LoginRegister - Articles for topic category 'Philosophy'

My take on unions

Posted October 13th, 2008 by Talin

Although philisophically I agree with the goal of improving working conditions and wages, my personal experiences with unions have been mostly negative. As a result, my stance towards unionization is more nuanced than simple “pro” or “con”.

The one-sentance executive summary of my position is: “Unions are a net benefit when labor is a commodity, and a net cost when labor is a specialty.”

To make sense of this, I need to examine what is a union, and what is a commodity.

  • A commodity is a kind of good in which all units are more or less interchangeable. Copper is a commodity – there’s no fundamental difference between copper mined in Australia and copper mined in the US.
  • A union is most fundamentally a cartel of labor. That is, it is an agreement by workers not to undercut each other on the price of their labor.

I use the term “commodity labor” to mean jobs in which workers are more or less interchangeable. This may mean that the work is simple enough that anyone can do it – like for example, washing dishes. Or it may mean that the techniques involved are highly standardized and legislated, so that there is little difference between workers. An example of this would be electricians and plumbers.

Specialty labor, on the other hand, is where each worker has a unique skill set that is not easily replaced. This is true in almost any creative field; The one I am most familiar with is software engineering.

For commodity laborers, unions provide an important benefit of maintaining a decent wage. Normally, in an unrestricted free market, the suppliers of a commodity will underbid each other until the price of the commodity drops to just above its “replacement cost”, i.e. the cost to actually produce the commodity. For labor, the replacement cost is called “starvation wages” – the lowest possible that you can pay someone and still keep them alive and producing children. Before the development of unions, such working conditions were common.

Unions are at their most powerful when they have a means to prevent independent workers from undercutting the union price, when they in effect have a monopoly on labor. This is a classic prisoner’s dilemma – an unemployed individual might gain a temporary advantage by agreeing to reduced wages, but he is better off if no one else does the same.

In a specialty labor market, things are quite different. For one thing, workers aren’t competing with each other directly on price, since workers aren’t as interchangeable. If I need someone to work on Windows device drivers, I not only need to find someone who knows about that specific application domain, I need to decide how much I want to pay vs. the skill level I am likely to get – that is, I can get someone really good and pay a lot for it, or I can get someone not quite as good and pay less.

A programmer who is highly skilled at these tasks has a great deal of bargaining power and can command high wages. They have no need for a cartel to increase their bargaining power, and in fact such a cartel would merely act as a leveler. Even a mediocre engineer with a poor track record, who doesn’t have quite as much bargaining power, still has a great deal, and they can imagine that someday they might have more. As a result, they are unlikely to want to enter into a system where wages are negotiated collectively rather than individually.

Specialty labor markets are also where the negative effects of unions are most apparent, especially when the union is in a monopoly position. Unions can be a drag on innovation and creativity in a number of important ways, such as by requiring that promotions be based on seniority rather than pure merit. They also create barriers to entry (such as the exorbitant fees required for joining some unions) which might drive away impoverished but enterprising young workers.

A young, inexperienced worker with new ideas who is not weighed down by preconceived notions might fare better in a non-union environment, especially if they are in an industry in which individual creativity and enterprise are well rewarded.

The Bible and Logic

Posted May 26th, 2007 by Talin

As a child I attended Catholic elementary school of a particularly traditional sort: I (along with my brother and three sisters) attended San Juan Capistrano Mission elementary school. This included going to mass in an adobe church every day, being taught by nuns (who I like to refer to as “frustrated women in the costume of a barbarian age”), and generally being inculcated with a sectarian world view. It seems like they did a rather poor job of it, at least in my case, since neither me nor any of my siblings have ever manifested even the slightest tendancy towards theistic belief once they reached adulthood, so fas as I can tell.

I was a very shy and isolated boy, and I didn’t have many friends. To amuse myself during breaks, I would often pretend that I was having a conversation with someone who knew absolutely nothing about humanity, such as an alien or a time traveller. I would imagine that this hypothetical conversant would ask me questions about the world, such as “why do you humans have war?”, and then I would go into a long discussion about the causes of violence and political tensions and so on. Of course, my knowledge of such things was rudimentary and naive, but in many cases I was able to give a reasonably logical answer to the question.

This mental excersize served a useful purpose, in that it helped me sort out my own knowledge, untangling all the kinks and reconciling inconsistencies in what I had been taught. It also served as practice for another sort of mental discipline, which is the knack of being able to step outside my own situation and try to look at things from the point of view of an outside observer – a really, far, far outside observer, one that is not even human. (Of couse, since I still possess human biology and instinct, I can never be 100% successful at this, but its still entertaining to try.)

In other contexts this is known as “jumping out of the system”. An example is playing chess: When you are playing chess your mind is caught up in a “chess system”, where your thoughts are concerned with the positions of the pieces, the opponent’s strategy, and so on, with little concern for things like world events or even the state of your immediate environment. However, when you jump out of the system, you are suddenly able to realize that you are in fact sitting in front of a chess board, playing chess with another person – and that you may choose at any moment to continue playing or not.

