Monday, June 25, 2012

The Master Race

Ever run into a racial supremacist?  They're a surprisingly diverse bunch.  Seems every way we can divide up humanity, someone is convinced that that is the correct way and coincidentally, they're part of the best one.  Weird how often that happens.

To start off, I don't actually think the concept of a superior race is impossible.  If we fully understood genetics, which we don't, it seems possible to determine which racial group or subgroup is the best-suited to the modern human existence and as an added bonus, will do well in the predicted future.  That would be the master race.

There's a problem, well several, but let's start with our ignorance: we are nowhere near the point of actually being able to identify the best genes for humans.  That means that anyone claiming to have identified the master race is just making things up.  You knew that, of course.

Maybe you've tried to point this out.  I don't think there's much use to it.  I'm sure that if I thought I was descended from gods or at least not ascended from monkeys, I'd be pretty eager to keep my own delusional sense of superiority.  So the "you don't know what you're talking about" line of argument isn't going to get anywhere.  People don't like not knowing things, which is why we invented spies and lies, so we could know or at least pretend.

On the opposite spectrum, I bet we'd have a shot at identifying inferior genes.  We've already found many debilitating genetic diseases.  This hints at a process of elimination approach, of identifying the inferior and steadily removing them until all that is left is superior.  Beside that phrasing making that an utterly absurd statement, there is another problem: evolution.

Even if we could, and we can't, identify a superior or inferior race, it would be stupid to act on that information.  Why?  Let's try an analogy.

Imagine that we're designing rocket fuel.  I make a fuel that provides more thrust per unit of mass than yours and the cost difference is negligible compared to the performance gain.  Obviously the rocket surgeons are going to use my fuel for their rockets.  And that's that.  Notice how I don't mention that your rocket fuel and formula will be banned, destroyed, and forgotten.  Why would we destroy knowledge?  At some point, we might be launching from Mars and find that the particular characteristics of the atmosphere there make your fuel the one with the greater thrust and it's cheaper too.  Or maybe the combustion product of your fuel kills Martians and our ambassadors aren't making any progress on preventing war.  Now your inferior fuel is actually the superior one.  Sometimes at least.  It's a good thing we didn't destroy the formula.

But that is exactly what happens when people try to purify the gene pool.  The genes which were useful in certain contexts are gone.  The genes which were harmless mutations are gone.  The genes that are insignificantly different are gone.  But change is not gone.  So when the world changes and humanity is pressured, suddenly it seems pretty stupid to not have those genes around anymore.  It reduces our ability to adapt and survive.

That's the great irony of it all, the pursuit of a master race: it weakens humanity rather than strengthening it.  It is precisely diversity which allows survival because it is through diverse beings that we get diverse responses to the world.

As a concrete example, imagine a world where all African genes are eliminated (let's overlook the human origin in Africa, since we are playing by the absurd assumptions of racists).  And then malaria mutates and finds a new way to spread, without needing mosquitoes, and breaks free of geographic barriers.  The sickle cell mutation isn't of much use when malaria is far away, and sometimes very harmful or difficult to treat, but if malaria were to spread, then suddenly a minor genetic 'disease' is actually a major genetic savior.

No one knows how many other genetic diseases may have been adaptations to past conditions, or may be waiting for a future when they are useful.  Even if we knew exactly what was best for the present, we will never know what is best for the future, so let's not throw away something that may very well be useful.  That's the thing about evolution: it isn't an upward trajectory, or any trajectory at all: it's survival in the situation and survival in the next.

And of course I'm not much a fan of starting multi-generational international wars over delusions of truth.

Monday, June 18, 2012

"Unsympathetic pragmatism" is an oxymoron

Last week I mentioned pie, with the implication that people who feel shorted on their share of the pie may feel inclined to do something about it.  I mostly meant it as a sort of self-interested behavior: if most people would do better off under system A than under system B, even if system B has greater overall wealth, happiness, or whatever other metric you like, most people will support system A (assuming informed actors, which is a terrible assumption).  Though this dichotomy fails to account for a system C which is more evenly-distributed than B, though not as much as A, but due to a "just right" distribution, leads to a larger pie, making everyone better off than they'd be under systems A or B.

But onward to unsympathetic pragmatism.  To contradict myself as soon as possible, this is a sensible notion in certain contexts, such as the doctor who cleans and patches the otherwise-deadly wound, despite the lack of anesthetic making the procedure unimaginably painful.  However, that's not a very good analogy to take to higher scales, such as economies, healthcare, and human survival.

