Author Archives: alexdietz

Racial inequality

As I understand it, there are two prominent strands in the contemporary U.S. left. On the one hand, there’s interest in economic issues, e.g. either making existing institutions more redistributive, or changing them in more fundamental ways. On the other hand, there’s interest in identity-based social issues—so-called “social justice” issues—particularly having to do with race and gender. (This isn’t meant to be exhaustive; e.g. it doesn’t cover COVID or climate change.)

Because social-justice issues are particularly prominent these days, and also seem like good candidates for being among the most important issues in the U.S., I’m interested in improving my understanding of them. I’m going to start with race. As I did last week, I’m relying mainly on Wikipedia (particularly African Americans and Racial inequality in the United States). Here are some things I’ve learned and some thoughts.

Demographics. African Americans are the third-largest ethnic group in the U.S., with about 12% of the population, after whites (72%) and Hispanics (18%).

History. Before the Civil War, most blacks in the U.S. were enslaved. The conflict between the pro-slavery South and anti-slavery North was the main political issue in the first half of the 19th century. After the war, discrimination against blacks continued, including segregation, voter suppression, and violence. The civil rights movement gained traction in the 1950s; causes included the participation of African Americans in World War II and outrage over Emmett Till’s murder in 1955. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and labor unions, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 expanded federal authority over states to protect black voting rights.

Economics. Black and Hispanic households have a lot less wealth than white households. According to a 2009 study, the median black household has $5,677, the median Hispanic household has $6,325, and the median white household has $113,149. Similarly, blacks and Hispanics have about double the rate of episodic poverty as whites.

Crime. As of 2008, the prison population (of 1.6m) was 38% black (591,900), 34% white (528,200), and 20% Hispanic (313,100). Since 2015, police have each year killed an average of 241 blacks, 462 whites, and 170 Hispanics. In 2018, 2,925 blacks were murdered (2,600 by black offenders), compared to 3,315 whites and 957 Hispanics.

As you can see above, blacks (and Hispanics) are a lot poorer than whites. Prima facie, I would think that improving the economic conditions of blacks should be the most important policy goal in this area (after all, this is presumably the biggest driver of other problems such as crime/imprisonment). But of course, we could also just push for policies that help the poor generally, regardless of race (as Freddie deBoer argues here). So the biggest question I have would be whether there are any reasons to prioritize policies aimed at helping blacks per se over policies aimed at helping the poor.

You would want to focus on racially targeted policies, I would think, just in case the persistence in poverty among blacks turns out to be mainly a result of factors that don’t apply to other poor people—e.g., if the main reason why there’s persistent black poverty is discrimination against blacks, then maybe the most efficient response would be to do things to stop the discrimination. (Here’s a debate on that question that I found interesting.)

I also find it helpful, though, to distinguish policy issues like these from social or cultural issues. For example, one popular idea these days is that the U.S. suffers from “structural racism” or “systemic racism,” and, relatedly, that U.S. history is a history of racism/racial oppression. I think these ideas are not necessarily connected to any particular policy proposals (except maybe that the ideas should be taught in schools). So we should evaluate these ideas just in terms of whether (1) they’re accurate and (2) whether promoting them is constructive (keeping in mind the opportunity costs of focusing on these ideas rather than others).

I also see Black Lives Matter as falling into this category. Ostensibly, BLM is focused primarily on the issue of police violence against blacks. If we just go by the numbers of blacks killed each year by police (241), this doesn’t seem like it should count as one of the most important policy issues. (Compare the 93,000 people who died of drug overdoses last year.) But I take it that BLM is concerned with this issue because it’s a symptom of what they see as a more general social problem, that blacks aren’t regarded as the equals of whites.

What is capitalism?

These days, I hear a lot of people—including people I’ve come across personally—saying they’re against “capitalism.” So I was interested in getting a better understanding of what that word means. Here’s where I’ve gotten so far. (This is all based on Wikipedia, but I’m trying to think it through myself to my own satisfaction.)

1. Capitalism as private property

Initially, I would have been inclined to equate capitalism with a system of private property. In other words, in a capitalist society, goods are owned by private parties, parties who acquired these goods either through some sort of initial acquisition or through voluntary exchange.

This would contrast with a socialist society, where goods are owned by the state. Or you could have mixed systems, e.g. the state owns key industries, but not houses and cars. There are also many other possible systems, e.g. all land is owned by the Church, or by the society’s tallest redhead. 

Aside: What does it mean to “own” something? Let’s say you count as owning something when you are generally agreed to have the right to use it and prevent others from using it, as well as the right to transfer those use- and transfer-rights to others. (Note: this means that under all systems, ownership is a product of social consensus. But this doesn’t make all systems socialist, because the consensus might not approve of the idea of society collectively doing whatever it wanted with particular pieces of property.)

2. Why private property isn’t enough

But on reflection, I no longer think that capitalism is equivalent to private property.

For example, let’s say you have a society where you have a bunch of individual hunter-gatherers, and everyone owns what they hunt/gather. This society would be organized in terms of private property, but I don’t think it would count as “capitalist,” as that term is generally used.

Maybe the difference is that the hunter-gatherer society is probably relatively equal, in material terms, whereas capitalist societies are divided into a rich capitalist class and a poor working class? I don’t think so. Private property plus inequality still don’t seem sufficient to make a society “capitalist.” There were rich people and poor people in Roman times, but “capitalism” is supposed to refer to a system that only came about in the last few hundred years. Nor does inequality seem necessary for capitalism: I think in principle you could have a capitalist society where everyone was equal, e.g. everyone both works for some business and also owns their business that employs other people.

3. Does etymology help?

Maybe it would help to ask: why is it called “capitalism”? What is “capital”?