As a result of all this, I tended to view the things that I was taught in school from a slightly different perspective. For things like science and math, little internal examination was needed, since those things were clearly self-consistent and didn’t require much combing out of the kinks (and they even had live demonstrations – lab experiments – of the truth of what was being taught!) But other classes – history, geography, politics, and especially religion – required constant internal maintenance in order to keep my mind in a mostly harmonious state where everything made some kind of sense.

Now, all successful religions have methods for immunizing you against the fundamental logical inconsistencies of their sacred texts. One thing that I was taught – and I still believe this is true – is that you can’t make someone a believer (or an unbeliever) through logical argument. There is always a way to rationalize away the logical problems if you really want to – the key is making someone really want to. What I was taught was that the way to “convert” people is to be the kind of person that other people want to be – in other words, to behave so as to set a good example that other people will want to follow. Conversely, people who try to “convince” you that a particular worldview is true generally only succeed in coming off as obnoxious to the listener.

So I was never all that troubled by the logical inconsistencies in the Bible. What was far more troubling to me were the moral inconsistencies. It was clear to me, even at that age, that there were some things that I was being taught that were just plain morally wrong — wrong in the sense that they were in direct contradiction to the principles of “right and wrong” that were taught to me by the very same people.

For example, I was taught that it is morally wrong to unjustly cause suffering to other people and other creatures. At the same time, however, I was also taught that after death, some people will undergo an eternity of suffering in hell. I’m not talking about the watered-down hell that most preachers speak of today, which is merely “the absence of God”. I’m talking about real hellfire, lakes of fire, sadistic demons whose only purpose is to make you suffer forever, that sort of thing.

To this day I find this concept horrifying. What’s worse, is that my fertile imagination could conjure up far more horrifying torments than anything my teachers (or H. R. Giger, or H. P. Lovecraft) could describe. And of course, my perverse brain, like a rabbit caught in the headlights, could often find nothing better to do than to contemplate such horrors and invent new ones. Add to the list of human cruelties – teaching the concept of hell to an imaginative, creative child.

Now, suppose we even accept the idea that there is some sort of cosmic need for punishment (which I don’t neccessarily accept, but let’s take it as a given.) It would be “just” if the degree of punishment was in proportion to the degree of sin.

But human lives are finite, and the amount of sin we are capable of is also finite. Even if Hitler and Stalin, the greatest mass murderers in history, were to be held accountable for each death for which they were responsible, eventually that list must come to an end; Eventually one must cry “enough”. But hell is, or so I was taught, infinite. An infinity of suffering. There is no escape from Dante’s inferno. How is that justice?

Which leads to another problem, which is how are the people in Heaven supposed to be happy and joyful if there are these people down below being tortured? Don’t they have any compassion? Or are they so mean-spirited that they rejoice in the suffering of others? That doesn’t sound like any Heaven that I want to go to.

And then there’s this whole business of Christ dying for your sins. It doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice when he gets rezzed three days later. Oh, sure you’ll go to jail for me, but you’ve already got a “get out of jail free” card? Oh, it’s a few hours of pain on the cross? I’ll admit that the Romans were pretty good at the torture biz, but women all over the world experience long hours of intense suffering during the process of childbirth every day.

And what does the suffering on the cross have to do with my sins anyway? Is this like one of those fictional hostage situations where the hero says “let them go, and take me instead”? In that case, who is the hostage taker? Why are they taking hostages in the first place, and if so, why would they allow an arbitrary substitution of victims? “I don’t care who gets punished, someone is going to suffer for this!”

And don’t get me started on the notion of original sin. How can a sin be “inherited”? That hardly seems like justice.

During my teenage years, all of these internal dilemmas caused me much misery. I knew for sure that I was destined for eternal suffering because I couldn’t force myself to accept the moral contradictions of the religion I had been taught. I worried myself sick over the fact that I wasn’t a “good person” – despite the fact that in every other aspect of my life I was good to a fault. (Well, perhaps not so much “good” as merely meek, unaggressive and generally cowed by a society of peers that didn’t seem to understand me very well.)

The only solution, for me, was to “jump out of the system” – to try and step outside the whole mental construction of religion and consider that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t true. It took a long, long time for me to be comfortable with the idea that the whole thing might just be a story, and I cannot tell you how much of a relief it was to me once I accepted it.

A small digression: One of the things that helped me view religion as a social construction was reading fiction novels such as Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. The irony here is that I was first introduced to the book by a devout, evangelical christian – a self-proclaimed “jesus freak” who I knew briefly in high school, and who saw the book as supportive to her faith.

The views that I hold today are a reflection and an outgrowth of these experiences. As a result of my upbringing, I know far more about the Bible than most people realize. And – because of my tendancy to try and look at things from a non-human perspective – I can see that the Bible is a very human kind of book. And not just any human – it’s a book written by, and for, classical and medieval humans.

The Bible “feels” to me very much like the kind of story that humans in primitive societies would make up. For example, the notion that there is some kind of Cosmic Alpha Male, a “Lord” (meaning “Landowner”) seems to me the kind of thing that a person living in an authoritarian society might project onto the nature of the universe. The idea of a Kingdom of Heaven might make sense for a person who is used to living in kingdoms, but it doesn’t resonate with any of my experience.

