Is capitalism based on individual motives or relative positions of individuals and classes within it?

The question suggests two ways that capitalism can be understood: based on motives and based on positions. As this was one of the reflection questions after a lecture on Marx, I will address this issue from the perspective of the history of economic thought, and show how the answer to this question evolved. The nature of capitalism is of special interest to Marx because he was interested in the grand dynamics of capitalism and how it would eventually progress. Economists up to Marx (including the physiocrats and the classics) tended to think of the economy in terms of classes; economists after Marx tended to think in terms of individual motives (starting from the marginalists). More recently, there has been work on how society is built on the positions of individuals (through networks). Overall, a false dichotomy is presented in the question, and it would be helpful to think of capitalism as being based on classes, yet individuals within each class have some autonomy and they can move across classes.

Economists before Marx thought of capitalism in terms of classes, though the construct differed slightly between economists. As the capitalist economy formed in 18th century France, Quesnay was looking at the internal dimension of the political economy: the economy was viewed as an organism with interdependent parts, so the economists who had this view are commonly known as the physiocrats. In Quesnay’s view, the economy consisted of three classes of people: the farmers, the artisans, and the proprietors (nobles and clergy). The farmers were producing surplus grain that the artisans could purchase with the goods they produced, while the proprietors merely consumed. Beyond the physiocrats, the classics also believed that the economy operated in classes. Smith saw the economy in terms of three classes (and Ricardo subsequently followed): the landlords, capitalists, and workers. Each class provided some form of production input and was able to be compensated for that. The landlords provided land, and obtained rent for it; the workers provided labour and were compensated with wages; the capitalists provided entrepreneurship and were rewarded with profit. The interaction between these classes allowed capitalism to work coherently.

As such, Marx’s conception of capitalism in terms of classes was not new – precedence went back to Smith and the physiocrats. However, he differed on what these classes comprised of, and how they would develop over time. In capitalism, there was a tension between the proletariats (working class) and the bourgeoisie or capitalists who exploited the proletariats. The strength of investment and consumption in capitalism would then depend on the relative bargaining strengths of the capitalists and proletariats. He proposed that as division of labour continued to occur, working conditions would deteriorate as people are engaged in increasingly specific and repetitive tasks, and a large proportion of the population would be hired to work in this way – this is known as proletarianisation. As the numbers in the working class increased, they would eventually overthrow the capitalists and own the means of production for themselves. Then, in the ideal society, these workers could have a variety of tasks that they could do and have better working conditions. Evidently, this mechanism has broken down in modern capitalist societies because some of the proletariats eventually become part of the bourgeoisie as they move through the ranks: the CEO’s of large companies are often paid in company shares, so while they are technically workers, they also own the company like capitalists do. Thus, although Marx’s theory did not translate into reality, this structure of thinking about capitalism in terms of classes is still applicable, and we need to allow individuals to move across classes for this view to work.

The marginal revolution was probably the time where the dominant economic thought viewed capitalism in terms of individuals rather than as classes. The three main economists in the marginal revolution were Jevons, Menger and Walras. While they developed their respective theories independently, they commonly viewed capitalism in terms of individuals. Jevons introduced the idea of demand in market clearing and the idea of utility. This idea of utility, developed from Bentham, suggests that the value of a good is not in the amount of labour required to produce it (as the classics would argue), but in the amount of satisfaction that an individual experiences when interacting with that good. Consequently, prices in capitalism are not the result of a class output, but an individual affair. Menger takes individualism to the extreme by suggesting that individuals are very different and it is impossible to predict human behaviour. Consequently, the best thing that society could do was to allow the market to equilibrate on its own as individuals pursue their own ends, thereby allowing them to attain the outcome that is best for themselves. Walras was interested in the interdependence in the economy. The equilibrating mechanism was where an auctioneer changes the price such that individuals, when pursuing their own ends, were able to obtain an optimal allocation of a good. Thus, individuals acting in their own interest is one of the key building blocks of the marginalists’ analysis.

After the marginalists’ writing, individual motives have been the main emphasis of economic theory. A large literature in post-war macroeconomics has been constructed from micro-foundations, which often refer to optimising individuals. Post-war microeconomics was also interested in how individuals behave, and how their intention translated to action: this ranged from bounded rationality to behavioural economics.

