Search This Blog

Saturday, June 29, 2013

That Which Distinguishes Humans

"That's not real life," complained my wife when I gave our 16-year-old daughter $20 to go to the movies.  My wife is less than pleased that our daughter didn't manage (yet) to get a summer job, wants to keep the pressure on our daughter so that she continues to pound the pavement looking for a job, and thinks that just giving people money when they ask for it is close to ludicrous (or at least not "real life").

The "real life" comment got me thinking and that's always dangerous.  Other than the fact that I believe I'm both real and a life form and so is my daughter and I did give her $20 so it is therefore by definition "real life" in at least this one instance, it seems to me that what really distinguishes humans from all of the other life forms on the planet is the fact that we shape our own reality.  Chimps, crows, etc. use simple tools when convenient and ants, bees, birds, etc. build structures, but humans create their own subjective reality on a grand scale and this subjective reality is only tenuously related to an objective reality of which we know little and generally don't think much about.

Our subjective realities are only related to objective reality by the minor detail that we have to survive.  But survival really only requires some food, some minimal amount of clothing, some shelter to protect us from the elements when the clothing is not going to cut it, and perhaps a few other minor things.  After we cover the bare necessities of life, all other resources can be used to create our subjective realities which need not have anything to do with objective reality.

As we grow richer and richer, we need fewer and fewer people and resources to cover the basics.  In the United States for example, we need less than 3% of the population to produce all of our food (and if we weren't picky we could probably do it with substantially fewer resources still) and we could probably cover the bare minimum of clothing and shelter with an even smaller percentage of GDP than that.  The other 90+% of GDP can be dedicated to ignoring objective reality.

The problem is that we don't agree on how to structure our subjective reality.  I greatly prefer the autonomy of the individual and freedom from government interference.  Others want to pool the sum total of resources for collective deployment.  Still others want a highly religious subjective reality of some form or another.  And so forth.  All of these subjective realities, given the fuel of 90+% of GDP, can work for a long time.

However, as long as there are ever increasing conflicts between people because of conflicting desires for different types of subjective realities, the stability of society is going to be a bit of a fragile thing.  The fact of the matter is that the Left would be far better off if the Right was to disappear from the earth and vice-versa.  It's debatable whether or not they'd be materially better off, but to be free to live unopposed within their subjective reality would no doubt be a great boon.

And given this, I wonder if one day there will be a great extermination war between the ideologies.  If each side thinks they'd be better off with the other side gone, what's to stop that from happening?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

But The Grocery Store Knows Everything!

I haven't written much of anything about the NSA data collection brouhaha - neither blog posts or comments.  My main reaction has been, "What did you expect?"  If you build a massive government that deploys nearly half the resources of the country representing many trillions of dollars and consists of a huge bureaucracy where the bureaucrats have their own self-interest guiding their actions, encourage the government to solve all sorts of problems with nearly unlimited amounts of regulation and enormous programs, and then set up elections between dogmatic political parties where the one currently in power can derive overwhelming benefit by abusing its power, then it seems inherent that there will be enough bad actors that are more than willing to spy on the citizenry.

Oh sure, I suppose we have to feign surprise and even outrage, demand investigations and new oversight (yet another layer of watchers - but who will watch those watchers?), and wring our hands and wail about how it should never have happened.  As least some of us have to perform this charade to maybe slow it down a little. But realistically, it won't slow down and will get ever worse because such activities are inherently part of the system and amplified by the huge size.

I do have to laugh at some of the justifications put forth by some of the citizenry to defend the government.  There's of course the somewhat boring and silly "I have nothing to hide, why should I care?" (if you have nothing to hide, can I put a webcam in your bedroom and broadcast to the web?  No? Well maybe privacy does have some subjective value to most people then).

But my favorite so far is a friend who points out that grocery stores have a great deal of private information about you.  They know when your period is (for fertile females), they know when you're sick, they know when there's a new baby in the family, etc.  They know all this from your buying patterns coupled with that discount card that you swipe at the cash register.  So, my friend asks, "where's the outrage there?"

Ummm.  Oh, I don't know.  I guess I'm just not terribly worried about the grocery store sending in a SWAT team to haul me off to jail for not conforming to their cherished notions about correct buying patterns.

But the government can do exactly that.  Some call me paranoid (actually, I'm not terribly worried, but rather see a distinction between the grocery store and the government), but the possibility of being personally harassed by the government isn't all that far fetched.  Economist Alex Tabbarok writes:
I broke the law yesterday and again today and I will probably break the law tomorrow. Don’t mistake me, I have done nothing wrong. I don’t even know what laws I have broken. Nevertheless, I am reasonably confident that I have broken some laws, rules, or regulations recently because its hard for anyone to live today without breaking the law. Doubt me? Have you ever thrown out some junk mail that came to your house but was addressed to someone else? That’s a violation of federal law punishable by up to 5 years in prison.
Harvey Silverglate argues that a typical American commits three felonies a day.
So we're all felons.

Glenn Reynolds adds:
Though extensive due process protections apply to the investigation of crimes, and to criminal trials, perhaps the most important part of the criminal process -- the decision whether to charge a defendant, and with what -- is almost entirely discretionary. Given the plethora of criminal laws and regulations in today's society, this due process gap allows prosecutors to charge almost anyone they take a deep interest in.
So we're all potential targets of government and the recent IRS scandal shows that discretionary targeting of individuals and entities is a very real possibility.  One thing that gave us some protection from such discretionary, arbitrary, and capricious prosecution was the huge cost of collecting evidence on a significant percentage of us.  Now however, as Tabarrok concludes:
...the NSA spying machine has reduced the cost of evidence so that today our freedom - or our independence - is to a large extent at the discretion of those in control of the panopticon.
 reduced the cost of evidence so that today our freedom–or our independence–is to a large extent at the discretion of those in control of the panopticon. - See more at:
And that's the difference between the grocery store and the government.