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Which way now for the Egyptian people?

February 12, 2011

Any day that a dictator is overthrown is a good day, because it demonstrates the ability that people can have to exercise power for themselves. I am thrilled to see people rejoicing with the feeling that they have freed themsevles from a long and vile dictatorship. What is thrilling to see is all of that suppressed energy and humanity breaking out as if for the first time in a very long time.

But the Egyptians are not free of what has really held them down for not just the past thirty years, but for over half a century.

One of the things that worries me is that Egyptians are deluding themselves about the Egyptian military. One frequent narrative that some Egyptians seem to be telling themselves is that “the military is on our side”, “we all have family members in the military”.

But in truth, for the past thirty years and more the Egyptian military has been at the heart of violent repression of the Egyptian people. The Egyptian military is the chief terrorist in Egypt. A group of Egyptian military personnel assassinated Anwar El Sadat and since then the Egyptian military has scapegoated  the Muslim Brotherhood as the source of such violence.

The chief torturer of Egyptian society, now Vice President, Omar Suleiman, who  is rightly despised by Egyptians, perhaps very nearly as much as Mubarak, also holds the rank of general, and at least up till today had de jure control of the Egyptian military.

Further, in the past two weeks there has been much evidence showing how the military has violently tried to undermine the protests. It facilitated the thuggish attacks on the protesters in Tahrir square.  The military allowed the caravan of thugs to slip through the security checkpoints where the military had been patting down all other people going into the square.  Then, by shooting at the protesters and laying down a smoke screen, it held back the protesters who counter-attacked to expel the thugs from the square , and guarded the thugs’ flank as they retreated.

There has also been ample evidence that the military has been conducting massive detentions of protesters and journalists, as well as torturing people at those detention centers.

It should also be mentioned that the current president of Egypt, Mohammed Tantawi, who has also been the longtime defense minister, and the current prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, are all military officials and were all appointed to their highest positions by Mubarak. So one could quite legitimately say that the military/Mubarak dictatorship is still enitrely in power.

Part of Mubarak’s strategy seems to have been clear: attack the protesters, goad them into violence and acting chaotically, and impede journalists from reporting on that violence against the protesters. The military has been absolutely and visibly a player in that strategy. But what has also become clear is that that strategy was not going to work, so the military has moved onto the next phase of its strategy. It has pushed out Mubarak and, knowing that the protesters likely would not swallow Suleiman, as the U.S. would have wanted them to and therefore as the Egyptian military also probably would have wanted them to, it seems they’ve diminished his presence, too. But Egypt does not now have a civilian leadership. Members of the protests are not being incorporated in a new governing system. Rather, what we literally have now is a military dictatorship. No one knows to what extent they will restrict their own dictatorship. In fact, to whatever real extent that it will be curtailed, that will be due to the force exerted on it by the protesters. And their viewing the military as savior, as some of its incredibly naïve and shortsighted self-appointed leaders like Mohammed ElBaradei have presented it, is not going to help free Egypt from over fifty years of a military dictatorship. (It’s also rather naïve and self-aggrandizing for another one of its self-appointed leaders, Google executive Wael Gohnim, to be tweeting “Revolution 2.0: Mission Accomplished”, which happens to include the modish and slightly insulting title of his new book.)

My wager is that right now the military has perhaps successfully bought itself some more time to try to maneuver into place the best government for itself that it can get. Well, that’s probably not even a wager. That’s probably just a matter of course. Of course, the military wants to maintain its power.

In turn, some protesters, however, are thankfully sanguine about the military’s role and are unwaveringly maintaining that their demands, such as for a civilian government, have not been met.

But throughout the recent upheaval, the military has executed a mostly successful public relations campaign. While standing over protesters and watching them as they were beaten by thugs or while themselves imprisoning and torturing the protesters, the military has nevertheless presented itself , particularly with the help of uncritical Western media, as having nobly stood neutral and foresworn violence.

It is, however, overwhelmingly hard to believe that the military, which for decades, including the last few weeks, has been at the heart of violent repression of the Egyptian people, has miraculously and inexplicably transformed itself into something that will put the interests it has in maintaining its power to the side and cooperate with the Egyptian people in forming a new more just order. Egypt’s new military dictator, now named Tantawi rather than Mubarak, has, and just like his predecessor, been a staunch enemy of any increase of freedom in Egyptian society. So all of us must pay attention to see how the current regime treats those protesters who see the military for what it is—and, even given what I have said, there are many who do—they who might not rest content and who might not walk away from the barricades.

