Monthly Archives: June 2010

CEO Movie Villains


In the movies, capitalists are almost invariably cast as villains. … Is an environment being despoiled? Look no further than the CEO of some large corporation. … The most grotesque character in the “Star Wars” films represents commerce, Jabba the Hutt, a literal business worm. …

Hollywood’s anti-capitalism … stems from three sources: the rage of directors and screenwriters against their own capitalist backers, the difficulty of using a visual medium to depict the invisible hand, and an ethical framework which Hollywood shares with most of our culture that regards self-interest as inherently immoral or, at best, amoral. …

Directors and screenwriters see the [movie-investing] capitalist as a constraint, a force that prevents them from fulfilling their vision. … Hollywood … share[s] Marx’s … idea that under capitalism workers are separated from the product of their work and made to feel like cogs in a machine. …

A second … reason, … movies focus on individual character, choice and action because that’s where the drama lies. … To really understand capitalism we must transcend the level of character to see the hidden forces that coordinate the actions of millions of individuals across the world. …

[Third,] Hollywood wants its heroes to be virtuous, but it defines virtue in a way that excludes any action that is self-interested. If virtue means putting others ahead of self, then it’s clear that most people, let alone most capitalists, aren’t very virtuous. …

Like many works of literature, Hollywood chooses for its villains people who strive for social dominance through the pursuit of wealth, prestige, and power. But the ordinary business of capitalism is much more egalitarian: It’s about finding meaning and enjoyment in work and production.

Yes, all stories focus on visible direct effects, and neglect obscured indirect effects. And humans have long affirmed their anti-domination norms by sharing stories about selfish would-be-dominators who get their comeuppance. But our society contains many powerful folks who can visibly threaten via domination; why don’t more stories make them villians? For example, instead of a greedy CEO polluting the protagonist’s water, why not:

  • Power-mad police lies under oath to convict not-deferential-enough protagonist.
  • Celebrity musician seduces protagonist’s sister, dumps when bored, breaks her heart.
  • Clueless cover-his-butt bureaucrat denies reasonable home-extension building permit.
  • Brutal sergeant, seeking promotion, pushes his soldiers to needless deaths.
  • Professor fails protagonist student because of political disagreement.

One possible explanation is that most folk see selfishness as usual for CEOs, but unusual for police, musicians, bureaucrats, sergeants, and professors.  If so, this seems a sad and curious misunderstanding; the truth is, as Alex says, “most people … aren’t very virtuous.”

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School Is Far

Bryan Caplan:

Robin’s been warming up to Bowles and Gintis’ classic Schooling in Capitalist America. The usual summary of B&G is that our educational system is basically a factory that makes good cogs for the capitalists’ social machine.

As a product of Los Angeles public schools, this story strikes me as wildly implausible. The most obvious problem: If capitalists ran the school system, they’d impose much stricter discipline. … Furthermore, if capitalists ran the school system, they wouldn’t teach poetry, art, history, music, etc. Performance in these subjects does signal desirable traits, but if the capitalists were in charge, they might as well impose a curriculum that lets students signal and build job skills at the same time.

My comments:

  1. My self-control hypothesis, that “school functions in part to help folks accept workplace domination,” isn’t about capitalism in particular – it makes sense for any industrial society, where the organization of work requires workers to often take orders.
  2. This is a hypothesis about an overall tendency in industrial societies; it needn’t apply well to each and every industry school at all times.  Maybe LA in 90s was different.
  3. Schools could have evolved to achieve this dominance-acceptance function without anyone explicitly designing them that way.  Thousands of school system variations have been tried over the centuries, and those that lead to more prosperous or powerful societies were probably copied more often.
  4. I’m not claiming this is the only function schools perform.

