Should we talk about the government

branches-of-governmentFunny how this post feels more like shooting sacred cows than Should we talk about religion did. That checks-and-balances image … really? Does anyone really think that happens?

First, some structuralism. The twin fallacies to avoid are based on perhaps too much pop intellectualism about fractals, and the classical trap of synecdoche. In other words, there’s no reason to think of a government or any organization as a thinking, acting entity at its own level just because it’s made of them. Nor is there any reason to think that it represents or expresses either a gestalt version of all the little entities composing it, or is directed by any one of them in some “commanding the behemoth” way. I think it makes more sense to recognize that there isn’t any such entity. No government. No nation. No state. One cannot say the United States did something in 1945 and the United States did something in 1991 and the United States did something in 2003 in any way that indicates continuity of an entity’s actions. I don’t even buy the common shorthand of speaking of any state, or its capital city, as an acting entity.

People group up into alliances, themselves in uneasy accord with nepotist and outbreeding priorities, and out of the dynamics of these behaviors, they do stuff together. Since collective action has tremendous effect, even at the level of dozens as opposed to two or three people, the history of such alliances in a given region establishes major social precedents and power-bases based on anything you can think of regarding economics, violence, and reputation. But every moment is a new moment and the only acting entities are people. I’m interested in the mental and social processes by which people now act collectively in the context of what has gone before.

The basics lie in reciprocity vs. exploitation, which is exactly as easy as it sounds. Working together in mutually helpful ways is one thing, getting shafted while working for someone else is another – the trick is that the one shifts quickly into the other. Making sure that doesn’t happen, or getting to happen in your favor, is what power is. Bump this up to the collective action and group-inclusion level and now we’re talking society. The ultimate degree of exploitation includes slavery and serfdom, both versions of what the (good, i.e., few) economists call the rentier problem, meaning a society in which you basically are allowed to live insofar as you submit to lethal threat and all your work goes to someone else.

One nuance concerns accuracy of individuals’ perceptions of their available options, in that there’s no real reason to expect much. People act as if such alliances obtain “normally” if and when they believe they do. I don’t know how correct the claim is that we think in terms of villages and extended families, and that all activity toward or with larger groups is only perceived in these smaller terms, but I’ve never seen or learned of anything to contradict this interpretation. In case I’m being opaque, I’ll say it flatly: this is exactly like I was talking about in the comments to Little thinks, in which I said that technology alters how we do thing, and obviously imposes new levels and kinds of consequences, but the things we’re doing aren’t any different from when we didn’t have the technology. Because a larger organization with greater reach is involved, and granted that such activity has different and more drastic consequences than if a little organization were involved, the things people are doing in-and-with that organization are the same old things.

Related: the distinction between ethics  and policy, which frankly I think is a huge failing in the general discourse. The difference is simple: what a person would or should do, including any and all debate thereof; and what a group makes a person or persons do via any means. Assuming that making policy is merely a matter of arriving at an ethical decision, and “then we all do it,” or “and then that’s the law, obviously,” is … there’s no other word for it, that’s stupid. If policy doesn’t include making or inducing people to do the thing when they don’t wanna, then it’s not policy at all. Therefore the dynamics of making policy, let alone the specific policy’s substance, relative to the current standards of “how we do things around here,” is a topic utterly divorced from discussions of what is or is not the right thing to do as you, a person, or as any person, may see it.

That brings us to institutional memory, and the difference between its strict definition – accurate knowledge of what has happened and how it’s affecting current policy today – and a looser concept, sometimes called “institutional culture,” or “cultural inertia.” Not to waste time, this latter thing is huge. I’m not even going to bother making a case for its constant prevalence in our lives; I can’t think of any way in which it isn’t. It may in fact be the context for our perceived individual ecological situation, the precise “game-space” of our decision-making as the behavioral ecologists would chart in an ethogram.