Capital, according to Wikipedia, means “human-created assets.” And an asset, in turn, is a resource that can be used to produce positive economic value. Tools and machines count as capital, because they can be used to make things like cars, which can be sold for money. Money itself also counts as capital, because you can invest it by buying land and labor that can be used to make cars that can be sold for money. A capitalist is an owner of capital.

Would there be capital in the hunter-gatherer society? Well, if they’re not exchanging anything, then maybe their goods don’t count as having economic value. What about in Roman times? Yes, there were tools and machines that people used to make things with economic value, like axes and scythes and stuff. So the mere presence of capital also doesn’t seem like enough to make a society count as capitalist.

4. Wage labor, capital accumulation, and productivity

Wikipedia mentions two other ideas that seem important: capital accumulation and wage labor.

Capital accumulation means getting more and more capital. You start with some money, which you use to buy factories and workers, which produce things to sell at a profit, which enables you to buy even more factories and workers, and so on. Wage labor means selling your labor for an agreed wage or salary, where your employer gets to keep whatever your labor produced.

But I think the key missing piece is productivity. During the Industrial Revolution, productivity went way up: people invented new machines and methods that enabled a lot more goods to be produced per hour of labor. And because of wage labor, this meant that a given hour of labor could end up generating a lot of profit for the employer (who, again, got to own all the products of the labor), without the worker getting in on the action. And because this profit was also itself capital that could be used to generate even more wealth, this meant that employers could keep getting richer and richer.

This seems like it’s getting at the kind of thing critics of capitalism don’t like. They don’t like that, even though the Industrial Revolution enabled society to create a lot more wealth, the legal structure of private property enabled a lot of this wealth to go to a minority of people, who could get richer and richer while others might remain poor or even get poorer. And there were two things that add insult to injury. First, the poor are the very people whose labor is producing the wealth. And second, because the inequality is generated under a system of private property and voluntary exchange, it can seem fair in a way that inequality generated in other ways—say, lords using their political power to seize people’s wealth—would not.

The hunter-gatherer society isn’t capitalist, then, because there’s no capital accumulation or wage labor, and so the offensive rise in inequality isn’t possible. Roman times weren’t capitalist either, because while there was capital, productivity was low enough that not much capital accumulation through exploitative wage labor was possible. But once the Industrial Revolution starts, we’re off to the races.

So let’s say: a society is capitalist to the extent that it has private property and enough productivity to enable owners of capital to accumulate a lot more of it by employing wage labor.

Journaling for learning and thinking

1. My method

I’ve been trying out journaling as a method for both learning and clarifying my thoughts. That is, I’ve been using my diary to (1) write about whatever I’ve read recently, and (2) think through my own ideas or questions. 

For example, I feel like I generally don’t retain much of what I read in the news or in nonfiction books. So in my diary, I’ve been writing summaries of any news articles and book chapters I’ve read recently, and any other avenues for future research or thinking that they suggest. My ideas and questions are usually practical, e.g. problems I’ve been having that I might be able to do something about, so I also use my diary to reflect on those.

The important insight, I think, is that the exercise of writing is in itself useful for learning and thinking, even if nothing happens to the finished product. I used to keep reading summaries in Zotero, and I was interested in trying out the Zettelkasten method in Obsidian. But if it’s just about the exercise, then I can just keep my reading notes chronologically rather than in some logical system like that. And if it’s about the exercise, then it makes sense to go through the process of working out ideas in writing even if the ultimate goal is just to decide, say, what time I should set my alarm for.

Also, I’m doing this analog: I keep my diary in a Moleskine notebook, and I capture the ideas or questions that occur to me on a blank index card. I find it’s a nice break from the distraction machine, and if I don’t really care about referring to the writing once it’s over, then there’s no need to store it digitally.

2. Why does writing help learning and thinking?

Why does writing, just as an exercise, help learning and thinking? Learning, research suggests, often needs to be active: you need to make the effort of retrieving material from memory in order to store it in your long-term memory, and you need to make yourself understand it by putting it in your own words and relating it to what you already know. The exercise of writing about something is a good way to do those things. In addition, because it’s active, I find it gives me a feeling of ownership over the topic, and I feel empowered to learn more about it.

I think the usefulness of writing for thinking has to do with the fact that it makes explicit ideas and reasoning that are otherwise kept implicit in our heads (probably because of how few things we’re able to keep in short-term memory at a given time). As a character in Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” observes, writing enables you to

grasp your thoughts like bricks in your hands and push them into different arrangements. Writing let you look at your thoughts in a way you couldn’t if you were just talking, and having seen them, you could improve them, making them stronger and more elaborate.

Another reason is that writing can be useful for thinking is that it can give you distance from your thoughts (by literally moving them from your head to the page), and this easier to avoid biases that prevent you from evaluating your own thoughts in the same way that you would those of someone else. For example, I’ve found that writing has helped me to spot and detach myself from some negative self-talk.

3. But why not keep permanent notes?

Now, one might ask: even if the exercise of writing is in itself useful for learning and thinking, why not also use the products—i.e., store them as permanent notes in some logically organized system, so that I’ll more easily be able to refer back to them later? I’m not against making permanent notes, but I have two reservations. 

First, because the exercise itself is the primary purpose of this method, in many cases the writing will be stream-of-consciousness and therefore not the same as what a good permanent note would look like. So whether or not making permanent notes is worthwhile, I think that wouldn’t be a matter of saving and organizing your journaling notes, but would in fact just be a different activity.

Second, if you’re going to make permanent notes, then that means you have to think about what your system should be, and whether a particular note is worth adding or would just create clutter. Knowing that you don’t have to do anything with your writing gives you the freedom to write more.