Jordan Peterson ignores the importance of social policy in addressing societal problems

Jordan Peterson was recently interviewed in San Francisco by Simulation, which is a series of talks and interviews with interesting people. As one of the “radical leftists” and “cultural Marxists” that Jordan Peterson loves to mock, I actually enjoyed listening to this talk and I learned some interesting things from Peterson. I can’t say the same about Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro or most other conservative commentators, so I definitely recommend watching the whole interview on YouTube:

The interview was a wide ranging conversation on a whole slew of topics and the interviewer wasn’t very well prepared in my opinion on the academic topics that were discussed, so Peterson was able to opine freely with little push back. I suspect that Peterson would have been taken to task on a number of his arguments in an academic convention, but he is playing in the court of public opinion, which is much less knowledgeable on these topics.

On the question of wealth redistribution, Peterson argues that wealth and achievement naturally accumulates toward the top in all societies, even in prehistoric societies. In making the argument that overaccumulation of wealth at the top is feature of all societies, he throws up his hands and says “nobody knows what to do about it”. He ignores all the ways that societies thorough out history have alleviated overaccumulation of wealth at the top.

Peterson even argues that wealth will accumulate naturally in the hands of the people with the most intellectual ability, which is better for society, since they will use that wealth in the most productive fashion. In making this argument, he ignores all the empirical evidence showing that wealth redistribution has a lot of benefits for society as a whole. Redistributing wealth toward the bottom causes more economic growth than distributing wealth toward the top, because it causes money recirculation in the national economy. Also, the studies of a universal basic income, providing apartments to homeless people, investing in low-income schools, guaranteed retirement funds, and raising the minimum wage all show economic and social benefits to the society as a whole. Peterson uses the example of the cocaine addict who misuses extra wealth and ends up overdosing, but Peterson uses the example of a few outliers and generalizes for all of society. There is a great deal of academic literature to showing the benefits and efficacy of redistributing wealth toward the bottom of society.

Peterson pretends that the most productive thing to do with wealth is to let the richest people keep it and uses the example of Bill Gates using his wealth to cure malaria, polio, sleeping sickness and other diseases. Yes, there are people like Gates and Musk who use their wealth productively, but there are many more like the Koch Bros, Sheldon Adelson, etc. who use their wealth to corrupt the economic system and destroy democracy. The economic literature supports some wealth inequality to promote growth, but it is clear that the level of wealth inequality that we currently have actually depresses economic growth because it destroys demand in the economy and reduces the recirculation of money.

On an individual basis, I think Peterson has a lot of insightful advise for how people can improve their lives, but he is a psychologist treating individuals who are generally outliers. A sociologist who does statistical analysis on society as a whole comes to opposite conclusions about what is good public policy. For example, individuals should think that working hard leads to success and there is some evidence for that. But, it is also true that society investing in schools and training, especially for the underprivileged has huge benefits, which Peterson seems to ignore. He looks at the lowest 10% and says that it is pointless to provide training to them. However, he ignores the 90% who would benefit from extra schooling and training. I work as a computer programmer and I can tell you that there are some people who simply don’t have the mind to be good programmers, but there are roughly 25% who do, but only 1% every get the training to do it. For those 24% of society who have the mental ability but not the training to be programmers, they would really benefit from free or subsidized education programs, as any sociologist would tell you. Peterson has nothing so say about the “radical left” proposals about how to better fund education for the disadvantaged.

Another major hole in Peterson’s argument is the fact that he ignores how IQ is influenced by environment and he ignores all the proposals of the “radical left” to improve the environment for the disadvantaged. For example, Peterson has nothing to say about proposals to improve the nutrition of people living in food ghettos and how to give people economic security to create the kind of stable and secure environments which produce children of high IQ. I appreciate all of Peterson’s insight into the importance of play, but otherwise he is remarkably silent on the kind of social policies that are needed to help the development of children and raise their IQs.