However, more recently, there has been some work on the importance of the position of individuals, which is an interesting synthesis of the dichotomy between class positions and individual motives. Two fields that come to mind would be Lawson’s social ontology and Granovetter’s network theory. In Lawson’s view, the economy is made of individuals positioned in a social structure, connected by rights and obligations. How people behave is then a result of cumulative causation and depends on their position in society. Granovetter, while following the view of individuals as optimising atoms like the rest of mainstream economics, does analyse how individuals behave and interact strategically in networks. In more recent developments in network theory, network positions as defined by an individual’s links in the networks become rather important in explaining behaviour. As such, capitalism can be interpreted in terms of individual positioning.

It is interesting to observe how the perspective of capitalism evolved over time. This evolution of thought can be partially explained by how capitalism evolved. The class discussion of the classics, physiocrats and Marx were a product of early capitalism that just emerged from a feudal society, so traces of a feudal society like classes would still be evident in economic theories in order to make capitalism understandable. Thereafter, as countries mature, the individual component become more evident, thereby leading to more recent discussions of the economy in terms of individual motives. However, newer need not imply better. As argued above, there is still some relevance to Smith and Marx and looking at the economy in terms of classes (using the example of the proletariat CEO). This should be qualified by the fact that individuals do have a lot more flexibility and power now to move between classes according to their motivations: my parents could own land, but I would rather work for someone else because that is what I enjoy doing. Rather than outright dismissing either proposition, it is more viable to conclude then that current economics does study individual motivation, and this is the more popular way of looking at capitalism, but there is still some relevance of the class-based view. Rather than discrediting the individualistic view, we can think of it as adding another dimension to understanding capitalism.

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What assumptions about values should economists make?

There are many ways that “values” can be construed in Economics – this can range from questions that range from “what is in a price” to issues of morality. Where the philosophy of economics is concerned, there are two questions that values can refer to: (1) what is good (2) what is right. Discussion of the “good” concerns some form of intrinsic benefit; discussion of what is “right” is specific to particular actions. Accounts for what is good would include preference satisfaction, hedonism and objective lists; accounts for what is right would include consequentialism and deontology. When evaluating what values economists “should” make, we need some criteria to decide on which values are better, and such criteria can come from what we believe the role of economists is. For the purposes of this essay, I will take two potential roles that economists can play: the first is to prescribe policy, and the second is to understand how society functions. The thesis is that if the economist’s role is to prescribe policy, assuming objective lists and consequentialism are most viable; if the economist’s role is to understand society, assuming preference satisfaction and deontology are most viable.

Before discussing what assumptions economists should make, it will be helpful to first understand what assumptions economists do make. At least in mainstream economics, most economists believe that preference satisfaction is what is good, and consequentialism tells us what is right. The preference satisfaction view is one where what is ultimately good for someone is that her preferences are satisfied. This is a subjective view of welfare that is consistent with the idea that what is best for a person is what he thinks is best for himself. Such a view pervades most of economics, ranging from Coase arguing that people can trade in a way that there can be mutually beneficial gains from trade (as defined by what each agent prefers) to Pigou’s conception of external costs and benefits as those that are imputed on third parties when they obtain something that they prefer (or not prefer). Together with preference satisfaction (PS), economics uses cost-benefit analysis (CBA) to assess the relative welfare gain or loss in society. CBA is the embodiment of consequentialism as CBA aggregates all potential costs and benefits (in terms of outcomes) of an action and allow us to quantitatively make a decision from there. Typically, CBA is denominated in terms of money, so where the monetary value of benefits exceeds the monetary cost, the action should be implemented.

Economists who prescribe policy

We can first consider economists who prescribe policy. Arguably, objective lists (OL) is the most viable assumption that they can make about what is good for people. In contrast to PS, OL suggests that what is ultimately good for people is objective rather than subjective. Nussbaum suggests that there are some things that are objectively good for people, and she presented these in an objective list, including access to education, healthcare, etc.There are some obvious benefits of using the OL approach for economists who prescribe policy. Firstly, it is compatible with common sense that tells us that there are things that are universally and objectively good for people, such as clean water. Secondly, humans are a common biological species, so there are things that they need in common, such as food and water. The OL view is especially expedient for economists who prescribe policy, because the OL tells economists exactly what areas they need to fill in order to benefit the society that they are working for.

