Category Archives: politics

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.

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

Overreaction to sexist blog posts destroys the Justice Democrats

It looks like the Justice Democrats just imploded as a viable group capable of effecting political change, which leaves me very despondent. Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks, who was one of the founders of the Justice Democrats, wrote some sexist blog posts between 1999 and 2005, and the staff of the Justice Democrats demanded that he resign. Uygur has resigned from the group and has avoided saying anything negative about the Justice Democrat’s staff in public. Kyle Kulinski of Secular Talk, however, was so outraged by the behavior of the staff, that he then also resigned from the board of the Justice Democrats in protest.

Without the media support of either the Young Turks or Secular Talk, I can’t see how the Justice Democrats will have any public traction. Most of the people who joined the Justice Democrats first heard about the group by watching the Young Turks or Secular Talk on Youtube and the media coverage of the group would be essentially nil without those two Youtube channels. Judging from the comments posted on Kulinski’s video announcing his resignation, many of his viewers are outraged that Uygur was forced to resign.

Most of the criticism of Uygur focuses on a 1999 post. After reading the post, I can understand why the JD staff found it offensive, but they also seem to be incapable of interpreting the situation in its proper context. Uygur essentially complained that he was surrounded by many beautiful women in Miami, yet he wasn’t getting laid. He then said that women are genetically inferior because they don’t want to have sex enough. Yes, the general tone of the post was sexist, but the JD staff are being purposely blind to the lame humor of a guy who is making up sarcastic excuses why he can’t get laid. It was a poor attempt at humor and an effort to be an edgy, politically-incorrect right-wing blogger.

I don’t think that Uygur truly believed that women are genetically inferior at the time that he wrote it, and he certainly doesn’t believe it now.  He has run a progressive media company since 2002 where he promotes women’s rights and female hosts clearly play an important role in deciding on the content and presentation of the shows. It is hard to believe that strong women like Anna Kasparian, Hannah Cranston, Aida Rodriguez, Grace Baldridge and Kim Horcher would continue to work at the Young Turks if it was a pit of sexism and they weren’t treated as equals in the company. I find it hard to believe that these female hosts would keep working part time at low salaries at the Young Turks if it was a place that tolerated sexism. Many of the female hosts of the Young Turks shows also have their own separate shows which they built up independently from the Young Turks, so I doubt they would stay if Uygur displayed sexist attitudes toward them. Anna Kasparian frequently argues with Cenk Uygur about why he is wrong about a particular issue and challenges his authority on air.

If Uygur had written those comments last year and stood proudly by them, then the reaction of the JD staff might be justifiable, but Uygur deleted most of the offensive posts over a dozen years ago and has apologized, saying that people are right to criticize the sexism in the posts.

The JD staff seemed determined to smear Uygur in ways that he didn’t deserve, by saying that he was “contributing to rape culture.” I’m guessing that they wrote that because in a 2003 post Uygur wrote:

I had one of the best nights of my life at Mardi Gras. I kissed over 23 different women, saw and felt countless breasts, and was in a wonderful drunken stupor thanks to my friend John Daniels.

Yes, the whole Marti Gras tradition of men kissing women and women flashing their breasts and men touching them is sexist and does objectify women, but there is no indication that Uygur was talking about non-consensual activities.

The staff of the Justice Democrats seems to have lost sight of the larger objectives of their organization in making their decision to kick out Uygur. Without an effective media arm, the organization is essentially dead, because it won’t be able to recruit many new members and it just alienated many of its existing members who are fans of the Young Turks and Secular Talk. Maybe some of the members of the Justice Democrats will applaud the action as taking a principled stand against sexism, but it appears that the group will also loose many members, judging from the online comments on Kulinski’s video announcing his resignation. Many of the comments on the video also criticize social justice warriors in general as intolerant extremists. The left appears to be needlessly attacking itself and eating its own.

Some of Uygur’s harshest critics like Sargon of Akkad are now defending him and saying that he did “nothing wrong”. Unfortunately, tarring and feathering Uygur in this way allows right-wing critics to dismiss the #metoo movement as a witchhunt and an overreaction. Just like some people dismissed feminism in general when Hillary Clinton’s campaign accused Bernie Sanders of promoting sexism, some people will be inclined to disregard sexual harassment as not being a serious problem when they see progressives like Uygur being attacked for old blog posts. At the end of the day, I’m not sure if denouncing Uygur for sexism really helps the cause of women’s rights. What I am sure is that it helps to fracture the movement to elect politicians who aren’t corrupted by corporate money, and that is an outcome that we should all mourn.

Whither American Democracy: FDR-style reform, revolution or slide into populist dictatorship?

Three people, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, together own $248.5 billion which is as much wealth as 56% of Americans. This level of inequality is unsustainable and I often wonder when the American political system will implode. In other countries, other political parties would have arisen long ago to replace the Republicans and Democrats, but the rules of the US political system make it virtually impossible for an effective third party to come to the fore.

At this point, it is increasingly pointless to call the Republican Party a political party in the traditional sense. A party is supposed to represent the interests of a significant block of voters, but the Republican Party increasingly only represents a tiny percentage of Americans when it comes to economic issues. The new tax bill is a shameless give-away to rich donors, while raising taxes on households making under $75,000 or less over the next decade, raising the national deficit by $1.45 trillion, and taking away the health care of 13 million Americans. Basically it raises taxes by $4.5 trillion over the next decade on the lower and middle classes, in order to give $6 trillion in tax cuts to the wealthy, of which 62% of those tax cuts go to the top 1%. One analysis found that 71.6% of Americans would be worse off, while 5% would benefit from the bill. This is basically a tax bill which says let’s rob from society in general to give to those who already have too much.
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Can the US become a democracy that governs in the public interest?

At some point there is no longer any point in pretending that the US is a democracy. Yes, it has elections and institutions which take democratic forms, but for all practical purposes, the state no longer functions as a democracy, in the sense that elected officials and bureaucrats no longer create public policy which corresponds to the public interest.

Only 6% of Americans supported a bill passed by the US congress that allows internet service providers to sell people’s internet usage information to third parties without their consent. Basically, the US government ignored public opinion entirely when giving away the people’s right to internet privacy. Michael O’Rielly, Brendan Carr and Ajit Pai on the FCC just took away net neutrality, despite polls finding that 83% of Americans want to keep net neutrality. The FCC received 22 million comments from the public which were overwhelmingly against repealing net neutrality and the FCC commissioners decided to basically ignore the comments. A tax bill is currently being passed that raises taxes on households making less than $75,000 in order to give a $4.5 trillion tax cut to the wealthy and increase the national deficit by $1.4 trillion over the next 10 years. 62% of the proposed tax cuts will go to the top 1%.
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Being willing to evaluate information which contradicts our world view

Every couple weeks I stumble across an article about climate change, and I look in the comments and see that the climate change deniers are out in full force. A rational person would not waste her time, but it annoys me that nobody contests them when they spread misinformation on the internet.

Here is how it typically goes:

Denier: The 97% climate-change consensus is a myth. Emily here is incredibly poorly informed for a TED presenter. Thought this talk was on “I don’t do math” but it’s just another “climate deniers are morons” indoctrination.

Me: No, you are the one that is poorly informed. Read Cook et al. (2013):
http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/…/024024
If you still insist that those 2.9% of peer reviewed articles are correct and the 97.1% are incorrect, then read Benestad et al. (2016):
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00704-015-1597-5
If you are going to keep insisting that the 97% climate-change consensus is a myth, then you are a scientific illiterate, who has no idea how to evaluate scientific evidence.

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