If I never again heard about the trolley problem applied to autonomous vehicles, I would be excessively happy

If I never heard the trolley problem referenced in a discussion of autonomous vehicles again, I would be excessively happy. But I’m from the Midwest, so I’m ok with being miserable. I also understand the irony in writing this piece.

I’m not going to explain the basics of the Trolley Problem. No one needs another horrid rehash of it. It has been done to death.

But that says something. Continue reading “If I never again heard about the trolley problem applied to autonomous vehicles, I would be excessively happy”

The Subtext to Crider’s Liberal Patriotism

On these pages, Paul Crider explores what might be best described as Liberal Patriotism. While you should read the entire post, Crider distills it down to a concise rendering when he notes,

Patriotism can instead be carefully cultivated to channel liberal values and this liberal patriotism has to be vigorously peddled in the marketplace of ideas and proudly defended the arena of political discourse. Luckily we don’t have to reinvent wheel: we already have narratives of America (I’m sticking with my own country for this post) as an ongoing project of tolerance, inclusion, and opportunity.

I am in agreement with Crider, but there is an important subtext to the parenthetical phrase, limiting the comments to just the United States. The United States is a unique country because its identity is ideological. The American Project is just that, a continual project, an unfinished draft. If nothing else, the United States is exceptional for this reason. No other country is so closely tied to an ideological construction. No other country is really as invested in its rhetorical construction. Continue reading “The Subtext to Crider’s Liberal Patriotism”

Vox Populi, Vox Twitter

Back in the good old days, you know, the early 1990s, the commentariat would have to poll the people for their opinions. Polling, to the uninitiated, is a costly and arduous business.

Oh, how the winds, they are a changin.

Twitter, that rapscallion of a social network to Wall Street, has helped to alleviate that problem for both politicos and the media. No longer do you need a background in stats or need a representative sample to find out what the people think about one of the new proposals for the Greek debt crisis.  It is a coup! The hashtag told us so. Continue reading “Vox Populi, Vox Twitter”

Give the church its indulgence

This morning I received an email from a friend who trades bonds in Chicago. The email had a link to a story entitled, “Sin Taxes Aren’t a Financial Panacea,” which warned Illinois and Chicago that non-traditional revenues like gambling, tobacco, and marijuana won’t solve the dire budget shortfalls. His first comment was direct, why wasn’t alcohol included in this list of sin taxes?

My first thought: is alcohol no longer sinful? And then my second: wait, sin taxes? Isn’t it interesting that we, as a supposed secular nation, still care about the sin?

A little bit of history.

Sin tax has its genesis in the sumptuary laws of Ancient Rome. These rules had their own lineage from the Twelve Tables and and the kings of Rome and were aimed at restricting extravagant expenses and regulating the dress of the time, which included limits on royal purple, the color of nobility. While all of the restrictions on flamboyant dress went to the wayside with the rise of Roman power, the restrictions on purple remained.

England resurrected these laws with the Statute Concerning Diet and Apparel of 1363. The Act detailed what kinds of dress people of each class were able to wear, which persisted until just before the Industrial Revolution. Notice the date. It’s instructive. Immediately following Black Death, average wages rose. As a result many in the lower classes had money to spare and began to adopt the style of dress of the elite. While we might now scoff at this, but in a world where everyone has the same skin color, the style of dress was the easiest way to discriminate.

Sin has long been about stepping out of line of the natural order. Think of the original sin. God gave a command to Adam, but Adam ate the apple anyway, thus damning humanity. As St. Augustine’s famously summarized, sin is “a word, deed, or desire in opposition to the eternal law of God.”

