Let’s Have Some More Media Stereotypes

By Graham Peterson

The media is, as a matter of facts and regardless your opinion, one big stereotype machine.  Why is that?  Holding constant zany theories of economic and classed hegemony, or brainwashing pace Noam Chomsky, let’s explore it.

When one wants to reach as large an audience as possible, it makes perfect sense to speak a language everyone can understand—the “lowest common denominator”—to speak in over-simple stereotypes about enormous groups of people.  It makes particular sense in an environment like midcentury television, or early 20th century movies, where fixed costs to production were enormous and one henceforth needed to sell a lot of units.

But stereotypes aren’t just a way for people to convey their nasty beliefs about other races to one another, they’re a perfectly rational way to distill the complexity of social groups, and to form mutually consistent expectations of one another’s behaviors.  Without such systems of mutually consistent expectations, and social roles, social life would be chaos.

Our mission, then, seems to be to encourage people to move past the stereotype in any particular interaction, to gather more information about one another than a one-dimensional stereotype conveys.

And that is precisely what’s happening (and has always been) with the proliferation of new media.  Because the technology to produce and distribute media has fallen like a rock (thanks, capitalism!), there is an exploding diversity of stories out there, and any one of those stories can clear its costs with smaller audiences.  This means more complex stories, less ridiculous stereotypes about Cowboys and Indians.  That’s a good thing.

The point, then, isn’t to browbeat one another for our feeble-minded use of stereotypes.  We are constrained people, kinda dumb, and need them to cognate and socialize at all.  The best we can do is to encourage the proliferation of an increasing diversity of groups and attending stereotypes.  Indeed, that is precisely what the post 1960’s diversity mantra, in combination with progressive capitalism, is getting us.

Yes, Indeed, Neoliberalism Is A Real Problem

By Graham Peterson

Where did we get neoliberalism from though?  Some say it is the pernicious creep of a hegemony of market based thought — thought which recommends reducing the scope of the state, privatizing resources, and letting reckless markets and competitive impulses invade communities and families.  Something like that, at least.

What’s paradoxical about this story, is that the expansion of markets has been allowed only insofar as it can be justified on the grounds that markets enter into the social production function — a production function which the state is still ultimately responsible for managing.  The fall of communism signaled to the world that capitalism was at least more materially productive than state managed collectives, and that it was certainly more amenable to something that looked less like bloody political oppression than states always do.

But the idea seems to remain that markets are merely a means to an end.  Many economists, libertarians, and so forth seem to believe that material events have vindicated the logic of distributed and local knowledge, free entry and exit, the sovereignty and intelligence of individuals, and so forth.  But I think that is incorrect.

I think people are much more likely to intuit, still, that society is a giant factory, or more probably a giant household, in which we want mom and dad to choose the organization of chores that gets everybody the most PlayStations (markets), but still lets the kids crash on the couch if they can’t find a job right out of college (the large welfare state).

If we view markets as a means to an end in a social production function that someone other than ourselves and our neighbors are responsible for managing — which is precisely how the pro-business lobby and neoconservatives have put it — and if the left has been forced by material events to begrudgingly adopt that view despite its suspicious ethical foundation, we have accomplished almost nothing in an empirical or philosophical demonstration of market logic.

And in this neoliberal environment, classical liberals, economists, and the political left alike, ought to continue to expect the expansion of government on precisely the margins we do not want (the mass incarceration of blacks, say, or the subsidization of high finance).  Neoliberalism is a gross error.  And I must apologize to my friends on the left for the mistakes of market boosters before me who have promoted this idea.

Distributing political and social freedoms widely in order to encourage voluntary association and peaceful deals among people is not a means to an end — it is an ethical and material end in itself.

When Does Verbal Theory Become Ad Hoc?

By Graham Peterson

An old complaint from economics about verbal social theory is that, changes in behavior are predicated on changes in preferences.  And as the by now pretentious cliche goes De Gustibus non est Disputandum.  That which explains everything explains nothing.  Taste based explanations offer researchers, as George Stigler put it, “endless degrees of freedom.”  Quite literally: a regression equation for which each of k variables on the right hand side constitutes a taste that is specific and idiosyncratic to each individual of n individuals, n = k and the equation predicts perfectly every data point.

Tautologies are useless.

This is a point that should harmonize with qualitative, comparative researchers as well.  The comparative researcher looks for similar elements within categoriesand thence searches for differences among those categories in order to suggest how weakly or strongly the common attribute actually correlates to other attributes of those categories.  Or to approach matters deductively, he claims X should appear in all of Y categories, which can therefore be disproved by a single differing case.  Either way, one cannot merely tack a new taste onto the original hypothesis every time one encounters differences.

