The Politics of Associative Learning

Criticism notwithstanding, behaviorism can be interpreted to supply a cautious optimism about changing one’s current state of affairs. But optimistic outlooks can be fickle.

Changing one’s environment can bring about lasting change. This means the power to alter the environment, and who wields it, can become a central concern. As put by William Ralph Inge:

“The proper time to influence the character of a child is 100 years before he is born”

This is not to say that wielding power is bad. Initially this puts the forces of conditioning as neutral. Used correctly, this can lead to positive changes one wants to bring about. But as this change is done externally, that means other people can change it as well. We know circus bears can be made to perform unnatural things under enough pressure of conditioning. People are presumably more resilient, but everything has a breaking point. Some take this conditioning to be therapeutic, others may consider it torture. If you’re the person wielding the power it makes no difference, what matters is that the other person chooses what you want them to choose.


Inevitably, the struggle over which group will wield power becomes political. For some, this gives rise to a politics of S&M. Any ideology that uses the Biblical “spare the rod spoil the child” does this implicitly. As do he Hindu laws of Manu when they state: “Punishment is an active ruler; he is the true manager of public affairs; he is the dispenser of laws; and wise men call him the sponsor of all the four orders for the discharge of their several duties. Punishment governs all mankind; punishment alone preserves them; punishment wakes, while their guards are asleep. . . . The whole race of men is kept in order by punishment.”

Elites champion these forms of social control as benevolent. BF Skinner himself said, approvingly, that “science does not dehumanize man, it de-homunculizes him.” And by homunculus he meant “the autonomous man, the inner man…the man defended by the literature of freedom and dignity.” So what follows after you remove freedom and dignity? Naturally, traditional morals dissolve and things are pushed beyond good and evil as people become nothing more than products of their environment.

IRL, whether due to cupidity or cupid’s arrow, social media harnesses this principles expertly to form habits. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stated this explicitly when he said: “I’m curious about whether there is a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about. I bet there is.”

if i cant show it if you cant see me whats the point of doing anything
“If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me, what’s the point of doing anything?”- St. Vincent, Digital Witness

It also provides metaphorical justification for organizing economies. When Daniel Dennett says “neurons are akin to Skinnerian agents”, this provides comfort to decision theory, game theory, public choice theory, and any other theory predicated on a rational agent selecting from randomly generated choices the way behaviorism allegedly does. This includes justifying the current laissez-faire economic system when Dennett says “the brain’s functional architecture is more like a free market than a politburo hierarchy.”

Which brings us to the current crowning glory of the current Trump administration: née the Cut Cut Cut Act. The bill focuses on reducing corporate taxes. Presumably, lower corporate taxes will provide incentive for foreign capital inflows, which would then presumably lead to higher wages and GDP growth.

However, low corporate tax rates create an incentive to use transfer pricing to make profits appear in a country due to foreign capital without much autochthonous activity. This means GNP will go up less than GDP, and GNI may actually go down. The foreign capital inflows should also increase the trade deficit.

This will also increase the budget deficit. By 2027, those making $40 to 50,000 per year will pay a combined $5.3 billion more in taxes, while those earning $1 million or more will get a combined $5.8 billion cut.


There are other reasons for dissent as well. As put by Larry Summers in an open letter, here:

“Much of the projected growth benefit from corporate tax reform comes from enacting expensing of equipment, which reduces the entity-level effective tax rate to zero on equity-financed investment and makes it negative if financed in part with debt. In the presence of debt finance, textbook analysis would suggest that a cut in the corporate tax rate would raise the cost of capital because interest deductions would no longer be as valuable and thus discourage investment. Have you considered this important possibility, since most of the budget cost of the reform comes from the corporate rate reduction? Moreover, even with the lower statutory tax rates in the bills if expensing ended after five years, as it does in the bill, effective marginal tax rates on equipment investment would actually be higher than they are today with bonus depreciation in effect. It would be ironic if lower corporate rates and an expiration of bonus depreciation actually discouraged investment at the margin relative to continuing current policy but we believe this is likely.

The end result of all this is that, by 2027, GDP will be 0.3-0.8% higher with tax cuts than without. That’s quintessentially measly. This is also willfully ignoring the detrimental effects such as discouraging higher education, reducing nutritional programs, and all the other complications stemming from a higher deficit.

This also despite all the evidence against supply-side economics. Theories contrary to this have been proposed for a long time. As far back as 350 BC, Aristotle requested something akin to a welfare state since:

“Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property.”

And the evidence to the contrary abounds. The economic boom under Clinton. The financial crisis under Bush. The tax cut disaster in Kansas. Economic growth since 2013. Not to mention Verdoorn’s law, Okun’s law, etc. etc.

So why persist in supply side economics when even the CBO recognizes that a higher multiplier is achieved when tax cuts are given to working people rather than rich? Because it’s not just about keeping things from falling apart, it’s also about maintaining power.


The political consequences of this was foreseen by the prescient Michal Kalecki back in 1943:

“The level of employment depends to a great extent on the so-called state of confidence. If this deteriorates, private invest declines, which results in a fall of output and employment (both directly and through the secondary effect of the fall in incomes upon consumption and investment). This gives the capitalists a powerful indirect control over the government policy: everything which may shake the state of confidence must be carefully avoided because it would cause an economic crisis. But once the government learns the trick of increasing employment by its own purchases, this powerful controlling device loses its effectiveness. Hence budget deficits necessary to carry out government intervention must be regarded as perilous. The social function of the doctrine of ‘sound finance’ is to make the level of employment dependent on the state of confidence.”

This is why all the evidence to the contrary doesn’t matter. Analyses to the contrary will never win out because maintaining power over the environment will always have greater political viability.

Once this is taken as axiomatic, many aspects of politics will make sense. It explains why some judges unconditionally support business, why businesses have unlimited speech, and even why too much democracy is viewed as problematic.

And  those who remove their ideological glasses can intuit that no solution is readily available since the majority of the population has no way of influencing policy.


Merry Christmas indeed.


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