One interesting fellow who commented on early articles on this blog is Pete Murphy, who worked for thirty years in manufacturing and engineering for a major chemical company and now writes in his spare time.
What’s interesting is that his book, Five Short Blasts, take an economic approach to analyzing the population problem in the United States — and economics, like mathematics, relies heavily on real-world modeling of granular, bottom-up systems, unlike the “personality-based” viewpoints of most political thinking.
It’s an interesting book by an interesting author, and we’re fortunate to have him for a round of questions.
How would you describe yourself politically — you seem fiscally conservative or libertarian, but other aspects of your philosophy seem to be more futurist.
The problem that I have with both the political left and right is that neither is addressing what I believe to lie at the root of our problems. For the past few decades, in spite of oscillating back and forth between the left and right approaches of the Democratic and Republican parties, our economy seems to get worse. This is because even the political center is completely off target. While macroeconomic indicators like Gross Domestic Product seem to show an economy that, while having its ups and downs, is steadily growing, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that something is wrong. It’s becoming more of a dog-eat-dog world everyday. Well-paying jobs with good benefits are becoming ever more scarce. Real wages are declining along with our net worth. People are literally working themselves to death out of fear of losing their jobs. I think that most of your readers can relate to what I’m saying, especially older people who can remember when times were different. I believe that these are consequences of what I call “economical overpopulation,” both the home-grown consequences and those imported by attempting to trade freely with nations that are even more economically overpopulated than we are. Neither party addresses this issue because both are guided by the belief of economists that population growth is an essential element of a healthy economy. And both parties support unfettered free trade.
Do you believe that any systems can be purely regulated by an “invisible hand”? In other words, leave guidance of our nation to the free markets, or the popular vote, or other forms of counting granular approval.
I’ll answer with a qualified “no.” I generally believe in free markets but, because there are parameters at work that are unaffected by market forces while simultaneously having an effect on markets themselves, boundaries must be established within which free markets may operate. In the first half of the 20th century, we found it necessary to establish boundaries regarding the just treatment of workers, banning abusive practices like child labor. In the second half of the 20th century, we found it necessary to establish boundaries to protect the environment. I believe that two additional boundaries are required. First, population growth cannot be relied upon as a mechanism for driving economic growth. Secondly, we must have a balance of trade. No nation can run a large trade deficit indefinitely. Since the U.S. trade deficit is financed by a sell-off of American assets, an obvious limit is reached when the supply of assets is depleted. With a $9.2 trillion cumulative trade deficit of thirty-three consecutive years, that point has been reached and the ongoing global economic collapse is the consequence. When you understand the role of disparities in population density between nations in driving that imbalance, you come to understand that market forces are powerless to correct it.
You point out that as population density increases, consumption decreases, which makes that for us to trade with more densely-population nations leaves us at a disadvantage. As world population grows, however, most places are going to become more densely-populated. Do we have a strategy for countering that, or would we be better off trading less outside our borders?
First, a little background is necessary in order for folks to understand my answer to this question. There is what I call an “optimum population density,” the point at which we have a sufficiently large population to provide the labor force necessary to produce the products required for a high standard of living, but not so large that we begin crowding together more than we’d like, a point at which overcrowding begins to erode per capita consumption. This “optimum population density” is difficult to define and we may not know that it’s been exceeded until anecdotal evidence suggests that the line has been crossed.
But once that line is crossed, over-crowding begins to erode per capita consumption, due simply to a lack of space for using and storing products. Perhaps an example will help. I like to use Japan because they are a modern, prosperous country like the U.S., but ten times as densely populated. As a result, the per capita consumption of dwelling space – the size of their homes – is less than a third of the average American’s, not because they like living in tiny homes but because there isn’t room for anything larger. This means that their consumption of all products used in the construction, furnishing and maintenance of their homes is dramatically reduced. And their per capita consumption of virtually everything (with the exception of things like food and clothing) is similarly affected to a greater or lesser extent. As a result, their per capita employment in producing goods and services for domestic consumption is quite low, making them utterly dependent on manufacturing products for export to employ their excess labor capacity.
So you can see that, by engaging in free trade with such a nation, our economies combine and the work of manufacturing is spread evenly across the combined labor force. But, while they gain access to a healthy, vibrant market, all we get in return is access to a market emaciated by over-crowding and low per capita consumption. The result is an automatic trade deficit and loss of jobs for the U.S.
Finally, to answer your question, this means that, while free trade in natural resources with all nations and free trade in manufactured goods between nations with similar population densities is indeed beneficial, free trade in manufactured goods with badly overpopulated nations is a sure-fire loser, tantamount to economic suicide. What I have proposed for such situations is a tariff structure for manufactured goods that is indexed to population density.
It seems to me that your idea of “smart tariffs” calibrated by the difference in population densities fits between the libertarian view of
unfettered free markets, and the moderate view that government regulation is good. It’s regulation by principle. How does this escape the problems of regulation by bureaucracy?
It probably doesn’t. Unfortunately, administering tariffs, “smart” or otherwise, is going to require a certain amount of bureaucracy. Perhaps the most famous example of attempting to reduce the bureaucracy involved in administering tariffs was the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. Free trade advocates like to point to this act as a turn toward protectionism by the U.S. that caused the Great Depression. That’s simply not true. Smoot-Hawley was only the most recent in a long history of tariff acts and barely raised tariffs at all above the previous Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act of 1922.
It’s real purpose was to reduce the bureaucracy involved in setting the tariff rates. All tariffs had been previously set in “ad valorem” terms, which means that they were set as a percentage of the products’ values. It was then up to bureaucrats to determine the values, and the figures had to be reviewed and revised over time. So Smoot-Hawley set the tariffs in firm dollar terms, eliminating the value-determining bureaucracy. If anything, it was expected that the tariff rates would actually decline with time as inflation eroded the effective rates. But exactly the opposite happened. With the Great Depression came a new phenomenon – deflation – which actually sent the effective rates of the Smoot-Hawley tariffs soaring. The lesson of Smoot-Hawley was that tariffs should always be “ad valorem” tariffs.
I think a better question is how “principled” tariffs, designed to counteract the tendency of high population densities to drive trade imbalances, would be received by the rest of the world as compared to tariffs that seem arbitrary and born out of selfishness and a fear of competition. We tend to speak of unfettered free trade and blanket applications of protectionism as the only two choices for trade policy when, in fact, these are nothing more than the two extremes of a trade policy spectrum. Smart trade policy employs both, preferring free trade but using tariffs in those cases where it is the only mechanism to assure a balance of trade. Such a policy would make a trade war unlikely, since most nations would enjoy the benefits of free trade with the U.S. while only the manufactured goods of overpopulated nations would be subjected to duties.
For example, why would we want to jeopardize the extremely beneficial free trade relationship we enjoy with Canada? At the same time, the imposition of tariffs on nations like Japan, Germany, Korea and China is the only hope we will ever have of restoring a balance of trade with them. Would Canada react with tariffs on U.S. goods to protest U.S. tariffs on Japan? Not likely. Instead, they’d probably be keen to adopt a trade policy similar to that of the U.S.
You show how immigration is a cause of poverty and unemployment, but is favored by corporations because it creates new consumers. However, it seems to me that ideal consumers are those who are by ability placed into the upper half of the middle class, because these consumers buy what they perceive to be superior products, allowing competition on the basis of quality. How does immigration affect this?