Peterson is right to point out how wealth and success accumulates to the few at the top, but he has zero to say about how to alleviate that overdistribution towards the top. He basically pretends that that it is a natural function and we don’t have any idea how to alleviate it. Many societies have features which mitigate the overaccumulation of wealth at the top, whereas unregulated Capitalism promotes it. There is a major difference between today’s neoliberal Capitalism that concentrates wealth and the giving away of wealth in order to gain social status among the Native Americans of the Pacific NorthWest. Peterson pretends that there is no social policy to address the overaccumulation at the top (other than making war and promoting plague), whereas any sociologist or historian could point to dozens of ways to address this problem (including changing Capitalism, which Peterson refuses to consider).

Peterson talks about the studies among animals showing that reciprocity arises naturally from play and is essential for development. Based on those studies, he concludes that morality is universal and a natural development from play. Strangely, he doesn’t use those same studies to advocate for good social policy. For example, he discusses the studies that show that stable hierarchies occur among chimpanzees when the dominant males establish friendships with the lesser males and look out for the welfare of the baby chimpanzees. In contrast, instability and violence occurs in chimpanzee society, when the males at the top of the hierarchy use physical domination and treat the lower chimpanzees badly, which leads to short reigns of power which are quickly overthrown.

Peterson is strangely silent on the social policy implications of the very studies he cites. The “radical leftists” who Peterson derides would look at those studies and conclude that it is a bad public policy to spend huge amounts on the police and military budgets. They would advocate against domestic policy based on police violence and a foreign policy that tries to physically dominate other nations.

Peterson also talks about the studies where $100 is shared between two people and Peterson noted that the people who are generous and share over 50% will do better in the long run. He doesn’t use those studies, however, to conclude that the wealthy should be forced to share their wealth with the lower classes and treat then better if we want a stable and prosperous society.

Peterson is correct to point out that women on average are more interested in people and men are more interested in things, but that doesn’t mean that sexism doesn’t exist in the STEM fields or that we shouldn’t have social policies to encourage women and minorities to pursue those fields, just like we should have social policies to encourage men to become nurses and teachers. Sexist attitudes do exist in these fields of work and it helps society as a whole to overcome them. Men who find childhood development fascinating shouldn’t feel belittled and their masculinity challenged when they become kindergarten teachers, just like women shouldn’t be steered away from using math. We need social policies to fight against sexist attitudes in society rather than pretending that is entirely the natural interests of the sexes that lead to gender disparities in jobs. Peterson is right that there are different interests on average in the sexes, so some of the gender disparities are not socially constructed, but some of the disparity is also socially constructed. We have both biological and social and cultural factors that lead to gender disparities and he refuses to talk about the policies that are needed to address the social and cultural factors.

Peterson became famous last year when he argued against rules banning gender discrimination in speech in Canadian universities. Peterson derides the social construction of gender as having no basis in the scientific literature and dismisses it as a form of “cultural Marxism” promoted by leftist academics. It seems rather bizarre to me to call the social construction of gender a Marxist idea, since Marx believed that culture was arose from material production and was rooted in materialist interests of the classes. Marxian analysis of culture is diametrically opposed to the postmodern analysis used by many feminists, especially when it is rooted in language. What people like Peterson call “cultural Marxism” did arise from leftist academics, who were often sympathetic to Marxist movements, but it is downright disingenuous for Peterson to tar them as Marxists if you know anything about the philosophical basis of Marx’s arguments.

Peterson criticizes Silicon Valley companies for trying to hire more women and people from diverse backgrounds. He seems oblivious to the studies showing that businesses which have more women, more racial minorities and more diverse backgrounds of their employees tend to function better and are more successful.

In conclusion, there is some truth to Peterson’s arguments about a competence hierarchy rather than a domination hierarchy and the natural distribution of rewards toward the top, but he is strangely silent on all the academic studies about how racial and class bias make a difference in success and promotion (as well as religious bias in some countries). He is right to criticize many academics for failing to acknowledge that biology and natural tendencies play a role in many of society’s problems, but he fails to acknowledge that there are also social and cultural factors at play and that social policy can play a important role in addressing these factors.