I keep trying to like it and I guess I just don’t

You see what’s missing, right? All talk of society’s purpose. That’s ’cause I think it’s a huge Herring of Redness with no imaginable reality-based component. I’m thinking here of the rock-bottom foundation of a popular book I see on everyone’s shelf, Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly, which treats historical instances of “folly” (meaning outcomes opposed to the perpetrators’ stated goals) as a puzzling mystery – how can policy makers do “irrational” things and persist in policies which go belly up? She flatly fails to identify that in each case, the policy makers were profiting in status, privilege, and money like bandits – literally, because they were bandits – the whole time. It’s like asking why the former head of AIG, when instated as the chief administrator of TARP, ripped off the U.S. Treasury for zillions of dollars to preserve banks’ current fictional holdings and their chief executives’ massive bonuses thefts, instead of taking over the crap mortgages like it was supposed to and letting the banks pound sand. Is anyone really wondering “why?” Is this supposed to be a mystery?

I think “rational” is a useless word at this level, as it hopelessly confounds a purported type of cognitive process with policy goals that the observer approves of. It also overlooks the stark contrast between whatever reassuring hogwash may be coming out of a person’s mouth and whatever exact deals and interactions that person is engaged in, institutionally. Or stares puzzled at the contrast, wondering how that can be. This is me wondering how that puzzlement can be. You expected something else?

Now let’s take it to how poor ol’ evolutionary vocabulary got roped into this, which is kind of why I’m talking about this at all. Quickly and dismissively, nix to the kiddie notion that government is an adaptation because something-or-other usually involving alleged species survival or for its or the “good.” No, I’m talking about the naughty ol’ 19th century and its simple persistent legacy that you say how the world works and insist that policies to follow must be striven for, because they will come about after all. (Bit of a confusion there, because if it’s natural law why bother striving for it, but whatever.) You have your transform it all now revolutionaries, your stomp on everyone and light a stogie industrialists, and your organize to overcome reformers – all the same, under Spencer’s umbrella. Society is evolving, which means improving, or becoming what it’s supposed to be, or being what it naturally (i.e. rightly) is. It’s so basic to the primary social movements of our time (i.e. the past 150 years) that no one even says it any more.

One manifestation is empire: the notion that a “great” or “superior” society will subordinate the economies of other regions toward its own, and depending on your outlook, grind them into their rightful place or uplift them into a golden age of … well, being in their rightful place. Much stupid ink has been spilled on rises and declines of empires, failing to note that the commerce in question tends to stay the same.

Another manifestation is (you have to pronounce it right) da-mock-rissy, which is not to say, voting, but some ineffable quality that voting is supposed to impart, to which I say, big whoop. Voting is everywhere and can be found throughout human history. Dressing it up with Enlightenment rhetoric didn’t change anything. Scratch it to find out what the speaker means and what you find is usually pretty frightening. (And believe me, you don’t want to know why I think voting is a pretty good idea, and the conditions under which I think it actually works out OK.)

We will? Cool!

Then there’s progressivism, and I know I’m not making friends by saying this, but slogans such as those in the image strike me as not much different from mumbling “Every day in every way I am getting better and better; every day in every way …”, and frankly, one shy step short of such stuff as The Secret. I don’t know what gets up my nose more, the co-opting of the term “evolved” as a synonym for “agrees with me,” or the remarkable willingness to compromise, i.e., lose, at the drop of a hat. My only saving grace perhaps is my contempt for the captains-of-industry corollary, as in, I do hate imperialism and war, so a plague on both your Naturalistic Fallacy houses. Or put it this way, I generally desire to live in a society a lot like what progressivism espouses, absent the patronizing parts, but would you please stop suiciding your efforts to get there by assuming that you naturally (soon) will?

Ranting snark aside, I’m trying to highlight that thinking of governments or their types as entities or individuals, thinking of their history as a changing and developing phenomenon, thinking of it as subject to any form of evolution let alone the face-melting distortions it’s been saddled with … has no basis in actual evolutionary terms. This legacy of thought is so pervasive, and so distorting, that I can only ask, “Try it without that, just a little, and see what you think.” It’d be nice to have a conversation with someone who does that, some day.