I’d like to begin my answer by distinguishing my case for reducing immigration from the more classic claims that immigration drives down wages. There is some truth to that argument, but my primary concern with immigration is that it contributes dramatically to population growth, driving our population density further beyond the economically “optimum” level. I want to be clear that my concern with immigration is not rooted in racism or xenophobia. I really wouldn’t care if the entire population of the U.S. emigrated to foreign countries, to be replaced by immigrants from those lands. It’s the imbalance that’s the problem. Each year approximately 1.5 million immigrants (both legal and illegal) arrive in the U.S. while only about 50,000 people emigrate from the U.S. Whether these immigrants are upper class, middle class or poor makes little difference.
It is true that each immigrant adds to total consumption. Each must purchase or rent dwelling space, transportation, food, clothing, staples, etc. So each new immigrant is another customer, making corporations happy, and each adds to our gross domestic product, making economists happy. But each also contributes to over-crowding which very slowly and almost imperceptibly erodes per capita consumption.
This can best be illustrated by returning to the example of the per capita consumption of dwelling space in Japan. Even though it is less than a third of the average American’s, because they are ten times as densely populated as the U.S., the total consumption of dwelling space is more than three times what it would be if their population density was the same as the U.S. This is great for corporations involved in building, furnishing and maintaining Japanese homes but it’s not good at all for the Japanese people who have to live in such crowded conditions. Again, what’s worse is what it does to per capita employment in these industries. The low demand for labor drives up unemployment and puts downward pressure on wages. This is my concern with immigration – it’s contributing to overpopulation, driving down per capita consumption and wages while driving up unemployment and poverty.
In order to keep value, do we want to achieve constant growth, or could we achieve superior social stability and superior products and as a result, live better as merchants to the world not consumers of the world’s products?
It’s the quest for constant growth that’s actually ruining our economy. Once the economically optimum population density has been breached, further growth becomes cancerous, fueling unemployment and driving down the purchasing power of our citizens at the same time that it’s boosting GDP. But economists have yet to recognize this, and can’t envision a healthy economy without growth, including growth in the population. You either grow or die, they say. Of course, this is nonsense. We can have a stable economy that is, at the same time, healthy and robust. Regarding the second half of your question – whether we would be better off as the world’s consumers or as its merchants – the answer is neither. Both imply an imbalance in trade that is ultimately unsustainable. After more than three decades of consecutive annual trade deficits, we’ve been bankrupted. For us to become merchants to the world, other nations would eventually be bankrupted, just as we have been. Ultimately, for a nation as large as the U.S., the only way to have a sustainable, viable economy is to provide for ourselves the full range of products and services we consume, while trading what we have in excess for things that we lack.
Does immigration lead to more jobs and more overall income, or does it lead to a “thinning” of jobs with more jobs in low-paid labor, with a consequent proliferation of bureaucratic jobs to manage these workers?
Immigration does lead to an increase in the total number of jobs, just as population growth does in general. But we have to begin thinking in per capita terms. Although the total number of jobs rises with population growth along with a total rise in demand for products, it doesn’t keep pace with growth in the labor force and per capita employment begins to decline as over-crowding begins to erode our per capita consumption. Again, consider the example of housing in Japan. Even though the total consumption of housing is three times higher than it would be if their population growth had stopped at the current density of the U.S., their per capita employment in that industry (and other industries that make products for domestic consumption in Japan), is much lower. Whether the population growth is due to immigration or growth in the native population is irrelevant. What matters is the growth and, here in the U.S., immigration accounts for well over half of our population growth.
If America were to stop being a debtor nation, stop growth and stop immigration, would her power and prestige diminish or rise?
That’s really two separate questions: what happens if we stop being a debtor nation and what happens if we stop growth? If we stop being a debtor nation by eliminating our trade deficit, we would soon realize huge benefits. Six million manufacturing jobs would come home. Federal spending required to offset the negative consequences of those lost jobs – unemployment benefits and so on – could be eliminated, helping to reduce the federal budget deficit and, ultimately, taxes. And foreign policy would no longer be influenced by our dependence on foreign sources of oil and other products. These are just a few benefits.
Regarding the question of whether our standing and prestige would be diminished if we stopped growing relative to the rest of the world, I think that on the surface it may appear that way at first. Ultimately, however, overpopulation will prove to be source of weakness, not strength, as rising unemployment leads to civil unrest and strife and becomes a drain on nations’ resources. In the end, it will be nations who have dealt with the problem of overpopulation and have evolved into sustainable, healthy economies that will be the most powerful and they will be the nations the rest of the world looks to for leadership.
Many of your economic ideals seem to me similar to those of the upper half of the American middle class: quiet, small cities with low crime and an emphasis on an economy primarily driven by knowledge workers, instead of a relatively flat economic hierarchy with a predominance of unskilled manual laborers. Economically, do you think this will be a better long-term model?
If that’s the impression I’ve given regarding manual labor, then I’m afraid I’ve been misunderstood. You cannot have a viable economy without manual labor. Farming, construction, manufacturing ? all of these activities involve some manual labor. During the summers when I was in college, I worked as a manual laborer myself, building fence along highways. All honest work is noble, including manual labor, and the people who do these jobs should be able to earn enough to make a living.
Some say that Americans won’t do this kind of work any more, and that’s why we need immigrants. Since I’m an advocate of dramatically reducing our rate of immigration, both legal and illegal, I obviously believe otherwise. Americans will do any work for decent pay. Here in Michigan, I see Americans every day collecting the trash and pumping septic tanks. Corporate farm operators complain that they can’t find people to pick their crops, yet the parking lot of every ?U-Pick? farm that I pass is full of cars bringing people eager to spend a couple of hours picking crops to save five bucks over what they’d pay at the grocery store. Those who say they can’t find Americans willing to do the work are either being disingenuous or haven’t tried very hard.
The notion of a ?knowledge-based? economy became popular with economists as they attempted to tamp down concerns about manufacturing job losses with a vision of a new economy that relied less upon manufacturing. But now we can see that, if anything, at least some ?knowledge-based? work may be even more easily out-sourced than manufacturing work. Information technology jobs and some jobs in the medical field, like reading X-rays and analyzing test results, are just a couple of examples. Nearly every person who walks the earth has a brain capable of doing ?knowledge-based work? given the proper training and, unless there is something that makes the ?knowledge-based work? impossible to do from a remote location, it’s just as susceptible to being out-sourced as any other job. In the final analysis, every sector makes a necessary and valuable contribution to our overall economy and we can’t afford to write off any jobs, regardless of how skilled or unskilled they may be.
One factor I did not see mentioned was political instability. From my readings of history, when societies grow too fast they produce large numbers of disenfranchised and irresponsible laborers, who then join in revolt against their elites, usually killing them. Does this future ever threaten America? Europe?
That’s a real concern. Overpopulation produces rising unemployment which, beyond some point, can result in social unrest. In addition, badly overpopulated regions are breeding grounds for hatred and intolerance. It was high unemployment that fostered Hitler’s rise to power. And it’s no mere coincidence that the other main antagonist of World War II, Japan, was (and is) badly overpopulated and was looking to expand. Virtually everywhere you look across the globe, wherever you find the worst civil strife is where you’ll find overpopulation, whether it’s the Israel/Lebanon/Palestine region of the Middle East, Rwanda in Africa or, going back a few years, El Salvador in North America.
Although I would like to see the U.S. restore a balance of trade, this would certainly raise unemployment in those nations where gross overpopulation makes them utterly dependent on exports to sustain themselves. These are the places I worry about most as having the potential for civil unrest and political instability.