If you subtract away the human perspective, there is nothing in nature that conforms to the “celestial kingdom” model of organization. Rather, the rule in nature is not one of top-down, authoritarian control, but rather bottom-up, emergent flows of competition and cooperation. Although some animals instinctively form themselves into authoritarian hierarchies, even these are dynamic systems, in which the alpha wolf can be challenged and replaced by a newer, younger model.

The stories in the Bible are stories about human nature – about love, and revenge, and politics. Some of the stories – such as the book of Job – are quite subtle, reflecting a fairly sophisticated calculus of right and wrong that is far more complex than the simple elementary-school morality I was taught. But even these books are based on a set of underlying premises that are at heart primitive and tribal.

To many of us, the idea of God seems reasonable and natural because we are surrounded with it from childhood, and because we are taught the idea from people who we love and respect. But only a human could dream up such a fantastic notion.

And only a human could believe it.

Atheism and Separation of Church and State

Posted April 1st, 2007 by Talin

Atheism is really Robert’s hot topic, not mine, but I wanted to comment on an article I recently discovered via Newstrust (which I highly recommend) entitled Myth: Atheism is Promoted By Church/State Separation & Religious Neutrality. In the article, the author is attempting to debunk the notion that by maintaining a strict separation between church and state, governments are actually promoting atheism.

I agree with the author this much: that by not promoting a specific religion, the government is not intentionally promoting atheism. But “intentionally promoting” is only a narrow interpretation of the word “promoting”, in that you can promote something without meaning to. The effects of not endorsing a specific religion are complex, and I would argue that in the long run, atheism does much better in an evironment in which there is no established religion.

First, there is the obvious point that in a state with an established religion, it is hard for other creeds or (dis)belief systems to gain a foothold, regardless of whether they be theist or atheist in nature.

However, there’s a more subtle point: Atheism is, in my view, a branch of Skepticism, which has a long and established philosophical history. The other main branch of skepticism is what you might call spiritual skepticism, which expresses doubts about the power of logic and human reason. This other branch is little known today, but was a major force in philosophy during the period of the Greek and Roman civilizations all the way up through the middle ages. Rational skepticism, which we know today, is just the opposite – it expresses doubts about our ability to know the supernatural, while maintaining a strong belief in the power of logic. The reason that this latter form of skepticism is so widespread today is because of the stunning success of the Enlightenment, that is, we live in a world in which logic and reason have been demonstrated to have great power. During the earlier period where we didn’t have such a good understanding of physics and the other sciences, it was possible (even reasonable) to claim that we would never be able to comprehend nature and the “workings of God”.

Despite the fact that these two forms of skepticism are mirror images of each other, they also have much in common.

If we look back over the source of history, we find an interesting pattern, which is that skepticism (in its modern, rational version as well as its historical, spiritiual version) tends to flourish in societies where there is a lot of competition between various faiths and worldviews.

In other words, if everyone around you believes exactly the same thing, then you’d likely come to the conclusion that there must be something to it; Whereas if everyone around you believes something different, but they all claim to know the absolute truth, then you’d know that majority must be wrong; And from there its only a small jump to thinking that they must all be wrong!

Remember the story of the blind men and the elephant? Suppose those six blind wise men came to you and reported their findings. One claims that it like a rope, another like a wall, and so on. Now you have to decide which one to believe. Would you simply pick one at random? Unlikely. Perhaps you have some preference as to which of the six men you consider the “wisest”. Maybe. But most likely of all, you would probably decide that they are all wrong, and that some phenomena had occurred which was beyond their understanding entirely.

Thus, a pluralistic society such as our own, in which there are a multitude of religious beliefs and many arguments over who has the “correct” belief, is exactly the kind of environment that fosters skepticism towards religion in general. And that tolerant, religiously diverse society would be impossible if there was a state-endorsed religion.

The irony here is that it is each religion’s insistence that they are right and all others are wrong that weakens their case; In an environment where each creed insists they alone know the truth, the more they assert this argument the less believable they become.

Which matches very well with my own experience talking to friends and co-workers about religion. I am far from the so-called “bible belt”, so clearly my social network is not representative of the country as a whole. But most of the people who I talk to seem to feel that religion is not only untrue, but unimportant – irrelevant. Not something that they really need to concern themselves with, except for the occasional political junkie who is concerned about the impact of religion on the political process.

I should also mention, it is because of this argument that skepticism flourishes in an environment in which there are competing belief systems, that I also believe that public schools should be allowed, if they wish, to offer religious instruction. I would only offer one restriction: That they must offer the students a choice of which religion they are taught! Or better yet, teach them more than one. No public school would be allowed to teach only a single religious view, there would be a “diversity requirement” for any religious curriculum such that the school must offer a wide enough range of viewpoints.

The benefits of this approach would allow students to extract much of the value of religion (and I would claim that there is much cultural and historical value to be gained), without instilling in them the poisonous dogmatic mindset that is responsible for much of our nation’s ills.

The Post-Modern Dialog, Abridged.

Posted October 31st, 2006 by Talin

Modernism: There are no forbidden questions.
Postmodernism: Why?