If we are argue that OL should be used to prescribe policy instead of PS, then it is necessary to argue how PS is inadequate for this purpose. While OL tells economists directly what policies should be implemented, deriving this from PS is far more complicated. It is difficult to obtain information about how particular policies would satisfy people’s preferences, so making the PS assumption is less viable when crafting policy. There are further criticisms to the PS approach. Firstly, people’s preferences may be inconsistent across time: examples can range from smokers wanting to quit to Ulysses tying himself to the mast to avoid being drowned by sirens. Thus, even if preferences can be elicited, policies targeted at current preferences need not satisfy future preferences. Secondly, there can be racist and bigoted preferences by specific people, and it is difficult to argue that policies should be designed to cater to them. Thus, PS is not a tractable assumption for policy-making.

Consequentialism should be assumed by economists making policy. CBA allows economists to have a sufficiently complete assessment of the potential effects of their policies on people’s lives. For CBA to fit with the OL view, we need some way to evaluate how much access to a particular item on the objective list is worth, so that the costs of providing it can be weighed against the benefit. This can potentially be done through contrast explanations, such as by comparing one society to another.

Specifically for policy, it is helpful to cite Sen. Sen argues that welfare has two components: capabilities and functionings. Capabilities refers to the set of circumstances such that people are able to pursue their desired states of nature known as “functionings”. In this view, providing the OL in societies is synonymous with providing the capabilities, such that individuals within society can have the ability to pursue their own functionings. Using this framework, we can see that economists who prescribe policy are better off assuming OL because that would help them address the capabilities more effectively than would PS.

Economists who understand human behaviour

Another potential purpose of economics is to understand human behaviour, and the most viable assumptions would be PS and deontology. Intuitively, PS is helpful because people do in fact do what they believe is best for themselves. People seldom think about objective lists with respect to their own lives or the lives of others; instead, they make decisions daily based on preference satisfaction – they focus on their functionings rather than capabilities. This, coupled with the assumption that people act in a way that is best for themselves, allows economists to understand human behaviour closely. Aggregating this in markets, economic theory premised on PS as an account for what is good predicts trends reasonably well. As such, for the purpose of understanding behaviour, PS is a more viable assumption than is OL.

Using deontology as an assumption for what is right can explain human behaviour as well, and this is at odds with mainstream economics. When people make decisions, it is difficult for them to consider all information available before a decision is made. More often, they make decisions based on limited information (bounded rationality as purported by Simon), or based on heuristics (as Gigerenzer, or Kahneman and Tversky would argue). Consequently, thinking that people always engage in CBA when thinking about the right thing to do need not account for human behaviour adequately. Instead, deontology is a more helpful tool in this aspect. Deontology is the idea that what is right is dependent on a human’s duties, so if a human has an obligation to produce a particular good, it would be right for him to do so. Framing human behavior in terms of deontology is not without precedence: Lawson’s social ontology suggests that the entire social strata is built on rights and obligations. Any social relationship is a relationship of rights and obligations, and every right is matched by someone else’s obligation: in a classroom, the teacher has the right to speak, and it is matched by a student’s obligation to listen, for example. This approach to economics accounts for phenomena in a more open-ended way using cumulative causation, as opposed to the atomistic view of the mainstream. When we assume that what is right is dependent on rights and obligations, and people do consciously do what is right, deontology seems to give a better account of social phenomena. Thus, for economists who want to understand human behaviour, deontology is a more viable approach.

In conclusion, the assumptions about values that economists should make depends largely on what economics is used for. If economists aim to prescribe policy, OL and CBA would be most viable: believe that there are things that are objectively good things, and perform the CBA to ensure that these things are provided. If economists aim to understand human behaviour, PS and deontology would be most viable: people want to do what is right, so they behave according to what their rights and obligations dictate primarily. Where they have the right to multiple actions, the PS view can provide an adequate account for their behaviour. Economics does aim to perform both functions cited, so it is unsurprising that most of economics uses PS and CBA in their analysis, though these assumptions need not be the best suited to their particular purposes. A fuller treatment of this issue would also include discussion of why hedonism is not viable for either purpose and discuss how these philosophical assumptions have implications for economic theorising. These will be areas for future research.