“Five Short Blasts” seems to point to a difficulty in the paradigm of growth itself — that is, what goes up must go down. Is there a way we can balance ourselves so we can stay at the middle of the growth curve, without experiencing the decline?
This may be one of the more difficult concepts to understand — that for a society that has grown beyond the economically optimum population density — a falling population would actually yield an improvement in the economy as measured at the “micro” level. There would be no decline! It may be easiest to understand if you imagine a graph depicting standard of living or quality of life vs. population density. You’d see a parabolic curve, slowly rising as the population density increased from zero ? the situation economists have witnessed for most of human history. But then, at some point, the curve levels off and begins to decline as overpopulation begins to drive unemployment up. Wages and benefits begin to decline. Savings are eroded. And the quality of life in general begins to decline as overcrowding precludes opportunities for recreation and, in general, makes life more of a dog-eat-dog world.
Reversing that process by reducing population would send us back-tracking up that same curve, increasing our standard of living and quality of life until we had returned to the optimum population density. Those who measure the economy in macroeconomic terms like GDP would be dumbfounded by what they witnessed. GDP would certainly decline and, as the process unfolded, it would look like a recession with falling home sales and vacant stores, but unemployment would actually decline and median wages would begin rising again as the decline in total consumption was outpaced by a decline in the labor force. The demand for labor, relative to the size of the labor force, would actually increase.
There would be some problems along the way. Eliminating blight as the ?un-development? process progressed would be an issue. But the big issue that economists wring their hands over is the problem of an aging population with a shrinking percentage of workers to support them. Taxes may have to rise as that population bubble works its way through the age spectrum and slowly vanishes. But consider this: since it’s impossible for population growth to continue indefinitely, it’s a problem that has to be faced sooner or later. It will be much easier to deal with it now instead of waiting until our population has perhaps doubled, making the size of the aging population twice as large. It’s time to deal with reality instead of dumping it onto future generations.
If growth is not the path to prosperity, how will society have to adjust its values systems to adapt to a better path? What is that path?
I suspect that path is something that would evolve over time, and it’s difficult to predict what form it might take. But I think a couple of elements are fairly predictable. First of all, it’s easy to see that the construction sector of the economy would decline significantly, as new construction to accommodate an expanding population would vanish, leaving an industry with only a replacement market ? replacing old homes, buildings and infrastructure as they wear out. This also means that it wold be that much more important to restore the manufacturing sector of our economy to employ displaced construction workers.
Secondly, people will not be able to rely upon investment returns that out-pace inflation to fund their retirements, which means they’ll have to save more. That may seem like a daunting task in today’s environment, but the environment will be quite different. Thanks to a high demand for labor relative to the smaller size of the work force, well-paying jobs with benefits (perhaps even pensions!) will be plentiful. A reduced demand for resources will yield low inflation. All of the stresses associated with constant growth will be gone.
This may be an appropriate time to point out that economists often warn of dire consequences of a declining population, pointing to examples where population decline has accompanied a declining economy. But, in every one of these cases, they’ve reversed the cause and effect. The population decline has been caused by economic problems, and not vice versa. It’s only natural that people will move away from a bad economy to look for work elsewhere. This is exactly the situation we see in my home state of Michigan today. But blaming the economic decline on the falling population is putting the cart before the horse. I can’t think of a single instance in which the population was reduced in a healthy economy. Yes, some European nations have below-replacement birth rates but the population is propped up with immigration in each case. So we have no model to predict what will happen. But for a nation in a state of overpopulation, my theory predicts that the decline in GDP will be slower than the population decline, resulting in a boost in the standard of living of the people who remain.
As population density increases, consumption increases — but this consumption proportionately favors entertainment-based goods and services. This seems to be a result of the expansion of a demographic of urban people who fit a new profile: middle-level, educated, middle-class but not prosperous, single and entertainment-oriented employees. Is this difference in types of consumption important?
You’re speaking of what people do with their disposable income once their more basic needs of food, clothing, housing and transportation have been met. These basic needs consume the vast majority of the income of most urban dwellers, just as it does for the suburban and rural populations. The problem is that even the per capita consumption of products that meet some of these basic needs ? like housing and transportation ? is dramatically affected by population density. City dwellers, on average, live in much smaller quarters like condos and apartments and are more likely to eschew the luxury of owning a car in favor of public transit, due the high cost of parking (if it’s available at all). In addition, since these urban dwellers in condos and apartments have no lawns or gardens to maintain, their per capita consumption of lawnmowers, rakes, shovels and so on falls to basically zero. So, in a country with very high population density, the per capita employment in all of the industries involved in producing and maintaining all of these products is dramatically reduced.
Yet, the city-dwellers generally have no more disposable income to spend on entertainment and travel than their suburban or rural counterparts because the relatively higher cost of housing and transportation has consumed a bigger proportion of their income. So, does it matter if that disposable income is then spent on movies, theater and electronic gadgets as opposed to such things as golf and boating equipment? It’s difficult to say, but the point is that before the first dollar of their disposable income has been spent, the bulk of their per capita consumption of other products has already been seriously eroded.
One of the things that attracted me to your ideas was your proposed balancing of population and resources, and an emphasis on quiet living
instead of radical consumption of transient products fueled by entertainment marketing. This reminds me of what parts of the
conservation and environmental movements have been saying for years. Do you think there’s compatibility?
My theory is absolutely compatible with and complementary to the environmental movement. You’ve probably noticed that, even though I am concerned about overpopulation, I’ve said very little about its role in environmental degradation and resource depletion. That’s not because I’m not concerned about these issues. Rather, it’s because I was able to arrive at this theory only by setting aside such concerns. When I first became aware of the seriousness of the overpopulation problem, I was already aware that economists claim that there’s really no cause for concern because man has demonstrated over and over again that he is ingenious enough to deal effectively with any obstacles to further growth. Even though I had my doubts, I decided to assume that they were right, but still couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something that economists were missing — some barrier that would prove to be our undoing. Only then was I able to see the consequences for per capita consumption, unemployment and poverty. And it is poverty that has been the greatest killer throughout human history. If ecological disaster doesn’t befall us first, poverty will be our downfall.
Environmentalists have done a wonderful job of raising awareness of the issue. I do wish they would be more courageous in tackling the subject of overpopulation. But every time they do, they run into the same wall — economists who at once raise alarm about the problems associated with an aging population and also assure us that there are technological solutions to every problem. So my mission is to bring something new to the debate ? a parameter of population growth that is only exacerbated by attempts to mitigate it ? one for which there is no solution except returning to a stable, sustainable population. I see this theory as a sort of ?ultimate weapon? for environmentalists, an economic argument against population growth.
Would the ?economically optimum? population I speak of also turn out to be an environmentally sustainable population? Honestly, I can’t really say. I think it would be a fascinating challenge for mathematicians, probably requiring the largest super-computers available, to attempt to calculate what that optimum population would be. The inputs for such a calculation would include the definition of a desired standard of living, the level of consumption of every product required for that standard of living, the resources and labor required to make every product, the manpower required to man factories to produce all of these products, and so on. I’m kind of surprised that no one has ever attempted it, as far as I know.
