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Durkheim Meltdown

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim believed that one defining feature of a profession is that the attitudes and behaviors that count as "professional" within it are of no interest to the general public. My recent experiences suggest that whatever Durkheim was referring to has changed a lot since the time of his writing. First, consider his description and explanation of professional morals in Professional Ethics and Civic Morals:

The distinctive feature of this kind of morals and what differentiates it from other branches of ethics, is the sort of unconcern with which the public consciousness regards it. There are no moral rules whose infringement, in general at least, is looked on with so much indulgence by public opinion. The transgressions which have only to do with the practice of the profession, come in merely for a rather vague censure outside the strictly professional field....

...a book-keeper who is complacent about the rules of scrupulous accounting, or an official who as a rule lacks energy in carrying out his duties, does not give the impression of a guilty person, although he is treated as such in the organization to which he belongs.

This feature of professional ethics can moreover easily be explained. They cannot be of deep concern to the common consciousness precisely because they are not common to all members of the society and because, to put it in another way, they are rather outside the common consciousness. It is exactly because they govern functions not performed
by everyone, that not everyone is able to have a sense of what these functions are, of what they ought to be, or of what special relations should exist between the individuals concerned with applying them. All this escapes public opinion in a greater or lesser degree...

It is this very fact which is a pointer to the fundamental condition without which no professional ethics can exist. A system of morals is always the affair of a group and can operate only if this group protects them by its authority...

Émile Durkheim in Professional Ethics and Civic Morals

Professionals today — if they are so cursed to have their professionalism called into question — may be surprised how many members of the general public have quite refined and passionate views on what should be counted as professional within a range of different professions! The reason why Durkheim's description of professional morals now rings false is because the professions are no longer "outside the common consciousness."

Through the collapse of distance that characterizes modernity, all of our increasingly concentrated social molecules heat up: professions that once enjoyed relative detachment and autonomy from the masses, increasingly find their edges melting down from the friction of everyone pressed up against the gates on the outside. In our epoch, pitchforks will never appear, the great estates will not be set aflame, the Winter Palace will not be stormed. The traditional negentropic structures will be melted down by the heat of cross-cutting social expectations, claims, and obligations from which they were relatively insulated during the period of their emergence. Capable and interested people have historically enforced different forms of order in different professions, for particular social purposes as well as for their own status and payment, before handing power on to the next generation of capable and interested agents, according to stringent professional criteria. As more and more people see, hear, judge, and gain leverage to make claims on the resources that circulate in and out of the professions, more and more people will "have their say" at the cost of these structures no longer providing their negentropic quotient. They will neither dissolve nor be revolutionized, they will simply be melted, like a standing steel building might be melted into a wide and shallow but equally impressive pool of boiling silver. The people will get what they ask for, but then it won't be what they wanted.

Is parental social status a mixed blessing? On toleration for occupational drudgery

Many people assume that coming from parents with high social status is an advantage, because it would appear to increase the probability of gaining high social status for oneself. But what if parental social status is more like a weight on one's shoulders, an obligation heavy enough that, in some cases, it might even be a losing ticket in the lottery of life?

My parents have very low social status. I am a statistical oddity for having become a tenured academic, which is a relatively high status position (although I wager it's falling in the ranks as academia becomes discredited).

But I've been an academic for five years now, and with every passing year it gets harder and harder to understand why my job is worth doing. The volume of patently nonsensical and often ethically dubious make-work is so high that one of the chief intellectual puzzles I've become the most fascinated by is simply why everyone around me (myself included) is willing to work this job. And people are not just willing to work this job, they even continue to eagerly compete for it. That this has become a puzzle to me suggests that something about me is losing the capacity to do it, and yet for the moment at least — I'm still doing it.

