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Thinking about trade agreements

So I was walking along this morning and thinking a bit about an issue you see mentioned during these campaigns: trade. Specifically trade between countries that is regulated by various trade agreements like NAFTA.

Both Sanders and Trump, it seems, are against such agreements and think these agreements have screwed America. Clinton is a bit more complex—I think she was for them before she was against them. (That’s probably a cheap shot but I couldn’t resist.) The other Republicans are probably for the agreements though I don’t know for sure.

So what is the right answer? The Sanders/Trump complaint is something like this, I believe, and I’ll use US/Chinese trade relations as an example: The US is letting Chinese products in with few tariffs added on top. The Chinese can keep their prices low because their workers work for little and there are few environmental protections of the sort that American factories have to impose. So Chinese products are cheaper and can compete with US products in local and inetrnational markets.

The Sanders/Trump solution is, I believe, to renegotiate these trade agreements to impose tariffs on these Chinese products. (Sanders would probably lower tariffs if the Chinese added environmental protections, which would, of course, cost money.) As a result, Chinese products would become more expensive and US products would be better able to compete.

So would the Chinese go along with that? It seems they have a couple options. One is to kowtow to the new agreement and keep access to the US Market. Another is to say, “screw you guys,” and focus on other markets like India, Africa, their own, etc. Another option would be to impose tariffs on our products, thus limiting US manufacturers appeal to the huge Chinese market. (The problem there is that while there are many Chinese, a lot of them are poor and thus not able to buy much.)

What would China do? I have no idea. Thinking about this stuff really makes me realize how little I know about it.

But here’s my main thought. This kind of analysis of these is not something you really see in news coverage of the candidates, or in speeches from the candidates and their proxies. Most of the arguments seems to be that this candidate is better than another for some other reason – he or she is more “qualified,” or has leadership qualities, or whatever.

So why is that? I suspect that for some kind of evolutionary reason people are wired towards cult leaders, not dudes who sit around explaining why their approach to trade agreements is better (YAWN!). If anything, we chose the guy we like, then talk ourselves into his ideas on trade agreements. And this would seem another example where our behavior is not particularly rational at all.

P.S. As a side note to all this I reaffirm my belief that the threat posed to Americans workings by fluid trade will be dwarfed by that of robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing.

Collective humans

I was strolling through the shelves of the library the other day and picked out a book titled “Global Brain” by Howard Bloom. The book’s premise—one I’ve heard before—is that individual life forms, whether they be bacteria or human, thrive by forming groups. All creatures, the book would seem to argue, are essentially social creatures. Hive or colony type creatures, like bees and ants, are especially demonstrative of this fact; they accomplish far more as a giant organism of many nodes (the individual bees and ants) than they would if they were all living separate lives.

This is true for humans as well. On one level, humans exist in societies. These societies seems to have a kind of meta-intelligence that decides to move towards democratic governments or embrace Justin Bieber. (Hmmm…) On another level, each human is really a collection of trillions of cells. Just as the decisions of a society emerge from the choices of individual humans, so to do the decisions of human individuals emerge from a chorus of cells. Your wants and needs and opinions are really the result of millions (or more) of votes. (At least this is what I think the book is gearing up to argue, as others have before. I’m only about five chapters in.)

This idea, that we as individuals are the result of many, seems both exciting and disconcerting. I don’t feel like a group, I feel like an individual. But we do have a certain sense of our compartmentalization. I say, “my stomach is telling me I’m hungry.” “My hand is tired after thumb wrestling for hours.” “My penis is aroused as it watches this naked woman walk by.” (A regular occurrence in my life.) The “I” that is the storyteller of our lives is being informed by other parts of the body. And even if we observe just the brain/mind, we can suss out how information kind of rises up to our top decision maker. We’re thinking of a way to solve a problem and the answer just arrives in a Eureka moment. Because a coterie of cells beneath our consciousness have been working at the problem and have arrived at an answer.