Ultimately, however, it may come down to anecdotal evidence. My gut feel is that sometime in the latter half of the 20th century is when we (the U.S.) breached our economically optimum population density, perhaps when we had half as many people as today, just based on my lifetime of experience in the labor force. There was a clear transition from emphasis on manufacturing volume and efficiency to cost-cutting and down-sizing. From a micro-perspective, the economy clearly took a turn for the worse. So, if the U.S. is overpopulated by a factor of two, then China is overpopulated by a factor of eight. Japan is overpopulated by a factor of twenty. Korea is overpopulated by a factor of thirty, and so on. Reducing populations around the world accordingly would be quite a dramatic reduction. But only environmentalists could determine whether it would still be enough. But, if not, we’d have taken an enormous step in the right direction.
On the other hand, I’ll concede that environmental parameters may prove to be the upper limits for population growth before the poverty that my theory predicts really takes hold in a big way. Either way, the dawning of a new age will have begun and I’ll be just as happy.
Your ideas could be a line into what one might see as the beginning of meta-politics, or a political system that avoids polarity to an ideology and instead focuses on the pragmatic needs of our situation. This gets outside political language, which while self-consistent may not be consistent with reality outside the political sphere, and forces a change in focus from the marketing of ideas to practical adaptation. Do you think such a meta-politics is possible in our lifetimes?
Had you asked me this question ten years ago, I would have replied “no,” it’s not possible that my ideas could be incorporated into mainstream thinking and into politics in my lifetime, or in the lifetime of anyone alive today. But one of the things that continues to amaze me is how rapidly change is unfolding, including the economic collision I warned of with Five Short Blasts. Although I expected it may take decades for the real consequences of our trade deficit to be felt, it’s already upon us, collapsing the global economy. And thanks to the rapidly evolving acceptance of the dangers of global warming, although economists and world leaders still cling desperately to the notion that technological fixes alone will be sufficient, widespread recognition of the role of overpopulation can’t be far behind.
But real progress may not come until these ideas begin to take root in the field of economics. I targeted Five Short Blasts at average Americans, hoping to start a grass roots understanding of the role of overpopulation in our economic demise, believing that I could never be taken seriously by economists for two reasons: because anyone raising the issue of overpopulation is immediately dismissed by economists as a ?Malthusian? and because my background is not in the field of economics. But that hasn’t stopped me from pushing these ideas with economists, and I’ve found a few who would listen. Helping matters is the fact that the field of economics is in some disarray now, following the economic meltdown. Many are questioning whether economists are missing something, and the field seems more open to new ideas.
It’s interesting that you’ve ended this interview with this question because it’s similar to the question I posed in the final two paragraphs of the epilogue of my book:
“Have I struck a spark large enough to start a fire, or will it flicker and die? Will others more eloquent and influential than I take up the cause? Will opportunistic young activists recognize the potential of these fresh ideas for launching political careers among the irrelevant and dying philosophies that surround them?”
I’ve been asked by others how I will know if I’ve been successful. I probably will never know. To be successful, I don’t need to sell a million copies of this book. I only need to get one copy into the right hands.
Thanks Pete for a great interview. Gentle readers, you can visit Pete’s site and learn more about him, the book and his theories.
None of the political options offered us in a modern time make much sense, because they are all based on a singular idea: social thinking.
This situation started before 1789, but culminated in 1789, and it was called The Revolution. That expanded into modern liberalism, which also underscores modern conservatism. They are two manifestations of the same idea, enough different that you can cheer for one and not the other and still be within the realm of socially acceptable. However, that’s a sliding frame. The more revolutionary a society gets, the less its conservatives resemble conservatives.
I call social thinking Crowdism because it underlies many philosophies, and I don’t want to jump on the liberal-bashing bandwagon so that conservatives can cheer their own version of the same thinking. It is important nonetheless to state clearly and firmly that liberalism is a political manifestation of social thinking.
Social thinking is flattery. It’s what underscores marketing, entertainment and polite social commentary — “little white lies” included. If you want others to like you, you set aside physical reality and start talking in terms of how things ought to be. Social thinking is treating all others like you would a conversation partner or someone you meet at work.
The instant you start using that “ought,” you’re implying that things are bad and they’ve gotten that way because something went wrong. To be polite, however, the only way you can admit something went wrong is to imply that someone else did it unjustly. After all, you want the person to which you’re talking to feel good about himself or herself. So if something is wrong, it’s an injustice.
In social discourse, this is not a bad thing. It’s an exchange of tokens. If a friend of yours encounters a calamity, you don’t necessarily want to blurt out “that’s what happens when you drive drunk through a minefield.” Instead, you offer empathy, compassion, caring. This is a natural and healthy human instinct, but it starts a cycle because others observe it.
Any observable human action can be cloned by others who want to appear to be having the same thought process, but they may have different motivations. After all, every effect has one cause; every cause has many potential effects. They are making an effect into a cause by imitating the effect of sympathy to convey sympathy. The effect they want to achieve is for others to publically see them being sympathetic.
Acting out empathy and concern, especially to those who are obviously having a rough time of it, looks good. People immediately project themselves into any victim because, as animals with predators in our not-too-distant past, we respond more clearly to threat than lack of threat. Because of that, we see ourselves in the victim and experience fear. Someone appearing to be universally empathic salves those fears.
Unfortunately for us, we cannot tell if that emotion was genuine or if a cynical person, in observing others express that emotion, decided to imitate it. Instead of seeing the emotion, we are often seeing someone acting so that we extend to them the goodwill we would extend to someone who honestly had that emotion. This makes it easy for someone to become popular for “acting.”
This is the power of social thinking: you can create your own personal army by being known as the Mother Theresa of the block. If you are a politician, it can make you powerful. If you are a businessperson, it can make you profitable. If you are an individual, it can make you popular — a celebrity. All of these motivations converge on why someone might want to “look like” an universally empathic person: it makes them succeed through the acts of others.
When people first discover this process, it is rare and revolutionary. They find that if they want to assault a powerful enemy, they have an immediate friend in those who are discontented. This group does not even need to be a numerical majority; there just need to be enough of them that normal people stay out of their way, fearing retribution.
Over time, this group gains political power, and at some point, there is a Revolution — 1789 in France, 1968 in Europe and the USA — where the group gains control. It implements a new rule of power: only those who show compassion will win. At this point, the social thinking philosophy dominates all discourse and over time, even undermines those who claim to oppose it — so-called “conservatives.”
From this comes the ultimate stage of authoritarian control: using others to enforce your authority. If you become a leader who crusades for justice for the downtrodden, by definition anyone who opposes you is an oppressor. If you stand for equality, everyone else stands for special preference. Language tokens become their social equivalents, even if reality is far more complex. The only thing that matters is making others like your message.
When a society reaches this level of memetic warfare, people get daily bathed in overstimulus. Marketers are pitching wish fulfillment scenarios about how their product will make you succeed, and everything else is by definition inferior. Politicians are telling you how only they represent the people, and how anyone else is a nasty elitist. In social situations, the people who are most “emotional” win out over the logical.
This pattern is hard to spot because it starts with an individual. They fear for themselves, so they project their fear onto others, which makes it seem as if they’re not acting for their own self-interest but for the group. This means they can manipulate the group into doing what they want for their own self-interest, and if something goes wrong, someone else — an anonymous “we all thought” — is to blame.
It parallels something called “competitive altruism.” I want myself never to be murdered, so I demand anti-murder rules for all people. However, because I am the anti-murder crusader, I am the one least suspected of murder. In addition, I am not seen as an oppressor because I’m asking for something for “EVERYONE” (ever notice how people stress the word EVERY and their eyes disconnect as they say it? a meme controls their brains).