In other occupations, the answer to such a question is obvious: people put up with all the nonsense either because they have no other choice, or because the money is worth it. But what is peculiar about academia is that most academics are skilled and connected enough to do many other things,  and the money is usually better in private-sector versions of academic fields. So if I am right that academia is becoming less and less worth it, given increasing loads of nonsense, I do think that the continuing passionate interest in either obtaining or maintaining academic careers is indeed a puzzling instance of lemming-like, behavioral inertia. But to call it herd behavior is too easy and not really satisfying. How or why does this particular herd dynamic hang together? A good theory would explain why academic investment varies across individuals (e.g., why is it becoming weaker in me, but not others?).

One possible explanation is the drive to meet parental expectations. The rationale is simple. If both of your parents were professors, or they had some other high-status occupation, you'll have a higher tolerance for nonsensical make-work, because you don't want to fail in the eyes of your parents. Quitting because of a too-high volume of nonsense would be existentially much more difficult than it would be for me, as their parents would view it more negatively than mine. Plus, they would feel their parents' judgment more because their parents' status gives their judgments greater credence. My parents, on the other hand, basically think I'm a highly-successful genius no matter what I do, and if for some reason they were to downgrade their opinion of me, my superior education would blunt the effects of that downgrading on me. Therefore, for an academic from high-status parents, maintaining their academic position is more rewarding than it is for me. They feel like they are representing something larger and historical and their parents actually follow what they do. I am doing something that most of my family does not really understand or care about.

For the moment, I'm carrying on. The big question is whether I am carrying on for the right reasons or the wrong reasons. My statistically improbable status background could give me a valuable edge in clarity, allowing me to see things that others can't see and act on them with a greater daring that others cannot access (namely, that perhaps academia is a sinking ship from which one should jump sooner than later). Or, my statistically improbable status background could just make long-term success in a high-status career more difficult, and the correct attitude and behavioral adaptation would be to suck it up and stop rationalizing my weaknesses. I still don't know the answer to this question, but I believe my basic observation about the causal role of parental status may be correct.

Does a country's separation of powers affect its status culture?

I was recently wondering whether countries with more centralized executive and legislative powers (less checks and balances) might have more status-intensive cultures — or in some way a qualitatively different type of status culture. My hypothesis is inchoate but here it goes.

When a government has few checks and balances (e.g. the UK is known for having a pretty centralized, unified government), the flow of public funds into civil society is highly conditional on the subjective status-estimates of a small set of people (those in government). By subjective status estimates I mean the personal impressions of the rulers regarding what people and projects out in the world are good, valuable, desirable, attractive, etc. When a government has a lot of checks and balances, the flow of public funds into civil society is not as conditional on the subjective status-estimates of one small set of agents — it's conditional on many different socially separated sets of agents.

The two countries I have the most experience living in, the US and the UK, occupy the two opposite poles with respect to the centralization of power in a unified government. And it seems to me that status-signaling activity in these countries is different in a noticeable but predictable way. These are just impressions and could be totally wrong, but here's what it looks like to me. It seems to me that much of UK civil society revolves around satisfying the whims of some superior, who is mostly concerned to satisfy the whims of some other superior, and so on upward... But at the top of almost all of these different chains of deference in different subspaces of civil society, is the whim of one group: the government in parliament at that time. This is why, I think, there is a lot of volatility in the priorities of civil society organizations in the UK (the "strategic plan" of a university can easily change once a year for some stretches), and yet the volatility seems strangely correlated (some change in a university's "strategic plan" sounds oddly like some new messaging you encounter from some other Arts organization. There are weird lags and interactions as you descend the pyramid from parliament to civil society, of course, but the diversity of civil society organizations all seem roughly attuned to the one fickle center at the top. So all the status-games feel, to me, weirdly and claustrophobically entrained.

In the US, it's obviously not that status competition is less prevalent, but the many status games of different civil society actors don't all trace upward to one master at the top of the pyramid. It's much more fractured, regarding who different civil society actors are trying to impress. But because it's more fractured, this means individuals have a relatively wider choice of what particular status game they want to play. Those who are immersed in one, don't pay as much attention to those who are playing another. If you find one status game really irksome, then you can potentially switch into another (relative to a country such as the UK).

