Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Greedy? (click me)

There seems to be a current trend of rejecting captialism, being wary of the media, and not buying into the desires of coporations. Yet, there hasn't been great change. I came across this essay, and though a little long, is worth at least 3% of the 1440 minutes you have today. Even if you do not entirely agree, it'll make your 'thinking' part of the brain happy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone up on their economic and political theory? Because I have a question:
Does democracy necessitate capitalism?

Being that I have to get ready for work, I haven't finished "Greed", but it only took about two minutes for me to mentally hang my head and shake it. It seems like the American lawmakers and persons in power ignore the partial solution the Canadian government has found: social assistance and "universal" health care. What am I missing that these people haven't attempted to model their system after ours?
Anyone who endorses capitalism and calls it a good thing is just plain selfish (or doesn't think). I hesitate when I write that comment because I myself am guilty. Approximately $15 of my net income in the past year has gone to helping a homeless person. Those of you Canadians who get all pissed off about increased taxes should think twice: You probably don't need that money(most of us live above the poverty line). I know I don't. [Anger at the misappropriation and misuse of tax dollars is entirely valid, but that's a whole different can o' worms]
Want to hear an entirely frightening thing? There are children in the united states who die of asthma (DIE from ASTHMA) because their parents do not have the money to pay for preventative medications and think they can't afford an emergency visit until it's too late. That kind of thing is unthinkable where I work.

So goes my rant. Reading "greed" and writing this makes me want to kick myself for not doing more.

5:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is Mike. I figured I’d double the number of posts to Darren’s blog (*poke*) by outlining my impressions of Julian Edney’s piece on Greed.

I must say first that I wholly sympathize with Edney’s intent. I grew up with definite leftward social conditioning and in my later intellectual explorations I have found my visceral feelings on the subject validated by significant amounts of data (granted, I completely acknowledge that bias effects are possible, but being a keener for science and objectivity, I’d rate the probability of this possibility as quite low). Combining a data driven economic analysis with a more sociological, system-based perspective, Edney does a fabulous job of outlining the failures of the Smithian economic system (laissez-faire) to achieve its stated purposes of “equality through competition”.

I particularly appreciated Edney’s argument that in modern, information-connected societies the poor come to pay psychologically not only for their own poverty, but also for the success of others to whom popular media facilitates daily comparisons. I’ve always hated opulence-TV programming such as “lives of the rich and famous”, “Cribs”, “Pimp my ride”, etc for their sheer celebration of consumerism and lack of social conscience. Now I have a new reason to despise this media: on top of its repugnant content, its presence in popular media becomes a psychological burden to those who watch yet cannot achieve what they see. Of course, one might claim that these viewers have a choice to watch the show, but I would argue that the media has become a dominant social conditioning force in our world (North American society at least); with slick advertising and your family embracing the soft glow of the cathode ray tube nightly, it’s hard to even develop a critical perspective and realize that you have/want a choice.

Beneath my overall support for Edney’s ends, I do harbour some reservations, specifically due to what I perceive to be some unfortunate misfires on Edney’s part. The most simple (and thus nit-picky on my part) of these is his reference to “Darwinist” philosophy in corporate circles. The reason why I find this reference so unfortunate is that I believe Edney really intends to condemn “Social Darwinist” philosophies, not the scientific concept of Darwinian Evolution itself. While Darwinian Evolution has a quite solid scientific grounding in supporting data, Social Darwinist philosophy has virtually none. Most evolutionary biologists and psychologists scoff at the over-a-century old ideas of Social Darwinism; conceived in the 1850’s the philosophy was tied to ideas which over the last hundred years have fallen in scientific regard through the development better understanding of evolutionary processes and the specific human psychology.

I feel the need to point out this apparent error because we live in a world of competing ideas (a.k.a. memes). I support the Darwinian meme because it is a valuable scientific concept. I feel that invalid association of this meme with other condemnable memes (social inequality, corporate ethics, etc) can only serve to muddy the waters of the competition and thus inhibit the discovery of truth and pursuit of happiness for humankind.

A less simple example of erroneous meme-association lies in Edney’s discussion of the Utilitarian ethical philosophy. I have come to understand the tenet of Utilitarian philosophy to be as follows: do what helps the most people and hurts the least people. Essentially it calls for a rational cost-benefit analysis of behaviour. Now, there is a whole school of contention as to how exactly this cost-benefit analysis should proceed, and even what dependent measures it should use. However, I feel that Edney fails to illuminate these intricacies and thus does disservice to the memes involved. Specifically, I take issue with Edney’s identification of Smithian Economics as a necessary outcome of Utilitarian ethics. While Adam Smith seems to have claimed to be a Utilitarian at heart, his economic ideas represent a significant extrapolation from the core tenet. As such, denigration of Smithian Economics has virtually no ramifications for the validity and acceptability of the Utilitarian philosophy as a whole.

Smith held that free competition in an open market would create a dynamic equilibrium, where competition would spurn innovation, which would in turn offer consumers better and cheaper products and thereby enhancing everyone’s material well-being. Smith saw this development as meeting Utilitarian standards because he felt it achieved a great and distributed good (material innovation) with little cost (supposedly “small” inequalities resulting from competition). Thus, we see that Smith’s view is a very specific and indeed idiosyncratic interpretation of Utilitarianism grounded on a single economic theory.

Edney does a fine job at describing the mountains of economic, sociological and psychological data that contradict Smith’s theory, yet he feels for some reason a need to apply the failure of Smithian economics as a failure of Utilitarianism in general. Along with being a logical fallacy (as described above), this mis-association is also an empirical fallacy. Edney takes pains to describe how Smithian Economics, through it’s exaltation of competition, implicitly and empirically devalues equality. However, not all forms of Utilitarian ethics have this fate. The brand of Utilitarianism to which I personally aspire incorporates the results from the science of Game Theory. Game Theory represents an attempt to understand how societies work by modelling interactions between multiple individuals under differing conditions of environment and internal motivations of those individuals. This is a broad and complex science, but from what little I have learned of it through the accounts of Stephen Wright and Daniel C. Dennett it seems that a strongly consistent theme is that egalitarian cooperation between individuals maximizes overall prosperity for all individuals.

(Side-note: It seems further that cooperation is not simply an ideal to which humans should aspire, but that it is something for which we already have been strongly predisposed. Modern evolutionary psychologists have made strong arguments for the idea that humans have, along with the ubiquitous drive for competition, a possibly just-as-strong drive for cooperation. It is my hope that with the leverage of socialization we can suppress competition with an educational and ethical emphasis on cooperation)

To reiterate my point: since it can be argued that a subcategory of possible Utilitarian ethical systems includes a Game-Theory-driven promotion of equality and cooperation, and since these are qualities of value to Edney, he is in error by denouncing Utilitarian ethics.

So, to conclude: I appreciate and support Edney's intent for this essay, however it was not perfect (not that anything really is) and I do feel it is important for the sake of truth to clarify the few points where he went wrong.

5:09 PM  

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