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Learning to be like a child

It has been a cold and gloomy Christmas in Cambridge, but I have been strangely encouraged by the families in Eden Baptist Church that have accepted me and by a short trip to the Lake District with my mother. Through these experiences, I believe that in this Christmas season, God has been revealing to me more deeply what being a child means in my daily walk with him. After growing up, I’ve lost some traits associated with children, and I probably will have to learn them again. I would sum this up in three points (1) imagination (2) to receive love (3) to feel safe.

Imagination. That is something that Spongebob would say as he draws a rainbow. Visiting the Lake District during winter meant that we have very limited daylight, but that also meant a lot of time in the hotel watching television. There were some children’s shows at night, and one that reminded me of my childhood was “Charlie and the chocolate factory”. I have been so used to notions of efficiency and Adam Smith’s labour specialisation at the back of the twenty-pound note that I’ve stopped imagining a chocolate waterfall in a factory like I would many years ago. During the little daylight, one attraction we visited in Lake District was the World of Beatrix Potter – the author of Peter Rabbit. This is a world where animals have human-like characteristics, like how a rabbit can be naughty, or how a hedgehog could be a laundry-woman, or how mice can eat doll food. At the end of the attraction, mum decided to buy the whole collection of Peter Rabbit books. Out of curiosity, I skimmed through the entire collection in the next two days. But there’s something encouraging about reading children’s stories again: I could see the animals come alive, and a large part of the fiction lives in my imagination. That is in stark contrast to the fiction that I’ve been reading the past two years where economists construct unrealistic models. The big words and coloured pictures of children storybooks have been replaced with small words and equations/ graphs/ tables. Rather than writing to stimulate one’s imagination, the authors I read now aim to communicate their idea as clearly as possible such that there’s only one correct interpretation.

How does imagination apply to Christian living? For one, we start to realise that there is a world beyond what is immediately visible. When I tell my peers that I’m a second year Singaporean economist from Hughes Hall, a multitude of stereotypes immediately fall on me – mature student, pragmatic, either going into finance or is a scholar, etc. And often people do not see beyond these stereotypes. But these stereotypes are almost inconsequential to God. He sees beyond these worldly features to who a person really is, and that is what truly matters. Perhaps, learning how to imagine and look beyond the direct and immediately obvious features of people is something I need to learn again, so that I could understand people as God sees them. Looking beyond the obvious is also applicable to biblical interpretation – which is what I have learnt when writing the winter week of prayer on John 17. Much of scripture is not immediately instructive in the sense of Jesus does X, therefore I do X as well. This involves imagining the ancient world where Jesus lived and taught, such that we can understand the text better. This might only be possible when we are not searching for immediate answers, but when we are willing to slow down and think about the story and imagine the setting (of course, informed by biblical principles). There might still be correct interpretations in many situations, but using the child-like lens of imagination can help us see people and scripture beyond what is immediately obvious.

Another facet of imagination that can be drawn out is curiosity. When meeting a person for the first time, rather than allowing stereotypes such as race and religion cloud our perception, there is value in first learning more about that person beyond those labels. And on the onset, children do not see these labels immediately. Similarly, when looking at scripture, curiosity would entail asking questions like why did Jesus say this? When did this happen, etc.? But I must admit that sometimes as I listen to sermons or Bible studies, I would presumptively think “I know what this passage is about already”, and the lack of an open heart and mind often hinders what God does through that passage. I am learning the same child-like imagination and curiosity again.

