Thursday, July 20, 2017

Symbolater Syndrome, Pt. 2 of 4

or, Those Who Destroy a Great Value As They Perform Gestures That Symbolize Preservation of That Very Same Value

Stuart K. Hayashi

Due to the length of the original “Symbolater Syndrome” article, I am serializing it into four parts. This is Part Two of Four. 

Part One | Part Three | Part Four | Entire Essay on One Page

Christian Bale in Batman Begins, dir. Christopher Nolan,
prods. Larry J. Franco, et al., (Warner Bros., 2005).

Courtesy Pixabay.

Dangerous Political Actions That Symbolize Loyalty to a Value But Concretely Undermine That Value
This is frequently visible in the case of raising the minimum wage — in the cases of alleged antipoverty legislation in general. Suppose there is no legally mandated minimum wage, and I am jobless. Then someone named Lysander offers to hire me for $5 per hour. I accept. That is a pay raise right there — I went from making zero to making five dollars per hour. Then the government decrees that there is a minimum wage of $15 per hour. If Lysander is caught paying me $5 per hour, he could be fined or imprisoned. On a cost-benefit analysis, Lysander decides that while he could profit from paying me $5 per hour for the value I add to his business, I don’t add enough value to his business where he would still profit from paying me $15 per hour for that same work. He decides he should not have me working for him. As for the people already in Lysander’s employ, either he fires some of them or keeps them all on while cutting their hours. Far from helping the poor, this measure hurts them. Absent of the minimum wage, I would be making five dollars per hour. With this minimum wage, I am stuck at zero.

For decades, supporters of raising the minimum wage have denied that such a measure has any adverse effect on employment. There is nothing surprising about that. Yet in more recent years, I have noticed a more worrying trend: there are people who support raising the minimum wage who do not deny it.

I first noticed this in my correspondence with a particular woman online. She and I had become acquainted when discussing GMOs (genetically modified organisms). She properly wanted the government to stop interfering with GMOs — and, later, I learned that she improperly wanted the government to continue interfering with pretty much every other industry. Part of her desire for such interference to continue and expand was her tirades demanding an increase in the minimum wage to what she called a “living wage.”

One of our mutual online acquaintances then showed this woman a study that evinced that, everything else being equal, raises in the minimum wage contribute to reductions in employed work hours for the poor and unskilled.

The woman then replied something to the effect of, Yes, I know the economic argument. I support raising the minimum wage because I care about the well-being of low-income families.

I was floored by her reply. I expected that she would deny that the minimum wage contributes to unemployment among the poor and unskilled. She did not deny it. She refrained from denying it and then she still asserted that raising the minimum wage is “for the poor” and unskilled.

That turned out not to be a fluke, as a higher-profile instance of this phenomenon followed. In early April of 2016, California governor Jerry Brown gave this rationale for demanding an increase in the state’s mandated minimum wage [in the link, I cued it to the precise spot where he begins what I quote him saying]:

Economically, minimum wages may not make sense. But morally and socially and politically they make every sense, because it binds the community together and makes sure that parents can take care of their kids in a much more satisfactory way [emphases Governor Brown’s].

He says it at the 1 minute, 24 second mark.

Let’s translate this. What does it mean for a raise in the minimum wage to “make sense” “economically” or not? An increase or decrease in the poor’s average income, as affected by legislation, is an economic effect. For most of the past five decades, hardly any supporter of a raise in the minimum wage would dispute that the very purpose of a law adjusting the minimum wage is to have an economic effect. Legislation on the minimum wage is, by definition, economic legislation. That is just as the purpose of a comedian telling jokes is to make the audience laugh. To say that you don’t care what is the economic effect of your own legislation — legislation that is, by your own design, touted as economic legislation — is comparable to a comedian announcing that he doesn’t care if his jokes are funny.

A government-mandated increase in the minimum wage making sense economically means that raising the minimum wage does exactly what its supporters of the past 50 years have claimed it would do: improve the living standards of the poor and unskilled. To admit “economically, minimum wages may not make sense” is to admit that legally mandated minimum wages do not in fact help the poor and unskilled as was previously claimed, but that they in fact hurt the poor and unskilled. Then, as if Governor Brown did not remember what he admitted a second earlier, he said raising the minimum wage “makes sure that parents can take care of their kids in a much more satisfactory way.” What is the source of this seeming contradiction? Governor Brown explains that it makes “every sense” to him “morally.”

To wit, Governor Brown first inadvertently admitted that raising the minimum wage harms rather than helps the poor (the poor being his ostensive value), but he will go through it anyway as a gesture to indicate his moral concern for the well-being of the poor.

