Glenn Loury Interview on Vox

A few points of note:  Glenn Loury is one of my heroes, a fellow game theorist-cum-social philosopher, although he is obviously far more successful than I am.  One of the really careful thinkers about problems of society who doesn’t get the credit that he deserves, I think.

This interview is probably worth reading without comments by me, but a few things, I think are worth paying attention to.

  1.  What are most alleged “debates” about?  Loury points out that most of them are not about substance, but about labels–what he calls “meta argumentation.”  When I was still teaching I’ve had to work hard to keep students from getting carried away over what “real liberals” and “real conservatives” are supposed to be.  It got bad enough that I had to ban talking about current politics–which gets problematic when the class is supposedly about politics of elections.  People are so hung up on the superficial that talking about substance is difficult, if at all possible, and this goes well beyond the question of “political correctness.”  My hunch is that this is a problem of “signalling”:  people say things to show that they are on the right side, whether or not what they say is true.  One of the court political factions in medieval/early modern Korea supposedly made a certain interpretation of some Chinese classical poetry their focal point.  Who knows what the details of the real poems said–the bottom line is that these guys were smart, in the sense measured by medieval Korea since they studied Chinese classics–and they also knew which side their bread was buttered, so to speak–what they were supposed to believe about some poems about God-knows-what in a foreign country.  Much the same thing, I’d often insisted, is true about creationism-vs-evolution.  “Evolutionists” without much education have terrible understanding of how evolution works.  Educated creationists, even if they don’t “believe” it, have very good and subtle understanding of science–and in fact, the really well-informed ones can point to genuine problems in the current theories.  The latter isn’t a problem–science isn’t supposed to explain everything anyways–we don’t know how gravity works either, for example.  But for the “politics,” labels matter, not the substance.
  2. I suspect that Loury is being too iffy about “structural” racism.  The starting point should always be Akerlof’s argument–Loury is a game theorist, after all.  This argument, again, goes beyond problems of race, and in fact, is an extension of the problem of labels.  On average, labels tend to be more right than not–at least in equilibrium, although hardly unbreakable.  Often, however, the exceptions are common enough–at least in nature, so to speak.  But, like with the beauty contest game with limitedly strategic actors, the variance is suppressed as players rely on the mean as the focal point, creating and cementing its own reality.  Breaking this equilibrium is HARD!  And it is extremely difficult for the average African-American to break the mindset born of Jim crow.  WEB Du Bois was right to demand a quota system for the brightest 10% of African Americans–up to a point.  But people like Loury or Stephen Carter, at least when the latter was still a serious thinker, recognized that the really bright African-Americans, who did not need this extra help, were both disincentivized and hamstrung by this–they didn’t need to work as hard, or be as innovative, but, at the same time, they would be discounted as another “affirmative action baby” by those who do not know their work–which further disincentivized them from working hard, since their work would be subject to dismissal on superficial criteria by those without the wherewithal to evaluate them properly.  I don’t know what “structural racism” is, if this is not it.  But, at the same time, simply crying racism and condemning institutions will not be enough–indeed counterproductive.  And I’ll be honest about being clueless how to break the cycle.  I imagine the best step indeed might be his suggestion:  let’s quit the blame game and try to figure problems out, one by one.
  3. Ultimately, Loury’s proposed answer strikes me as rather close to what Chris Arnade brought up in his tweetstream:  we need some kind of guiding symbols and rituals, that somehow provide us with a meaning beyond the material, and get people coordinated on doing stuff–provide the center that can hold, so to speak, to paraphrase WB Yeats.  I don’t think it’s really a call for moralistic “rugged individualism” that clueless conservatives like to crow about, but long term community building that could take decades.



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