Next: Drrrama


21 thoughts on “Should we talk about the government

  1. You pointed out one of the big mythemes of historical writing: evolution towards the better (which is a misapplication of biology).

    But is there feedback from social and historgraphic writing back into biology?

    One persistent organizing trope is “structure”. Talcott Parsons is the American exemplar. (His Structural Functionalism gets a good overview here: ) . This model takes a social structure at slice of time, say America in 1992, and looks at the functional interrelationship of all its parts at that moment.

    While the diachronic view has its methodological justifications, it does have its downsides. It can produce the appearance that the structure under investigation is more stable than the orderly model suggests. In some cases that reification is taken in earnest and writers not only imply but declare that such and such entities are millennia-enduring and have essential traits. Frex, there are “civilizations” and that these things are in an ongoing “clash.”

    Are there examples of this structuralist over-emphasis on a persistent structure in the biological sciences?

    What leaps to my mind is the ecology that was introduced to me during my primary and secondary schooling in the 70s and 80s. I was presented with images of ecosystems that, barring some catastrophe or human-introduced degradation, would persist without alteration for … exactly how long was never made clear.

    But does over-reification of structure pop up in the life sciences, in a more subtle form than that in popularizations for laypersons?


    • Holy crow, where do I start … the first persistent offender must be the “Age of” phraseology, as in Age of Reptiles, Age of Mammals, et cetera, strongly implying that that one taxonomic group gets to “have” the Earth for an epoch, then is replaced by a group which happens to have evolved a better or “higher” way of life. This is tied tightly to the idea that the environment contains “slots” for organismal activity, which only one type of creature gets to fill, and it gets to fill all of them. It is also deeply vertebrate-centric, as real life is always the “Age of Bacteria” and by any reasonable criteria we are in the “Age of Insects” as far as animals are concerned.

      That this mimics imperial British ideology and education, particularly concerning empires, bears almost no reason to mention considering that the very same people who were inventing and teaching the one were inventing and teaching the other.

      The issue of ecological stability is a more recent romance, and deserves a more detailed examination in a post. Suffice to say that climax ecosystem, as they’re called, are wonderfully stable – except, of course, when they’re not. And for some reason, no one ever calls a millennia-old desert (which despite its name is far from deserted) a “stable” or “climax” ecosystem.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ooops: I meant “synchrony” for the “snapshot” or slice of a structure. Not the “diachrony” of a process or series of events.


      • Woah: which professor?

        In a history class or something? Sociology intro?

        Parsons had a boom in the 60s and 70s. Cultural and intellectually history had to work against it. Karl Schoske made it clear that although he was going to take a slice of time “1900” as his focus, he was taking on historiographic models that deny local contingencies. His book on Vienna is something else.

        (*Version*=1&*entries*=0 ).


        • Self, Culture, and Society, which we students had dubbed “Self-Torture and Anxiety,” one of the required first-year social sciences curricula under the Hutchinsonian Common Core program at the U of Chicago, early-mid 1980s. As with all the Core we used only primary sources. The humorous name was a bit unfair as it was generally an excellent class, especially as my instructor, and soon an encouraging mentor, was Bertram Cohler. My brief internet scan doesn’t turn it up, but I could swear he mentioned studying with Parsons at some point, and he tended to assign (and defend) the impenetrable bugger more than most.


  2. “(And believe me, you don’t want to know why I think voting is a pretty good idea, and the conditions under which I think it actually works out OK.)”

    I don’t believe you! I WANT TO KNOW!


    • Clickbait achievement unlocked.

      It makes most sense to reverse the order of the questions. Voting works when it reflects the power behind that particular vote (yes/no, or for a certain person or thing) to do it anyway. Most crudely, a vote has meaning when it is a promise from a brick, or better, a bullet.