In theory, you could have some complex network of nodes, doing all sorts of calculations, without consciousness. That’s basically what we presume a computer to be doing: thinking (in a way) without being aware of it. But we humans have consciousness riding atop all this. Attention is a big part of it. When we are hungry our attention turns to our hunger. When we are horny our attention turns to our horniness. The conscious attention is what makes us feel like an individual as opposed to a million voters.

Which leads to that most perplexing of questions: what is consciousness?

Robots and Donald Trump

Let’s say it’s 1970 and you’re a man who just graduated from high school. You don’t come from wealth but you can get a job at a local factory, the same way your dad did, and make enough to raise a family. You have a son, and in 1995, he does the exact same thing. Just like his dad, he takes a factory job (or similar blue collar gig) and makes decent living. He has kids, starts a family etc.

Now it’s 2016. Five years ago, the son in that scenario was let go from his shuttered factory. He’s been looking for work ever since. Or maybe he’s given up and become an alcoholic. Either way he feels betrayed. The unspoken promise society gave him was that if he played fair and worked hard he could live a comfortable life and take care of his family. That promise has been betrayed. He blames Mexicans for coming in and driving down wages and trade agreements that close factories on American shores and open them in countries with cheap labor.

This, I suspect, is a Donald Trump voter.

My question is whether things are about to get worse.

First, let’s examine this guy’s presumptions. Are Mexicans and bad trade agreements what screwed him? Well, maybe, I don’t really know. But I don’t think they will be the problems faced by that guy’s kids. I suspect the problem of the future is technology: robotization and advanced software. You could even argue this is the problem of today.

…in a 2014 poll of leading academic economists conducted by the Chicago Initiative on Global Markets, regarding the impact of technology on employment and earnings, 43 percent of those polled agreed with the statement that “information technology and automation are a central reason why median wages have been stagnant in the U.S. over the decade, despite rising productivity,” while only 28 percent disagreed. Similarly, a 2015 study by the International Monetary Fund concluded that technological progress is a major factor in the increase of inequality over the past decades.

The bottom line is that while automation is eliminating many jobs in the economy that were once done by people, there is no sign that the introduction of technologies in recent years is creating an equal number of well-paying jobs to compensate for those losses. A 2014 Oxford study found that the number of U.S. workers shifting into new industries has been strikingly small: in 2010, only 0.5 percent of the labor force was employed in industries that did not exist in 2000.

The gist of this argument is that it won’t be Mexicans taking your job in the future (if they ever did), it will be robots.

This is a problem that I don’t really see any of the candidates talking about. Partly, I suppose, because there’s no obvious solution. People often talk about retraining people but as the text above notes, new jobs aren’t keeping up with jobs lost. And I think there’s a psychological component that makes people resistant to retraining. People associate their selves, their identities, with their job (sometimes a job that has run in their family for generations). When someone comes in and says, “OK, throw all that away and train to become a widget manufacturer,” people are resistant. They don’t want to give up their identities.

The future of plagiarism?

Here’s an interesting tale up on a British news site. In short, an author discovered that a couple books she had co-authored years ago had been directly plagiarized and republished under different titles. The theft was caught and the royalties that had been generated from Amazon sales were routed to the correct authors. All’s well that ends well.

The thief however was never really caught. He or she published under what was likely a pseudonym and no flesh and blood person can be connected to the name.

In a way, the scheme is rather obvious. There are millions of under-the-radar books out there—books that have been forgotten or never had much of a fan base. Why not publish them under a new title and try and reap the benefits? (Well, if you ignore the ethical reasons.)

I wonder if down the line it will be easy enough to get software to do all the dirty work. You design a piece of software to create thousands of fake accounts and then upload pilfered books to the Amazon store using these accounts? Maybe you don’t make much but something is more than nothing.

The war within ethics

So I just finished the book “Soul Machine” which I have been commenting on recently. Its main focus is on the mind, but the mind is related to ethics and politics and I find myself musing upon those subjects as well.