In America we have some people who put on a front of seriousness, people like Paul Ryan who want to balance the budget and will do so by any means necessary (except raising taxes, because those have to go down further).  As they explain it, we need to be pragmatic, to deal with some short term pain, because it will make us better off in the long run.  They may turn to the doctor analogy (I have not yet seen them use it, but it seems like a great misleading analogy) to prove this.  They're wrong on many levels, such as using analogy as a substitute for logic, exceptionally bad math (they use imaginary numbers in entirely the wrong context), and heartlessness.

Heartlessness?  How can that be bad if they're the unsympathetic pragmatist?  Let's go with the doctor analogy, but try to spruce it up a bit.  First off, give the patient a gun and if it hurts to much, he shoots the doctor, himself, or someone else in line of sight.  Oh hey, Greek austerity riots, a surge in crime, and some members of Parliament who would make me nervous if Greece was as awesome as Germany.  Also if they patient suffers too much pain he dies (which literally happens when your budget-balancing involves cutting food assistance, heating, and healthcare).  Furthermore, the patient may suffer serious, possibly permanent damage if the procedure is done wrong (underfed and undereducated children aren't typically superstars in anything).  If the patient thinks the doctor is doing it wrong he can fire the doctor and get a new one, assuming the transition doesn't kill him as well, and assuming the first doctor doesn't get to hang around blocking the other doctor from working while whispering lies in the ears of the patient.  I'm referencing the Republican Party, if you didn't pick that up.  In America.  Not to be confused with the political parties in other countries which tend to be little more than coalitions of unprincipled demagogues selling their influence to the highest bidder with no regard for the safety of their supposed constituents, whilst not speaking English.

My point is that "unsympathetic pragmatism" is not actually pragmatic if the unsympathetic part dominates too much.  The problem arises when people get the notion that the key part is "unsympathetic" rather than "pragmatism", and as a result, they focus entirely on not caring about the harm they do to others, justifying it all with some vague mention of the improving/saving the world part.  The goal should be the goal, not the method.  Alas, being an unsympathetic sociopath is branded as "courageous" rather than "useless heartlessness."  We only need to look at the American War Against Paying Taxes for the War That Just Saved Us (also known as the American Revolution or Tea Party), in which the unsympathetic pragmatist of a king wisely chose to impose the necessary taxes to pay for the war and military might to enforce them, without taking into account the sentiments of the people, such as representation and not having unrelated soldiers sleeping in their beds.  Imagine if the colonies had gained representation in Parliament and didn't have Redcoats looting their larders.  I suspect the British Empire would have been better off under the "sympathetic pragmatist" approach.  Though the downside cannot be emphasized enough: We'd all be speaking English English.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Solution to Negative Political Ads

Why doesn't Pepsi run ads that call Coke executives fascist pedophiles?  Why doesn't McDonalds suggest that Burger King is for un-American monarchists?  You might say that these have nothing to do with the product, but this is advertising.  Advertising isn't about the product.  If all they cared about was a good product they'd make a good product and let Consumer Reports tell you about it.  Advertising is about selling mental states: horniness for cars, satiation and fun for fast food, and of course the fear for politics.

Advertising doesn't go negative because sales are not exclusive.  I can buy coke and pepsi and a dozen generic store brands.  Even more importantly, I'm always buying something (not literally), so the key is to get me to buy their product rather than the other one.  Merely bashing the other product may spoil the entire thing.  Or make them look like total assholes.  Besides, it's not as if there are any major problems if I buy the wrong cola.  I drink a few less-than-satisfactory cans and next time I go to the store I buy something else.

The ability to buy multiple products means that the competition is different.  I can buy anything and everything, so by that sense, even if I buy coke, pepsi is fine as long as I also buy pepsi.  What matters is that I buy their product: it doesn't matter if I also buy another.  Contrast this with elections, where if I vote for Romney, I cannot vote for Obama, and the reverse.

In addition to this, the goal is different.  Pepsi wants a lot of sales.  So does Coke.  They even share many interests, such as cheap sugar supplies and high demand for colas, and if these happen, they can both benefit.  It isn't a winner-take-all system.  Elections are winner-take-all.  Obama wins or Romney wins.  They don't win by absolute vote numbers, but by relative votes, specifically: more than the other guy.

Let's imagine I'm a candidate.  If I want to have more votes than someone else and voting is exclusive, what should I do?  Getting more votes has two parts: me getting votes and him not getting votes.  To work on the second part, a negative ad may help.  Portray the other guy as a fascist pedophile monarchist and some people who would vote for him won't.  In effect, preventing a vote for my opponent is as useful as getting a vote for myself.  Conveniently, negative adds also help with the first aspect, of getting votes.  If I create more undecided voters, or even voters who don't like the other guy, then those are more voters which I can potentially get.  It doesn't sound as nice, but if I can get people to vote for me just to keep the other guy away, that's a vote for me.