If Governor Brown genuinely valued the well-being of the poor, he would do what “makes sense” for them “economically” — refrain from raising the minimum wage and, more than that, work to abolish it altogether. In lieu of that, he performs a ritual that “makes sense” for him “morally,” which is offering a symbolic gesture of concern for the poor that, by his own inadvertent admission, does actual harm to the poor. The same goes for that aforementioned woman who didn’t even deny the minimum wage raise’s actual effect on the poor. What is purported to be the real value (the well-being of the poor) is being sacrificed and destroyed for the sake of performing a symbolic ritual that is intended to be interpreted as a show of solidarity for those same poor. That is symbolatry in practice.

Some people might respond that, in this context, my introduction of the term “symbolatry” is unnecessary. They might say there is already a term for this, and it is a term much beloved on Twitter by right-wing people who have cartoon characters for their avatars: “virtue-signaling.” But I am not accusing Governor Brown and that aforementioned woman of mere “virtue-signaling”; there are important differences. To accuse a man of “virtue-signaling” is to put emphasis on his desire to convince other people of his own exalted moral status. Rather, my suspicion is that Governor Brown and that woman are performing the ritual of pushing for this legislation in order to convince themselves that they are caring and morally upright. Furthermore, when a man is accused of “virtue-signaling,” the implication is usually that this symbolic gesture is merely empty and of no effect. My accusation against Governor Brown and that woman is much harsher: they are trying to convince themselves that their performance of the ritual indicates compassion for the poor and yet, on some level, they are at least vaguely aware that the ritual’s completion — meaning successful passage of the minimum wage increase — will actually harm poor people in real life. This symbolatry is much more harmful than mere “virtue-signaling.”

When gestures which symbolize help for the poor — and are actually known to harm the poor — are prioritized above the poor themselves, I do not consider that a good intention. As I said before, it is for that reason that I object to the common right-wing accusation that left-wing supporters of antipoverty measures are all about good intentions while not caring the results. As one Wall Street Journal op-ed put it, “Too many policy makers evaluate new interventions — labor rules, wage laws, environmental regulations — only by what they hope to accomplish. They do not consider the consequences, the unintended effects, and the trouble that their policies will cause for employers and workers…” (emphases added). The subheading that Journal’s editors (not the op-ed’s author) chose was, “Free enterprise is under assault from politicians who only care about good intentions, not results.” A conservative who says this reveals a flaw in his thinking far larger than the flaw he imputes to the left-wingers, as that conservative overlooks the very meaning of a sincere intention.

Just as the concept of “50 percent” derives from “a single unit,” the concept of “sincere intention” derives from the concept of “producing the results desired.” Should I have a sincere intention to erect a stable house or not, then I definitely care if, as results of my efforts, the house gets built and remains standing and stable in the ensuing years. But suppose I announce my strong motivation to build a house and, five years later, you notice no house is built and, when you ask me about it, I shrug it off. Moreover, ever since the day subsequent to my announcement, I made no effort to have the house built. Insofar as I am indifferent to the results, it is proper for you to conclude that I held no sincere intention to build that house after all. And a sincere intention is the only kind of intention there is — to be insincere in professing to intend to build a house is to lack the intention of building a house. You can observe the degree to which a person intends to do something by observing the degree to which that person cares about obtaining the results he claims to desire. Even if a person enters a competition she knows she probably will not win, if you observe that she made every effort to do her best within the rules, you know her intention was still to win.

Suppose my home has an insect infestation. I decide to do something about it — I obtain Brand A of an insecticide and spray it. I say that my intention in this is to kill the insects. After the first try, the insect infestation remains. I try four more times; the insects remain. I therefore decide that to attain the desired goal — eliminate the insects — I must try some other measure. I therefore hire an exterminator who uses Brand B on the insects. Finally the insects are gone and I am satisfied.

In that scenario, you can tell that when I claimed my intention was to kill the insects, that was indeed my intention. You can tell as much by how I handled my methodology. I said that I intended to bring about a particular result, and that I was using a particular method — Brand A insecticide — to try to bring about that result. After repeated attempts with this one method, I did not obtain the desired results. Because I was not lying to anyone — not even myself — about intending to kill the insects, I was therefore willing to try another method. In short, if the person saying that he intends to reach that desired goal has tried one method to reach it repeatedly and has always failed with that method, you can tell whether he intends to reach that desired goal by observing his willingness to try some alternative method to reach the desired goal. It is therefore illogical to say that someone has a particular intention when not caring about the result. A person intends a particular result insofar as he cares about the result. To say that anyone can care about “intentions” and not “results” is comparable to saying that you want to eat but that you don’t want any food. For a conservative to accuse anyone of caring about intentions and not results is for that conservative to reveal that he does not understand the meaning of “intention.”

