December 22, 2004

Wal-Mart wants you poor

Posted by shonk at 12:27 AM in Economics | permalink | 3 comments

Once upon a time, reading The Chronicle’s rip on Wal-Mart would have made my blood boil, but now the only reaction it seems to cause is a slow, sad shaking of the head at its spurious reasoning. The article’s author, Liza Featherstone, wants to portray Wal-Mart, yet again, as the bad guy, causer of poverty and wrecker of lives.1 Now, it goes without saying that the argument is light on facts and heavy on anecdotes; as it happens, the only hard demographics in the whole article are the following:

Only 6 percent of Wal-Mart shoppers have annual family incomes of more than $100,000. A 2003 study found that 23 percent of Wal-Mart Supercenter customers live on incomes of less than $25,000 a year. More than 20 percent of Wal-Mart shoppers have no bank account, long considered a sign of dire poverty. And while almost half of Wal-Mart Supercenter customers are blue-collar workers and their families, 20 percent are unemployed or elderly.

Based on these facts, Featherstone jumps in line to agree with former UFCW vice president Al Zack that “[t]he only problem with [Wal-Mart’s] business model is that it really needs to create more poverty to grow” and then goes on to suggest that it is doing exactly that. Now, would it be nice if Wal-Mart paid their workers better? Sure. But the above demographics hardly prove that Wal-Mart has a vested interest in keeping people poor.

So 23% of Wal-Mart customers have incomes lower than $25,000? Well, 28% of households and 20% of families have incomes in that range;2 if anything, the poor are slightly underrepresented among Wal-Mart customers. 20% of Wal-Mart customers are unemployed or elderly? Well, 19% of the populace is over age 62 (16% over 65) and 7.6% is unemployed. Like the poor, then, the elderly and unemployed are slightly underrepresented among Wal-Mart customers. Now, 14% of households have incomes over $100,000, so the rich are (as one might expect) also underrepresented. So what does that leave? The middle class. As should surprise nobody except sociologists with an axe to grind, the middle class are Wal-Mart’s biggest customer base, both in terms of sheer numbers and in terms of relative percentages. If anything, Wal-Mart has an incentive to make sure everybody is middle-class (which is impossible, of course, but that hasn’t stopped socialist fruitcakes from trumpeting that is the ideal since, oh, the 18th century).

After a rambling harangue against Wal-Mart’s alleged gender discrimination (even after re-reading the article, I have no feel for whether Wal-Mart is really “systematically discriminating against women”, Featherstone goes on to argue that Wal-Mart needs to be stopped but that, get this, “Boycotts Don’t Work”. Why? Because customers save 20-25% by shopping at Wal-Mart over competitors and “poor women need those savings more than anyone.” Well, aside from the fact that we’ve already dispensed with the notion that the poor constitute the core of Wal-Mart’s customer base, what’s so different about this than any other boycott situation? Boycotting a store or service-provider always incurs costs among the boycotters; if it didn’t, they wouldn’t be “boycotting”, they’d simply be “shopping somewhere else”, sorta like how I don’t buy my groceries at Trader Joe’s because their prices are outrageous and they don’t sell frozen orange juice.

So why doesn’t boycotting work? Well, according to Featherstone, because everybody has a “consumer mentality” these days:

In addition to replacing the “worker,” the “consumer” has also effectively displaced the citizen. That’s why, when most Americans hear about the Wal-Mart’s worker-rights abuses, their first reaction is to feel guilty about shopping at the store. A tiny minority will respond by shopping elsewhere—and only a handful will take any further action. A worker might call her union and organize a picket. A citizen might write to her congressman or local newspaper, or galvanize her church and knitting circle to visit local management. A consumer makes an isolated, politically slight decision: to shop or not to shop. Most of the time, Wal-Mart has her exactly where it wants her, because the intelligent choice for anyone thinking as a consumer is not to make a political statement but to seek the best bargain and the greatest convenience.

