On Human Nature

James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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38 Responses

  1. Saul Degraw says:

    I don’t disagree with what you are saying but I think that there are social goods and there are economic goods and they might not always overlap.

    Over the past few months, I’ve seen a raise of on-line and other commentators rail against home ownership as being against good economics because it discourages labor mobility and this leads to situations like Youngstown, Ohio or Detroit or any other distressed industrial area. Felix Salmon is rather adamant about beating the drum against home ownership.

    But home ownership can be a social good. It allows people to for communities, establish roots, and do all the nice social things that humans need. Plus it might protect people in old age especially if they live in area that becomes hot. One recent San Francisco eviction story was about a 98-year old war widow who was ejected from her rental apartment via the Ellis Act. She was never late on her rent, her landlord just wanted to cash out. There were other stories about elderly people being evicted because they were renting in hot property.

    Morons of the Internet made comments about how if the old people did not want this to happen, they should have purchased housing.*

    Well you can’t have it both ways. Should people rent or should they own? If you want people to rent because of economics, you need to have policies that help people in their old age when they are too old to work and deal with the realization that old people might end up living in hot real estate markets and have no where to go, maybe they have no living relatives, laws are going to be needed to help these people because where does a 98-year old war widow have to go to? Many European countries have a large number of renters, I wonder if they also have laws that help provide for stability in renting post-work.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      What would you give up to be part of a community?Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to James Hanley says:

        Man, I cannot tell you how much I miss New York. I’ve grown to love a lot about SF and the Bay Area but this does not prevent me from missing New York fiercely.

        I miss having seasons especially that cool and crisp autumn air that smells like roasting sweet potatoes from mid October until a week or two after Thanksgiving. I miss being able and the changing leaves. I miss the architecture and spaces and history that New York and the Northeast offer. I especially miss the culture: BAM, Met, MOMA, Lincoln Center, New York Theatre Workshop, and many other things. There is some of that in the Bay Area but nothing compares to the embarrassment of riches that is New York. You certainly only get a small fraction of all the international companies that come to New York. I try but can’t avoid looking at New York Times’ stories about real estate in New York and feeling homesick and wanting to be back in my brownstone Brooklyn.

        But my mom has had a fantasy for 40 years that her entire family would live in the Bay Area and my parents bought a house in Walnut Creek in 2011 and family is important and my older brother, sister-in-law, and soon to be born niece live in LA. I’ve also developed more of a social life here than I ever really had in New York including a close circle of friends and people I hang out with regularly.

        But I still really, really, miss New York, and nothing will ever make this stop from being so.

        So I think I am giving up a lot for the sake of community.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        That’s an economic decision.

        But it’s also a social decision.

        I won’t say all economic decisions are social decisions and vice versa; I’m not confident that there’s 100% overlap. And even if there is, the economic aspect of the decision is not necessarily the same as the social aspect–in your case I might say the social choice is the driver of the economic choice.

        But damned it’s hard to say “this decision is social, not economic,” or “this decision is economic, not social,” and so it’s also hard to say that with certainty about the goods that we are making decisions about.

        The common error is to see “economic” as being solely about markets, or about money, or even about material goods, and to think that it excludes the social, or is somehow more crass and unsocial.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        And, by the way, while my comment was rather dryly academic, I do hear the emotion in your analysis. Economics, as the study of decisions about what to choose when we can’t have it all, is in some respects the study of how life sucks.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to James Hanley says:


        It is the dismal science.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Saul, curiously it was called that by an advocate of slavery who was mad at an economist who opposed slavery. So if opposition to slavery is dismal, I’d think economists should wear the label with pride.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      This is why I’m in favor of government built and provided housing if you can pull it off. It combines the advantages of rent and homeownership. Governments could ignore certain economic incentives that other land lords have and this provides some safety. At the same time, renting from the government isn’t owning so people are more free to leave. Its impossible to have a fair or good housing system without government involvement.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to LeeEsq says:

        If we’re persuaded labor mobility is good for the economy, may I presume we support open borders?Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to LeeEsq says:


        I think open boarders sounds nice in theory but in reality most people are not willing to accept any government entity larger than the nation-state. People might support liberal immigration policies but it only seems to be a small few who want truly open boarders of “move whether you want.” The EU tried it on a smaller scale and it was one of the most controversial aspects of the EU plan IIRC.

