Unbound (part 2)

February 3, 2023

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Heather Boushey’s detailed discussion of how inequality constricts our economy begins with how it obstructs the development and utilization of human capital.

Learning and human capital

Economists use the term “human capital” to refer to the investments we make in people rather than machinery and other material means of production. In particular, it refers to the education and training of our labor force. Gary Becker pioneered the use of the term in his book of that name in the 1960s.

The importance of human capital raises the question of how opportunities to acquire relevant knowledge and skills are distributed in the population. When Americans think of the United States as a “land of opportunity,” they usually assume that inequality in rewards is a good thing, as long as everybody gets an equal chance to compete for them. I think that’s a big part of the appeal of competitive sports, where many can play but some win more than others.

In the case of economic competition, however, the winners take their rewards home and share them with their families. Parents want to give their children the best chances in life they can, and high-income parents are in a much better position to do so. As a result, great inequalities of results translate into inequalities of opportunity as well. Boushey reports on the substantial body of research connecting economic inequality with differences in early life experiences and later life achievement.

According to David J. Barker’s “fetal origins hypothesis” and related research by others, the inequalities are already present in the womb. Prenatal experiences like poor nutrition affect birth weight, future health, and educational achievement. After they are born, children differ greatly in access to quality child care and early childhood education. Although almost every American child gets some sort of schooling, low-income families have less access to well-funded schools and higher education. We do not know how much talent is underdeveloped and wasted in the process, but since the United States is one of the most economically unequal countries in the world, it must be substantial.

Economic inequality also affects children in more subtle ways. “The psychology literature shows that economic hardship is associated with parental emotional distress and conflict, as well as harsh parenting and behavioral problems for children.”

Society cannot control every factor that connects parental success or failure with children’s opportunity. Genetic differences may well play some role. But many public programs do show positive effects on children’s achievements, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, early childhood education, and school finance reforms to better fund schools in poor neighborhoods. Much more can be done, since the United States lags behind most wealthy countries in many policy areas, especially quality child care and early childhood education.

Skills, talent, and innovation

The development of human capital is a long process, and early child development is only the beginning. Even if a family raises a talented child, social and economic inequalities often obstruct that individual’s ability to contribute to a thriving economy.

The book features the work of Raj Chetty, who studied how the relationship between aptitude and achievement was complicated by inequalities in income, gender and race. Chetty was especially interested in achievements in innovation, which he studied by comparing the number of patents held by different groups. He used children’s test scores as indicators of aptitudes. As expected, high-aptitude groups went on to hold more patents. Within the high-aptitude groups, however, far more patents were held by subjects who were white, male, or came from higher-income families.

Based on their findings, Chetty and his colleagues decry the number of “lost Einsteins” in the United States—the smart kids who aren’t lucky enough to have been born into rich families and never get to make the most of their talent, skills, and hard work. They say the economic effects are shockingly high: “If women, minorities, and children from lower-income families were to invent at the same rate as white men from high-income (top-quintile) families, the total number of inventors in the economy would quadruple.”

Boushey discusses the “obstacles to entrepreneurship” that keep disadvantaged groups from contributing more to economic innovation. These groups do not have as much access to the contacts and financing they need to launch their enterprises. For example, surveys by the US Census Bureau found that “minority-owned businesses pay higher interest rates on loans, are more likely to be denied credit, and are less likely to apply for loans due to concerns that their applications will be denied.” Such differences remain even when comparing people with similar credentials.

Discrimination in the workplace is also a factor. When researchers sent fictitious resumes to employers advertising for talent, “a white-sounding name provided an advantage equivalent to eight additional years of experience.” Companies that move away from discrimination and toward gender and racial diversity may find the effort worthwhile. Some research has found that such diversity is positively correlated with financial returns. Boushey concludes, “Innovation thrives on diversity.” I think that could be both because diverse companies tap into a wider pool of talent, and because the interplay of ideas among people of different backgrounds stimulates creativity.

These findings call into question the old idea mentioned in the previous post, that deliberate increases in equality can only be achieved at the cost of reduced efficiency and lower aggregate income. That makes sense only if one assumes a state of perfectly free and fair competition, where the best talent automatically rises to the top and the economy already runs at peak efficiency. From that perspective, why would you refuse to hire and promote a talented black woman, knowing she might go to work for your competitor instead? The short answer is that your competitor is probably just as prejudiced and won’t hire her either! Orthodox economics embodies a rather rosy view of free markets, usually presented as the objective, scientific, value-free way of looking at things. The orthodox view is useful as a simplified and idealized model to serve as a point of departure, but it is not an adequate description of the real world, with all of its conflicts and power structures. If taken too seriously, it is a formula for economic complacency. It fails to provide the bold, imaginative vision we need to meet the economic challenges of the 21st-century global economy.