I also suspect that many apparently useless aspects of school, like “poetry, art, history, music”, actually help kids build self-control, by encouraging far views. In fact, I suspect that schools evolved in many ways to encourage far views. Consider these 16 ways schools do so:

  • focus on large scales of space, time, society
  • focus on broad abstract categories/concepts
  • neglect of concrete practical skills
  • offer high confidence in theories taught
  • neglect large deviations of reality from theory
  • emphasize central ideal moral concerns
  • neglect common detailed practical constraints
  • praise supporting underdogs, taking chances
  • push polite language over slang, grunts
  • use large group to enhance social shame
  • make kids feel destined for high status/power
  • focus on positive over negative moods, reasons
  • focus on words over pictures
  • focus on sight, sound over taste, touch, smell
  • repeatedly introduce novel tasks
  • typically bored, with weak motivation

The “broad-minded” schooled are oft contrasted with the “small-minded” and the “provincial.” When you imagine a less schooled person, you imagine someone less interested in far away or abstract things. It seems school evolved to encourage far views, which not only signals individual and society status, but also strengthens self-control, which is especially useful in industrial workers.

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Be Self-Styled

self-styled – considered and called (something specified) only by the individual himself or herself; alleged (to be such) only by the person concerned; pretended; professed.

Here are the 8 most recent uses of this phrase in the Washington Post:

  1. The small but avid universe of Bigfoot enthusiasts includes self-styled investigators. (more)
  2. A two-term incumbent and self-styled pragmatist who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. (more)
  3. A self-styled “Reagan Republican” … was deeply impressed by Obama’s willingness to come to his parish. (more)
  4. The self-styled “Doctor of Dress” doles out advice. (more)
  5. The changing urban lifestyles have galvanized many self-styled custodians of Indian culture. (more)
  6. Steingraber’s scientific cool and unflagging sense of mission make for an arresting portrait of a self-styled modern-day Rachel Carson. (more)
  7. The most radical work comes not from the journalist-turned-activist or from the self-styled muckraker but from the Oxford economist. (more)
  8. Nobody wanted a revolution. And when I see what the so-called revolution has brought — mass poverty, homelessness, self-styled capitalists selling off our plants and pocketing the money — I think we were right. (more)

While “self-styled” seems mostly a put-down, it is a notably weak one. The user of this phrase notes that someone claims something, but lacks an official credential, or strong consensus, supporting this claim. But we the reader can also note that this speaker offers no stronger criticism, and is not willing to directly contradict the offending claim. After all, instead of calling someone a “self-styled visionary,” you might say “he calls himself a visionary, but he’s not; he hasn’t has a vision in years.”

I admire grand ambition, and think our society relies way too much on uninformative official credentials, that tend to signal status affiliations, social-savvy, and generic impressiveness more than specific relevant features. So if someone goes out of their way to flag that they dislike some presumption of yours, but aren’t willing to actually disagree with or criticize your claim, I’d call that a pretty good sign about you.  Go ahead, be self-styled.  To my style eye, self-styled is more stylish than credentialed.

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Seeking School Clues

Most of our common social institutions do double-duty, triple-duty, or more; they serve many functions at once. While this makes functional sense, it also complicates the task of inferring their functions. School is a good example. Some oft-mentioned functions:

  • babysit – keep kids safe via less adult effort
  • match – help kids find compatible mates/friends
  • practice – practice specific skills, habits
  • 3 Rs – practice reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmatic
  • be like us – adopt our styles of talk, dress, music, etc.
  • learn to learn – practice practicing new skills
  • remember – remember specific facts, claims
  • dogma – remember approved social views
  • norms – internalize behaviors, standards
  • mark – show that students better than others
  • sort – rank by ability, loyalty, personality, support
  • legitimize – accept non-school rank via school rank
  • submit – practice gracious obedience, ranking
  • stiffen – strength self-control to follow norms
  • harden – practice working long, hard, on cue
  • soften – practice accepting new local norms, ranks
  • entrench – keep the system going, grow it if possible
  • impress – make a local society look good to outsiders

In the face of such complexity, I prefer to

  1. Collect stylized facts, i.e., simple patterns of behavior that might be clues to help distinguish theories.
  2. Instead of seeking ad hoc explanations for each clue, seek a simple package of assumptions that simultaneously explain as many clues as possible with as few assumptions as possible.

So I hereby declare my newfound interest in such clues.  What ya got?