        So only a small number of rootless cosmopolitans will support open boarders 🙂Report

      • James Hanley in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Yes, humans are tribalistic assholes, aren’t they. It’s not just libertarians whose motto is FYIGM.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to LeeEsq says:


        You are ignoring being called a rootless cosmopolitan 🙂

        I’m calling you a commie 😉Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Tribal would be FYWGO.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        People form groups. We form groups based on all sorts of things; physical appearance, hobibes, beliefs, gender, sexuality, age, and occupations. There is no use hoping that every human either becomes a rugged libertarian individualist or a true liberal cosmopolitan. Its not going to happen. The key is to make sure that the negative effects of the human tendency to form groups is limited and channel tribalism towards positive aims.Report

    • Damon in reply to Saul Degraw says:


      “I’ve seen a raise of on-line and other commentators rail against home ownership as being against good economics because it discourages labor mobility and this leads to situations like Youngstown, Ohio or Detroit or any other distressed industrial area. Felix Salmon is rather adamant about beating the drum against home ownership.”

      Yes, but what is “good economics”. What THEY think is the right answer? Each of the people in those areas bought houses for various reasons that seemed good for them at that time. The only quibble I have with that is that some of those reasons for market distortions created by the gov’t-home ownership incentives, tax deductions, etc.Report

    • j r in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      @saul-degraw, I agree with you to a large extent. I would, however, say that in the cases you mention your beef ought time with Felix Salmon and the Morons of the Internet and not with “economics.”Report

  2. Francis says:

    “much of that social activity is political in nature”

    I have always found ‘government is bad’ arguments to be particularly callow. Certain governments can be bad; others, less so. Government simply is. It is an emergent property of striving against adversity and for position within a tribe.

    With the advent of effective globalization, our tribe is in certain circumstances all of us. For example, my current employer looks for low-cost manufacturing of certain goods in Mexico, India and China. No US manufacturer could possibly compete, so there is no US competition.

    At some level this is really weird. LA County used to be a value-added manufacturing hub for high-tech aerospace products — everything from nuts and bolts to plastics and metals. But a lot of that work is gone overseas for a whole series of complicated reasons. Pollution control, unions and other regulations are some of the reasons cited by the company owners for the off-shoring. I suspect that the ability to find highly-reliable low-cost workers in China and Thailand might also have something to do with it.

    But the net effect at the end of the day is that there are lots of young men (predominantly members of minority groups) who cannot find solid middle-class jobs. And when they look to their elected government for an explanation, the answer is what? Tough luck? How many people are going to get tossed into the mill of global capitalism before people start electing politicians who have a very different answer (Blame The X!) in large numbers?Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Francis says:

      You lost me. Are you thinking that my claim that “much of that social activity is political in nature” was in some way saying “government is bad”?

      Granted, the dynamics you’re talking about incorporate social, political, and economic dynamcs, so it’s a good demonstration of my point. But as a complaint or critique, as it appears to be, I’m just not seeing how it follows from what I wrote.Report

      • Francis in reply to James Hanley says:

        Sometimes (frequently, even) my comments are not directed specifically at the OP. Here in particular, I was thinking about the incredibly successful demonization of the role of government in society by many in the Republican Party and the far-too-gleeful piling on by movement libertarians.

        Government will exist so long as we form tribes larger than 2. The question, then, is not the existence of government but the kind of government we want. But far too many conservatives and libertarians churn out way too much commentary blurring the distinction.

        For example, you quoted Scott Sumner as follows: “Some on the left mock the “technology” argument for improved living standards.”

        The ‘some on the …” argument is really just the pits. You can find some moron arguing for just about any absurd position, be it left, right or center. Do a lot of people take this position? Are you giving the asserted position a fair construction or an absurd one? Is the position a core belief or an outlier? Is there a factual dispute at issue, a difference in values, or a combination between the two?

        Of course technology will improve living standards. So I’m not sure who you were arguing against. But it’s a lot easier for a government to roll out cell phone service than it is to roll out an adequate health care system. (At the same time, cell phone systems, especially in 3rd world countries, appear to be a great way for the politically connected to collect rents. (hello, mr. slim.).)

        Now, it appears to me that you’re heavily invested in seeing government playing an ever-shrinking role in society. And you’re smart enough to see that many people are concerned about what appears to be ever-increasing inequality especially in First World countries. So you write a relatively short post chock full of language with strong connotations (“innumerable”, “take a deep breath”, “mockery”, “callow” “self-anointed”, “sneer”), then assume the position of the virtuously mis-understood.

        Now, we could have had a values-based discussion about the role of government in investing in public health versus communications infrastructure, or a factual-based discussion about the relative costs and benefits of those investments.