It all leads me to wonder whether’s there’s an interesting schism in the world of ethics that can be explored. I break it down to this…

On one hand, we’ve been trying to use logic and empiricism to figure out the proper ethics for living in our world. We’ve been trying to figure out if there is a god and what he wants, or whether or not ethics can be somehow divined the way the law of gravity or the boiling point of water were deduced from observation. And I would have to say that these efforts have all failed. There’s no convincing proof of god, nor is there any proof of any sort of built in moral ruleset to the universe. (I refer to my timeless piece on Arthur Leff for more thoughts related to this.)

On the other side, we do seem to have some kind or moral behavior encoded into us (probably via evolution.) By this I mean, behaviors generally thought of as immoral—drowning a baby, for example—provoke a negative response in our bodies when we seriously contemplate performing them*. Morality seems to be built into our brains in some way

* This isn’t true for everyone, of course; psychopaths being an obvious exception.

So it’s the age old battle between the heart and the brain. We intellectually recognize the moral emptiness of the world but refuse to acknowledge this because our bodies revolt.

Democracy blows

As I’ve mentioned many times now, Scott Adams has been making the argument that Donald Trump’s un-anticipated (and controversial) political rise occurred because he is great at the art of persuasion. And persuasion, according to Adams, is not a matter of appealing to reason and logic but rather the emotional brain and people’s sense of identity.

Adams further notes, as does common sense, that Trump is not the only politician to do this. All, to varying degrees, use this kind of persuasion to get elected.

Now, that argument really needs to be unpacked and examined before we can sign off on it. But I’ll say here that it at least feels right. Most political debates don’t have the feel of people arguing about math, they have a great deal of emotional element.

If Adams is right, does this not point to a deep flaw in democracy? Democracy is based on a kind of “wisdom of the masses,” but if the masses are easily manipulated dum-dums, should we not consider a different form of government?

Now, of course, “what is the best form of government?” is a question humanity has sought to answer for centuries and every system of government has had flaws. Monarchy is ok until you get a idiot king. Oligarchy has similar problems. I don’t really know the answer here but I start to find myself suspicious of the ‘rah-rah” approach most take to democracy, as if it’s clearly the superior system.

There’s a point madde in the book “Soul Machine” that ties into this. The author notes that “Locke’s tabula rasa gave philosophical and scientific standing to Thomas Jefferson’s proclamation that “all men are created equal.”" John Locke had argued that people are born as a blank slate and how they developed was determined by their environment. Put a kid in the right environment and he could be a genius scientist, put him in the wrong environment and he becomes a dull-witted criminal. But at the start, everyone has equal talents.

Now, two and a half centuries after Jefferson’s pronouncement, we know that genes do have some affect on people’s abilities. People are not created equal, some are intrinsically smarter, or more empathic, or intuitive than others. Thus a cornerstone for Jefferson’s case for democracy has fallen.

“Identity” voting

Part of Scott Adams theory on politics is that people seldom vote for logical, thought out reasons, but rather for emotional gut reactions. One gut reaction that drives people towards a candidate, in his estimation, is identity. Essentially people think “this candidate is like me, therefore he or she gets my vote.”

I think we all sort of suspected this and experienced it within ourselves. But as I’ve mused on this idea I start to see examples all over the place. For example, check out this section from a recent Washington Post article on the Clinton campaign.

Would Teresa VanDoorn, 44, a homemaker who had become a familiar face at the Sanders office, support Clinton if she became the Democratic presidential nominee?

“No,” VanDoorn said. “Voting for Hillary would be approving of the status quo and establishment — and I don’t approve of that. I would write Bernie’s name in. I consider Hillary equal to the GOP candidates, to be frank.”

What’s interesting about this comment is that the woman doesn’t exactly say Hillary’s policy positions are the same as the GOP (which, we should note, would be an insane thing to say.) The voter rather argues that Hillary is “equal” to the GOP in some undefined way. Basically, to use liberal academic parlance, this women is saying Hillary is like “the other.”

The point here is that this women, in explaining her lack of support for Clinton, doesn’t list her disagreements with Hillary’s policy positions or attack Clinton’s effectiveness, but rather argues that Clinton is on the wrong tribe, the tribe of the “establishment.”