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Review of David Talbot’s Devils Chessboard

I just finished reading David Talbot’s Devil’s Chessboard, which is a history of Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA under Eisenhower. I already knew some of the sordid details such as the CIA plots to overthrow the governments of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953 and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 and murder Patrice Lumumba in the DRC in 1960, but Talbot put these despicable acts in a fuller context. Talbot shows how an elite clique of men in government and the business world operated to carry out these operations.

He also added many details which aren’t well known. According to Talbot, Dulles actively tried to undermine FDR’s war policy in Europe and he protected many of the Nazi intelligence officials from being prosecuted after WWII, so they could be reused in European intelligence. Talbot shows how the OSS/CIA carried out actions against the wishes of FDR, Truman and JFK and essentially made its own foreign policy. According to Talbot the CIA illegally directed funds toward the 1960 Nixon campaign for president. He also posits that the groups that tried to assassinate Charles de Gaulle probably had received CIA funding.

The book concludes by alleging that Allen Dulles masterminded the murder of JFK. When I first picked up the book, I thought the book must be the work of a crackpot, but Talbot lays out a plausible theory and adduces quite a bit of indirect evidence to support his theory. It is hard for me to judge whether Talbot is right in his theory, but he shows a clear pattern of behavior in the CIA that is deeply disturbing for anyone who believes in democracy.

Even if Talbot is wrong in his theory about who colluded to assassinate JFK, he digs up so much information about Dulles and the deep state that his book is still worth reading. As a student of Latin American history, I knew how deeply the US had meddled in the politics of its southern neighbors, but I never realized that the US was just as deeply enmeshed in European politics. The manipulation of the 1948 Italian elections to keep the Communists out of power is well known, but I didn’t realize that the US was still financing the Italian Christian Democrats in the 1960s and the US kept the Italian Socialists out of the ruling coalition of the Italian government for decades. The US looks utterly hypocritical to criticize Russia for meddling in its elections, when examining its own history of meddling in foreign elections.

The inescapable conclusion after reading the book is that the CIA was fundamentally a threat to democracy, which worked to undermined the policies of several US presidents. The other conclusion that I draw is that Truman and JFK were weakened by their anti-Communism, which opened the doors for the CIA to carry out their own secret agenda. They could have reined in the CIA, but they were too worried about being red-baited by the right-wing and short-term political considerations were more important for them than controlling the CIA.

In Talbot’s account, JFK comes off as a heroic figure who wanted to reorient the intransigent cold war stance of Eisenhower’s administration, but he couldn’t control the deep state. This is a portrayal of JFK that I have never read before, and I find it intriguing, but it isn’t the full story in my opinion. JFK engaged in his own cold warrior rhetoric at times and his sending troops to Vietnam doesn’t fit the image that Talbot paints of him as the peacemaker. The conclusion I draw is that JFK was trying to walk a middle course, that fundamentally weakened his position and led him to half measures like sending troops to Vietnam to appease the deep state and appointing Republicans to key positions to head off criticism from the right. I don’t think JFK is as much of a Liberal hero as Talbot portrays him, but it is startling how much more backbone he had compared to the today’s weak Democratic leaders.

Reflections on learning Rust and violating copyright law

A year ago I attempted to learn Rust, a new systems programming language created by the Mozilla Foundation. I learn new computer languages not because I get any practical utility out of them, but rather because I find computer languages to be inherently fascinating. Studying a new language is like reading a profound work of philosophy. It makes your mind expand with the possibilities and stretches you to think in new ways. At my job in ProcessMaker, Inc., I occasionally learn a new trick or two from reading PHP and JavaScript code, but those languages no longer stretch the horizons of what I already know.