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Fortunate News about the U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act

February 9, 2011

From the perspective of Barack Obama and the leadership of the Republican and Democratic parties, a bill for keeping in place several “key provisions” of the U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act accidentally failed to pass yesterday.

To review, the three expiring provisions, which were extended for a year at the end of last February, are:

The “roving wiretap” provision allows the FBI to obtain wiretaps from a secret intelligence court, known as the FISA court, without identifying what method of communication is to be tapped.

The “lone wolf” measure allows FISA court warrants for the electronic monitoring of a person for whatever reason — even without showing that the suspect is an agent of a foreign power or a terrorist. The government has said it has never invoked that provision, but the Obama administration said it wanted to retain the authority to do so.

The “[…]records” provision allows FISA court warrants for any type of record, from banking to library to medical, without the government having to declare that the information sought is connected to a terrorism or espionage investigation.

(Source) 

It is fortunate news that these provisions failed to receive extension. But let us be clear about what has happened. Simply the paper cover for what U.S. intelligence services will likely continue to do whether or not the law on the books authorizes them has been removed. That may have a slight benefit. But we already know that from a legal point of view U.S. intelligence, and more generally U.S. law enforcement, essentially do what they want without any real accountability. This is especially true of covert U.S. intelligence. Many of their most invasive information gathering procedures against Americans require authorization from secret courts, but investigations by the U.S. justice department have found that in thousands of cases the F.B.I. has decided that not even that is necessary.



Update: The failure to pass an extension of those expiring provision is likely just a temporary turn around. It appears that the extension is expected to pass under other House rules.

Solidarity

January 30, 2011

 

Solidarity Poster(Fullsized PDF version)

Ambiguities around Competition and Cooperation

January 21, 2011

In terms of their positive senses, “competitive” means strong and, coordinately, “competition” means for a particular party there are other parties that are as strong as it on the same things.

In their negative senses, “competitive” means trying to defeat other parties, and “competition” means being in the process of trying to defeat other parties.

Between the positive and negative senses of “competition”, there is a corresponding semi-neutral sense:   being in the process of trying to defeat other parties that are equally strong as one.

We can say that this is a semi-neutral sense of the word because it describes a situation which is isomorphic to that described by  “cooperation”.[1]  The only slight difference is the hint of a motivation. Though when parties are equal there is no outward way of distinguishing whether they are competing or cooperating, we would not wish to say that “cooperation” means being in the process of trying to defeat other parties that are equally strong as oneself.

“Cooperative” in a negative sense means weak. In a positive sense, it means working well with other parties (or, perhaps, working for mutual gain—though there are ambiguities in this formulation). “Cooperation”, then, in the positive sense means being in the process of working well with other parties.

But what would a negative sense of “cooperation” be? Being weak with other parties? Being submissive to other parties? But we can hardly give these an unequivocal negative meaning unless the other party is presumed not to also be cooperative. It is irrelevant if two parties are submissive to each other and neither converts to being dominant. No harm comes from that. We could call that the semi-neutral sense of “cooperation”.

In order to derive an unequivocally negative sense for “cooperation” we must import the negative sense of “competition”: that is, being in the process of trying to defeat other parties. Then “cooperation” is negative when it means being in the process of being weak with or submitting to a party that is trying to defeat one.

Thus “cooperation” can only have a dependent negative sense. Its negativity depends on the negativity of “competition” being operative. Whereas “competition” has an absolute negative sense and a dependent positive one. Where “competition” is positive it describes a situation which is (outwardly) isomorphic to that described by “cooperation”.

But if it only outwardly describes a situation which is the same as cooperation, what should we say about its inner content, which might differ from cooperation—namely, its motivation?

As it turns out, we already have the inner contents of cooperation and competition before us: they are described by “cooperative” and “competitive”, respectively. As we saw, they each have a negative and a positive sense. However, I would argue that the positive sense of “competitive” and the negative sense of “cooperative” are non-sequiturial to their unique identifications. We already have good enough and less ambiguous words for what is expressed by these ways of using these words. We gave them. They are “strong” and “weak”. But neither of these implies “competitive” or “cooperative”. One can clearly be weak and yet still be capable of being described as “competitive”; and likewise, one can clearly be strong and yet still be capable of being described as “cooperative”.