February 1, 2023

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Heather Boushey. Unbound: How Inequality Constricts Our Economy and What We Can Do about It. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019.

Heather Boushey is a co-founder of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and she is currently a member of the Council of Economic Advisers to President Biden. Her book represents a recent shift of economic thinking on the subject of economic inequality.

Traditional thinking and its limitations

Traditionally, mainstream economists have taken a rather benign view of inequality, seeing it as a harmless, normal, or even essential aspect of a free-market economy. American economist William Bates Clark laid a foundation for this thinking in the late 1800s with his “marginal productivity theory of distribution.” Leon Walras had already argued that each factor of production—land, capital or labor—generated income that equaled the value of its contribution to production. Alfred Marshall had agreed, saying that his theory supported the old saying that “most men earn just about what they are worth.” Clark developed a mathematical model to show that under the assumption of perfect competition, firms will add labor until the contribution of each worker to production just equals the wage paid. Then he generalized:

It is the purpose of this work to show that the distribution of the income of society is controlled by a natural law, and that this law, if it worked without friction, would give to every agent of production the amount of wealth which that agent creates.

[W]hat a social class gets is, under natural law, what it contributes to the general output of industry.

In other words, when some people get more than others, that’s as it should be, since what they get is just a reflection of what they give. Twentieth-century economists incorporated this thinking into a general model of economic equilibrium in which the market efficiently allocates all resources and maximizes social utility. “A perfectly competitive market would arrive at a point where no further improvement could be made to any person’s outcome without leaving some other person worse off.” Many economists argued that deliberate increases in equality could only be achieved at the cost of reduced efficiency and lower aggregate income. In the natural market economy, economic contributors do not receive equal returns, but they do get their fair share of the aggregate income. Economic growth increases the benefits for all, as “a rising tide lifts all the boats.”

Economists have recognized exceptions to perfect competition like the power of large corporations over wages and prices. But they may not take these “imperfections” seriously enough to rethink the assumptions of their theories.

Boushey is one of an increasing number of economists who do question the underlying assumptions of mainstream economics as well as its benign view of inequality. “We need to recognize how economic power translates into political and social power, and reject old theories that treat the economy as a system governed by natural laws separate from society’s.” I think most sociologists would agree, since the very term “natural law” is problematic for us. Scientists may misuse the term by assuming that the institutions of a particular social system, such as industrial capitalism, are written in stone and impervious to major social change.

Such criticisms of mainstream economics are not new, although they were often overlooked after the ascendancy of “neoliberalism” and Reaganomics in the late twentieth century. Boushey cites the earlier critique of free-market economics by Karl Polanyi, who viewed economic processes and social power relations as inseparable. One could also mention Thorstein Veblen and other “institutional” economists of the Progressive Era.

Inequality in the spotlight

Economic theory has never developed in isolation from historical events, but has always been affected by trends in the economy itself. One only has to think of how the Great Depression advanced Keynesian thinking, or how the runaway inflation of the 1970s advanced Milton Friedman’s monetarism. After about 1980, the economy entered a period of generally slower growth and greater inequality, compared to the period of postwar prosperity. What growth there was generated gains mainly for the wealthy, while the middle class and the poor fell farther behind. Bousher cites research by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman finding that the share of the wealth owned by the top 1% has increased to 42%, compared to only 23% in 1978. I should mention that specific numbers like these are somewhat contested, since they depend on how wealth is defined and measured. The general trend toward greater inequality in both income and wealth, however, does show up in many studies.

This experience poses a challenge to traditional thinking, which expects everyone to receive economic rewards commensurate with their contribution to production. Where is the larger contribution that would justify the spectacular rewards for the most powerful owners and managers, if they are having so little success in growing the economy for the good of all? “By the early 2000s, rising income inequality—especially at the very top—had become so striking that attempts to cast it as consistent with natural laws of the economy that would eventually benefit society more generally rang hollow.”

