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16 April, 2012

Educating Myself: Part 1001

Harry's eyes were very serious. "Hermione, you've told me a lot of times that I look down too much on other people. But if I expected too much of them - if I expected people to get things right - I really would hate them, then. Idealism aside, Hogwarts students don't actually know enough cognitive science to take responsibility for how their own minds work. It's not their fault they're crazy."
- Eliezer Yudkowsky, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

I have work that I'm avoiding, so in the meanwhile, here are two reminders of why I insist that, when it comes to human-caused atrocities, focusing on the people who dirtied their hands in person is insufficient. It's not enough to get up in arms about a given problem; if the goal is lasting improvement and the prevention of future problems, then systemic change will be necessary.

Much of the world's human rights abuses appear to be economically motivated, and North American consumers (e.g. me) are a major source of economic leverage. Collectively, everyone using basic goods and services, like grocery stores and gasoline, constitutes a driving force behind murders, behind torture. Today's reminders include corporate manifestations of colonialism and, in an article that I bumped into following up on the first, Chiquita's interactions with oil politics. I found both of these while detail-checking an article on Tiger Beatdown. Remember, it's not simply the case that a corporation -- such as Chiquita, formerly United Fruit -- is a monolithic, inhuman entity. Nor is it the case that the individuals comprising that corporation are monsters. Rather, we all live within a context that enables monstrous acts. That includes not only the people holding the guns, not only the wealthy people funding them, and not only the consumers making violence profitable, but those populations in interaction with our cognitive flaws and our social and economic pressures. [I find it impossible to write about one thing because all things are intertwined.]

I know it's disheartening to think of ourselves as our enemies, and it's not all our fault: the choice to harm another is always on the shoulders of the individual who made that choice. We who enable and motivate such choices, however, share that responsibility. That said, the information we need to make ethical choices is often obscured from us, and it's difficult to participate in this society without making choices every day that contribute to suffering at home and abroad. [Thus the HPMOR epigram.] But, if you feel disheartened, remember that sharing information and supporting organizations that are already working on these problems can help offset our less positive contributions.

U.S. imperialism is a real thing, but the fact that it's often carried out by economic interests rather than by governments as governments can obscure its existence. Remember, imperialism via commerce is an old story -- the East India Company had some nominal backing from the crown but might as well have been an empire in its own right. The heyday of the United Fruit company was mere decades ago, and it's a mistake to imagine that the phenomenon has ended. In the information age, companies have adapted to make their abuses invisible or to pawn them off onto third parties. With some companies, it's anyone's guess whether their owners and employees even know the extent of the devil's bargains they've made. Responding to apparent abuses is complicated, too: what workers in one place need may not be the same as workers in another.

A libertarian professor of mine stared at me as if I had two heads when I suggested that private companies are replacing governments as the locus of constraints on human freedoms, and I always remember that disbelief when I discuss corporate power. When I write on economics or politics, his mind provides the standard of proof to which I aspire. He might acknowledge a similar problem, though, under the name "crony capitalism" -- politicians working closely with companies to funnel money in the direction of their supporters, who then fund campaigns in turn.

In such a situation, surely it's inappropriate to discuss governments as being the site of power. Rather, because the capital itself is the means by which one engages with a high-profile election campaign, the means by which one acquires capital is the site of power. The government is merely the end result of that process: in the U.S., one does live in a republic, but only the most visible candidates stand a chance, and visibility is dependent on (among other factors) the capital that a candidate's supporters are able to throw being their initial advertising campaigns. One can also learn about individual politicians through news media, but because those are also corporate endeavors with a scant few owners, advertisement through the press amounts to a specific instance of the same phenomenon. The ultimate site of state power is therefore neither with voters nor with the structures of government but with the means that individuals use to acquire government positions: the money itself. It's not that corporations buy elections; it's that, without money, no-one knows your campaign exists in the first place. [Internet literacy may be one effective countermeasure, but only for people with the free time and ability to do research.]

Of course, money begets money, and too-great disparities in income inequality are not only self-perpetuating but also an upstream factor in an appallingly large number of problems. I've just discussed one: that, in an economy where it's possible for a handful of people to control amounts of capital astronomically greater than the population's median income, representative government gradually becomes a sham. Many people have studied the health consequences of neoliberal economics. Among the worst longterm problems, though -- I've said it before -- is education. Low-income families have trouble educating their children, especially in areas of great population density (a contextual factor that's easy for this forest-raised fellow to forget), which creates a cascade of disadvantages that hamper the ability of these young people to develop themselves and transcend the conditions in which they were born. Again, much of this comes back to information management. In population pimples, much as in the case of governments attempting to manage overlarge constituencies, it's increasingly difficult to keep track of mere reality: where money is going, who has done what, how accurate a given claim might be.

People are not born knowing how to navigate this world. Not only literacy and numeracy but also responsibility, rationality, and a motivation to think and act for oneself are essential skills if we hope to equip citizens to improve such a world. Given that children are in many respects the fundamental oppressed underclass, as anyone who's read a couple of Roald Dahl novels can attest,1 young people typically don't have the power (or perspective) necessary to secure proper educations for themselves. Fast forward to adulthood, and anyone who's working overtime just to put food on the table has proportionally less time not only to educate themselves but also to do the work necessary to be heard in this noisy world. Many people whose parents were poor are thus short-changed for life, and the existence of occasional rags-to-riches stories can't outweigh the story told by the numbers.2 They and we miss out on whatever they might have accomplished; if what I've said is true, it's an obvious consequence that, if a person's childhood funnels them into less than complete self-development, their children will also be in a bad starting position, and so the aggregate multigenerational consequences of severe income disparities in the absence of powerful uplifting education are ... well, H.G. Wells might have some things to say. I think it's valid to claim that, without high-quality universal education, autonomy and self-determination will slip out of view for disproportionate numbers of certain classes.

It's never just one thing, is it? No wonder I can't decide what job I should pursue: there's no one job that will let me fix all of this bullshit. Right, I was going to take Yudkowsky's implicit advice and work on that God complex. Oops. Too many fantasy novels, I guess.

Ok, I've punched the clock at work and here today. I have anime to watch. See you later.

1: I trust you'll apply contextual awareness; e.g., there are differences between a Matilda Wormwood and a Veruca Salt.

2: Sources for empirical information about income inequality and intergenerational social mobility include: Solon, 1992; Bowles, Gintis & Groves, 2005; Andrews & Leigh, 2009; but they're all necessarily out of date. By the time we have data on this generation, it'll be too late for anyone but a time traveler to act on it.