Now, for simplicity, I will suggest that “competitive” and “cooperative”, as words for motivations, describe dispositions to act. “Cooperative” means the disposition to cooperate with others (in the positive sense), that is, as I put it, to work well with others or to work for some mutual gain (this is always a definite consequence of cooperation or cooperativeness but not necessarily of competition or competitiveness). Likewise, “competitive” means the disposition to compete with others (in a negative sense). Thus we find that the inner contents of cooperation and competition, even when they are outwardly isomorphic and hence outwardly isomorhpically good, are dissimilar and opposed. The inner content of the good sense of “cooperation” is the positive sense of “cooperative” and the inner content of the good sense of “competition” is the negative sense of “competitive”. To succinctly rephrase all of this: the good sense of “competition” is, as I’ve said, outwardly isomorphic to the good sense of “cooperation”. But under the relevant senses of “cooperative” and “competitive”, “cooperative” means a disposition to produce “cooperation” in the good sense, whereas “competitive” does not mean a disposition to produce “competition” in the good sense. It can just as well produce “competition” in the negative sense, that is, the simple defeat of a weaker party by a stronger party. There is no assurance that an equal competitor exists such that the situation which is outwardly isomorphic to pure cooperation obtains.

Let me conclude by saying that this has primarily been intended as a study of the linguistic uses of two parallel sets of words and my first goal was to lay out in as clear a fashion as I could the ambiguities in the uses of these words. I thought that was a worthwhile task in itself, because much confusion and unnecessary debate arises from these words being used ambiguously. When I speak of actors as “being governed by competition” and what that means (as I do in “A Discussion of Facebook and the Economics of Information”) I use a specific sense of “competition”, the one which I think is most descriptive: i.e., aiming to defeat another party; or, as I put in “A Discussion of Facebook and the Economics of Information”, “to be governed by competition means an actor will leverage any advantages he has” and gain an even greater advantage. But others may be overusing the positive sense of “competition” and thus not seeing its real content. It is one of my goals here and elsewhere to lay bear and analyze this real content

In turn, to distinguish the ambiguities in the two parallel sets of words, I spoke of positive and negative senses of those words. I then went on to derive some interesting results from following a certain path of combining of these senses. However, I realize that I did not offer any argument why those were the negative and positive senses of those words. To do so would take a different sort of analysis than was conducted here. But let me just conclude that it does seem to me that if asked to assign those senses the designations of “positive” and “negative”, most people would probably agree with my assignments. So let me ask that people who read this make their own stances known below.

(Obviously this setting is not conducive to obtaining the purest or most scientific results, and I probably won’t get many results at that. But I thought I’d try anyways!)


 [1] I realized I should probably say more about what I mean here. What I essentially say is that pure cooperation between either perfect equals or perfect non-equals or anything else in between and pure competition between perfect equals are outwardly isomorphic. What I mean is that they have the same overt outward effects: no party comes out any superior to how it was before. For more on this idea, see “Some Basic Social-Economic Theses” and the final block-quoted passage of “A Discussion of Facebook and the Economics of Information”.

A Discussion of Facebook and the Economics of Information

January 20, 2011

I was talking to a friend of mine a few nights ago about the effects of Facebook providing corporations with a wealth of information about users (something I think they deny they do; but for the sake of argument, let’s assume they’re lying). Now, to be a “contrarian”, as he said, he argued, contra me, that it would actually be a good thing for consumers and so we shouldn’t worry about or look askance at Facebook turning over information about us to corporations. However, I don’t think it makes any sense, assuming those corporations are governed by competition (a concept to be defined further down below), to expect the benefits of their having more information about you or I to redound to anyone but themselves.

*          *          *

Here’s his argument reconstructed in quotes from the conversation:

 Well, if for once I may play the contrarian, isn’t marketing and advertising just market making? As it goes now, they’re pretty inefficient forms of market making. But we’re moving towards being able to instantly match up prospective buyers with what they want or need to buy, much more efficiently than we can do now. So you could argue that we have an incentive to submit to this kind of data mining. I’m not saying that it’s something we should strive towards. But it’s something to consider.