Mainstream economists have tried to interpret the growing inequality without straying too far from traditional thinking. They have said that new technologies and skill requirements have widened the income gap between skilled and less-skilled workers, and that globalization has aggravated the situation by putting less-skilled workers in competition with those of other countries. But since these are global developments, they do not explain why the emerging inequality is especially severe in the United States.

The new inequality cries out for a deeper theoretical explanation, one that incorporates power, politics and social conflict. We must confront the possibility that some features of our economic order are designed to benefit the few at the expense of the many. We must stop assuming that the economy already works like a well-oiled machine, but consider the argument that it could work better if benefits and opportunities were more widely distributed.

How inequality constricts

The general theme of Boushey’s book is announced in the subtitle: “How Inequality Constricts Our Economy and What We Can Do about It.” The author uses three particular verbs to describe the effects, claiming that “inequality obstructs, subverts and distorts economic growth.” The differences among these concepts may be a little subtle, but they do provide an outline for organizing the book. The obstruction part includes chapters on “Learning and Human Capital” and “Skills, Talent, and Innovation.” The subversion part includes chapters on “Public Spending” and “Market Structure.” The distortion part includes chapters on “The Economic Cycle” and “Investment.” I will devote one post to each of these three parts.


Anatomy of a Conspiracy

January 4, 2023

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The January 6 Report: Findings from the Select Committee to Investigate the Attack on the U.S. Capitol. New York: The New York Times, 2022

The report of the January 6 Select Committee convinces me of two things. First, the plot to overturn the 2020 presidential election was a very large, multifaceted conspiracy. And second, President Trump was the chief conspirator at each major step. Before reading the report, I wasn’t sure how directly involved he was in certain parts of the scheme, such as the effort to recruit slates of fake electors. Now I’m more convinced that he was up to his ears in the whole thing.

Consider the main elements of the conspiracy.

Casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election in advance

Long before a single vote was cast, President Trump was hard at work selling the idea that he could only lose if the election were rigged. One of his tactics was to encourage his own supporters to vote on election day, while declaring mail-in ballots to be vulnerable to fraud, contrary to the actual experience of the states. Many states were trying to make it easier to vote by mail because voters were reluctant to mingle in public during the pandemic, so a surge in those votes was to be expected.

Declaring victory before all the votes were counted

Since most states count absentee ballots more slowly than in-person, election-day ballots, Trump could try to claim victory on the basis of his election-night lead. He insisted on doing so against the advice of his own campaign officials, who knew that outstanding ballots could easily change the outcome.

Refusing to accept the election results

When all the votes had been counted and Joe Biden was declared the winner, Trump immediately attributed the results in key states to fraud. Again, he ignored the assessment of his most knowledgeable advisors:

[O]ur hearings featured a number of members of President Trump’s inner circle refuting his fraud claims and testifying that the election was not in fact stolen. In all, the Committee displayed the testimony of more than four dozen Republicans—by far the majority of witnesses in our hearings—including two of President Trump’s former Attorneys General, his former White House Counsel, numerous members of his White House staff, and the highest-ranking members of his 2020 election campaign, including his campaign manager and his campaign general counsel.

The report compiled a long list of instances where Trump was told that the facts refuted particular fraud allegations, and where he proceeded to assert exactly the opposite in his public statements. For example, he continued to claim that voting machines were rigged even after hand counts had produced almost identical results.

When White House lawyers and reputable law firms failed to support his allegations of fraud, he formed a new legal team headed by Rudy Giuliani to press his claims. His new legal team lost every major legal challenge they brought in court, regardless of whether the judge in the case had been chosen by Democrats, Republicans, or by Trump himself. Many cases were quickly thrown out due to a total lack of credible evidence.

Pressuring state legislators and officials to overturn the results

The U.S. Constitution gives each state the power to choose Electoral College electors in its own way. In modern times, laws in every state require that this be done by popular election. President Trump and his co-conspirators claimed that the states have the power to reject the results of an election after the votes have been cast. This theory was promoted by Trump supporters like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and Donald Trump, Jr. The committee found a written “Strategic Communications Plan” based on this theory and ostensibly authored by the “Giuliani Presidential Legal Defense Team.”

The best-known attempt to pressure a state official was the recorded phone call between President Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (“I just need 11,780 votes!”). But this is only one among hundreds of contacts between the Trump camp and officials in key states.

Trying to get the Justice Department to discredit the election results

Consistent with his refusal to accept the legitimacy of the election, Trump also refused to accept Attorney General Barr’s assurances that the Department of Justice had investigated and refuted allegations of fraud. As a Trump appointee and supporter, Barr had little reason to cover up any fraud that existed.