Negative ads make perfect sense in a winner-take-all system with exclusive votes.  Unless we move to a parliamentary system, the winner-take-all aspect is going to remain, and frankly I prefer that we can at least pretend to have "formed a government" even if a over-represented minority effectively nullifies the process.

However there is some ability to improve: allow multiple votes on a ballot.  This means that even if I am an Obama supporter, I could mark Romney as a way to indicate that I think he still has some decent ideas (note that this is purely hypothetical).  Or even better, I could mark a third-party candidate.  This would remove the spoiler concept and make alternatives possible, since I don't need to go tot he ballot thinking about electability, only about whether I think someone would make a good leader.

Under this system, I'm going to care more about getting people to the polls and voting for me.  Maybe they'll vote for Obama too.  But if I can boost my tally, that adds political capital.

Unfortunately I might have this completely backward.  It could be that once voters can pick multiple candidates, then it becomes even more important to trash the opponent, and not just to independent or dissenting voters.  A vote for me and my rival is as good as no vote at all in terms of a majority, so I need to be sure that he doesn't get a vote.

Maybe politics is doomed to be negative.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Pie Distribution

Buy-in is important.  Unless distracted or ignorant, people tend to get upset when they feel cheated.  Note that I use the word "feel" rather than "are".  This is because it doesn't matter whether people actually have been cheated or how we'd even determine the objective reality of it.  Action is based on perception, not reality.  Onward to pie.

Imagine two pies and two ways of slicing them.  To simplify things, let's assume that these pies are of equal quality and the only differences are the size (as measured by the number of blueberries used to make them) and slicing method (as measured by the size of the slice you get).  The first pie has 10 pounds of blueberries in it.  It is cut into ten slices and you get one.  In effect, you have 10% or 1 pound of blueberries.  The second pie has 15 pounds of blueberries it it.  It is cut into twenty slices and you get one.  In effect, you have 5% or .75 pounds of blueberries.

In Capitalism 101 we're told that the best result comes from everyone looking out for themselves (in 102 they cover externalities and information asymmetry, but no one takes that class).  What is the best result?  Well strangely enough, we're often told it in terms of "the economy" or "unemployment", broad, abstract concepts which can be thought of as generalized social benefit.  That's nice and all, but teacher told us to look out for ourselves.  So why are we concerned about that social benefit stuff?

If we follow the rules we're taught, to look out for ourselves, we'll take the first pie, because it gives us the bigger slices.  Why would we care about the overall pie if we're supposed to look out for ourselves?

These were, of course, stupid pies.  A more realistic pie would instead be one which accounts for how distribution affects size.  Excessively skewed distributions can cause problems.  If someone is promised too small a slice, then merely cutting it will reduce it to crumbs.  In this analogy the cutting is taxes and cost of living, since by my measure, merely continuing to live is not as good as getting pie.  We could cut taxes, and of course that would help, but the efficient method is to even out the slices, to ensure that no slice is so small as to not be worth cutting.

Promise me a bigger piece and I'll pick more blueberries.  This is good.  Though there is the potential for the promised piece size to rise faster than the blueberry picking, so that, for example, if 20% of people are promised half the pie, the remaining 80% might see themselves as getting cheated.  The perception has come back to us.

Whether you believe the system of the market is fair, the outcomes can quite easily feel unfair.  We could argue that they are not, but that's not going to fix perception.  It's not going to fix action.  By action I mean people getting aggressive: taking and revolting.  We could hire a few to imprison the rest, but as a rule, security is an enabler of wealth, not a creator, so now a certain part of the pie is being used to ensure that others don't ask for more pie.  That's hardly efficient.

Ultimately, the American-style market tends to be self-destructive.  The theoretical perfect market may emerge, but as success is rewarded, it unbalances the field and ceases to as perfectly reward success, with an increasing negative slide.  A few exceptions do not disprove a trend.  Moving away from the economics to the sociology, the mentality needed for a market, of looking out for oneself, is precisely the mentality which would lead a majority of people away from the market because regardless of what it does for the overall pie, it is not the way to maximize their own pie.

In other words, the majority of the world is not extraordinary so a system which places the majority of the rewards with the extraordinary will be unacceptable to the majority.  Thankfully for the wealthy, there are religion, race, and region to distract people from the cause of their misery.