      For anyone who reads that in horror, “but we can’t resort to terrible terrible violence!”, and especially if that someone is a U.S. citizen, consider this. As of about 1980, militant action toward the ends of reform – to any extent, not just radical – was flatly gutted in this country. I guess you could cite Earth First as its last dribs and drabs until 1989, but not much else. From that point forward, a vote for, say, enforcement of ecological responsibility (just to the existing standards, not making new ones even), was … well, “that’s just your opinion, man.” Same goes for civil rights, prison reform, sex work reform, reform of military armament and global reach (again, just to the stated standard, not further change), worker protection or negotiating power, anything of that sort you want to name. Yet violent backup for a number of reactionary and exploitative concerns remained part of the landscape, up to and including multiple murders, mass-destruction bombing incidents, astonishing degrees of corruption especially in the banking sector, and considerable numbers of aggravated crimes against persons. Guess which way U.S. policy’s consistently gone for forty years? Ever wonder why “left” in modern U.S. vocabulary describes the Clinton administration, which in every one of the just-listed ways was more reactionary than the Reagan one? Or why “liberal” and “left” are currently used as synonyms even though historically the two concepts are almost diametrically opposed? Because “left” is simply gone. There isn’t any – the votes which sound like it have no bullets.

      Look at it this way. Take your conciliatory, compromising, hoping for reform liberal position on any issue – by “liberal” I mean, seeking reform, not one of the dog-whistle issues associated with the term in recent decades. Not one person voting this way, or a representative thereof, voting in Congress, wants to admit that business about bricks and bullets. But without the leverage of saying, “Look, you can compromise with me, or you’ll have some real crazies out there to deal with, and I don’t like’em either, but there they are, so take your choice,” there’s no reason for the other side of that particular debate to grant even the tiniest concession. To the contrary, they buy votes by not negotiating. And that other side, the change-averse, like it the way it is conservative (by which I do not mean hard-right or military-industrial or finance; that’s something else) has all the crazies they need already killing doctors and blowing things up, fairly regularly actually – again, even if the reps and average-dude conservatives don’t like, there they are. Pretty soon that soft conservative position is going to seem pretty damn hard and reactionary – why shouldn’t it be? It’s got crazies backing it up, and the liberal one doesn’t. I’m not saying these representatives and whatnot even know it, or mean it, or want it – but that’s the source of their power; the votes that support them have bullets.

      See, now, that’s why I like voting. It keeps the bullets in the guns, and the bricks in the streets instead of through the windows. I don’t romanticize revolutionary violence any more than the reactionary kind; it’s just as cruel as any other sort and I’m a timid soul. I’d like to study evolution and teach classes; I’d like everyone to have only what are currently called “white people problems.” But I also think anyone who relies on voting to establish policy better understand that somewhere, as indirectly as you like in order to feel good about yourself, the crazies who agree with you (and think you’re a wimp) need to be there. Or else your vote is a piece of paper – probably tolerated as long as it doesn’t accomplish much or gets compromised away in practice, possibly ignored or suborned through some “error,” and in a pinch, no one to stop it from being bundled up with the rest from your district and dumped in the river.

      The best book I ever read about this is Karl Jaspers’ Wohin treibt die Bundesrepublik?, titled in English, “The Future of Germany,” from the mid-1960s. It absolutely nails why the Nazi party could take over Germany as it did in the 1930s – because the liberals (soft institutional reform) enthusiastically allied with the rest of the institutional positions to criminalize the hard-left radicals. Once those were gone, the soft institutional conservatives had no reason not to ally with and soon identify with the hard-right including military-industrial, the next step out, and the farthest-out hardest thugs, no matter how many pitiful little committees and votes were held in the Reichstag. Jaspers explains it step by step. Students of the events in the U.S. in 2001-2005 will find it chilling reading.


      • A comment here is bound to be … inadequately nuanced to cover my full opinion. But I’ll try. Ultimately, I think this brick or bullet thing is accurate, but I’m not sure that “ultimately” is the most important aspect here. “Indirectly”, potentially, can be as much about substantively important details as it is about feeling good about yourself.

        That said, I have pointed out that the only meaningful response to a sincere “you can have my guns when you pry them from my cold, dead fingers” is “OK, if you insist. I was thinking maybe reasoned, balanced changes to firearm laws, but that’ll be easier with you cold and dead, so …” Again, that certainly fails to capture all nuances of my thoughts on US gun laws/culture. But as an example where if one position literally has and will use bullets, the others need the same, maybe it’s illustrative.