After Barr resigned, Trump also pressured Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen to find fraud, also with no success. Then Trump offered Rosen’s job to someone who would do his bidding, a lower-level administrator named Jeffrey Clark. Clark had drafted a letter intended for battleground states, which exaggerated the Justice Department’s concerns about fraud and encouraged state legislators to meet in special session to reconsider their election certifications. Rosen had refused to send such a letter, considering it inaccurate and inappropriate. Only the threat of mass resignations by Justice Department personnel persuaded Trump to withdraw his job offer to Clark.

Recruiting fake electors to challenge the real electors

The report concludes that “Donald Trump oversaw an effort to obtain and transmit false electoral certificates to Congress and the National Archives.” Over a month before the election, The Atlantic reported that “the Trump Campaign is discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground States where Republicans hold the legislative majority.” The theory that the states had the authority to do this was promoted by legal advisors Kenneth Chesebro and John Eastman. President Trump and his Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, endorsed the plan, and Trump personally called Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel to enlist her in the effort.

On December 14, the day on which state electors cast their votes for President, fake electors recruited by the Trump camp also met and voted in seven states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

In five of these States—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin—the certificates they signed used the language that falsely declared themselves to be “the duly elected and qualified Electors” from their State…The paperwork signed by the fake Trump electors in two other States contained partial caveats. In New Mexico, the document they signed made clear that they were participating “on the understanding that it might later be determined that we are the duly elected and qualified Electors…”

To be clear, no state ever did give the fake electors any legal recognition whatsoever. Nevertheless, all the fake certificates were sent to the National Archives and Congress. On December 17, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany stated that Congress would decide between the alternative slates of electors in January. However, the effort failed when the Senate Parliamentarian rejected the fake certificates. (Two of the seven, the certifications for Michigan and Wisconsin, failed to arrive before the statutory deadline. A last-ditch effort to deliver them to the Vice President personally also failed when his aide refused to accept them.)

Pressuring the Vice President to block Congressional certification

The Select Committee concluded that the entire plan to overturn the election had one “underlying and fundamental feature,” and that was “the effort to get one man, Vice President Mike Pence, to assert and then exercise unprecedented and lawless powers to utilaterally alter the actual election outcome on January 6th.”

Even though they failed to get the fake electors certified by any state legislature, Trump and his co-conspirators hoped they would provide a pretext for the Vice President to reject the legitimate electors. That could throw the election into the House of Representatives, where voting would be by state delegation. Although Republicans had less than a majority of total seats, they did have a majority of state delegations because they controlled more small states. At the very least, Trump hoped that Pence would use the competing slates of electors as an excuse to suspend the proceedings, giving Republican-controlled legislatures more time to change their certifications.

A major advocate for this plan was lawyer John Eastman, founding director of the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence and a former law clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas (whose wife was also working to overturn the election). Trump brought Eastman to the White House to help him persuade Mike Pence of the plan’s legality, contrary to the opinion of White House lawyers. As January 6 approached, Pence became more adamant that he lacked the authority to do anything except count the state-certified votes. Nevertheless, on the evening of January 5, Trump issued another false statement, “The Vice President and I are in total agreement that the Vice President has the power to act.”

Sending a mob to the Capitol on January 6

On December 19, five days after the Electoral College met and elected Joe Biden, President Trump called for protestors to come to Washington on January 6. By then, Trump’s campaign staff, White House lawyers, and cabinet members were telling him that he had no legal path to re-election.

In his speech to the crowd on the morning of January 6, Trump repeated his claims that the election had been stolen and that Vice President Pence had the power to “stop the steal.” The crowd should march on the Capitol to encourage Pence and Republican members of Congress to do the right thing. “And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

Inciting rather than trying to stop the violence

While the mob invaded the Capitol, President Trump watched the spectacle on TV for over three hours. During that time, he made no effort to defend the Capitol or support the police who were under violent attack—no phone calls, no orders. Instead, he further incited the crowd by tweeting at 2:24 PM, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.” He was still entirely focused on his own agenda.

And immediately after President Trump sent his tweet, the violence escalated. Between 2:25 p.m. and 2:28 p.m., rioters breached the East Rotunda doors, other rioters breached the police line in the Capitol Crypt, Vice President Pence had to be evacuated from his Senate office, and Leader McCarthy was evacuated from his Capitol office.