When this type of thinking becomes popular, we start treating the world as a personality. As if it were human, we view it as a series of deliberate gestures targeted at humans, and not a consistent, cyclic pattern that operates like a machine, chemical reaction or mathematical equation. We assign to its negative qualities terms like “oppression,” which is our modern day religious-symbolic thinking, like calling it Satan or Beherit.
Our current era of history is entirely dominated by this kind of thinking. If you wonder why there’s a new trend every week, and when it fails no one is to blame, here is your answer. Social thinking has dominated our ability to assess what we actually need because instead, we’re thinking about what looks good to each other. Too clever for our own good, we manipulate each other into an onrushing darkness to which we are blind.
The only way to reverse this decline is to impose a reality filter. In nature, organisms proliferate consistently with a steady dose of randomness. That which works is promoted; that which does not work is demoted. This process is not violent, but statistical. If 51% of the individuals with a gene do better than others, they begin the slow process of norming the population to that gene. Over many generations, it predominates — not one conflict.
Social thinking allows us to defer consequences. We can heed image, and do what others seem happy with, but we’re basically using a layaway plan. What we enjoy today becomes debt for the future in that at some point, someone somewhere will have to somehow face the consequences. Language is vague, and so is socialization. When socialization dominates, we are paying forward backward — leaving problems through our selfishness for the future to resolve.
Reality filters come in many forms. The most common are stressors: war, famine, disease and climate. Governments can impose reality filters by reducing the amount of money they spend toward individuals, and instead focus that money into infrastructure like the military, science, and economy. The challenge is getting voters accustomed to spending money they don’t have on themselves to approve such a measure. They may need to be misled.
It surprises no one that a society with its government radically in debt also sports voters equally radically in debt. Nor does it shock when it is revealed that most of this society lives in third world conditions — unskilled labor, chaotic neighborhoods, bad personal behavior. When reality is not rewarded, illusions proliferate and people who thrive by ignoring reality (and consequently, ignoring their own poverty) thrive.
Social thinking teaches us to assume that any person arrived at his or her situation through chance, luck or the acts of a bigger power. That bigger power can be an absent God, an oppressive government, or the aforementioned chance. We are taught to see money as an evil. Instead, we might view money as an outward indicator of how well organized people and populations are. Those who plant the seed corn thrive; those who eat it are impoverished.
The ultimate consequence of social thinking is similar to delusion in our own minds. Appearance in the present tense triumphs over knowledge of reality as a process or cycle, in which today’s actions have consequences tomorrow, and our individual actions are not effects but causes. We become passive and create a society of blame. Such a society cannot control itself, stop its cancerous growth or learn from its errors.
We are in a time when social thinking has won out. In 1789, revolutionaries in France formalized the doctrine and used it as an excuse to execute those who were most organized and intelligent in their society. Since then, all Western nations have undergone such populist revolutions, where image dominates over sense of any kind. This thinking infiltrates every discipline, from science to philosophy, because what is popular is what is rewarded.
If you want to know where we went wrong, check your thinking. It does not make sense to blame other groups. Instead, place the blame not on individuals but bad thinking: the thinking that polite conversation, or appearance, is more important than the structure and design of our universe, or reality. And until you reverse this situation, no amount of pogroms or black presidents can fix your decline.
We humans like to keep a linear, categorical, literal view of things. When we say we’re in control, we’re in control — we think.
One thing we’ve never as a species quite wrapped our minds around is the inversion. This is a logical technique where you argue for something that you claim is against what you really want, but in such a way that it validates you using force or force of law to get what you want.
The most popular variant of this is claiming to fight for freedom, demand rights, or empower the disempowered. This positive goal gives you moral legitimacy to demand the inversion: If I fight for freedom, I must fight and destroy the enemies of freedom, which requires that I suspend freedom.
Instead of pointing out that “freedom” (for example) is a broken argument because, unlike natural selection or other ideas, it does not take into account all possibilities, the inverter deliberately selects an abstract, vague, fuzzy goal so that they can change the focal point of the argument to that goal — and then move the “background details” to empower their own actual crusade, which is to have power.
We’ve seen this too many times — a leader claims he’s doing something positive, and so he is given power, which he then runs away with.
We can see it in social discourse, too. It’s not socially acceptable to disagree with the empowerment of anyone, except those who don’t talk about empowering others. They could either be fascists, or they could be suggesting a more realistic solution, which makes us the fascists when we enforce it upon them.
One great fallacy here is the notion that every law must be the same in every locality. When people band together to “modernize” or “get with Progress” and target a specific area, they’re the fascists who are telling those people they cannot act as they wish.
In human history, we’ve gone through a series of oppositions where inversion was useful. First it was individual versus society, where the lone person found themselves on the wrong side of the law or social mores for something that was not unreasonable. Now we’re in the age of individuals versus the crowd of other individuals, who have banded together on an inverted idea and are using it to smash anyone they resent.
Resentment targets anyone with more of anything: wealth, intelligence, good looks, power, you name it. There is no stopping point for resentment, but when given credibility by a logical inversion, it becomes like a virus we all must obey.
If you find yourself thinking modern society is out of control, and wondering where it will end, fear these inversions. Among other things, inversions always involve symbols that sound good but are unrealistic; nature, on the other hand, created us by offering a perpetually mixed bag of good and bad that ended up producing, for the most part, good.
Opposition to speed limits divides an audience. Most immediately shut down to anything you have to say and call you crazy, and the others listen because they’re annoyed with speed limits but are still very skeptical.
After all, speed limits are one of those things like food label warnings, fire exits, and health insurance that might save our lives. And because we want our lives to be saved, we want to make an absolute rule that all lives get saved the same way. Fear creates absolutes.
This is a type of broken reasoning where humans are both cause and effect of all that happens in their world. The ultimate goal, or effect, is to preserve ourselves. So we create rules to preserve all people as that guarantees us both preservation and the approval of others.
However, we’re unable to think beyond that moment to the effect of preserving everyone from themselves, and we’re also unable to think before that moment to the reason that different categories of activity — say, driving fast — have different results for different people. Some people are better drivers.
Looking past this confusion of cause, effect and self, we can see that speed limits have a number of problems:
- Preservation of idiots. Preserve idiots, and when they breed, you have more idiots.
- Trains us to break the law. If we’re able to drive competently, we can handle speeds above the average. This means you have smart people growing up learning that the law is for idiots, and needs to be broken, and cops need to be treated as an enemy or predator.
- Defines bad driving. We create a partial definition of bad driving by limiting our perception to quantitative, observable, legalistic reasoning like “he drove too fast” or “she went through a red light.” The only way you really know if someone is a bad driver is by observing them driving over a series of challenges.
- Doesn’t stop bad drivers. By making speeding a primary issue, you train law enforcement to stop speeders — not be wary of bad drivers, which is the larger problem.
At the very least, this is a fun thought experiment in which we can indulge: do speed limits achieve their goal? If not, what does? In considering our solutions, what prior and posterior factors are we missing — maybe that busting speeders causes problems, and considering “speeders = bad drivers” as an implicit equation warps our thinking?
And if you get through all that: in what others areas is this type of bad cause/effect reasoning applied, and maybe, how we can liberate ourselves from it.
Harvard has released a study which further confirms what everyone should by now know: stay away from products that leach chemicals:
Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found that people who drank for a week from the clear plastic polycarbonate bottles increased concentrations of bisphenol A – or BPA – in their urine by 69 percent.
BPA is used in hundreds of everyday products. It is used to make reusable, hard plastic bottles more durable and to help prevent corrosion in canned goods such as soup and infant formula.