[…]

If you’re a widget seller, Facebook gives you more information as to who might enjoy your widgets and who you ought to market your widgets to. Back when Faceboook wasn’t around, maybe you might have had to run adverts on the TV or whatnot. It’s all one-way.

[…]

Now that you’ve got Facebook, you can buy a rather detailed (age, gender, location, other interests, etc.) set of data about who’s interested in your widgets and market those widgets directly to the people who’ll be most interested in buying them.

[…]

It’s much better than what you’ve got before.  And what we’re proceeding towards is something like this. I’m a consumer. I want or need to buy this particular widget on this particular day (and perhaps time) in a particular quantity for a particular price. And that order gets filled instantly […] or I could have my purchasing choices predicted for me and taken care of out of sight,  because whoever it is that’s fulfilling my order has perfect information about my preferences based on the data I’ve given them. Why shouldn’t I hand over the data?

I’m not fully behind this at all, but it’s something interesting to think about. It’d be an incredibly efficient market, and the price I’d pay for your widget would be as low as possible because you wouldn’t have to predict how many widgets you’d need to make, among other things. Maybe I wouldn’t need to even make decisions in the first place.

And here’s my argument reconstructed from the conversation:

 I don’t see how advertising helps the consumer more efficiently buy things. The goal of marketing is to defeat the consumer and to get them to give over as much of their cash as possible.

[…]

I think you’re overlooking the economic exchange dynamics in which [data mining and marketing] is taking place. The widget seller’s raison d’être is not to get widgets to those who need them at the lowest cost to those who need them. The widget seller’s goal is to get the most people to buy his widgets at the highest price possible. To that end, the more information he has about his potential consumers, the better for him, but not […] for them.

[…]

The seller of widgets isn’t concerned with satisfying my needs. He’s concerned with satisfying his needs. The only case where these motivations have the same outcomes is when he and I are on equal footing.

Now for more of what we said I think it helps to present some of the actual back and forth of the conversation:

Him: If the seller of widgets has perfect knowledge of your preferences, wouldn’t he be able to satisfy your needs?

Me: It’s not a question of being able to. It’s a question of, would he? And then it’s a question of what really is governing the dynamics of the exchange.

Him: Assuming that he could be undercut at any time, he and the rest of his fellow sellers have no other choice.

Me: I don’t see what that assumption has to do with anything we’ve been talking about. We’ve just been talking about the consequences of one party, a supplier, coming to have more and more information about another, the consumer. I’ve been arguing simply that more information for the supplier means more power for the supplier. Hence it becomes more likely that the supplier will be able to extract a higher price for his product. This applies for any supplier we might put in. The question is not whether prices are held down by competition. The question is whether prices go up when the suppliers gain more information [over consumers]. That’s what I’ve been arguing. Of course, if the supplier is able to maintain a monopoly then he can drive up prices to the roof. But that’s a different matter, and not one I’ve been talking about at all.

Him: Well, the implicit assumption is that other possible entrants have access to the same information as that (soon-to-be) lone supplier does.

Me: Yes! Hence they’ll be able to charge higher prices, too, like him.

Him: Why would they? Nobody would buy from them if they charged higher prices than him.

Me: Not higher than him. But they as a group will be able to charge higher prices because of their improved information. They can’t compete to be better at something that they’re all the same at. They’ll compete at different points. The whole question was about the effect of greater information [introduced on the general supply-side of the system].

Him: But there’s nothing to stop others from also entering the market and hence undercutting the existing players until some kind of equilibrium price is reached. Just because they have greater information doesn’t necessarily mean that they have more power.

Me: Do they or don’t they? Is information irrelevant or not?

[That’s the question.]

The original idea was that Facebook gives new information to the suppliers. So how is the market changed in such a way that giving the suppliers more information about the consumers actually redounds to the consumer’s benefit, and not just the supplier’s?

Him: They get a lower price. That’s it.

Me: But I haven’t seen any reason that would happen. In fact, I’ve been arguing that the opposite occurs. The consumer gets worse prices. Imagine the role that information about the other party plays in a simple exchange situation where I, say, try to sell my antique rifle to you. The more you know about what I’m willing to sell it at, the better for you. But if I’m successfully able to [conceal how much I think it’s worth], the better for me.   Well, consumer-supplier roles are kind of switched there, but it doesn’t matter. The seller of the rifle could just as well have better information about what the buyer is willing to pay.