While this was going on, Mark Meadows and White House lawyer Pat Cipollone met briefly with President Trump. When they came out, Cipollone was demanding that more be done to protect Mike Pence from the crowd that was now calling for his hanging. Meadows’ reply, according to testimony from his assistant, Cassidy Hutchinson, was, “You heard him, Pat. He thinks Mike deserves it. He doesn’t think they’re going anything wrong.”

Legal consequences?

The Select Committee identified a number of federal crimes they believe were committed in the effort to overturn the 2020 election. These include obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to make a false statement, and the effort to incite, assist, or aid and comfort an insurrection. The committee had the authority only to refer Donald Trump and his co-conspirators for prosecution, but the power to prosecute rests with the Justice Department.

Here I would like to compare Donald Trump’s conspiracy to Richard Nixon’s obstruction of justice in the Watergate scandal. Although Nixon was pardoned by his successor, he did at least suffer the consequence of being driven from office. Senators of his own party presented him with an ultimatum—either resign or be convicted of the articles of impeachment approved by the House of Representatives. In that respect, the historical record is pretty clear as to Nixon’s guilt. This is not the case for Donald Trump, who was impeached twice for some form of election interference, but was acquitted twice because his party stood by him. In this case, the historical record is incomplete and misleading. That leaves it to the criminal justice system to establish his guilt.

Americans must ask: Which is worse, to risk further national division and conflict by prosecuting Trump and his co-conspirators, or to allow the perpetrators of this serious national conspiracy to escape without legal consequences? Which is worse, to set the precedent that a former president can be prosecuted (perhaps inviting frivolous or vindictive prosecutions in the future), or to set the precedent that a former president is immune from prosecution, despite the seriousness of his crimes? President Nixon conspired to cover up a burglary, but Donald Trump conspired to steal the presidency.

Voters Still Matter (mostly)

November 17, 2022

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This is admittedly an odd title for a post about a democratic country, especially one that has traditionally regarded itself as the leader of the free world. The idea that voters matter is one of those things we should not have to say, like Black Lives Matter or human rights matter. But since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, many serious and well-informed people have warned us that American democracy is not as secure as we might think.

Four years ago, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt published a book called How Democracies Die. They pointed out that in recent decades, most breakdowns of democracy have occurred not through military coups, but through democratic election of leaders who used the power of their office to promote authoritarian rule. All societies produce an extremist demagogue from time to time. In the most democratic countries, they usually don’t get elected. The threat to democracy arises when “fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream….” First those established parties fail to stop them from being elected; then they fail to stop them from violating democratic norms.

Levitsky and Ziblatt warned that Donald Trump looked like such an authoritarian leader, and they did so two years before the January 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol and the serious attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The House committee investigating those events has made a strong case that the defeated president and his associates resorted not only to legal court challenges—which they lost for lack of evidence—but also to illegal means like pressuring state election officials to “find” more votes, arranging for fake electors to come forward, persuading the Vice President to exceed his legal authority by refusing to accept certified state results, and sending a mob to the Capitol to impede the certification process.

These events raised legitimate concerns that having failed in 2020, election deniers could win control of key positions in battleground states, putting them in a position to interfere with the 2024 election. They could use unfounded rumors of election fraud as an excuse to suppress votes in heavily Democratic areas or reject the results if the Democrat won the state. Once back in power at the national level, who knows what other measures MAGA Republicans could take to weaken democratic institutions and consolidate their power. I have not been as pessimistic about American democracy as some, but I certainly shared these concerns.

Democracy held

I am relieved to report that the voters blocked the worst outcomes in most cases. In races for governor, prominent election deniers went down to defeat in Pennsylvania (Doug Mastriano), Wisconsin (Tim Michels) and Arizona (Kari Lake). In races for secretary of state, they lost in Michigan (Kristina Karamo), Nevada (Jim Marchant) and Arizona (Mark Finchem). Although election deniers did win some races, they were generally in solidly red states where Republican candidates could win fair elections anyway.

The 2022 midterms were the third big loss for Trump and MAGA Republicans. They failed to win the presidency or either house of Congress in 2020; they failed to overturn the results of that election; and they failed to set the stage for the subversion of future elections, at least for now.

Another reason to be hopeful is that the voting and ballot counting went much more smoothly than many of us expected. Many of the losers conceded, and few besides Trump called the process corrupt. No angry mobs appeared at polling or counting places.