Numerous animal studies in recent years suggest that low levels of BPA might cause developmental problems in fetuses and young children and other ill effects. The health effects on adults are not well understood although a recent large human study linked BPA concentrations in people’s urine to an increased prevalence of diabetes, heart disease, and liver toxicity.
Bisphenol-A is a widely used chemical additive. The only advice one can really give to pregnant women and families is to try to use stainless steel where possible (water bottles, etc. – check out Sigg and Klean Kanteen), or cut BPA out in other ways. Having canned foods only occasionally, using fresh produce, avoiding the microwave, and cooking in stainless steel pots and pans will greatly reduce the risk of disorders associated with BPA consumption. In short: live naturally, and avoid plastic in unnecessary applications like water bottles.
Here’s a prime example of our major human problem — arguing from the human as the cause of all effects, and therefore, having no idea what actually causes anything, although we feel better treating the world as if it were a personalitied human like us:
A UK-led team located two genes on chromosomes six and nine that appear to strongly influence the age at which menstruation starts.
The genes sit right next to DNA controlling height and weight.
Dr Aric Sigman, psychologist and fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, said: “Early menstruation is a health issue because beyond being an inconvenient surprise for a girl and her parents, it’s also associated with a higher risk of a variety of diseases and psychological problems.
However, they also accept that the onset of puberty is influenced by factors such as nutrition and exercise, and the effect of a single gene is likely to be relatively small.
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This is yet another example of statistics gone awry. There is no question that an early age of menarche generally halts female growth, but not for the reasons that this psychologist is suggesting. It is a matter of physiology resulting from the sudden increase in estrogen as it affects the transhydrogenase enzyme systems of the mitochondria.
Growth is halted through the effects on long bones as a consequence of substrate inhibition induced by high estrogen levels. The stuff about estrogen being the cause of disease–any disease–is just another form of statistical nonsense with little scientific basis but a lot of incidental connection.
(Incidentally, the very latest on estrogen suggests that prolonged birth control pills reduce cancer rates. These conclusions are also statistical studies. ) Such incidental connections fall into the spurious category of white arctic foxes and snow. Do foxes cause snow to fall in the arctic? Does snow cause foxes to be white?
Another way of looking at this: the obvious idea is that habits cause higher estrogen levels, and that halts growth, and that the same habits are causing early menarche. But our preference as a group is to avoid blame and fault, so we choose to claim it’s all genetic.
Any really efficient design will gradually replace its less efficient parts with new attempts. This type of natural garbage collection is at an informational level present in our universe, meaning that it appears as a pattern in matter, energy and thought alike.
This type of chaotic design appears frequently. Instead of using top-down centralized orders, chaotic designs change like fluids in a beaker, with granular components adopting the shape of the boundaries of their container, and by staying always in motion, sweeping smaller eddies into the bigger trends of their flow.
Information tends to follow a similar pattern based on the Gaussian distribution, which we generally see as a “bell curve” when plotted in two dimensions: a few clear success, a few clear failures, and everything else in the middle. This is similar to how fluid in a beaker moves at its edges, will all motions flowing back into a main mass which is mostly stable.
Chaotic designs are famous for this kind of “stable in the big picture, frenetically disordered at a local level” appearance. It’s an inherent principle of our universe to behave this way because it gets the benefits of stability with the chances to recombine all other ideas “in the small” and, if one succeeds, to uptake it into the dominant pattern.
You might call it a form of three-dimensional scientific method.
This tendency is inherent to the organization of nature, and so manifests itself in physical organization and human interactions. If you hone in on the dead middle of your results, and measure the results below and above that, you’ll find the numbers very similar.
It explains why human intelligences fit a bell curve; why some nations thrive and others hover near poverty; why some work days are productive, others failures, and most fit somewhere in the middle. It also explains why the default outcome for our activities is mediocrity, being caught between bad and good but not good enough to count as real achievement.
In a historical sense, if ancient Greece was excellent, that puts it on the far positive side of the curve. That means that for every one Greece, there’s many more mediocre civilizations, and a few that radically fail. In other words, most civilizations go nowhere in terms of quality, and so die out early. There are handful of ancient Greeces.
On the far negative side of the curve are societies that fail from the outset. No one is interested in collective action, so they cannot rule themselves and get destroyed by small bands of criminals. Societies in fertile areas tend to be this way, as do societies which were in previous generations made prosperous.
When you can pick your food from the trees and the climate doesn’t require that you have much shelter, why bother with individual or collective action beyond the absolutely obvious? In such societies, striving is seen as pointless, and people tend to be anarchistic in that they each support themselves and their family unit.
As a result, they are unwilling to donate their time to collective activities or non-tangible activities like learning. Barn-raisings where we all help Joe put together a farm that can feed us all? Fire-making devices? Architecture? Laws? Learning? Who needs it. We’ve got fruit from the trees, easily slaughtered game, and round huts.
In the middle are societies that are semi-organized. They’re not as together as ancient Greece, but aren’t failing immediately either. Most have short life cycles. They are able to get people together for barn-raisings, defense, and some medicine, but are anarchistic enough to keep an ethic of convenience.
That guy selling snake oil? Leave him, he’s no problem — even if half the town gets hoodwinked and money goes out to the fools and not the wholesome. Someday we’ll need a bigger bridge? Well, let’s wait until someday — even if the supplies we desperately need during a drought can’t make it in over the collapsed older bridge.
What defines whether a society thrives or fails is where it fits on the curve. Its degree of organization determines its future. People must come together for collective action, be rewarded for good and shunned for bad, so they feel an incentive to participate and a reward for doing right.
There must be a clear plan, clear goals, and notation of what is expected — and what is not accepted. The rules for this are the same for any group of intelligent yet independent creatures, whether a church group or an army, whether humans or super-intelligent reptilians.
As soon as we realize that mathematical distributions define life, we are forced into contradiction with what we’ve been taught. Our dominant fiction tells us that a single object or person is the cause and controlling force of all things within its realm of influence; reality is that we are all part of bigger patterns and are defined by context.
The denial of informational underpinnings of context is what destroys societies. We like to think we create ourselves, control ourselves absolutely, and that context is irrelevant. Yet context includes our inherited abilities — and aren’t all abilities inherited — and our positions in life and our personalities.
We did not create ourselves. We did not create our circumstances. We usually do not have the ability to change these circumstances, because if we could, we would have. We are just what we are, and we have a place in the hierarchy of abilities and outcomes, but we cannot change this by sheerly wishing it to be so.
This wishful thinking, however, is popular. In place of will, or a steely determination to do one thing right through hard work and native ability, we extend wishful thinking and wish fulfillment because it’s accessible to any person. You think you’re a genius artist? Well, I’ll treat you as one, if you treat me as a genius artist too.
Wishful thinking establishes a dangerous precedent. We base our self-esteem on how we wish to see ourselves. That in turn requires us to believe the world operates like a personality which can wish itself into any state. This makes us think that any action is the result of a deliberate, personal attack on us by the world.
This “social thinking,” so called because it resembles conversation and marketing more than science, in turn causes us to be unable to trace chains of causes and effects because we assume there is one level to every action: what is wished, and the wisher is assumed to be omnipotent.
In our simple view, we will all things, and some kind of Satan opposes us with personal attacks that come from that mystical, unknowable, invisible state called “reality.” We take life personally. We blame it when it goes wrong. And that blame causes us to deny reality, and to want to wage resentful war on others within our own civilization.