Him: I don’t dispute that, in that it’s difficult to see how this system could work the way it ought to when supply is limited even to the point in your example.

Me: I never assumed there weren’t a billion antique rifles out on the market. How would that change anything about the role that information plays?

That’s where our debate about this subject ends.

With regard to our original conversation, I felt, after some admittedly false starts (which I’ve mostly excised from the above conversation!), that I had gotten around to presenting the fundamental reasons why we have no reason to look kindly on or expect any benefits from the consumer-data mining we were talking about. But the next day I decided to try to give a summary of those fundamental reasons. Since they apply to economics in general and because they stand behind much of my social philosophy and because I’ve not yet been able to finish giving a thorough explication of them in a longer form, I thought I’d quote this brief stab:

I just want to see if you agree or not with the basic point I was trying to make last night with regard to the expected economic effects from Facebook providing more information about consumers to suppliers, because I stand by it and to ignore it is to fall for one of the big lies of economics: that universal competition ultimately drives down prices or makes things run more efficiently for all.

First we should note that if all players in the market have perfect information about everyone else in the market, then, indeed, all else being equal, no players will become better or worse off as more and more economic exchanges are performed and regardless of whether players are governed by cooperation or competition.

Now, to be governed by competition means an actor will leverage any advantages he has. So for instance if actor A knows that the “true” value of a commodity is U but actor B thinks the “true” value of a commodity is U-9, then, A will simply pay U-9 for the commodity. If A is governed by cooperation he will pay U. Don’t ask why too much at this point. These are simply consequences of the definitions of what it means to be governed by competition or cooperation.

So the second we introduce even the smallest difference—that is, in this case, inequality of information—into the market, the ultimate outcomes of running exchanges indefinitely depend quite a bit on whether actors are governed by competition or cooperation, that is, whether they compete or cooperate with each other.

It is a simple consequence of the definition of competition that in the long-run all advantage will accrue to the party that starts off with the most advantage. It is a simple consequence of the definition of cooperation that in the long-run all advantage will be equally distributed.

Making reference to exchanges, or what are picturesquely called “markets” in economic doctrine, in which there are more than two economic actors changes nothing. Let there be three actors. There can be two buyers and one seller or two sellers and one buyer. Still, under competition, the party with the greatest advantage at the start comes out with the greatest advantage at the end.* Competition solves no problems in the long-run. Competition does not bring any harmony or evenly dispersed advantage to society. Competition only eats away at society. The only harmony it leads to is the harmony between the last man and himself, assuming he doesn’t care that he’s alone.

(For an even more concise statement of some of the basics of these views, see “Some Basic Social-Economic Theses“.)

*          *          *

So it’s simple. We’re told to assume that we’re all competing with each other, that we’re all competing to glean the greatest advantage from our economic intercourse with each other. That’s the postulated nature of homo economicus. Consequently, the more advantage one has going into an exchange the more one is going to have coming out of it. (Isn’t competition all about selecting the winners?) Corporations getting more information about us via Facebook gives them a greater advantage and hence means they’ll be able to glean greater advantage coming out of their dealings with us. I know if you’re my competitor you probably don’t want me to think this. So, of course, corporations, marketers and advertisers want us to believe that it’s better for us to let them know more about us. Don’t be so easily duped! If I were you, then just for myself as a competitor, I’d hope I wouldn’t fall for this ideology. This whole big lie of economics is simply meant to make us more powerless. Competition solves no problems. Not yours. Not mine. But if you’re going to deal with someone who’s resolute on trying to beat you, then compete as a competitor. You have no reason to cooperate with those who are trying to beat you. Make it a little bit more difficult for them to run you over. In fact, why not band together?