One can then speculate about what types of people are selected for by these different contexts. I find the overly synchronized, centrally entrained status games of the UK kind of creepy, personally. I think it might make people marginally more delusional. It seems to me that people in the UK, including really smart people, are more likely to take arbitrary government directives as anchors of reality, whereas Americans have more mental leeway to, as it were, take 'em or leave 'em. When everyone else is attuned to the same center, it makes sense that you might mistake what's coming from the center as a vector of reality itself, rather than one contingent possibility among others. Americans often seem "kind of crazy" to non-Americans, and this might help to explain it. The highly fractured nature of government power in the US might make the American individual feel and act kind of like a free agent navigating many contingent possibilities of what reality even is.

Motives and Institutions with Robin Hanson

Robin Hanson is an economist, futurist, and blogger at overcomingbias.com. I've been following Robin for a while now because he's a genuine intellectual: he thinks, speaks, and writes intensely and prolifically about whatever he wants, even if it seems weird to other people. His recently published book, co-authored with Kevin Simler, is called The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. 

In this podcast, we talked about the new book; Robin's larger motivation behind the book; which minds Robin would like to change; the internet; academia; Robin's strategic insights on how to be an intellectual, especially for young-ish academic types such as myself; the near future; Robin's ideas about "futarchy;" Robin's book The Age of Em; how to incentivize honesty in small groups; the profit motive and the space of institutions beyond the profit motive; and a few other things.

Download this episode.

Occupations and Their Ideologies

Occupations are strongly sorted by ideology. Political scientist Adam Bonica has produced reliable and consistent estimates of ideological placement for a huge number of individuals, politicians, and organizations. As he writes here, he was especially struck by how extreme are the mean ideology scores for various occupations:

Although the ideological orientation of these industries is not much of a surprise, the extent to which these industries favor the extreme, rather than moderate, wings of each party far surpassed my expectations. Some of the distributions more closely resemble what I would expect from occupations that were subject to the spoils system–for instance, US postmasters prior to the Pendleton Act–than major contemporary industries with no official partisan ties.

In Bonica's AJPS article, he makes a similar observation:

In some industries, ideological sorting easily exceeds the levels of sorting observed along geographic or economic lines.

Ideological Ranking of Occupations and Industries, by Adam Bonica
Workplace Ideology: Selected Firms and Institutions (2004-2008), by Adam Bonica

Left-wing occupations are farther to the left than right-wing occupations are to the right

An interesting wrinkle in this data is that the left-leaning occupations are more left-leaning than the right-leaning occupations are right-leaning. Of the left-wing occupations and organizations, there are many firmly below -1, but for the right-wing occupations there are very few above 1. Indeed, even iconic representatives of evil right-wing military-industrial capital — such as Boeing or Exxon Mobil — are essentially centrist, at least with respect to their staffing.

You can see this again when he places industries into three buckets: Left, Right, and Divided. In the graphs below, it's easy to eyeball that the peak of the left-wing distributions are further to the left than the peak of the right-wing distributions are to the right.

Industries aligned with the Left
Industries Aligned with the Left (2008)
Industries Aligned with the Right (2008)
Ideologically Divided Industries (2008)

Social performance for status vs. mundane thing manipulation?

What are the underlying variables that explain how occupations sort into these three baskets? Just speculating, the left-wing occupations seem to be mostly about social performance and they garner high status. The right-wing occupations are mostly about mundane things and garner zero or negative status. And the divided occupations are those that call for ambiguous combinations of these things (person-facing but socially unimpressive).

And because some of those graphs are a bit old (2008), here is some confirmation that the basic patterns have not changed, at least as late as 2012.

Mapping the Ideological Marketplace (Bonica 2014)

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