The second lesson is to receive love. As we grow up, we learn to love more than we receive love. I’d be asking how I can contribute to CF and society, or how I can love my friends to bring them to Christ. But there’s something very special about receiving love like a child. Before Christmas, I went for a short hiking trip to Pulborough (in Sussex) and stayed with a friend from Eden who lives there. Living off their hospitality was their expression of unrequited love. It has always been my childhood dream to sit on a soft carpet by a fireplace on a cold winter’s night, and I actually got to experience that! There was something quite magical about having a Christmas meal with her family and church friends, and about walking in the countryside and visiting several villages with her even though she was so busy. On Christmas day, another family from Eden brought me home with them. I had the privilege of sharing in their present-opening and looking at the joy on their faces, knowing how much someone else loves them. Quite amazingly, they gave me the entire Narnia series, which I suppose is another one of God’s signs that I should be learning to be more child-like. I felt like a child again – taking fudge off their Christmas tree (thereby thinking that fudge grows on trees), being hugged by the girls, and playing board games with the family. I have been so insanely blessed and loved by Eden this Christmas. Typically, I would be thinking about how I can make it up to them, but learning to be child-like in receiving love meant that I should simply be grateful. That’s the point of love – that it does not demand something back.

The idea of receiving love is quite central to the Christian faith. What sets Christians apart is not that they love some divine entity more than others or that they love the people around them more than others. What defines a Christian is that he has received God’s love. And it is through this reception of love that we are able to love others. On Christmas day, God brought a Chinese children’s song to mind, written based on our theme verse for this year 1 John 4:19. The second half of the chorus goes 我们爱因神先爱我们,心再坚强也不要独自飞翔,只要微笑、只要原谅,有你爱的地方就是天堂。(My translation: we love because God first loved us. Even if your heart is strong, don’t fly alone. Smile, forgive, heaven is where your love is.) We might need some theological qualification for the last line, but I’ll omit that. The upshot of this chorus was that we shouldn’t live in isolation (as I’m often tempted to do), but to love and be loved (by God and by others).

What does receiving love mean in walking with Jesus daily (after first receiving him)? That would mean the willingness to receive love from God and from God’s people. Receiving love from God’s people would look something like those Christmas experiences. Receiving love from God would look like sitting at his feet daily. Rather than always thinking about “doing” quiet time as if we are the active person in the process, it helps to think of God being the active person, and we are just listening to him, very much like how I’d sit by the fireside in Pulborough and listen to stories. An important qualification to make here is that receiving love doesn’t end like that. Just as children show love to their parents, we ought to love as well. The problem only comes when there is outflow without inflow (or conversely, inflow without outflow). We need to understand what proper loving in every season or our lives means before we are able to bless the community with that same love. Eden probably does not expect me to reciprocate that same love to them, but it would be a great joy to the body of Christ that I could show that same love to the people around me – in church, or out in the community.

The really young children might not even understand what love is, but they know what it means to feel safe. I’ve learned this when one of the girls in church remarked with reference to some toddlers, “I hope they know how much I love them.” Her mother replied, “They probably don’t, but they feel safe with you, and that’s probably as close as you can get for a kid their age”. One interesting image of feeling safe would be in the back hall after a family carol service. The minced pies were put on short tables so that the children could reach them, but there was this little girl who was too shy to get a minced pie herself. She held the hand of our youth worker and dragged her to the table so that they could get a minced pie together – she felt safe when the youth worker was with her. How often do we feel safe with God in this way? That we would not be willing to go ourselves, but we would hold God’s hand so that he could get the minced pie with us?

Feeling safe with God is probably the most important and fundamental lesson for me this Christmas. We will never perfectly understand what love really means, and we will never imagine all the possibilities as God does, but we know what it means to feel safe. Children do still get upset and get worried about things, but at the end of each day, they sleep soundly knowing that the next day would be completely new and their mistakes are erased. Most children feel safe because they know their parents are in control of their immediate circumstances. I’ve lost a lot of this naivety and innocence when growing up, as I’m worried about whether I’ll get an internship next summer, or whether my results will be good enough. But if we really do love and trust God, it makes sense to feel safe with him. Feeling safe with him would mean trusting that He is in control of all these circumstances. It also means knowing that we can do all things only through Him – probably not getting a minced pie from the table at this age, but more of having the courage to talk to someone, or writing a post/ essay. I don’t want to do these things without knowing that God is with me.

There’s definitely a lot more about childlikeness to be said, but these are the three things that I’ve learned this Christmas as I rejoice and remember His coming!

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What’s in a price?

Four years ago, I was thinking about leaving a chair in a room and considering whether it still existed as part of some epistemic discussions in Knowledge and Inquiry. As I’m studying the History and Philosophy of Economics this year, I’ll consider a different dimension to a simple object like a chair – its price. What does the price of an object really mean?