Many Republicans are now blaming Trump and his minions for costing them the big midterm victory they expected. We hear a lot of talk of “moving beyond Trump.” The response to his announcement of another campaign for the presidency has been less than enthusiastic, and his prospects of winning another term seem to be getting dimmer all the time.

Dangers ahead

Threats to democracy remain, however, especially at the state level, and those threats also affect the strength of democracy at the federal level. Gerrymandering remains alive and well in many states. The narrow Republican victory in the House of Representatives is probably due less to persuading more voters to vote Republican, and more to redrawing voting districts to squeeze more seats from the voters the party already had.

Consider my own state of North Carolina, which is one of the most gerrymandered states. The state has a nearly evenly divided electorate and a divided government: a Democratic governor but a Republican-controlled legislature. Donald Trump narrowly won the state in 2020 with 49.9% the vote. Republicans have been working for years to turn their legislative advantage into permanent control of the state. They have succeeded in redrawing election districts so that they can get about two-thirds of the seats even if they win only half of the overall vote. This remains true even though the state Supreme Court rejected their latest—and probably most extreme—redistricting based on the 2020 census.

In the midterms, NC Republicans hoped to win a supermajority that would enable them to override any vetoes coming from the more democratically elected governor. They succeeded in the state Senate, but fell just short in the House. But they did win a Republican majority on the state Supreme Court, which makes that body less likely to interfere with gerrymandering in the future. If that weren’t enough, NC Republicans have also brought a case before the Supreme Court of the United States arguing that state courts do not even have the authority to review legislative decisions relating to voting. This “independent state legislature theory” has not convinced the high court in the past, but appears to have gained support since Trump appointees have joined the court. (Oral arguments for Moore v. Harper are scheduled for December.) Despite being an evenly divided state, North Carolina is perilously close to establishing one-party legislative rule, without the normal executive or judicial checks and balances we associate with democracy. Arizona and Wisconsin are other states teetering on the edge of authoritarian rule. Florida may have already gone over the edge.

Even if election deniers have lost in most statewide races, they have often won in House districts, especially those gerrymandered to favor Republicans. The Washington Post counted 150 election deniers among the roughly 220 elected House Republicans. On January 6, 139 Republicans voted against certification of Biden’s election. One can easily imagine an even larger number doing so next time.

As welcome as it would be, the departure of Donald Trump from the scene would not necessarily turn the Republican Party into a defender of democracy. Even if the party does not need him as its leading voice, it still needs his supporters, many of whom were well on their way to being radicalized by right-wing media long before Trump rode down the escalator in 2015. MAGA supporters will constitute the largest and most aggressive bloc within the Republican-controlled House. They can exert great pressure on their leaders and more moderate members to cater to their anti-establishment impulses, perhaps by impeaching President Biden or his cabinet members, conducting endless investigations and hearings based on unfounded conspiracy theories, shutting down the government by refusing to pass a budget, or forcing the government to default on its obligations by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. What a majority of voters would actually like Congress to do might count for little in this scenario.

Voters have narrowly warded off the most immediate threat to democracy, but much remains to be done. American democracy requires two parties (at least) willing to engage each other with honest debate on issues, compromise when necessary to achieve a result the majority can live with, and accept defeat gracefully. The temptation will always exist to resort to undemocratic means to have one’s way, but responsible leaders will resist it. The voters must have the information they need to identify politicians who do not respect the rules, as well as the voting power to defeat them.

The AI Economy (part 4)

November 4, 2022

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Here I discuss the Epilogue of Roger Bootle’s The AI Economy, in which he raises deeper questions about the resemblance between artificial intelligence and human intelligence. Many technology enthusiasts imagine a point where AI becomes so advanced that it equals or surpasses human intelligence. Victories of computers over humans in challenging mental tasks like playing chess are only the beginning of what they think is coming.

The popular term associated with this turning point is the “Singularity”:

The Singularity is now generally taken to mean the point at which AI acquires “general intelligence” equal to a human being’s. The Singularity is so important, not only because beyond this point machines will be able to outperform humans at every task, but also because AI will be able to develop itself without human intervention and this AI can therefore spin ever upward, out of our understanding—or control.

In this scenario, humans would not only be replaceable in most forms of work, but could be enslaved or even annihilated by the intelligent machines, as some science fiction movies imagine. Opinions on the Singularity range from the belief that it is inevitable and imminent, to the belief that it is “eons away” (Noam Chomsky) and perhaps impossible in principle.