Featherstone claims that “[t]o effectively battle corporate criminals like Wal-Mart, the public must be engaged as citizens, not merely as shoppers.” Aside from the “corporate criminal” crack (Wal-Mart may be a criminal organization, but not because they only pay their workers $8/hour), my response is: no shit. Obviously, any sort of principle-based social change requires people to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

Of course, that’s not really what Featherstone wants. Her proposed solutions boil down to “stronger labor laws” and “forcing employers to pay a living wage”. Typical. The entire legislative thrust of the last century has been to create state-funded institutions which insulate people from the consequences of their actions (which has the necessary consequence of forcing the prudent to subsidize the imprudent).

Featherstone blames the Wal-Marts of the world for the “consumerization” of the citizenry, and there may be something to that. But far more important, in my view, are the effects of increasing wealth and increasing nanny-statism.

The former is almost absurdly obvious. In large part, people identify themselves as “workers” less and less because work is no longer something that dominates one’s life. People in the U.S. spend more time, on average, at leisure than at work. As such, it should be no surprise that leisure activities define us more and more. The 19th century farm worker that spent 16 hours a day at backbreaking manual labor had no choice but to identify himself as a “worker” because the only other activities he had time for were eating and sleeping. And, to address Featherstone’s numerous references to the “big girls” that work and shop at Wal-Mart, nobody, and I mean nobody, that is morbidly obese can be considered, in the context of the broader human experience, “poor”. Most people around the world and throughout history have trouble getting enough food to survive, let alone to require plus-size clothing.

The effects of nanny-statism on the “consumerization” of culture may be a bit less obvious, so let’s try to define exactly what we mean by “consumerization”. So far as I can tell, Featherstone seems to mean by this term an increasing materialism and an increasing lack of regard for the consequences of one’s actions, especially buying goods and services. As for materialism, what could be more crassly materialistic than the incessant harangues about how if only Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid/welfare/the schools/the environment got more money from the government, then all social problems would be resolved? Aside from the fact that it simply isn’t true (do a bit of research on the Newark school system if you don’t believe me), this sort of nonsense simply entrenches the notion that money solves all problems.

Okay, so what about refusing to take responsibility for one’s actions? As I said above, this is precisely what 95% of legislation in the last century has been driving towards. Rather than parents taking responsibility for their children’s education, we have public “education” that assuages the guilt without actually educating much of anybody. Rather than people taking responsibility for their own health, we have smoking bans everywhere, 15 year drug approval processes in the FDA, the Drug War and, if Noam Chomsky gets his way, crappy but “free” universal health care. The list goes on and on. Featherstone’s solutions, not surprisingly, are simply more of the same. Rather than advocating that people take responsibility for whatever bad consequences (if any) result from shopping at Wal-Mart, she wants government to force Wal-Mart to do “the right thing”.

And let’s not forget who is hurt most by “living wage” laws. That’s right, the poor.

  1. It should be pointed out that I have no particular love for Wal-Mart. Hell, I don’t even shop there (though mostly because I can’t afford a car and Wal-Mart is way the hell too far away to walk). Anyway, if they really are discriminating against women, that’s pretty uncool. If they really are encouraging workers to go on welfare while employed as the article suggests, that’s despicable (though, to be honest, the fault lies more with the government agencies who are colluding to subsidize Wal-Mart in this way). I know they benefit from the little condemn-land-via-eminent-domain-and-sell-it-to-a-big-sales-tax-source-for-pennies-on-the-dollar scam that local governments enjoy perpetrating on the citizenry, but, again, this sort of thing is impossible without government collusion. My point is, I’m not trying to defend Wal-Mart as some sort of corporate good samaritan.
  2. All demographic data in this paragraph is drawn from U.S. Census Bureau data.

December 17, 2004

Everybody loves sunsets

Posted by shonk at 10:31 PM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

A little picture I took a few weeks ago; click the below image for the full view:

Moon over Philly

December 16, 2004

How very timely!

Posted by Curt at 04:01 PM in Science | permalink | 5 comments

This article about Gödel and Einstein is really, genuinely fascinating, and shocking as well, even if exaggerated for dramatic purposes (as it might well be). It goes to show that, while I honestly don’t think the average scientist is consciously close-minded to revolutionary theories, as Kuhn might lead us to believe, the scientific institution possesses a uniquely hierarchic structure that does tend to impose orthodoxy to a much greater degree than might be readily believed.