I’m reminded of a comic memoir I was reading recently by a guy who had a drug problem for years and then became a fiction and comic author. He describes voting for Obama in 2008 and his main reason was something about sticking it to the old white boys club. Again, nothing about policies, but all about identity.

Now, I obviously don’t think policies have nothing to do with why people vote. A candidate’s policies are clearly tied up with the identity they represent. But identity does seem to be a trump card, if you will.

What is life?

I continue to read the book “Soul Machine” (a cultural history of the mind) and continue to get this sense that many of the philosophical quandaries of today were struggled with hundreds of years ago. For instance, in a recent acid logic article I reported on various theories that argued that life was not a distinct state separate from non-life. I quoted an article in a science magazine on a fellow who argues that what separates living things from the non-living is merely a matter of how the atoms of each structure were organized. He has derived a mathematical formula which…

…indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

This is written as if it is a new revelation (and in fairness, the details are.) But check out this passage from the book on the work of a German philosopher Reil who lived during the 18th century.

Reil discounted a number of theories and proposed that through a process of complex self-organization—his favorite metaphor was the process of crystallization—chemicals developed new properties that somehow made for living matter.

They aren’t quite the same theories—one describes the atomic level and the other chemicals—but there are a lot of similarities.

Francis Hutchenson on morality

Not long ago, in an article entitled “What is Morality,” I offered up the argument (not original to me) that moral behavior is built into our brains via evolution. I noted…

We want to believe that by being moral we are following a set of rules — perhaps divine rules, or perhaps rules dictated by some kind of universal logic. But I am saying morality is neither divine nor logical; moral rules are simply the rules of socialization that have evolved through the history of our species. Our brain applies these rules, much the same way it applies rules for emotions. When we are contemplating or performing an immoral action, we are prodded with a sting of discomfort, similar to the sting of fear. When we are contemplating or performing a moral action, we get a “good feeling,” similar to joy or pride.

The idea being that we literally sense which behaviors feel good and which feel bad. At the time I thought this was a fascinating development in moral psychology. But, while reading the book “Soul Machine,” a history of the development of the concept of the mind, I find…

Hutchenson accepted Locke’s argument that sensations created ideas which then furnished the mind, but he also believed with Shaftsbury that an innate moral sense was the primary motivation for humans, and the source of their emotions. Sentiments arose from that moral barometer—joy from acts of charity and remorse from deceit. Through this moral sense, we experienced another’s emotional state deeply and directly. Ethics and social stability rested, not on the Good Book, but on this natural state of shared compassion, what he called “sympathy” between human beings. Like muscles in the body, this shared emotion balanced private desires and yielded both personal and social harmony.

This Hutchenson fellow basically nailed the idea back in the early 1700s. Interestingly, his idea of experiencing others’ emotional states ties into the the recent, still somewhat controversial, discovery of mirror neurons.

The general sense I get with this book is that all the great philosophical thoughts were thunk centuries ago. Now people are just arguing around the edges.

Hobbes, Spinoza and Trump

For a while now, I’ve been highlighting Scott Adams’ analysis of the rise of Donald Trump. He argues that Trump influences his followers by stimulating their faculties for emotions, not so much reason. Therefore, attempting to dissuade his followers by highlighting Trump’s factual errors is folly. Further, Adams argues that humans in general are emotional decision makers, not rational ones. I have at times suggested, half-jokingly, that the fact that people are so susceptible to emotional bias means that democracy is a flawed system. If the masses can be prodded towards un-rational decisions, they shouldn’t be granted the duty of decision-making.

I’ve been reading the book “Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind” and it points out how this debate goes back hundreds of years. Specifically to opposing views presented by two famous philosophers…

Hobbes considered the passions wild and uncontrollable and therefore rationalized the need for absolute monarchy. Since Spinoza believed reason could control inner urges and freedom of thought ensured morality, he insisted that the most sound political structure was a democratic republic.