Enter philosophy

Whether the Singularity is possible depends on whether a mechanical artifact can ever be considered the equivalent of a human being, or if the distinction between the two is ultimately insurmountable. Bootle insists that this is a philosophical question beyond the scope of computer science. The discussion brings up the old mind/body problem, the question of whether what we call “mind” is ultimately reducible to a mechanistic and material system that we can emulate in a dead machine.

[I]f a group of technicians believes that they can venture into this most difficult territory of the relationship between mind and matter without reference to the contemplations of philosophers over the last 2,000 years and without even considering the religious view, I wonder if they can really appreciate the depth of the issues.

Bootle also seems to realize that one cannot dismiss the problem simply by rejecting traditional religious supernaturalism or early modern mind/body dualism. Even if mind is not a distinct immaterial thing, it may have qualities quite different from a mechanical brain. A key question is whether human intelligence is reducible to computation. Although he does not get into detailed philosophical or scientific arguments, he shares his own intuition that it is not. He attaches great significance to the fact that human intelligence is embodied in a living body that is capable of emotion.

[E]motion is a key part of how humans make decisions and also a key part of their creativity. This is a completely different realm from computation…

Perhaps our ability to engage with the physical world, to encounter and understand it, and to be, is rooted in the fact that we are incarnated. If that were true, then it would prove impossible to create, artificially, out of nonbiological matter, what we would recognize as intelligence.

In other words, a mind such as ours is more than a piece of software that could run just as well on a different platform, a dead machine instead of a living body.

Although the computational theory of mind and the mechanistic conception of reality on which it is based have been dominant ideas of the Machine Age, some scientists are open to alternative perspectives. Bootle cites the work of physicist Roger Penrose, who founded the Penrose Institute to study the distinctly creative qualities of human intelligence.

Creative experience

Although I am not a philosopher, my own studies in philosophy and science have led me to similar conclusions. One important source for me has been Charles Hartshorne’s “philosophy of shared creative experience.” In an essay with that title, he begins by saying, “In every moment each of us accomplishes a remarkable creative act. What do we create? Our own experience at that moment” (Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method, p.2).

Consider what your mind is doing as you read these words. Can you process them just by applying an abstract algorithm, a computational procedure? Don’t you have to interpret each word in the light of a multitude of past experiences, some as recent as the preceding words, but others as remote as much earlier life experience. (Doesn’t it matter whether you’ve ever heard of Hartshorne, or have some idea of what philosophy is?) Many people might read these words, but you are having a unique experience by constructing a cumulative synthesis of your prior experiences up to this moment. Hartshorne says, “By no logic can many entities, through law, exhaustively define a single new entity which is to result from them all.” Also, you can be conscious of what you are doing, especially after philosophers have encouraged you to reflect on it!

This line of reasoning draws the distinction between living thinkers and machines quite sharply, since even our smartest machines experience nothing! Never mind, say the AI enthusiasts. Programmers just have to find the right logic, the right algorithm, the right wiring, and a network of dead circuits will acquire consciousness and the capacity for experience. A human brain is nothing but a network of connections anyway, isn’t it? Or does the fact that it is composed of one of the marvels of the universe, the living cell, make a difference? (I am also open to the possibility that smaller, naturally occurring parts of nature can experience something, the philosophical position known as panexperientialism. Bootle touches on that by suggesting that “mind, in some form, is at the the root of the universe.” Some distinguished philosophers and scientists, such as William James and Alfred North Whitehead, have taken that position, and some interpretations of quantum physics support it.)

Machines are externally programmed, but without feelings and life experience they are not truly self-motivated. They can learn, but their learning is limited by what their programmers want them to learn. A robot can simulate being happy to see you, but it is not actually happy to see you. A robot can display caregiving behavior under the right conditions, but it cannot really care about a child or love the child unconditionally. Machines can assist us in fulfilling our human aspirations, but they can hardly lead us, since they have no aspirations of their own. Without true self-motivation, they cannot be truly autonomous from their designers and programmers. Those who make the machines must not abdicate responsibility for them or avoid accountability to society for what they get them to do.

Time will tell if Bootle’s skepticism about the Singularity is justified. In the meantime, Bootle’s reasonable assessment of the possible economic impacts of artificial intelligence is probably more useful than more speculative dreams of technological utopia or dystopia.