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Near-Far Summary

I’ve devoted a lot of attention on this blog over the last year to near-far effects, officially “Construal Level Theory.”  My summary: all near aspects tend to bring other near aspects to mind, and all far aspects tend to bring other far aspects to mind.  The aspects:

Its authors, Trope and Liberman, have just published an advanced review of the subject, which I heartily recommend. They summarize:

The fact that something happened long ago does not necessarily mean that it took place far away, that it occurred to a stranger, or that it is improbable. Nevertheless, as the research reviewed here demonstrates, there is marked commonality in the way people respond to the different distance dimensions. [Construal level theory] proposes that the commonality stems from the fact that responding to an event that is increasingly distant on any of those dimensions requires relying more on mental construal and less on direct experience of the event. … [We show] that (a) the various distances are cognitively related to each other, such that thinking of an event as distant on one dimension leads one to thinking about it as distant on other dimensions, (b) the various distances influence and are influenced by level of mental construal, and (c) the various distances are, to some extent, interchangeable in their effects on prediction, preference, and self-control.

Since we are more idealistic in far mode, our ideals favor and admire far more than near.  Trope and Liberman agree:

It is worth noting that both collective and personal human development are associated with traversing increasingly greater distances. The turning points of human evolution include developing tools, which required planning for the future; making function-specific tools, which required considering hypothetical alternatives; developing consciousness, which enabled the recognition of distance and perspective taking; developing language, which enabled forming larger and more complex social groups and relations; and domestication of animals and plants, which required an extended temporal perspective. Human history is associated with expanding horizons: traversing greater spatial distances (e.g., discovering new continents, space travel), forming larger social groups (families vs. cities vs. states vs. global institutions), planning and investing in the more distant future, and reaching farther back into the past. Human development in the first years of life involves acquiring the ability to plan for the more distant future, consider possibilities that are nonpresent, relate to and take the perspective of more distant people (from self-centeredness to acknowledging others, from immediate social environment to larger social groups). Although the areas of evolution, history, and child development have different time scales, research in these domains seems to converge on the notion that transcending the present requires and is enabled by the human capacity for abstract mental representation.

The human mind is amazingly powerful, and our far capacities are essential to our powers. But while far minds offer flexibility, perspective, and self-control to enable civilizations, far minds are also more deluded and hypocritical. By becoming more far, civilized humans have become all the more: homo hypocritus.

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School Attitudes

In forming my view that school functions in part to help folks accept workplace domination, I rediscovered the view of the ’76 book Schooling In Capitalist America:

Schools produce future workers; … schools socialize students to accept beliefs, values, and forms of behavior on the basis of authority rather than the students’ own critical judgement of their interests.

(Weakly) supporting evidence:

A recent survey of 3,000 employers … asked, “When you consider hiring a new nonsupervisory or production worker, how important are the following in your decision to hire?” Employers ranked “industry based skill credentials” at 3.2 on a scale of 1 (unimportant) to 5 (very important), with “years of schooling” at 2.9, “score on tests given by employer” and “academic performance” both at 2.5. By far the most important was “attitude” ranked 4.6, followed by “communication skills” (4.2). …

[In a] survey of 1693 British employers … Of the somewhat more than a third of the establishments reporting a “skill shortage”, personnel managers identified the recruitment problem as “lack of technical skills” in 43 percent of the cases, but “poor attitude, motivation, or personality” in a remarkable 62 percent of the cases. Poor attitude was by far the most important reason for the recruitment difficulty given. The importance of motivation relative to technical skill was even greater among the full sample.

Here’s one accounting of three more specific functions of school:

  • Legitimization: Repeated contacts with the educational system, which seems impersonal and based on reliable criteria, convinces students (and their parents) that they are ending up in an appropriate place in society based on their skills and abilities. Thus, people accept their position in life: they become resigned to it, maybe even considering it appropriate or fair.
  • Acclimatization: The social relationships in the schools encourage certain traits, appropriate to one’s expected economic position, while discouraging others. Thus,certain relationships are considered normal and appropriate. Subordination to authority is a dominant trait enforced for most students.
  • Stratification: Students from different class backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and genders are overwhelmingly exposed to different environments and social relationships and thus are tracked and prepared for different positions in the hierarchy. The different experiences and successes lead each student to see her place as appropriate.
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Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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