On the other hand, I would think that the basic impossibility of time as commonly conceived would be intuitively obvious. Both the “present” and “future” are inconceivable, since all perceptions are basically reactive, and hence we perceive only what is already past. Well, actually I should revise that slightly: the idea of the present moment is both theoretically and practically impossible; that is not the case with the future, at least symbolically speaking, but since it’s unperceivable there’s also no reason to believe in its existence. Of course most people tend to extrapolate from various instances of cause-and-effect that they supposedly can observe, but since creation and destruction are also unobservable (manifestly one can only observe something so long as, and insofar as, it exists) there’s no reason to believe in that either.

Of course, as far as I understand it, that’s not what Gödel was arguing. I doubt that he was claiming that the process which we supposedly observe as time is an illusion any more than Einstein was claiming that the phenomena described by Newtonian physics don’t exist. But then again, if he had been that skeptical about time, he couldn’t have been a scientist at all, even a theoretical one. I’ve said before that science is not a method, it’s an ideology. It has certain underpinning beliefs that simply can’t be rejected and leave something which is still recognizably science. I think time is one of those fundamental assumptions, because it’s the only thing which guarantees the regular behavior of material phenomena, which is essential to all science.

So it is perhaps to the credit of those who have devised ad hoc properties of the universe expressly to refute Gödel as scientists, if not as intellectually curious human beings. I genuinely believe the age of science is coming to an end. Not that our technological world will evaporate, but without the confidence to advance theoretically on certain founding assumptions which have remained essentially unchanged since the 17th century, science will become engineering and pharmacy. I have a hard time feeling devastated about this. Ideas evolve, as they should, and there is no ahistorical idea on which our actual existence depends (I can’t think anyone would believe me oblivious to the irony of that statement, but perhaps a different metaphor would be more apt anyway: the periods of history as we are accustomed to think of them could be imagined as different countries. Science is the language of one land; we seem to currently be in the border-regions of another one. Note that this resolves the problems associated with the very idea of “evolution”).

p.s. The time-process is one of the big three of inconceivabilities in my opinion, along with free will and consciousness. For all that don’t get the idea that I’m denying the possiblity of time in reality, just that it can’t be imagined as an idea, and therefore can’t really serve as a basis for other ideas. The idea of time imposes the image of things welling out of some void to which we remain totally impervious and then later sinking back into them. But actually all we have in our minds at any time is a vast landscape stretching out before us; there is no such thing as an emptiness in our perceptions. Where in this did we come by the notion of cause and effect?

December 14, 2004

Aah, I love the smell of conjecture-and-refutation in the morning

Posted by Curt at 02:45 PM in Science | permalink | comment

I took an exam today, so here are two final cool-down tirades:

  1. I could add to my critique of Kuhn that even a non-“revolutionary” has a natural incentive to refine or re-shape the paradigm governing his activity—fame and glory, certainly, if it’s a big breakthrough, but also just solving his problems, be they great or small. So in one sense you could say that the work of the individual scientist resembles more Popper’s conception of science as a whole, i.e. conjecture followed by refutation, as long as that is qualified by noting that refutation is actually where problem-solving begins, not where it ends. I think that Popper was wrong to think in terms of universal, objective, direct-experiment-produced refutations, and I think Kuhn was right to criticize it, but if it is not right to imagine an objective standard governing refutation of ideas, it still seems clear that on an individual basis scientists (and people at large, for that matter) have personal criteria for continuing to accept or discarding a view. But obviously if an idea which has been accepted is contradicted by evidence or another idea that contradicts it, in a subjective sense refutes it, the scientist won’t just abandon the whole issue, unless he just doesn’t feel up to it. He will try to solve the problem, either by reconciling his views, or replacing his old views with new ones, etc. That’s why I think it’s also wrong to talk about paradigms or models as “research programmes,” as Lakatos did. I don’t doubt that research programs exist, but they are chosen by the scientist who has accepted the paradigm but run into problems integrating it with his other views, not by the formulater of the paradigm. Because problem-solving is an effect of, well, problems, a list of problems to solve implies areas where the solution has failed. Obviously when someone offers a new paradigm they are offering a solution, not an unresolved problem. They may add mention of unresolved ambiguities or problems as a caveat, but that’s not the essence of their contribution, and has no imperative effect on what problems the future researcher takes up. In fact many of the problems that the solution eventually raises aren’t or can’t be anticipated by the creator initially. So all of these issues that philosophers of science have addressed, revolutions, conjectures and refutations, research programs, have validity, but those that formulate them have a tendency, like so many others, to over-emphasize the collective over the individual, and to see broad-scale processes rather than individual human activity.