Now suppose I say that I intend to kill all the insects in my home and I try Brand A insecticide. I try four more times and it hasn’t worked. I am introduced to other options. I reject them in favor of trying Brand A insecticide 95 more times, contaminating my house and filling it with fumes. Is it really my intention to eliminate the insects? You would be proper in judging the answer to be no. More likely, my intention was not to eliminate the insects but to go through the motions of “taking action” with respect to fighting off the insects. If my intention was to kill the insects, then the result of killing the insects would take priority over trying Brand A insecticide over and over again after a consistent record of failure.  Indeed, “going through the motions” might have been the original expression for someone merely making gestures that put on the pretense of taking constructive action exactly as one refrains from taking constructive action.

Likewise, if a man says that the intention of his legislation is to reduce poverty, you can observe how much this really was his intention by whether he pays attention to whether that legislation actually reduced poverty. Should it be the case that this man and his colleagues successfully pass such legislation across the country and, after four decades of failure, they are still pushing for more legislation of this type, there will come a point where you are rational for doubting that their intention is to reduce poverty. The likelier explanation is that their intention is to go through the motions of “doing something” about it, just as a man who uses the same ineffective insecticide a hundred times intends not to kill the insects but instead to go through the motions of “doing something” about the insects.

Let’s take a look at someone who truly intends to reduce poverty. When he first started his campaigns to fight poverty, the musician Bono put all his emphasis on the most conventional measures, such as calling for increased foreign aid and trying to pressure the World Bank to forgive debt to developing countries so that they could obtain even more loans. Back in 2002, Bono approvingly told People magazine, “We are taught not to court success here” in Ireland. “There’s an old story about an American and an Irishman looking up at a mansion. The American looks at it and says, ‘One day I’m going to live in that place.’ The Irishman looks at it and says, ‘One day I’m going to get the bastard who lives in that place.’” The implication in what Bono said was that the Irishman’s view is the correct one.

But after years of his campaigning, Bono observed that to place most of his emphasis on taxpayer-funded aid was not a winning strategy. Because he did intend to fight poverty, he was therefore willing to adjust his methodology. He eventually observed that political-economic liberalization — what he explicitly called “capitalism” — is the most effective antipoverty measure. In 2015, Bono admitted to Rolling Stone that he had decided to make it a priority “to understand commerce — I think that’s very important. If you told me 20 years ago that commerce took more people out of poverty than aid and development, I’d have scoffed.” He is not scoffing anymore. True, he has not given up entirely on recommending taxpayer-funded foreign aid or debt forgiveness, but his willingness to shift emphasis and recommend more liberalization is what evinces that his stated intention to try to fight poverty was indeed his real intention.

Bono talks about capitalism at the 38 minute, 4 second mark.

Conversely, consider some elderly political Progressives, such as Ralph Nader. Purporting to intend to reduce poverty, Ralph Nader has continued for a half-century to urge the very same policy of raising the minimum wage, and, after proclaiming that poverty has not been reduced, he urges this some more. If reducing poverty was Nader’s consistent intention, there would have been some reconsideration on his part, self-reflection comparable to Bono’s. It is not that Ralph Nader cares about his own intentions and not about the results. Rather, Nader does care about the results, and he is getting the results he intends — to go through the motions and make a symbolic gesture to fight poverty. And as Nader and his disciples obtain success in their having their measures ratified, the poor are hurt.

For someone to agitate for legislation that symbolizes helping the poor, all the while knowing on some level that the legislation’s passage will hurt some poor individuals, is not to have good intentions.

Here, the stolen concept or stolen value is “concern for the poor.” By pushing for legislation that demonstrably harms the poor, Governor Brown has relinquished any rightful claim to the value that is “concern for the poor.” Yet, by invoking his legislation as a gesture to indicate his concern for the poor, he is trying to claim custody over the value that is “concern for the poor” anyway — wrongfully. “Concern for the poor” is a concept and value which Governor Brown is trying to steal.

Insofar as a value is sacrificed and demeaned in a ritual or gesture that ostensibly represents devotion to that same value, that ritual or gesture is a symbol that has been corrupted.

Rush Limbaugh categorizes instances such as this one as “liberals” putting “symbolism over substance.” Sadly, conservatives such as Limbaugh are not immune to that malady either.


Part One | Part Three | Part Four | Entire Essay on One Page

On July 22, 2017, I added the quotations of Bono from 2002 and 2015.