        • I think we’re agreeing, especially since “indirectly” can mean “no one ever hits or shoots anyone to institute policy ever again.” In other words, what I wrote can be applied toward the most civil of civic policy-making, such that the crazies, as I kindly referred to them, merely grumble about how this places is infested with wimps, but are not frustrated enough by circumstances to do anything.

          In the event of possible misunderstanding … I’m not claiming or advocating for a citizenry to go about individually packing heat, so “democracy will work.” I’m describing what appears to be the way it plays out historically, and taking as given that any group of persons is capable of organized violence in any fashion.

          “Works” is also one of those absurd words in talking about policy making. Works for what? In this case, I don’t mean “toward the greater good” or “for society’s benefit” or “the maximum benefit any one of us may hope for,” all of which are the usual implications of the word. I mean simply “operating in practice as democracy would have it in theory,” which is to say, such that group-organized policy preferences can make it into reality. That sets aside whether any given group’s preferred policy, or those of groups in general, has any quality I might or you might want.

          That’s the big difference between talking about democracy as a technique vs. the odd and vague ideal I tagged with its special pronunciation – the latter isn’t a technique but a whole “system” (whatever that is) and is supposed to do something that other “systems” cannot.


  3. On the general point of misapplying evolution to forms of government – I fully agree, and yet still notice that statements embedded in such thinking can sneak past my filter. Reading here, I plan to club myself with “not evolution. NOT evolution! Change, sure, maybe even improvement, but NOT EVOLUTION!”


    • The variables of societal change remain elusive in the larger discussion. My preference is always to get right to the heart of it with slavery, especially that this practice – particularly in terms of labor – is both legal and central to U.S. social policy. I’m not talking metaphorically at all. The 13th Amendment explicitly retains legal status for slavery concerning conscripts and convicts. In the past 35 years, policing and judicial practices have created a convict labor force which underpins the rest of our society far more than ever openly discussed.

      (One detail out of thousands: that prisoner populations are counted as citizenry for purposes of a state’s or county’s electorate and therefore representation, but the convicts themselves are not allowed to vote. This applies to ethnicity as well, and has implications for states’ status relative to budgets and similar things – i.e., the convicts, especially those with long-term sentences, are disproportionately black, hence the state is “diverse.”)

      Current U.S. society rests on slaver/slave relations which would lead any Roman imperial or Egyptian pharaoh to recoil in horror, on both a qualitative and a quantitative basis.

      I tend to get a little dingy (a word from 1970s slang, rhymes with “thingy”) when people want to talk about social progress, not because I’m flatly saying “there isn’t any,” but because I’d like to stick to examples which aren’t fictional.


      • I probably should’ve emphasized MAYBE even progress. I may not be entirely on the same page with the comment above, but I’m definitely in the same chapter.

        And dingy is 70’s slang? I hear it a lot, but then, I know a lot of people experienced in 70’s slang …


      • “Current U.S. society rests on slaver/slave relations which would lead any Roman imperial or Egyptian pharaoh to recoil in horror, on both a qualitative and a quantitative basis.”

        I can agree that the US prison system is essentially an industry sustained by slave labour and that prison reform is one of the most neglected topics in the current political dialogue. I’m not certain a strictly numerical comparison would be fully borne out, though?


        • Talking about slavery is almost too difficult for moderns, especially U.S. citizens. They, or we, see it as either-or and use the mid-1800s South as the benchmark.

          You specified demographics by which I think you mean percentage of the population. In imperial Rome, this didn’t include ethnicity, so to compare with the current U.S., we need to factor that in … and in considering the targeted population, black men, I think you’ll find that the percentages are truly alarming. Especially when you consider that arrest and pre-arrest (targeted surveillance, “suspicion”) significantly affect people’s lives; once you’re in that zone, which includes coercion into informant status, prison is either coming or upon someone close to you. Especially when you also consider disproportionate sentencing, and that the drug-related crimes for those are conducted equally across U.S. demographics.