Tautologies are useless.

So nobody wants ad hoc theory.  The question is: when does updating or amending an original research hypothesis or mechanism become ad hoc?

I think the answer to that question is decidedly not “when we start talking about tastes,” as Gary Becker (God rest his soul) and George Stigler said.  Theory begins to become ad hoc when, regardless whether one is using an English alphabet or Bourbaki symbols, one begins to add to one’s theory in order to explain additional variation without:

  1. using a consistent and transparently stated criterion of the empirical threshold after which an original hypothesis is to be accepted or rejected, and then
  2. adding as little as possible to the amended theory in order to reduce the number of dimensions along which new empirics must be taken in order to deal with the additional variation

The key here is to be conservative, I think.  You can always add more salt, but you can’t take it back out.  You can always cut more hair off, but you can’t glue it back on.  And you can always add more variation to your theory, but you can’t disentangle a rats nest once you’ve got one.

This would seem to be how we get a handle on our criterion for belief, remain clear and communicable, and enjoy parsimony.  Science only requires us to hold constant or get some threshold of control on variation and isolate causal pathways.  And that means that we can, and indeed should often, hold changes in relative prices and capital and income endowments constant, varying tastes — the reverse of the usual economic approach.

Becker and Stigler claimed in their paper that apparent changes in tastes can be accounted for by investment in skill and item specific capital.  You get addicted to music you like or heroin because you invest in capital that makes the knowledge and techniques you would need to enjoy other things more expensive in relative terms.  This moves the problem into the budget constraint.  You get “addicted” to certain collections of behaviors we call “traditions and customs” because you have environment-specific capital that makes responding to changes in the environment expensive, and your substitution to investment in new “customs capital” relatively expensive.

But I argue in the reverse, that we can start from taste based analyses, and get back to stable preferences in the economic sense, so taste based analyses are not a threat to price theory, nor is price theory a threat to taste based explanations.  For a variety of reasons it is clear to structuralists that social structures are quite stable in the long run.  If one combines this with the classic idea in economic sociology that tastes are embedded, and drawn from these stable social structures, we can see the stability and relative homogeneity of individual level preferences that have always made economics tick, as a function of social structure.

It is not ad hoc, thus, in either the economic or sociological analysis, to carefully update and amend the basic framework, because the basic frameworks are both indeed rather parsimonious and appear to imply one another’s basic assumptions quite well, and both theories imply the same approach to validating them empirically.


Good Poors and Bad Poors

By Graham Peterson

In cultural arguments about economic growth and poverty authors allege that there are good poors and bad poors, so it is perfectly clear to me why such arguments have been abandoned: they’re empirically incorrect, and insulting.

The old cultural hypothesis about economic growth dates to long before Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, but the book is a nice exposition of the ideal type.  Weber began his investigation by falling for a Simpson’s Paradox, where one observes a trend in subgroups running one direction, but when one zooms out to the next level of aggregation, the trend disappears or runs in the opposite direction.  The thesis never recovers from that mistake.

Weber started by noting the way German Protestants were getting richer than German Catholics in the 19th century.  From that he concluded that the spread of values for thrift, temperance, and hard work, and the instantiation of these values into progressively more calculative social systems made some nations rich and others poor.  But this is like looking for the origins of economic growth by comparing the relative variation between the cultures in rural and urban Afghanistan.  Germany was in the 19th century an economic laggard, barely adopting the technologies spilling out of England and Holland.

If there are cultural differences to be found that explain economic growth and concomitant modernization, they will be found in comparative differences between England and Holland and their neighbors, or indeed between them and other regions and cultures in history.

Regardless, Weber and his grand theory of increasingly disciplined and prudential bureaucracies remains popular.  Weber himself constantly admits the massive proliferation of bureaucracies down through history since settled agriculture — he resolves this contradiction by claiming there is something just ever so slightly different about modern bureaucracies, if not in kind, in degree.

But there is very little to recommend a difference of kind in his extensive discussion of Calvin-inspired discipline and systemization.  And explaining the change as a difference of degree would be to explain nothing at all — myriad politicians and merchant classes had turned up the volume on bureacratic systems and control many times in history with no Industrial Revolution resulting.

Moreover, the academic left long ago pointed out the nasty things that Weber’s line of reasoning implies about those who are not rich: that they are profligate, intemperate, imprudent, disorganized, imprecise, and lazy.