As a result, it is a process of civilization itself — intellectual “free radicals” like those made by our use of oxygen — that deconstructs our belief in complexity, synchronicity and causal sequences. Those are part of context, not a personality, and only personalities wish. We accept only wishes.
From this we get the illusion that all things are means, but people and their personal wish fulfillment is the only acceptable end. Much as we confuse cause and effect, we confuse means (methods) and ends (goals). We think our goal is the maintenance of a state in which our wishful thinking is universally tolerated, and we program our brains to be oblivious to the negative secondary, tertiary, and so on consequences.
Blame comes next. We live in a fantasy world of wish fulfillment, and when our fantasies get interrupted by reality, we retaliate by blaming the person who informs us of this need because, since our thinking assumes human wishes are the cause of all things, we assume they are wishing an end to our kingdom of wish fulfillment.
Blame causes internal division, most spectacularly class resentment, where those with unimportant roles wish themselves to be rich and are furious when they are not rich, powerful, intelligent, etc. Instead of accepting reality, they redefine the means used to get rich, redefine what is considered intelligent, and transfer power to themselves.
If you find yourself wondering why modern society is so brain dead, here’s a starting point: it has means/ends and cause/effect confusion, arising from our pleasant fantasy that we are all in control, which is in itself a denial of death and the importance of context. This is why the greatest taboo is understanding context, including cause/effect logic.
All societies exist somewhere on this cycle. Fertile tropical societies never get far because there is no reason to understand context; everything they need can be picked from trees. Prosperous industrial societies create their wealth, and then start fighting over it, and then replace means of creating real wealth with means of re-distributing wealth.
This cycle has repeats itself through history. It is so ingrained in us that spotting it is difficult enough; communicating it to others is also difficult; and finally, there are social repercussions — generally retribution by a Crowd furious that reality/context has been asserted — for saying it.
We have a choice: either indulge the fantasy of individual absolute control and wish fulfillment, and make ourselves the presumed actors in all reality. Or, we can see context, cause and effect, means and ends. It’s a scary choice. But recognizing this problem of our group perception, and beating it, is our only way toward a better future.
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Among the many ways to look at the world, one of the most popular is moral judgment. Moral judgments are the shoulds, oughts and shouldn’t’ves of the world. When a situation happens, we decide according to some ideal what “should” have happened, and penalize people for what did.
But that’s neurotic, since they did do what they did for some reason inherent to them. Much like releasing a ball over the ground means gravity pulls it down, people just do what it is they’re wired to do, and we can either bloviate about should or focus on what “is.”
Here’s a case in point:
Photo shoot over, she changes into her jogging bottoms and Ugg boots, and talks candidly about that modern TV starlet dilemma: how much flesh can you expose before people start forgetting you have a brain too?
If she sounds as if she is trying to convince herself, there is good reason. Last month – a year after leaving Blue Peter, where she had been for ten years, becoming the longest serving female presenter in the show’s history – Konnie finally succumbed to the lure of the lad’s mag and agreed to pose for FHM in, er, not very much at all.
‘If you are a Dimbleby, constantly peering over your glasses at your notes, you have an air of authority. If you are me and keep looking at your notes, it is taken as a sign of incompetence. I learned that very early on, and had to ditch the notes. But it isn’t fair. Why do you have to be a man with grey hair to be taken seriously?’
The Daily Femail
Let’s take this ought of the realm in which she wants to talk about it, which is should. “But it isn’t fair,” she says, forgetting that fair is a human judgment by which we determine shoulds, not how we will achieve those shoulds or what is most likely to happen. If a ball is released over the head of a child, it will fall, but it should not — yet it will.
Here’s a principle for Konnie Huq:
If you act like a slut, people will assume that you are one.
If you want to be accepted for having brains, you have to stay within that role. Sexy and brains collide because people with brains tend to be transcendental about physicality and not as immersed in themselves as the simpler people who frequent Hollywood bars. But if you act like someone in one of those Hollywood bars, people will respond in kind.
She wants us to believe that, using the magic “should,” we can separate an action from its intent. When I walked into that bank and shouted EVERYONE ON THE FLOOR THIS IS A STICKUP, I didn’t want to be treated like a criminal for the rest of my life. But act like a criminal and, well, you know the rest.
How unfair it all is! We want to appear to be one thing, and yet be another, but we don’t connect the dots that the actions that led to us wanting that appearance are what defines us. We assume that we are causes in ourselves, and our choice is absolute, but really, what defines our preferences (including our preference to discipline ourselves) defines our actions and those define who we are.
People who act like sluts have not thought through life, and realized how transient that behavior is, on their way to a higher realization. Oh, but it should not be that way, the Crowd howls, because they’d like to think they can be anything to anyone at any time, not realizing that the cause of being something is the chain of actions leading up to it.
Want to be a genius scientist? Be born a genius, work hard, and do genius research. At some point, someone will note that you’re a genius scientist. Imitating one will not get you anywhere; acting like one, by doing genius research, will. Imitating a slut is fun at a costume party; acting like a slut, by posing nude and then whining that you don’t get taken seriously, will make you a slut.
And why do people universally disregard sluts? In some part of our subconscious memory is the knowledge that nothing easily given away is considered much, and therefore, that its value goes down. A slut, man or female, is on a path to making their choice of a mate worth $50 after nightfall on any given night. You want us to respect that?
Here’s another mystery cause/effect that’s not mysterious when you analyze it:
You would never give a child a cigarette. Or a drink, or a snort of cocaine. But everyday we American parents are giving our children something almost as addictive—meals laden with sugar, salt and fat. That mac n’cheese we all think is the only thing our child will eat is priming them for a lifetime of “conditioned hypereating.” That is, eating that is excessive, out of control and has nothing to do with satisfying hunger.
Our national weight gain is not, as many people assume, because we are far less active; studies have found little difference in energy expended now than in the 1950s. It is because we are eating far, far more calories than ever before, in the form of soda, junk food, sweets, fat and salt laden meals, and huge portions. We have become addicted to food, and that addiction starts in very early childhood.
Kessler lays out how sugar, fat and salt stimulates the reward centers of the brain in much the same way as cigarettes, alcohol and illicit drugs. By eating food that is extremely palatable, we keep wanting more, whether or not we are hungry. Since highly palatable junk food is socially acceptable, and often cheaper than the healthy stuff, we keep going back for more. The food industry knows this better than anyone.
The cause of our hypereating is that we started eating junky, addictive food, and now we’re adapting to that pattern. We like the clean logic of exercising more, but reality follows our actions: start eating junk, come to expect it as the norm, and therefore treat it like the norm, then wonder why we’re bloated.
Should this be the case? No, in our “logical” minds, we should all be hiking fifty miles a day and eating whatever we want, whenever we want. But reality does not reward a single factor like that, but requires we consider many: exercise, type of food, quantity of food, frequency of food, etc.
In the moral view favored by most people, we “should” be able to choose whatever we want to eat. A realist would say instead that given absolute choice of food, people’s selections would break down in a bell curve: a few would choose really healthy food, a few would eat absolute garbage, and most would fall in the middle, with half of those prizing convenience — whatever’s closest, fastest — over ingredients. So given absolute choice, half of your population eats garbage, and the rest will happily sell it to them because of the insanely great profit margins. If I sell you $5 of food for $7, I’m screwed compared to selling you $1 of food for $6, which is a mostly accurate representation of fast food.
