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There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains….Corporate expenditures for political purposes, and especially such expenditures by public-service corporations, have supplied one of the principal sources of corruption in our political affairs.

Teddy Roosevelt, The New Nationalism speech, 1910 – Osawatomie Kansas

The decision in Citizens United v. FEC incited much debate and hand-wringing. Are companies people? Is corporate speech protected? Does the metaphor of the market apply to freedom of speech and, if so, does that mean more regulation or no regulation?

One thing it did not anticipate, however, was more transparency.

The New York Times reports today that Citizens United contains within it the lances by which to slay the opaque shadows of corporate interests said to soon dominate the airwaves and field of public debate. The opinion and those who wrote it, notably, Scalia, would have the free and open expression of corporate interests, but only if they are held responsible for their statements.

Says Robert Scalia, “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”

It is not a complete revocation of the unbridled free-market conceit equating speech to a marketplace. But it does impart caution into the notion that if it’s a marketplace, then we should eliminate all regulation forthwith.

I do not believe that this distinction between the market for goods and the market for ideas is valid….producers who are found to be so unscrupulous in their behavior in other markets can be trusted to act in the public interest whether they publish or work for the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune or CBS.

Ronald Coase, on his presentation of The Market for Goods, and the Market for Ideas in NYC in 1974: via Time Magazine

Today, though, markets are far more competitive than ever, just as conservatives maintain, but they’re also hugely more wasteful. The apparent paradox is resolved once we recognize that market failure stems from the very logic of competition itself. As Darwin knew, when individual and group interests diverge, competition not only fails to promote the common good, it also actively undermines it.

Robert Frank, economist, Cornell, remarking on market failure and the sometimes perverse effects of competition: via NYT

It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?

Owen Jones, quoting a tittering dinner-party participant in his recent book, CHAVS The Demonization of the Working Class

Dwight Garner opens his review of Chavs with Jones’ story of the dinner party. Perhaps a dozen people of many walks and both genders, with no obvious predilection toward snobbery, nonetheless quickly and casually snap a whip of derision toward the hapless chav. On which Jones asks, “How has hatred of working-class people become so socially acceptable?”

The word chav has come to convey a thuggish conception of the working class in England. It describes the flash of zirconium-encrusted pendants and track-suits, perhaps dressed up with an edging of Burberry plaid and encircled with a pair of bug-eye, imitation Prada sunglasses, that festoons the imagined ignorant and menacing prole. What may have begun as a criticism of poor taste came to qualify an entire class of individuals, and somehow, it was ok. But why?

Garner collects a handful of answers. He suggests that it may have to do with the increasing degree of wealth and privilege that characterizes the political and cultural elite in England. Much is made of David Cameron’s Concorde-arranged, super-sonic commute to the New York birthday party of Peter Getty, the scion of John Paul Getty.

The Labor Party is no less to blame. Once the guardian of England’s working class and a symbol of upward mobility, they “didn’t really like these people very much” anymore.

But Garner misses the main shift that has cultivated the notion of and the attitude toward the chav. Touching on the culpability of the chav, he quotes Jones: “Those who were poor or unemployed had no one to blame but themselves.” But he doesn’t assign its origin, which sits in the shift toward a market-based meritocracy.

A market-based meritocracy registers one’s merit on the basis of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Wealth will accrue according to one’s merit, and in a market, wealth is the measure of success. Those titans of industry, those John Galts, are each the envy and the measure of success, and success and standing equates to wealth, doled out or denied by the machinations of the market, but in a market-based meritocracy, some poor working slob has only themselves to blame for their station.

What Garner misses is the drastic acceptability of what’s bubbling beneath the surface, “If they were worth a damn, they’d be rich.” There’s no room for respectability among the working class in a market-based meritocracy. The notion of and attitude toward the chav, however appalling, is a necessary outcome. That’s why hatred of working-class people has become so socially acceptable.

This court is the strongest First Amendment court in history. The current majority uses the First Amendment as a powerful tool of deregulation that eliminates virtually all government efforts to regulate anything to do with the flow of information.