          The first century CE is the time I’m thinking about, fortunately just as mentioned in the Wiipedia article. I just did some consulting work which included this topic so I can provide a more complete view.

          Slaves composed about half the workforce, integrated into work and service at all levels of society. Certain jobs were all or almost all slave-based, but many jobs were attended to by slaves and non-slaves at the same time. To striking difference to our eyes is that slaves were not culturally obvious – they wore the same clothes as everyone else, they weren’t required to speak or act “like slaves” to anyone but their master, it seems unlikely they had to obey any free person no matter what, and Roma proper, the city and its surroundings, was a either an even mix of citizens, freedmen, and slaves, or weighted toward the latter – again, for most of the economic range, indistinguishable.

          The status doesn’t match U.S. slavery at all. Yes, they can be physically abused, even killed, and are sold or rented as a matter of ordinary business; yet documented cases of abusing slaves (which is constant in our media depictions) are hard to find – and we have good records. They could also collect wages and invest, some becoming wealthier than their masters.

          They were usually imported or converted to the status as war captives, rather than home-bred. It seems as if the reason there were so few adult slaves born to the status is that they were often manumitted, a specific legal step administered by a consul. They could buy their own way out if the master agrees, and others were often freed without even doing that. A freed slave is called libertus/liberta, and the former master is their patronus.

          Freedmen were not full citizens. They could vote (which leads me to think that a politically-oriented citizen did well to manumit his slaves), but could not themselves hold public office, and their former masters inherited their wealth. However, their children are full citizens. Therefore, by this point Roma is packed with citizens whose parents or grandparents were former slaves, with strong personal and economic ties with but no legal subordination to other citizens. Freedmen are also common in government bureaucracy and general civil service, a fact regarded with some suspicion and fear by the equestrian and senatorial classes.

          You can probably see why I opened with the softening point … because writing anything like this in modern times is instantly read as “in defense of slavery,” which I’m not doing. What I’m saying is that imperial Roman slavery was a much more dynamic institution, strangely integrated into non-slave life in a way we have trouble perceiving, and most importantly, which fed new people into the political system rather than removing them from it.

          Binary: yes, it was wrong. Unjust, inhumane, repulsive as any chattel status for humans is to me … yet as slavers any honest U.S. citizen should admit that he or she is ten times the culprit the Imperial Roman was.

          One last point: you mentioned that the prison system is sustained by prison labor, but that is narrowly stated enough to be inaccurate, especially in implying that the system is separate from the rest of U.S. society. An immense portion of the U.S. economy and political system depends precisely on the current arrangement of the police, justice, and prison system, of which prisoner labor is one part. Recommended books: Radley Balko’s The Rise of the Warrior Cop and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.


        • I can’t seem to reply to Ron’s post directly for some reason, so I’ll just put this here.

          First of all, let me emphasise that I don’t mean to come off as churlish or pedantic- I genuinely appreciate the discussion of the institution of slavery in antiquity (I did some cursory reading on slavery in the aztec empire a year or two back which was quite fascinating, so this is right up my alley.)

          I’d be interested to get some hard data on rates of manumission, given that life expectancy for the average roman seems to be around 25, while 20 or less is the average for the slave class, including child mortality. Specific data on relative life expectancy for black US prisoners eludes my google fu, so I’m not certain what conclusions to draw there.

          Of course, there’s also the problem of endemic prison rape, segregation from the wider population, lack of savings and much narrower freedom of movement, relative to what many roman slaves could expect. And yes, like any large industrial operation, the knock-on socio-economic effects (e.g, depressing wages) extend far beyond the barbed fence.

          And sure, it’s fair to point out that, e.g, black males born in the 90s have a 29% chance of spending time in prison at some point, and given a total black population of around 45 million (half of which are men) plus a prison population of around 2.5 million (maybe half of which are black), I suppose one can say that about 5% of this specific subgroup is in a state of indefinite compulsory servitude, which is up against the lower bound of estimates for the prevalence of slavery in the empire as a whole.