  2. Last point: I’m getting sick of people saying that mathematics is abstract and essentially divorced from reality. I know, I’ve done it myself repeatedly, but when my philosophy of science professor repeated this old cliché again, I realized that in some ways it seems awfully ludicrous. I realize that mathematics is often not intentionally an attempt to model or describe processes observed in reality, but I think it would be difficult to conceive of an element of reality more fundamental than quantity. In fact to me quantity (as opposed to quality) seems virtually synomymous with external reality and objects. And so the basic properties of math are fundamentally real, even if the possibilities spun out from these properties haven’t yet been observed. I get the sense that the great advantages of math as a real property by some perversity are actually used against it. For example, the fact that everyone knows exactly what some number, say 6, is but can’t explain why is used as evidence for the view that it is self-defining and therefore fundamentally insular, that its identity is not rooted in the real. In fact, you could reverse that and say that it is simply a defect of language. Again, it’s often said that math is a language, but if we really take that seriously we must think of it as a language different than other human languages. Defining a quantity is like trying to render one language into another. There’s no such thing as a true translation, and between math and language the gap is far more profound than between English and French. I would say that language basically describes qualities and math quantities—math is so fundamentally objective that it simply can’t be described in terms of the subjective qualities that language describes, and vice versa. Again, my professor used the fact that 3+3=6 no matter whether such a combination actually exists anywhere in the world and will never change no matter how the world changes as evidence that math is fundamentally cut off from the world. But that’s like saying the expression “it will snow tomorrow” has no meaning or connection to reality if it doesn’t actually snow tomorrow. The only explanation I can think of for this view is that the correspondence theory has yet again been pushed way too far—you know, the view that the word “rock” must basically correspond to an actual rock. In this case, the fact that the word, or the number, is not actually the object itself is being used as evidence that it has no relationship to reality. But I think we can at least say this much: if external reality is held to be essentially objective, i.e. pertaining to objects, than math is more connected to reality than language. Unless anyone has any alternatives to those two, I think the pertinence of math to reality has been demonstrated. I assume most scientists concur, which is why the scientists who my professor praises as being more addressed to reality than mathematicians basically conduct their work in math. Granted math is not a good language for confessions, but fortunately for those, like me, more interested generally in working out what’s in their heads than in what’s going on around them, we still have language to deal with that.

December 13, 2004

Still blathering after all these hours

Posted by Curt at 04:56 PM in Science | permalink | 1 comment

Well, I still don’t have much time, but I can’t resist adding just one or two qualifications to my other remarks, with numbers corresponding to my last post:

  1. It should be obvious that the equivalence of “science” and “natural science” is more than just a semantic issue or an abbreviation. The debates in the social sciences such as anthropology, psychology, etc. regarding whether they are sciences or not is somewhat misleading. Most of the people involved in these debates seem to think it is a purely methodological issue, but, as I have already indicated, the methodology of science arises from the materialist philosophy underlying it, so unless these other disciplines are similarly willing to accept that ideological baggage, they cannot integrate into the sciences. Case in point: psychology is now finally starting to be regarded as a true science almost purely via its association with and increasing dominance by neuroscience.