Burt Neuborne, professor, New York University School of Law, remarking on the recent 5-4 Supreme Court decisions that knocked down regulation of video games in California and the public financing law in Arizona that, perhaps uncharacteristically, provided gap financing from the state between what a candidate had and what their competitor had in an effort to level the playing field. The case brings to mind the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas, Citizens United, and the general controversy around the notion of freedom of speech. Professor Neuborne had filed a brief backing the Arizona public financing law: via Bloomberg, Scotus Blog

The president calls this a structural issue—we usually call it progress.

Russell Roberts, George Mason University and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, writing in an op-ed in today’s WSJ

The structural issue Roberts floats is innovation-led unemployment, a conceit he attributes to Obama. If technology leads to productivity improvements, and with productivity improvements, employees can produce more, then employers can also produce more, but they can do it with fewer employees. For fear of this, Roberts claims that Obama is against technology, productivity, and progress.

Roberts correctly equates technology’s impact on productivity with progress, but he is wrong to suggest that President Obama is either too dim or too backward to embrace it. Read the rest of this entry »

Did the human capacity to reason evolve as a mechanism to acquire truth? Or was it only in the service of winning arguments?

This is the question at the center of an article by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber in The Journal of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Described by the New York Times, the article observes that language and reason have little to do with “truth and accuracy.” Quoting Mercier:

Reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions. It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.

The position of Mercier and Sperber would appear to provide an evolutionary explanation for all manner of rhetorical devices and tendencies. Individuals, for example, have a tendency to ignore data that does not support their case. This phenomenon is called confirmation bias. In a sense, reason isn’t an instrument by which to acquire truth. Instead, it’s perhaps more ambiguous. Reason is a means by which to convince others, change their minds. Reason is coercive.

Mercier and Sperber’s argument has inflamed some elements of the academic community. Darcia Narvaez, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame diminished the theory as a moment of academic fashion:

[it] fits into evolutionary psychology mainstream thinking at the moment, that everything we do is motivated by selfishness and manipulating others, which is, in my view, crazy.

Others have remarked that Mercier and Sperber’s argument is in fact an example of the wisdom of crowds or the aim of deliberative democracy, described by Rawls and Habermas. Jonathan Haidt, a professor at UVA quoted by the Times, suggested as much:

Their work is important and points to some ways that the limits of reason can be overcome by putting people together in the right way, in particular to challenge people’s confirmation biases.

Mercier and Sperber appear to be heading in this direction, as well. Their article points to the advantages of group dynamics in the development of strong arguments. The group, after all, is equipped to present and vet many perspectives in rapid succession. The group could conceivably pick apart instances of confirmation bias and illuminate flaws in reasoning. According to Mercier and Sperber,

At least in some cultural contexts, this results in a kind of arms race towards greater sophistication in the production and evaluation of arguments. When people are motivated to reason, they do a better job at accepting only sound arguments, which is quite generally to their advantage.

Yes. Reason may be coercive, but Mercier and Sperber seem to be saying that with enough reason, enough speech, the group should arrive at a better outcome. Indeed, it’s reminiscent of the logic underpinning the metaphor of the marketplace of ideasthat more speech and more argument might spawn better speech. Justice Holmes, who coined the phrase in 1919, would be proud.

The marketplace metaphor, however, is flawed. As we’ve seen at other times, through the views of Ronald Coase, Justice Stevens, and others, an efficient market in speech does not equate to some Spenserian concept of survival of the fittest.  Indeed, Mercier rather off-handedly observed, “It doesn’t seem to work in the U.S.” Which leaves us with a question, just what is this metaphor we call the marketplace of ideas? Is the mere presence of a group itself sufficient to present and vet a variety of arguments? How do economic resources distort the marketplace of ideas?

On the right, there’s something of a cultural underlay to the worldview: We are the real Americans, and they are not. Liberals want to say, We are correct on the evidence, and they are not.

Ezra Klein, on the basic divide between liberals and conservatives – clever: via NY Mag

The fact that the English word mad means both angry and insane has repeatedly seemed to me wonderfully perceptive of it.

Stanley Cavell, from his most recent book, Little Did I Know.

The Chronicle of Higher Education covered the book-launch and corresponding conference at Harvard, Stanley Cavell and Literary Studies, last fall. Cavell’s work on Thoreau, Emerson and Dewey revitalized these American thinkers and organized them in terms of his interest in ordinary language, American cinema, literature, and other areas. He may also be considered a mid-wife for this piece on jumping the shark.

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