-graining”. Pointing out how robust collective phenomena can be to the most fundamental microfoundational assumptions reminded me of Milton Friedman’s positivist argument for judging economic theories by predictions rather than realistic assumptions. I personally tend to prefer a sloppy analysis of data to data-free theorizing, so that kind of reassurance feels good but I’m not sure it’s safe advice to give to human beings, apt by their nature to abuse any leeway. At times I couldn’t tell whether he was arguing that reality is just far too complicated for us to compute at the lowest level now, or if it’s impossible even theoretically. A surprising bit is where he seems to attempt rehabilitation of “ether” theory through General Relativity, and in case you’re skeptical of that he tries to enlist the name of Einstein by claiming the enduring-revolutionary would fight against the current dogma based on relativity itself! I couldn’t quite believe that since Einstein never reconciled himself to the experimental confirmation of quantum mechanics, which still hasn’t been made compatible with relativity.

I’m only about halfway through, but if I start to understand later or remember something pertinent, I’ll give an update. I’d also like to note that I dislike the word “grok”, but it seemed appropriate.