Sunday, January 15, 2012

Overpaid

- Give me that.
- Here. Give me that.
- You just gave it to me.
- It's better to give it to me now before you become too attached to it.
- OK. Give me that.
- OK. It is just a house.
- Thanks.
- Give me that.
- Why not? It's just a house.

Just finished reading an article in the London Review of Books by a Marxist/socialist/Hegelian/Slovenian/Phenomenologist whatever. About economic categories: workers, capitalists, middleclass, renters, surplus labor.

It is never explained why anyone should care about these words, or even what exactly they mean.

The highly paid author ("highly paid" has meaning, even a number associated with it) was trying to explain that almost no one is safe, even high earners like himself. In the past mostly physical objects were made, but were out of the control of people paid to make them. Now ideas are made, and services offered, and similarly are out of the control of people who make and perform them. The control is in the hands of monopolies. The example of Microsoft is given, which monopolizes the software market, competing successfully with free software of equal or better quality.

The idea is that there is something about the system that is inherently inefficient.

The argument is that the machine that is being sold as a good machine is really a bad machine.

The argument assumes that any economic system could be efficient. That there can be such a thing as an economic system, a machine for money and property.

Stop and think about that. We don't live for money. Should we repeat that? Yes. We don't live for money. Should somebody tell the London Review of Books that? Sure, but they won't listen. What do they listen to? What else but money.

But you and me, we know better. We listen again to the little dialog we started with. Two good fellows living in the jungle. Both have nice houses made out of tree trucks and branches, and all the time in the world to get something good to eat. They aren't afraid of dying, and like to make gifts. The only thing that really could frighten them would be a life like yours and mine, to not be able to make gifts. One of them kindly hands the property rights to his house over to his friend, who asks for it, and who hands back the property rights when asked in turn.

The point of the story is that each of these good fellows, not being a Marxist, Phenomenologist, Hegelian, or whatever almost immediately comes to an obvious conclusion. Ask for something else. This for two obvious reasons: each already has a house, and each cannot get another one by asking because it will be asked back.

This story is an example of how economic life can be rational, and also human, because what the human being is rationally doing is also the object of human attention and choice. The economic machine, the regularity that occurs by each doing what he wants, is immediately the object of attention and choice. You see? The machine is there only by our failure, by default.

That is what the London Review Of Books' Phenomenologist/Hegelian/Marxist whatever highly paid author is trying to say. He seems to be a highly inefficient machine complaining that the economy is a highly inefficient machine.

Obviously he is overpaid.



***


Progress Report: I've been telling stories about a sort of "monopoly progress", one path of progress that both pretends to be the only way and deliberately blocks the other ways.

Examples I have given of "monopoly progress" are Money, as demonstrated by current politics and economics, and Science, as demonstrated by books like David Deutsch's new "The Beginning Of Infinity".

The monopoly operates in both cases the same: by the means being its own end. Money made for the sake of making money, better scientific explanations for the sake of better scientific explanations. Anything other than money and explanation can be made to acquire meaning only in relation to its efficacy in the progress of more money and better explanation.

Another example, for those of us not in the jungle: a conversation this evening between t
he director for civic media at MIT and myself.

- Explain to me why we should even consider censorship of the internet or of any speech, since we are not at war. There are no D-Day date and location plans to protect. Why is the argument of John Stewart Mill wrong, that the cost and risk of repression is so great, that a minor risk, or even major risk ought to be accepted?
- What about pornography?
- I don't see the problem.
- I'll tell you the problem I had, when I was chief technology officer of a social network. Advertisers pulled out when we couldn't get rid of pornography. What would you do about it?
- Nothing. There are other ways of paying for sites than advertising. And what about Google? They sell adds, without having to control the whole internet.
- You're not serious, I think.
- I am serious. The internet market is not going to be abandoned. You aren't using your head. If the laws forbid the sites to censor, ways would be found acceptable to advertisers.
- For example?
- What about customers given the chance to self filter? Pornographic content would be labelled, and customers could select being open to it or not. Google + is already moving in the direction.

The lecture organizers reminded the speaker of the dinner party waiting, and the conversation ended.
But the point was made, wasn't it? that the machine - social, political, and economic obstruction - is the product of machine thinking.