Those who hope to rescue Weber must wrestle with the very good theory and empirics of 20th century macroeconomic growth measurement.  We now know that increases in the economic productivity of labor come from working smarter, not harder.  Merely expending more calories by swinging a hammer faster cannot create exponential increases in economic productivity.  The returns to more calories diminish.  Savings and investment cannot of themselves create growth either.  The returns to such investment diminish as well.  It has been shown empirically by macroeconomists over and over again, and is now an uncontroversial central tenet of modern economic theory.

You simply cannot get exponential growth in productivity from impressing workers with a spiritual calling to work harder and organize more systematically, and to reinvest held over gains into production of accumulating capital.  So even though Protestants may have appeared and even been slightly more enterprising than Catholics in 19th century Germany, these group differences do not explain macroeconomic productivity.

What needs to be explained is where technological innovation comes from, where the good ideas that combine capital and labor resources together in new ways, come from.  And I do believe that the explanation will be in large part cultural and sociological.  But if we are going to invite conversation on culture and economic outcomes, the old Hard Work, Thrift, Systemization, and Discipline hypothesis has to go.

We do not start arguments about global warming by comparing today’s weather with yesterday’s and we cannot similarly start to argue about economic productivity by looking at tiny group differences in countries that are otherwise economic laggards.

The Response to Donald Sterling Was Rational But Wrong

By Graham Peterson

There is a theory that punishment used to be so brutal because detection of crimes was so difficult.  The state had a very small monitoring apparatus in the middle ages, and a lot of people got away with a lot of crime.  A rational criminal calculates the net benefit of committing a crime: net benefit = benefits – costs.  There is a probability that he will pull of the heist, p, and a probability he will get caught, (1-p).  Thus net benefit = p(benefits) – (1-p)(costs).  Since the probability of getting caught was low, say (1-p) = 0.001, states increased the size of the costs of crime (drawing and quartering, say) as to bring the net benefit of getting caught back down.

Most of us don’t like racists.  A lot.  Most of us agree, I think, that a lot of racism has been either eliminated or driven underground.  This is a good thing (unless you want to persuade the remaining racists to not be racists, but I’ve covered that elsewhere).  Some of us also believe that there is a great deal of crypto-racism among white economic and political elites, and that this explains any number of shocking statistical outcomes like America’s appalling mass incarceration, or the educational outcomes of American blacks.  This state of affairs would imply that the probability of catching someone being racist is tiny (just like a medieval state and its lack of CCTV cameras).

So when someone like Donald Sterling got caught expressing bigoted views in private, the rational response among believers in rampant crypto-racism, was to get as close to a lynching as possible without violating the man’s constitutional rights.  The treatment of Donald Sterling has been justified on the grounds that he has in fact committed a lot of racism in history.  Just so: he’s been a housing red liner; he’s been an open bigot while employing blacks.  This makes the public reaction to him proportional, so the story goes.  But all of these facts about Donald Sterling’s life were realized post hoc, and brought in to justify a mob that had already formed.

That mob formed because of what is a perfectly rational response from people who believe crypto racism is rampant.  They caught a crypto-racist, a rare opportunity,* and made an example of him.  It would be nice if people would just be transparent about their beliefs and motivations, “we want to make an example out of a rich white guy because we think most/many rich white guys are secretly racists.”  Then we could maybe have a more honest discussion about race in America.

Instead, there has been a lot of cavorting and reaching to justify what pretty plainly looks like a shame circus, and a lot of people on the center right, who don’t necessarily believe that there are a ton of crypto-racists among our elites, who also perfectly rationally given their beliefs, think that the reaction to Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy and others has been disproportionate.

I don’t know anyone, especially me, who thinks we should just laugh it off when it surfaces that NBA team owners are behaving like bigots, or when some poor misinformed rancher espouses a view of slavery that hasn’t been updated since 1920.  On the other hand, there are many degrees and modes of approbation and social exchange outside: “fuck this guy I hope he burns in hell and nobody ever loves or talks to him again and I hope he goes broke forever if you don’t agree with me you’re either a racist or a complicit in rampant racism.”

*Which I think is rare because crypto-racists really are just empirically rare, not that they’re particularly well hidden.  Have you ever been around a racist?  It’s not hard to pick up on, unless you’re in the business of hunting for micro-aggressions, in which case it starts to look like everyone’s a racist.

But Where Does Privilege Checking Come From?

By Graham Peterson

The argument for privilege checking is, on its face, that people who are unaware of their prejudices need to be educated about them.  The argument is that it’s not a personal slam, and that nobody means to make people feel shame whence being checked.  But I think that’s dishonest.