          I’m not trying to poke holes in the basic thesis- it’s a horrifying, throwback institution that needs to be expunged, and it’s atrocious that the stats approach anything this high- but if you’re at all worried about being quoted out of context, ‘horrifying the pharoahs’ might come across as a little hyperbolic to the uncharitable reader. (It’s the sort of thing that gets Steven Pinker all hissy, I’d imagine.)


        • Hi Morgan, I don’t want to be argumentative. There are three points I must lay down and then I ask that we let it drop (pending that I’m not being wrong or unfair), as it’s turned into a full threadjack about an auxiliary phrase.

          1. For purposes of percentages, I think you’re choosing every possible version and status of slavery in one period to compare with a highly specific subset of it in another. I was careful to specify already that I am not restricting my assessment of current slavery to in-prison contracted labor.

          2. I stand by my “recoil in horror,” acknowledging that any such statement is of course fiction. The reactions of a third party in the conversation, so far not evidently present, named or unnamed, aren’t my concern.

          3. The term pharaoh came into use during Egypt’s New Kingdom phase, and I chose it carefully. The image of Egyptian rulers working zillions of slaves to death in the desert is not supported by research anyway; it’s basically what Brits made up about what the Egyptians must have done. Regardless, I chose the period which included slaves and considerable labor for temples, but not building pyramids.

          P.S. The reason you can’t reply to that post (nor can I to yours) is that I set the embedding to 3 levels. As is apparent from this very moment, if the exchange requires more, it’s a pretty good indication that the exchange has hit one of several points where it needs to stop.


        • “1. For purposes of percentages, I think you’re choosing every possible version and status of slavery in one period to compare with a highly specific subset of it in another.”

          Respectfully, Ron, I feel that is a little unfair. This wasn’t my choice of subset. You suggested that “In imperial Rome, [slavery] didn’t include ethnicity, so to compare with the current U.S., we need to factor that in … and in considering the targeted population, black men.”

          So, yes, if you look at (presumably) the most heavily victimised US demographic, the numeric argument plausibly holds. But how would expanding the sample to less heavily victimised demographics strengthen the case?


        • Ah, hang on- it just clicked for me. You’re suggesting that there are forms of slavery outside the prison system (e.g, the legal limbo of immigrants) that would bulk up the numbers across the board?


        • (Sorry about the delay. I didn’t get a notification for some reason.) Yes, but I don’t need to expand it very far. I’m still talking about the larger apparatus of police, pre-prison including arrest, jail (I trust that you know the difference between jail and prison), the court process and its many limbos, and the “out of prison but not really” conditions of parole and even general release.

          You’ve stated that my initial point is not after all mere hyperbole, which I appreciate. I did ask that we stop it here and now I’m saying we have to.


  4. I’ve belatedly realized something terminological I probably should have introduced all the way back the first time I used “reciprocity” here. There’s a disciplinary difference in what it means.

    To economists and I suspect to most other social sciences people, it’s strictly defined in terms of equivalence – by definition, whatever is exchanged for X is equal to X, and if I understand correctly, the exchange is usually considered as a one-time thing completed and done, even finite to everything else, more or less enclosed in its own bubble.

    Whereas to biologists, specifically behavioral ecologists, the term is used at almost the maximum possible meaning of “social sharing stuff, actions, things, whatever,” and doing it at the same time or split up in time, and the two X’s are neither equivalent nor necessarily similar in any way.” It’s more about the potential for return favor than the reality of it, especially when the modifier “indirect” is included.

    This difference has gummed up dialogue about the topic for decades. I most recently ran up against it in reading David Graeber’s excellent book Debt, in which I was happily translating his argument into my discipline without any trouble, until he went to great pains to explain why what he was saying wasn’t “reciprocity.” Fortunately his “communism” [he uses this is a very specialized way] matches my discipline’s use of “reciprocity” perfectly so the apparent conflict vanished; it’s only terminology.


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