        But it appears to me that you weren’t particularly interested in either of those discussions. You wrote a post calculated to generate outrage. And, in today’s follow-up, all of a sudden you backtrack and concede that these disputes do have a legitimate political component.

        So I wrote what I did. It wasn’t terribly coherent and neither was this. I blame the whiplash induced by reading the posts consecutively.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        All I can really say, Francis, is that I think liberals in general find it far easier to compartmentalize government than libertarians. Liberals can look at Ferguson snd it see it as an outlier in government activity, while libertarians see it as a core expression of government’s innate tendencies. The outrage we’re all feeling about Ferguson differs only in degree from the outrage I feel about a variety of government abuses of power on a daily basis, overwhelmingly directed at the powerless.

        Government will exist so long as we form tribes larger than 2

        Frequently used red herrings, like all old fish, offend the olfactory organs.Report

      • Damon in reply to James Hanley says:

        I’d be happy for you to realise that all gov’t, by it’s very nature, represents force and violence against the individual, whether that use of force is for “good” or “bad” is irrelevant. Everything else after that is just how you want to use it.Report

      • j r in reply to James Hanley says:


        The ‘some on the …” argument is really just the pits. You can find some moron arguing for just about any absurd position, be it left, right or center. Do a lot of people take this position? Are you giving the asserted position a fair construction or an absurd one? Is the position a core belief or an outlier? Is there a factual dispute at issue, a difference in values, or a combination between the two?

        Do you realize, however, that this is exactly what you are doing? There are indeed economic and social viewpoints that affirm the free movement of labor, capital and goods across borders and caution wariness over the expansion of government, but you have to go pretty far into doctrinaire libertarian territory before you find people claiming outright that government is bad. Likewise, no one who affirms globalization says, “tough luck” to those without a job.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        A followup:

        For example, you quoted Scott Sumner as follows: “Some on the left mock the “technology” argument for improved living standards.”

        The ‘some on the …” argument is really just the pits. You can find some moron arguing for just about any absurd position, be it left, right or center.

        I referenced that because people here at this blog mocked that argument when
        I made it. To me it’s not random morons, but fellow OT commenters. I disagree with them, but even I didn’t call them morons, as you just have.

        You wrote a post calculated to generate outrage

        It appears to me that when folks make claims about another’s motivations, including when I’ve–to my regret–done it, they’re almost invarianly wrong. It seems so obvious to us that we’re sure it must be true, but of course we’re substituting our guesses for the other party’s real thoughts.

        My thoughts are that I wrote a post to challenge a common liberal perspective on contemporary economic well-being that to me seems in error. If you can only see that as an attempt to outrage, then it seems to me that you find it outrageous to have your views challenged. But that’s me attributing a motivation to you, and if you think I’m wildly wrong, well, then you and I are in good company with one another. 😉Report

  3. Stillwater says:

    Good post James. And I mean that in the way I think you intended it to read – as thought provoking and expansive.Report

  4. Jeremiah says:

    Since we are mixing threads, I may post this here, since it more appropriately touches on the OP:
    On the Market Inequality thread, jr wrote:

    “Developed, market-oriented societies top non-developed, non-market-oriented societies in just about every measure of well-being and fairness that there is.”

    This isn’t to pick on jr- I might have written this same sentiment at another time.
    Because seems reasonable way to go about things- lets rank nations by fairness and well-being, then look for clues as to what political and economic systems stand out among the best, right?

    But pretty quickly it becomes apparent that there are powerful factors beyond political structures and economic systems at work.

    Why are Haiti and Zimbabwe so poor, when they have such different systems?
    Why are Sweden and Taiwan so rich, when they have very different economic systems?

    But then, we get to definitions- Is Haiti actually “market-oriented”? And isn’t Sweden actually powered by private industry?
    Suppose we decided that Haiti was in fact not market-oriented, but an example of crony capitalism and rent-seeking, the antithesis of market-oriented?
    So maybe our recommendation would be that market reforms would benefit Haiti?

    So all the Haitians have to do is gather together and create a stable political society that provided respect for property rights and fair treatment for all persons regardless of class and background, and equal access to contract enforcement, then they would become prosperous and free.

    Which …of course…is exactly the problem.

    Because any society that can accomplish that, could become prosperous and brimming with well-being, regardless of what political or economic system it followed.