Moral judgments make us think that a woman should be able to dress like a slut, or act like a slut, and then the next day be accepted as a full brainiac. But without making a moral judgment about sluts, we can see that it’s like advertising: you draw people to you by your behavior, but different behaviors get different groups.
Here’s another story. A young woman goes to a seedy bar, proceeds to get loaded to the point of incoherence, and then vanishes into a back room to do a line of coke with some guy. Three hours later she comes out in tears, saying she’s been repeated raped. But we have a legal quandary. It’s her word against the word of the dudes there. It could have been rough sex. It could have been group sex. It could have been consensual, rough, group sex. It also could have been gang rape. And no one was coherent enough to tell the difference, or claim definitely they knew whether they were giving consent or not, or listening for it.
In a seedy bar, where many of the regulars potentially have criminal pasts, you don’t normally want to make yourself such a target. We could argue that you ought to be able to. You should, in our ideal moral judgment world, be able to drink to incoherence in any bar you want to. You should be able to pass out on a pool table and be safe. Should, should, should. But in reality, much like waving a steak in front of a dog, if you tempt people with impulse control while intoxicants are plentiful, you’re going to get a powerful negative response.
Does this mean we should excuse these rapists? Well, there’s should again. Thinking practically, we probably should hang them or ship them (regardless of color) to Somalia where the local warlords can do as they wish with them. Is that a moral judgment, or a “should”? No, it’s a practical judgment: this incident helpfully reveals that these people are opportunists of the worst sort. Since in every society these crop up in abundance, we should take advantage of this situation to get rid of some extra ones.
Does this mean we should blame the young woman? There’s should again as well. As realists, we would instead acknowledge that she made a dumb decision with predictable results. She might have gotten away with it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Kind of like taunting a pit bull with steak… don’t be surprised if you get bitten. Hard. So we shift her into therapy and try to teach her cause/effect logic. If the cause is tempting a pit bull with steak, and the effect is bites, can we draw a line between the two, right like that, and you get a gold star.
Moral judgment tells us to throw all this practical thinking out the window. Moral judgment is in fact the enemy of practicality, because it is purely social thinking, as if we were making conversation. Isn’t it terrible that we’re mortal? Yes, we should be immortal. Isn’t it awful that some people are criminals? Yes, they should not be such a way. Where a realist would just admit that criminals exist, and are not desired, therefore sending them on to Somalia is desirable, in social conversation we cannot do that — because that shows disregard for their humanity. We can instead fall back into the comfortable world of should.
In fact, if you mention a realist position — exile all rapists, but don’t prosecute in cases where some clueless idiot gets loaded among potential rapists — people pounce on you immediately. They see a chance for themselves to look good by talking about moral judgments instead of reality. Nevermind that there will always be dangers, parasites, criminals and rapists; they keep us honest by reminding us that they are what they are, and if we get drunk to incoherence around them, they’ll rape us.
People want to talk about should, and if you think it’s practical to exile rapists, they’ll defend the universal human rights of the rapists. They talk about universal absolutes, like rights, freedom, justice, peace and equality because these sound good in conversation. They make others listening to the conversation think the speaker is a Christ-like god among men who just wants to help all of us. That’s because listeners are thinking only of themselves; when I say “No one should suffer prosecution for one little violent gang rape,” they’re thinking of themselves, and by the nature of having fears, worrying that under the right circumstances, they could screw up and violently gangrape someone. When that thought hits their mind, they want the protection of universal absolutes, even if back in realityland they’d never get anywhere near that kind of situation. They hear “I should not suffer prosecution for one little accidental gang rape,” and they’re with me because I’ve used an absolute to include them under its aegis.
This is why people fear situational ethics of any kind: they want a guarantee that people come first, so that they come first. They never want other, competing simians to have a chance to shut them down, defeat them or make them look stupid in public. This is why rights, freedoms, equality, peace and justice are popular topics with most people, but very very popular topics with people who have problems and don’t trust themselves to have impulse control in every situation. If you’re the dog that lunges when steak appears, you want a guarantee that no matter how badly you screw up, you won’t be hung or exiled to Somalia.
There’s a flip side to this too. You gain power by practicing this inclusive style of public logic, which many call competitive altruism. Competitive altruism is the practice of being more inclusive, and thus more popular with a general audience, than others. It’s what politicians, marketers, con men, salesmen, and religious hypnotists do. They know most people think only of themselves, and fear that others will get ahead, so they promise them safety. They also promote themselves by making these very popular statements, and they give their audience a powerful tool: revenge.
Revenge in the social sense is not like Death Wish III: I Will Sodomize Your Corpse. It’s the sense of, if someone else has said something that will require you to be obligated to move your fat ass one centimeter more than you want to, having some way to shut them down fast. Better than a witty retort — you’ve got a universal absolute. The whine of a child (“But I don’t want to!”) gets disguised in adult language as: I have a right not to; You’re not respecting my reality; I’m not obligated to; I have a freedom to stay disengaged, and so on. It’s an excuse to remain independent, and at the same time, lessen the other person’s social status by cutting them down. They violated the prime dogma of the crowd and now have lost face.
Why do we like that, inner monkey and all?
AROUND the time of the G20 summit in London on 2 April, the streets of cities across the world were filled with people protesting against the excesses of the banking bosses, among other things. Chances are you agreed with the sentiment. Chances are too that if you had been asked to put your hand in your pocket to fund a campaign to seize their bonuses, even if you wouldn’t see any of the money, you’d have been sorely tempted.
At a meeting of London’s Royal Society in January, Hauser reported preliminary results from experiments in which children between 4 and 8 years old were offered varying numbers of sweets for themselves and another child unknown to them. They had to pull either a lever delivering the sweets, or another that tipped the sweets out of reach. Infants of all ages almost always rejected one sweet for themselves if the other child was set to receive more. The older children often also rejected sweets if they got more than the other child. Where that kind of concern about inequality disappears to is unclear, because we adults certainly don’t have it. “Imagine you have four dollars on your side, and there’s one on the other side,” says Hauser. “It’s highly unlikely that you’ll dump your four dollars.” But the negative, spiteful version persists: most of us would be quite prepared to sacrifice a dollar to stop someone else getting four. “Spite is the ugly sister of altruism,” says Hauser.
What they’re getting at is this: we are willing to destroy others to get ahead. In some situations, this forms social justice. When someone violates a taboo, like rape, we want to destroy them and will inconvenience ourselves to do it. But when we do not have a real target, we use spite as a means of making ourselves appear to rise relative to others by the oldest means possible — pushing them down.
In a long term analysis, of course, this kind of action is destructive. But it’s more than a sister of altruism — it is altruism. We’re acting altruistic or spiteful to maintain a sense of social order for all individuals, which we then interpret as being applied to ourselves. So we spitefully destroy others so we get universal absolute treatment, just like we demand others be included. We are competing on the basis of appearing altruistic or righteous to others, but the real goal is to make ourselves advance.
A more sensible society would, as Plato suggests (with his parable of the ring of the Lydian Gyges), have its focus on abstract goals rather than individuals. If the goal is fairness, punish the unfair, but don’t use fairness as a weapon; you deprive people of fairness as a weapon when they are trying to be fair to an abstract ideal, instead of tangible people represented/hidden by an abstract symbol.
However, that requires we sacrifice our absolute universal “right” to think first of ourselves, and with that, our ability to let moral judgments replace reality. That in turn suggests we give up a tangible, defensive position for one based in a long-term, abstract order of balances and harmonies instead of rewards and retributions, and that may be too much for our inner monkey to handle.
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