First, the phrase “checking,” in its modern incarnation is a slang that came off the street, the idea being that one checks someone else before a fight happens, or checks oneself before a fight happens: “yo, check your boy.”  I think people check other people’s privilege for the same reason people load onto Twitter to blast characters like Cliven Bundy, and for the same reason people used to party in the town square while some poor ass had his limbs torn off.

There is an argument in Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in Society about the mechanics of punishment, that in ye olden days punishment was the expression of the collective conscience — that is, values we all (or very most of us) share — punishment mostly meant to reaffirm group solidarity, more so than to mete out individual harms proportionate to whatever crime was committed.  Now don’t miss the subtlety of that claim.

The idea here, against, say, the kind of rationalist doctrine coming out of Aristotle’s rhetorics, is that people do not arrive at or maintain their beliefs because of transparent persuasion, but rather that we affirm beliefs by shitting on people who don’t believe the same things we do — and that we really get to doing some affirming with our most closely and widely held beliefs.  Those deepest and widest, indeed, get codified into laws, and draw approbation mitigated through some representative of the community like a court or tribunal.

It’s come to light for me how profound of a message this is in the sociological cannon: the majority of the beliefs we hold, we do so unconsciously, and indeed communicate the majority of those beliefs through varying degrees of reciprocal approbation and punishment of defectors, which signals to other people in our tribe what the Correct way to behave and believe is (I’m stretching a small chapter of Durkheim pretty far here).

And this is, really, what’s going on with the privilege checking and the mobs jeering and shaming.

There is wide and deep agreement among a majority of Americans that enormous harms have been done to women and minorities in very recent history, and many who hold this belief, perfectly rationally, hope to restore justice by punishing people.

Maybe what upsets some about this effort isn’t so much a blinkered disagreement over the history of sexism and racism, but a disagreement over who, when, and how people ought to be punished for that history.  Moreover, the tension between the therapeutic niceties about “educating” people and engendering “compassion” in the midst of an informal tribunal that’s transparently designed to deface accused racists and sexists, is untenable.

The question becomes: is this mode of punishment, however functional it may be, an optimal way to signal and mete out social values?  I maintain that it is not.  Punishment ought to be our last, not our first resort to maintaining and conveying our beliefs — especially those beliefs that most people are already in agreement on.

Durkheim and the sociologists are right – we’re decidedly not an amalgam of delightful, pontificating gentlemen debating our beliefs.  Not exclusively.  Not even majorly.  But if we do not aspire to a higher form of the communication of values and maintenance of the dominance of beliefs than gossip and cheering over the torture of heretics in the public square, then we lose the precious bit of reason and consideration that we do have to work with as humans.

And that would be a sad thing indeed.

What’s Wrong WIth a Little Privilege Checking?

By Graham Peterson

When you adopt the philosophy that all of the world’s injustices reduce to merely three dimensions of social categorization–race, class, and gender–you reduce the immense nuance of social tastes, traits, behaviors, and traditions, to the information conveyed in the demographic archetypes of a 45 second Tide Detergent ad.

When you then hunt for infractions drawn along one of those dimensions, the odds are that you will reliably find prey.  Everyone, of course, has traits that fall along these dimensions.  They are in fact the largest social categories one could draw without circling the entire set of all people.  So you are aiming at a large target, and people even in blindfolds can hit large targets.

This has the effect of producing paranoid people, because there is a constant opportunity to exercise these fears.  I used to do some minor league dealing a very long time ago.  It turns out that there are police cruisers everywhere, whether anyone is tailing you or not.  You can imagine: I was a very nervous guy.  Similarly, our world makes people’s races, classes, and genders immediately and publicly available, everywhere.  You can imagine: advocates are very nervous people.

All of this privilege checking thus encourages people to interpret one another’s behavior in the least charitable way possible, and to make blank accusations of one another’s motives on weak evidence.  To seal any leaks in this anti-social logic, the story goes that if someone gets defensive about having their privilege checked, they are indeed confirming that the paranoid privilege checker is correct.  Privilege checking, by definition, cannot be mistaken.

Now, the stated goals of diversity training, privilege checking, and so forth, were in the first place to encourage respect, tolerance, acceptance, and dignity among people, in the end to encourage one another to look past mere gendered, racial, and classist stereotypes.  The net result has been the exact opposite.  We have created a lazy excuse for people to disrespect, dismiss, and denigrate one another, and in the end to reify racial, gendered, and classist stereotypes.

It has to stop.