  2. I think Kuhn’s paradigm model is good for explaining the dynamics of research in what he calls periods of “normal science.” But the title of his major work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is misleading, because that’s just what he doesn’t really explain. As I said, he explains well how a generally accepted scientific principle functions, but not what happens during periods of change from one to another. I guess my criticism is equivalent to Derrida’s criticism of Lévi-Strauss’ structuralism: it explains how the structure endures, but not how it changes. And I would say that it probably never will if we regard the history of science as blocks of acceptance of a principle broken by intervals of confusion and doubt. I think Kuhn is confusing a difference in scale with a difference in kind. What I mean by that is that he seems to think of only the big ideas like relativity, quantum theory, etc., as being fixed principles, paradigms. Therefore the resolution of a smaller problem is merely “puzzle-solving,” but solving a big one is a “revolution,” a change in paradigm. In reality, every scientist is trying to solve problems, which inevitably entails giving up certain ideas and methods to arrive at a better description and understanding of a physical process. It’s just that in most cases the problem is not as large and involving as many minds as a change in the conception of the nature of light, or of the atom, etc. In short, even in periods of what he calls “normal science” I would say that scientists are doing what the “revolutionaries” do writ large. Now I admit that solving problems is not always accompanied by the belief that the most basic scientific principles must be changed, but what I am trying to say is that the process is essentially continuous. Scientists are always trying to solve problems preserving their most basic beliefs. Concepts like relativity or gravitation are not the most basic scientific beliefs, and when they conflict with a more fundamental one, usually revealed by experimentation, they are changed. But this is basically the same process that goes on every day with big problems and with small. So essentially science is either permanently in a crisis or never is; maybe one could even say that every scientist is a revolution in one man. Notice how this also makes the problem raised by his somewhat awkward likening of scientific revolutions to natural selection, the question of what criterion determines the “selection” of one model over another, unnecessary. If scientists are constantly seeking better explanations, as opposed to clinging dogmatically to one paradigm until a revolution sweeps it away, as Kuhn seems to imply, then the concept of conversion from one view to another is not anomalous. As for their actual reasons for prefering one to another, it’s irrelevant: most likely it varies by case and is not generalizable. So there.

p.s. Sorry if that point involved many acontextual references to one particular book, but a) I don’t have time to fill in the details and b) I doubt that Kuhn is unfamiliar to many of the readers (if any) of this site.

December 12, 2004

Jumbled thoughts (produced without caffeine!)

Posted by Curt at 10:38 AM in Science | permalink | comment

Just two quick thoughts about science. I would expand on them more if I had the time, but I don’t:

  1. It annoys me when people, in my philosophy of science class and elsewhere, talk about science as a method rather than as a set of beliefs. Of course there is a method to science, but that’s not what makes it distinct from other areas of knowledge. It is especially galling when someone asserts that science is uniquely given to skepticism, to methodical investigation, to revision of its foundational beliefs, etc., in other words that it is the only truly “progressive” body of knowledge. But all of that only seems to be the case because, as Kuhn might say, we’re inside the scientific paradigm. When you really get down to it, science boils down to some materialistic beliefs that are essentially taken as datum, such as that everything is essentially physical, inanimate, material, and in motion. These have stayed more or less constant since the emergence of these beliefs, i.e. the mechanical philosophy, in the 17th century, and how can anyone think it a coincidence that this was also the start of the scientific revolution? I would defy anyone to find some purely methodological difference between science and all other forms of knowledge. They all come back to the founding materialistic beliefs. Empirical investigation? It doesn’t even make sense as a distinct form of investigation except in the context of scientific principles. It’s not just a matter of “basing beliefs on experience,” but a particular type of experience, i.e. observation of external physical phenomena. Abstract ideas are thrown out a priori as a source of experience, even though they are undoubtedly that, because thought as distinct from matter obviously doesn’t fit into the mechanical philosophy. That doesn’t mean that believers in scientific principles can’t believe in non material-things, like God, or love, or whatever else, but only when they are considered to be outside of the domain of science. The point is that all of that scrutiny and investigation occurs entirely within the fundamental mechanical beliefs, which must remain unquestioned. Science is simply the belief that everything within its purvew is purely material.