If you were to ask the Classics like Ricardo, a price reflects the amount of labour put into its production. The price of a chair is just a fraction of the price of the building because it takes a small fraction of the building’s labour to produce the chair. Consequently, the price is a reflection of supply and how difficult it is to produce the object.

If you were to ask Jevons, the price is a reflection of utility. The chair has a particular price not because it takes X amount of effort to produce it, but because it gives me X amount of pleasure. Jevons follows Bentham’s idea of utility in that it is associated with pleasures and pains associated with a human’s interaction with the commodity. Then, the price is a reflection of demand, corresponding to the marginal utility gained from the interaction with the object.

Walras, inspired by the Paris Stock Exchange, would argue that the price is merely a ratio relative to all other goods. In general equilibrium, an auctioneer can start at any random price and adjust the price up or down until the market clears. Consequently, the price of a chair is a ratio of its value relative to all other goods in the market. Marshall uses a similar concept in that price is merely a market-clearing mechanism between demand and supply (what most people learn in JC), but he uses partial equilibrium, so he does not consider the ratio relative to all other goods.

What does a price mean to neoclassical economists now? It is still a ratio, but it would be equal to the marginal rate of substitution between goods in equilibrium (i.e. it is equal to the ratio of marginal utilities). While the link between price and utility is similar to Jevons’ idea, it is notable that our modern conception of utility is different from its hedonistic background. Neoclassical economists now believe that utility is preference satisfaction: this means that I do not prefer X over Y because I am happier with X than with Y; my choosing X over Y is what it means for utility of X to be higher than utility of Y for me. When comparing relative utilities, we are essentially looking at points of indifference (which is another huge area of discussion altogether).

So, what is in a price? It is what the society at that time makes it out to be. While prices might be related to an object’s value (either for the supplier like Ricardo, or for the user like Jevons), it seems more plausible to treat it merely as a ratio for market trading. There’s more to be said about this, and perhaps I’ll come back to this topic after studying social ontology next term.

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I can do all things through him

I can do all things through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13)

A friend quoted this verse recently, and I’ve been thinking about it as I’m rushing from place to place to do all the things that I planned to do. Paul wrote this line in the context of all the hardships that he has faced, and several commentaries interpret this verse as Paul saying that he is able to endure all his hardships because of Christ who strengthens him. As such, it need not be directly applicable to our busy lives. Nonetheless, there are two interpretations that I thought were interesting and applicable.

The first interpretation is somewhat similar to Paul’s meaning. I am able to do amazing things, not by my own effort, but because God strengthens me. This is a huge encouragement to live passionately for God, for we also know that nothing is impossible with God. The mechanism of this interpretation is that God provides strength to me, and I am able to act.

The second interpretation is that God is my strength-giver, and God is the one acting. The main difference is that the first interpretation is where God gets his will done through us; in this interpretation, we are able to do things through God. This should be clarified: I do not mean that we dictate what God should do, but that God is also an important actor in the entire mechanism. This is immensely humbling: God does not need us to get His will done, but we need God for things to be done. Thus, when there are many things on my heart that I feel needs to be done and I am unable to, this is a massive encouragement to trust God – we only have 24 hours in a day, but God is unlimited, so many of these things on my heart need not be done by me – God could very well empower someone else to accomplish these things. Thus, the mechanism of this interpretation is that there are things on my heart that I want to do and it is God who does these things.

Obviously, the first interpretation is the one that sticks, because the “gives me strength” clause hints at us needing God’s strength. This clause does not sit as well with the second interpretation as we do not necessarily need the strength to do things when God is the one truly acting. Nonetheless, what I wanted to highlight is that rather than simply accepting the first interpretation, it should be qualified by the fact that God is still a primary actor in the whole scheme. It is not just about us doing stuff; it is more about God doing stuff.

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yes no and wait in prayer

In many Bible studies and small group meetings, I’ve been told that God usually answers our prayers in three ways: (1) yes (2) no (3) wait. I did a quick google search to check the basis of this claim, and I’ve found some perspectives that suggest that God may also answer in a way that goes “I can’t year you” in this sense that we have been blocked by sin. There are also perspectives that go “it is always a Yes in Christ” (referring to Paul’s letter). However, my view on why these are not the only ways that God answers prayers runs much deeper than these perspectives – it depends fundamentally on the type of prayer.