* We were originally essentially concerned with the relationship between two economic actors, which for perhaps arbitrary reasons we call “seller” and “buyer”, and how providing just one of those economic actors with more information about the relevant dispositions of the other changes the outcome of the exchange. I argue that in this simple and fundamental model of economic exchange, giving greater advantage to one party or actor going into a competitive exchange leads to that party coming out of it with greater advantage than otherwise. So, if the “seller” (the marketers in the Facebook discussion) has more information about the dispositions of the “buyer” (the consumers in the Facebook discussion), then it becomes more likely that in a competitive exchange between them, the seller will come out better than otherwise and the buyer will come out worse than otherwise. My friend’s objection to this, which I take to be a nonsequitur because it only complicates the situation by adding more competitors and simply delaying what I argue will happen, was that sellers could undercut each other. For the sake of demonstration, let’s look at this as an auction and for that reason let’s switch things again such that there is now one seller and multiple buyers, as in an auction. If all potential buyers have perfect information about the item up for sale and about all first and higher order states of information of their competing buyers (so for instance, A has perfect information about the item up for sale, and he has perfect information about the information that all of his competitors have, to wit, that they have perfect information about the item up for sale and that they have perfect information about the information that all of their competitors have, and so on), then WHO GETS THE ITEM? Answer: It is rationally undecidable. All equally want it and all will equally try to get it and none has the means more than any other to get it. So none can come out on top where they are all the same. In order for an outcome to come out of competitive dynamics that differs from cooperation, there has to be some difference between competitors, in this case, in their informational states. The competitor with the best information will end up paying the best or “most correct” price for the item up for auction. Further, all else being equal, if the seller had as good of information as the buyer, he wouldn’t have sold the good! This reiterates the two points I wish to make about competition: competition and cooperation produce the same effects at equilibrium (nothing in the relative positions of players changes), and cooperation tends toward equilibrium (balancing the positions of the players) while competition tends toward disequilibrium (one player, the one who starts off with the most advantageous position, coming to occupy an even more advantageous position).

Some Basic Social-Economic Theses

January 8, 2011

I’d written up this list some time ago, but I’ve just come across it again recently. For a long time I’ve been attempting to come up with a thorough and coherent presentation of my social philosophy. Recently I was applying that philosophy to a problem (specifically, the way giving more information to one side in an exchange changes that exchange, as when Facebook gives information about its users’ preferences to corporations) which I then wrote something about intending to post it here. But I’m waiting on input from someone else, so I’m holding off on posting it for now. Anyways, that discussion, as I said, touches upon this philosophy, and there are some points that I think this succinct theoretical presentation might help clarify. So here it is.

*          *          *

  1. The differences between competition and cooperation are only revealed when there are inequalities between agents.
  2. Even when an inequality is introduced, the same observable behavior takes place under cooperation.
  3. Under competition, however, when an inequality is introduced, the outcome of an exchange will be an increase in the overall inequality.
  4. Under pure competition, price decreases are a transitory state of affairs; the ultimate equilibrium of pure competition, i.e., monopoly or perfect dominance of a market for some good, yields the highest possible prices for the good.
  5. While an active competitor exists, prices will fall, until, if there is an overall inequality between the competitors, the more powerful competitor defeats the other competitor; if the competitor has been defeated and there are no other possible competitors in the market, then prices will reach their maximum and stay there indefinitely.
  6. Hence, to reiterate, the effects of competition only become visible when there are inequalities in the world, and the effects of competition are greater inequalities in the world.
  7. Hence competition between active unequal competitors benefits the most powerful competitor the most.
  8. Compare this to a market existing on pure cooperation: price inflation is impossible; the prices of a good in exchange remain at precisely their lowest. The effects of cooperation are also revealed only when there are inequalities; but the effects of cooperation are to level inequalities with the least possible effort.
  9. We are repeatedly lied to about the effects of competition. Why is this? One benefit to the powerful is that it keeps the less powerful from banding together and cooperating to protect themselves against or defeat powerful individuals whose interests, being competitively aimed at, do not ultimately extend to others.

Pop Quiz

November 16, 2010

Which of the following is true?

  1. There are no rich or poor. They’re really the same. The rich are the poor because they have to do most of the shopping, as well as employing people, to keep the economy going; and the poor are the rich because they get to be employed by the rich and they have to do less shopping than them.
  2. There are rich and poor. The poor are the poor because they have to do most of the work; while the rich are the rich because they get most of the rewards.

Now here’s how Rand Paul answered:

How do you stack up? …

If you answered #2 you got it right!

#1 is the philosophy of paradox and obfuscation.

#2 is the philosophy of truth and common sense.