  2. Speaking of Kuhn, his idea of paradigms and scientific revolutions is very nice, but it seems somewhat, uh, less than rigorous in explaining, or really just describing how a “paradigm shift” comes about. He talks about scientific traditions as being wholly enclosed in paradigmatic assumptions, which is useful in opposing the weird metaphysical scientific dogma about direct experience with nature, but it’s too monolothic. In Kuhn’s view a paradigm encloses everyone in the time and place in which it is accepted, so that it is quite impossible to see outside its underlying assumptions. Again, it’s good for ridding us of the notion of objective criteria of observation, but overstated. I agree that one’s interpretation of perceptions are conditioned entirely by the ideas which we have been taught to associate with them, but I find it unlikely that any particular individual or scientist’s views coincide entirely with the so-called scientific paradigm of the day. Kuhn, for example, says that it’s impossible for us to regard a pendulum as anything other than a pendulum since the time of Galileo, whereas those in the Aristotelian tradition would have simply seen a swinging stone. But that just seems like nonsense. If everyone’s perceptions were totally circumscribed by the scientific paradigm current in their time, paradigm shifts would be impossible. I’m not disputing that all of the beliefs which condition are perceptions are not instantiated in something like some paradigm or another, just that this paradigm, even for scientists, is not necessarily equivalent to the current scientific dogma. Einstein, for example, must have had some beliefs in physical properties that superseded Newtonian physics, or he could never have questioned the latter, let alone provided an alternative to it. And this must have also been true of those who were led to doubt Newtonian physics but did not formulate a widely accepted alternative. In short, I would say that Kuhn is applying the idea of paradigm too broadly, except that I think the whole idea of a paradigm is too monolithic. Paradigms never seem to be universally accepted, nor does a revolution seem different in kind from “normal” scientific activity in kind, just in scale. All scientists are trying to solve problems and provide more satisfactory solutions, not just defend accepted dogma, but most of them are only successful in solving problems on a relatively small-scale, rather than on the massive scale required for a so-called revolution. Again, Kuhn says that normal science is fundamentally different from the activity that surrounds revolutions, but then he says that normal science itself produces the crises that lead to revolutions, which, if one throws out the unmediated-contact-with-nature model and assume that scientists existing within paradigms in times of normal science are both entirely circumscribed by paradigms and primarily concerned with defending them, seems basically impossible, except for some provident intervention of God, which actually seems to be how he essentially describes the inspiration that leads to the formulation of a new paradigm.

On being well-read

Posted by shonk at 04:18 AM in Economics | permalink | comment

Mark Edmundson, who’s admonishing people to read more, apparently has never heard of Friedrich Hayek:

[BRIAN] LAMB: Here’s an older book spoken about by Milton Friedman, on the other side.



MILTON FRIEDMAN, AUTHOR AND ECONOMIST: It’s a book well worth reading by anybody, because it’s a very subtle analysis of why, how it is that well-meaning people who intend only to improve the lot of their fellows, tend to favor courses of action which have exactly the opposite effect.

I think in my, from my point of view, the most interesting chapter in that book is one labeled, why the worst rise to the top.


LAMB: He’s talking about “Road to Serfdom” - Hayek - a bible for people on the conservative political side.

EDMUNDSON: I’m glad to know about it. Until this moment, I’ve heard nothing about it. But I will write it down and give it a look.

I’d say Billy Beck has a point:

How on earth do Americans get to that man’s point in life without knowing about “The Road To Serfdom”? How does that happen?

Are they all going to college, or what?

Screw college; The Road to Serfdom ought to be required reading in high school. As I recall, I first read it in about 8th or 9th grade when my father recommended it, along with Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. Good parenting, that.

Of course, given that Hayek’s critiques are especially relevant to the school system (my god, have you met some of the people in charge of the schools where you live?), it should be no surprise that it’s not.

(Incidentally, I should point out that Lamb is delusional if he thinks The Road to Serfdom is actually a “bible for people on the conservative political side”; ’twould be nice, but it ain’t so)