If the answers of yes, no and wait are jointly exhaustive of God’s responses to prayers, then it appears that we can only reasonably reverse-engineer two types of prayers. The first is that we ask God a yes/no question. The second is that we ask God to do something in our lives – help us get a First in the next exam, get a job, find a spouse, bring peace to the family, etc. If these are the only two types of prayers that we can possibly pray, we are deeply mistaken. In fact, there tends to be many prayers where yes no and wait cannot be answers.

The first type of prayer I can think of is thanksgiving and description. We should be praying to thank God and praise Him for who He is, and for what He has done. When we cite things that happen empirically to thank Him, or when we are telling Him about our lives and surrendering it, are we really expecting a response of “yes/ no/ wait”? Perhaps, the best response we can receive is to hear God say “I’m listening, and I’m pleased.”

Another type of prayer involves asking open ended questions. I might ask God, what job have you called me to? What should I write my dissertation on? How can I bless the people around me? Getting a yes/ no answer to these questions are just absurd. Instead, God molds circumstances to reveal the answer to these questions that we have.

There are definitely merits of the yes/ no/ wait perspective, in the sense that it reminds us that we should be patient for God to answer our requests. What I want to bring up is that (1) we should not think that these are God’s ONLY answers to prayers and (2) our prayers should go beyond requests – it can also include open ended questions and thanksgiving.

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No true meritocracy

A meritocracy is a society where power is allocated based on talent and ability (i.e. by merit), and people often get ahead in such societies when they perform better in objective measures such as examinations. As I’m thinking about people who are currently applying for jobs and internships, I’m more convinced that true meritocracy cannot exist as long as this world is still run by humans, and it is not a bad thing that we cannot have true meritocracy.

What would true meritocracy imply? If positions are given purely by merit, then the human resource (HR) manager should be indifferent between two candidates who produce the same test scores and hold the same existing qualifications. This indifference should be invariant to other factors that are considered irrelevant. Now, suppose that candidate A’s father is a close friend of the company’s CEO, while candidate B is a grocer’s daughter. True meritocracy implies that the HR manager should still be indifferent between A and B, but in reality, he is more likely to strictly prefer A to B. By selecting A, he would be pleasing his CEO, which would improve his promotion prospects, but the same cannot be said for B. As such, the argument put forth is that as long as social networks are in play, true meritocracy cannot exist.

One might be able to include networking and flexibility into the meritocratic model, but even this is limited. The ability to form networks is a signal of one’s ability, and such networks help to build one’s portfolio. Thus, back in the case above, an objective measure of A’s and B’s portfolio would show that A is more suitable than B for the job. (This, to some extent, explains why London graduates are more employable than Oxbridge graduates.) But there are at least two problems to this argument: (1) meritocracy is no longer robust to endowment effects i.e. A who has better endowment (in terms of his father’s networks) requires less talent and ability than B to be equally employable (2) ability to network is irrelevant to some jobs (like working in a laboratory alone), so factoring networking ability as another “merit” to distinguish candidates just leads to less efficiency than what a meritocratic society would desire.

As long as humans are still running this world, true meritocracy cannot happen. The above example can serve as an illustration of a more general argument: that humans have subjective preferences in selecting people in the position of power, and not all of their judgment can be premised on objective measures. On the contrary, if the world were run by robots who will run every candidate through an algorithm that matches the company’s needs, and all companies only use the robot’s results, then meritocracy will be possible.

That said, it is not necessarily bad that there is no true meritocracy. In a human society, humans do better by pleasing humans rather than be pleasing robots. Thus, although selection is subjective, and might be deemed unfair to those who have worked hard but just lacked networks, hiring A over B might be good for the company after all. Candidate A is better known, and a rational company would prefer this option: A offers a 70% chance of quality X and 30% chance of quality X-1; B offers a 50% chance of quality X and 50% chance of quality X-1 as a result of the networks. Furthermore, A satisfies more human preferences (no matter how subjective they are), so he would still be the better choice. With imperfect information and subjective preferences, hiring independent of true meritocracy can still be beneficial for the company.

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