On the other hand, I still fondly recall how my mind was blown by the concepts I learned when I first learned programming. It was my senior year in college and I picked up the book, the New C Primer Plus, 2nd Ed. by Mitchell Waite and Stephen Prata while Christmas shopping in 1995. I stumbled across it in Circuit City on the bottom shelf below all the shrink-wrapped software. I recall that it was sitting all alone on the shelf–all the other things around it had been snatched up by the Christmas rush. It was a throw-back to the time when learning how to use a computer still meant learning how to program it, but most people rushing through Circuit City had overlooked it. At the time, people told me to learn a newer language like Java or Visual Basic, but I had become fascinated by how computers work, and wanted to learn the gritty details of a low-level language like C. I spent the next 3 weeks reading 700 pages of code examples in utter fascination. The book taught me dozens of new concepts. At the end of each chapter, there were exercises to do as homework. Since I didn’t have a C compiler, I wrote out my code examples with pencil and paper, not really knowing if they worked or not, but simply enjoying what I was learning. 
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How “open” is open source business software?

I have worked for ProcessMaker, Inc. since 2009, mainly because the company allows me to work part time with flexible hours, but also because it develops free/libre/open source software (FLOSS). The core of ProcessMaker comes with an open source license, the AGPL, but the company has never functioned like an open source project. The development is almost exclusively behind closed doors. We have a public bug tracker, but the bugs get fixed in a private bug tracker, so the community can’t see when their bugs get fixed. We have no beta releases for public testing of the software. Anyone who downloads the software can play with the PHP and JavaScript code, so we get a couple dozen bug reports or forum posts per year that contribute bug fixes and new features, but there is very little community involvement in the development of the software, aside from bug reports and posts on our forum.

The open source license is great for marketing and helps attract new users. I love the fact that ProcessMaker allows anyone to change the code, because it gives me great flexibility when I answer people’s questions on the public forum, which I have maintained since 2009. When people encounter a bug or need a new feature, I can tell them to go to line 1205 in workflow/engine/classes/class.pmFunctions.php and change the source code to fix it. I try to answer people’s questions on how to hack the source code and develop plugins for the software, but I’m not a core developer, so my knowledge is limited.
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Questioning the benefits of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in general

When I first learned how Bitcoin worked, I thought it was a marvelous technology. Today, I am growing increasingly pessimistic about Bitcoin. The environmental costs of Bitcoin mining are very high when we consider the resources to fabricate millions of specialized chips and circuit boards and energy to run them. Moreover, Bitcoin can’t adjust its money supply, so it is highly prone to inflation. Although the number of Bitcoin transactions has stayed the same over the last year, the price of Bitcoin has skyrocketed, which makes it an unacceptable currency in my opinion.

Like many new technologies, it takes a while to find all the potential problems and design a blockchain technology that is capable of serving as a stable, widely-accepted cryptocurrency. Unfortunately, Bitcoin is stuck in the first iteration of the technology and it can’t evolve. I have no doubt that it will continue being used, but better cryptocurrencies are being designed and one of them will eventually take Bitcoin’s place as the premier cryptocurrency. Continue reading

Arguing with the climate change deniers over the 97% consensus

I find myself spending more and more time arguing with climate change deniers online. I know that it is an utter waste of my time, since the vast majority of online deniers aren’t seeking truth, but rather validation of their ideological agenda, so it is impossible to convince them no matter how much contrary evidence I present. It is so frustrating visiting web sites like Watts Up With That and junkscience.com that oppose the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, because most people with any knowledge of the field of climate science don’t bother weighing in or have been banned, so the skeptics are largely uncontested when they post utter nonsense. They would get torn to shreds and dismissed as crackpots if they bothered to post their garbage in a legitimate scientific forum, but they are free to spew their specious arguments uncontested on their web sites and an army of ignoramuses online then “like” their posts and vociferously support what they don’t understand. Whenever you get into an argument with one of these ignoramuses, they will link endlessly to these articles as “proof,” which they believe to be just as valid as my links to peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals.

What is even more frustrating is that the deniers appear to be winning the battle online. If you go to YouTube and type in “global warming”, the majority of the videos which are returned by the search will contest the scientific consensus on climate change, and probably also try to convince you that most climate scientists and their supporters are are nefarious people with hidden agendas.

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