    Systems work the way people want them to work.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Jeremiah says:

      I have a lot of agreement until your last sentence, which has no logical connection to the rest of the comment and is false.Report

    • j r in reply to Jeremiah says:


      You’ve lost me a bit as well. Some folks were making the claim that economic growth is, in some ways, antithetical to social growth and development and that the move toward capitalism and market-economies represents an ethical and moral threat to human development. That is, in fact, the opposite of the truth.

      To prove those people wrong, I don’t have to make a particularly strong defense of economic growth and market economies. I only have to show that it is highly correlated with all sorts of positive measures of health, justice and equality.

      I do, in fact, believe that some form of accountable government and a market-oriented economy are generally necessary for development, but I have not and would never argue that they are some sort of silver bullet.Report

    • LWA in reply to Jeremiah says:

      @james-hanley @j-r
      The last sentence is saying that regardless of what system we operate under, they only work to produce the outcomes we want them to produce.

      That is, if we have a society that is stable, peaceful, where we enjoy mutual respect for each other and are capable of overcoming our tribal differences, and settle things peacefully, a society like this will produce a pretty good outcome whether it is socialist or market oriented.

      What I am challenging is the causality- There isn’t any legal or market reform that can turn Haiti into Sweden, until the Haitian people can solve their social problems. Sweden is peaceful and prosperous because the Swedes have worked very hard to do exactly that.

      Let me frame it in a more libertarian-friendly terms. You saw Corey Robins post over at Crooked Timber linking slavery with capitalism? Its a common enough argument, that the market invariably leads to slavery.
      Except, lets consider the reverse.

      Its a fact that the Jim Crow era Southern Populists were as vehemently opposed to large corporations as any Occupy activist.
      So suppose for a moment that history had taken a different turn- suppose socialism had taken root in the South, and the major factors of production publically held.

      Would life have gotten better for black people? I think it is self-evident that the answer is no.

      No matter what political or economic system the South had at that time, black people were going to be second class citizens, because that’s that outcome that the dominant class wanted.Report

      • j r in reply to LWA says:

        No matter what political or economic system the South had at that time, black people were going to be second class citizens, because that’s that outcome that the dominant class wanted.

        Yes and no. As I said, I do not believe in silver bullets. There are, however, certain forms of organization and certain institutional arrangements that are better at fostering economic and social development than others.Report

  5. Chris says:

    Why do people pursue power?

    I rag on social psychology a lot, but a hot topic among social psychologists these days is power relationships, how they form, how we behave in light of them, and what traits and contexts lead us to seek particular roles within them.Report

  6. Michael Drew says:

    But of course the criticism quoted in the OP was not of *economics* for emphasizing homo economicus, but of the broader, perhaps even popular, intellectual conversation (“in our political and cultural thinking”) for too much adopting one particular discipline’s model of man and too much forgetting the lessons given by at least one other. (I don’t know that I agree with the assessment that was made in it, but that was what it was doing.)

    So… is that not something that potentially could have happened in such a way that it would make sense to say that the broader conversation now leans too far one way and not the other without having to say that it probably also hasn’t taken on board enough of the lessons of other ones (in particular the one it’s being said is now favored)? To just say… look, it seems like, broadly, the culture seems to see man more the way economists do than they used to, more than they see him as sociologists do, and maybe too much so even? But not that *economists* see him too much that way? In theory, it seems like it potentially is.

    The post seems to suggest that no such argument could be made without some kind of balancing statement that suggests that in some other way the broader discourse also neglects the one someone was initially inclined to say it favors too much of late. Which might be fair, since certainly the broader culture is constantly neglecting insights of all kinds from nearly every discipline. But the statement in question was an observation about which one it seems to be neglecting relatively less than others of late. I don’t really see why that observation must some with a “To be sure…” attached. Perhaps in all fairness it should, but the broader observation would be valid without it (if it happened to be well-observed).

    It seems to me that while it’s certainly true to say that a sociologist can’t say that economists don’t think about social man enough without raising the question whether sociologists think about economic man enough, it’s not the case that an unaffiliated observer of academically informed popular discussion couldn’t stand back observing popular intellectual discourse and/or semi-formal interdisciplinary discussions and come to a conclusion about which model of man is currently relatively favored in the culture-by-and-large compared to other times and reflect on the perspectives about man that consequently are de-emphasized in said discussion compared to other times.Report

  7. What about history? 🙂Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      See, everything connects!

      Seriously, I think humans are historically minded by nature, too. Oral history, storytelling, is a part of every culture. And much of it is an attempt to understand, explain, and justify the group’s socio-political structures.

      This is why I get frustrated at claims of disciplinary hegemony. I say work together, goddamit.Report