And what of these eternal laws? Where do they come from? Durkheim always thought that the God was just societal pressure translated into speech:

[Because authority] speaks to us in an imperative tone we certainly feel that it must come from some being superior to us; but we cannot see clearly who or what it is. This is why, in order to explain this mysterious voice that does not speak with a human accent, people imagine it to be connected with transcendent personalities above and beyond man, which then become the object of a cult. (Durkheim, 1973/1925, p. 89)

As he famously said, “God is society writ large.” God is society because God is this superior voice, which in turn is just society. Connecting these tenuous threads, even now the talk of sin must be understood as an aberration of the ordering of society as it is or as it wants to be.

Vox populi, vox Dei. Truly.

So when new taxes on sugar, trans fats, and salt are defined as sin taxes, it is body politic that we are really discussing. The order that we want to establish is being violated. Taxing the sin is just. Sin, at least in the world where I was raised, was followed by salvation, and there’s no better salvation than to give the church its indulgence.

Did a Change in Rhetoric Give Rise to Cities?

A peculiar phenomenon in early human history has stumped scientists. After learning to farm and establishing a more plentiful food supply about 10,000 years ago, humans began to congregate in larger groupings. Villages grew from 200 people to a few thousand inhabitants. These mega-villages were significantly larger than anything that came before but they clearly were not as large as the cities that would come later. Then, just a thousand years after they first sprung up, many mega-villages vanished and were abandoned.

A number of theories have been put forward to explain the sudden change. An early frontrunner was climate change, as one of the most excavated sites in Çatalhöyük Turkey underwent local environmental changes. But in English mega-villages experienced a similar dip in population without these exogenous changes, so climate has been ruled out. Another theory was that pestilence depopulated mega-villages. But upon closer inspection, this too seems not to hold weight, especially since villages suffer outbreaks of disease and survive.

The culprit for this drop may in fact be the rigid beliefs systems as this recent article at i09 explains:

The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group. So people would strongly discourage each other from ostentatious displays of social differences.

You can see this set of beliefs reflected in the built environment of Çatalhöyük, where everyone’s house is roughly the same size. Some houses have a lot more stuff in them — more pieces of art, or more ritual objects — but as I said earlier, nobody is living in the Neolithic equivalent of a mansion.

All of this works nicely in a small community, where you know all of your neighbors and only share with people whose lives are bound to yours (even if you don’t like them very much). But once you have a thousand people living together, it’s harder to have a flat social structure. People need local representatives to stand in for them, and perhaps even a system of writing to keep track of everyone and what they own. Some people start to do specialized tasks, and social differentiation begins.

Immediately, Deirdre McCloskey’s theory of industrial change comes to mind. As she argues, it isn’t society’s technical abilities as Joel Mokyr would suggest, the Protestant ethic of Weber or the property rights of Douglass North that explains the Industrial revolution. No, a change in our rhetoric, our ideology of business, is what made the difference.

She writes,

What changed in Europe, and then the world, was the rhetoric of trade and production and innovation… The bourgeois talk was challenged mainly by appeal to traditional values, aristocratic or religious, developing into nationalism, socialism, and environmentalism. But increasingly, as in Jane Austen, a rhetoric by no means enthusiastic for trade did accept — or at any rate acknowledged with genial amusement — the values of the polite and commercial people. The talk mattered because it affected how economic activity was valued and how governments behaved towards it.

Ideas matter. And in Auntie D’s writings, there is a parallel to the changes in beliefs that likely occurred between mega-villages and cities. Just as a change in rhetoric signaled the break from agrarian society to industrial society, the break from hunter-gatherer society to agrarian society required a similar change. The rhetoric that supported the aristocratic, religious world had to be created, which likely developed during this downward lull.

Between the mega-village and the cities that came later lies the formation of the state. Ultimately, this is the world of stratification buttressed through religion. With it came the creation of differing social groups and distinctions based upon rank or property. Yet, the acceptance of social specialization required a new view of the world, a new rhetoric in the McCloskeyian sense. And once that jump was made, benefits followed. Clustered people allowed for more trade and specialization of work, leading to more wealth, prestige and better equipped armies. While still a brutal world, cities had the potential for stability, but it came at the expense of radical equality.