Sunday, May 28, 2017

Postmodernism "and other unfortunate hermeneutical fashions of recent decades"

From DENNETT ON WIESELTIER V. PINKER IN THE NEW REPUBLIC Let's Start With A Respect For Truth by Daniel C. Dennett. A Two Cultures argument a la C.P. Snow.

I was interested because it is such a vocal, but rare, argument against the ludditism, intolerance, bigotry and authoritarianism of postmodernists and their ilk (critical theory, critical race theory, gender studies, deconstructionism, postcolonial theory, multiculturalism, etc.).
Postmodernism, the school of "thought" that proclaimed "There are no truths, only interpretations" has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for "conversations" in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster. Wieseltier concedes the damage done to the humanities by postmodernism "and other unfortunate hermeneutical fashions of recent decades" but tries to pin this debacle on the "progressivism" the humanities was tempted to borrow from science. "The humanities do not progress linearly, additively, sequentially, like the sciences," he avers, in the face of centuries of scholarship and criticism in the humanities that have corrected, enlarged, illuminated, and advanced the understanding of all its topics and texts. All that accumulated knowledge used to be regarded as the intellectual treasure we humanities professors were dedicated to transmitting to the next generation, and Pinker is encouraging us to return to that project, armed with some new intellectual tools—both thinking tools (theories and methods and models and the like) and data-manipulating tools (computers, optical character recognition, statistics, data banks). Wieseltier wants no part of this, but his alternative is surprisingly reminiscent of the just discredited fads; perhaps he has not completely purged his mind of the germs of postmodernism.

[snip]

Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or "problematics" to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds. The best of the "scientizers" (and Pinker is one of them) know more philosophy, and argue more cogently and carefully, than many of the humanities professors who dismiss them and their methods on territorial grounds. You can't defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs. The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

He saw no reason to challenge the premises of a social dispensation that had contrived to produce a man as genial and accomplished as himself

From The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. Describing Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Yet he was unabashedly provincial. His chief ambition was to represent the Boston point of view in all things. (He also suffered from asthma, which made travel uncomfortable.) On the other hand, he regarded the Boston point of view as pretty much the only point of view worth representing. He considered Boston "the thinking centre of the continent, and therefore of the planet." Or as he also put it, in a phrase that became the city's nickname for itself: "Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system." He was an enemy of Calvinism (which had been his father's religion) and a rationalist, but his faith in good breeding was nearly atavistic, and he saw no reason to challenge the premises of a social dispensation that had, over the course of two centuries, contrived to produce a man as genial and accomplished as himself.

Crows commute 20 miles to work

From The Secret Life of Urban Crows by James Ross Gardner.
There was nothing at first, just an empty sky. Then, a caw. A crow appeared on a nearby power line. Then another caw and another crow. Suddenly crows flew in from all directions. Their plaintive entreaties soon combined into a chorus. New arrivals joined what quickly grew into a cacophonous dervish of black silhouettes swirling directly above Swift.

It was like sorcery. Conjuring dozens of birds from thin air by simply removing fabric from a body.

This, according to Swift, is what its like to attend a crow funeral—an instinctive ritual that evolved generations ago and was just discovered by humans; Swift coauthored an article on her findings in the journal Animal Behaviour in 2015. The gist: Upon spotting one of its dead, the flock attends to the fallen bird en masse with loud shrieking. Given enough time the throng will mob any predator it thinks is responsible, like say, a human in a Dick Cheney mask, or in a mask like the one Swift had in her bag (the lab affectionately refers to that be-soul-patched fellow as Joe).
Also:
But what if I were to tell you that the crows you spy in your yard are almost always the same individual crows? That those birds—usually two, a male and a female known as a territorial pair—don’t live there but fly in every day from 20 miles away? During the day urban crows rummage and build nests in a specific spot, in a specific neighborhood, then decamp for the evening to a massive, crowded roost outside the city—their own crow planet— and report back to the neighborhoods each morning. Like you, they commute to work.

TDS and lingustics

There are so many elite factions struggling so mightily to protect their vested interests in the populist era of Trump, that it is hard to sort the wheat from the chaff in mainstream media reporting. The problem is exacerbated by there being an inordinate proportion of chaff. AKA fake news in the form of speculation, misinterpretation, stories based on anonymous sources, cognitive biases and simple straight-forward self-serving spinning. This disposition to extreme trafficking in partisan rumors has already led to the coinage Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS).

I recently came across an article that seemed to fall into that category, Trump wasn’t always so linguistically challenged. What could explain the change? by Sharon Begley. Begley is trying to give credence to the idea that Trump is suffering some form of cognitive impairment based on the patterns of his speech. Basically it comes down to: "The president is crazy. A few of my friends agree." This is, of course, simply a single element of the larger effort to establish grounds to remove a president elected by the people but hated by the elite.

Of course such politically motivated speculation based on communication patterns is nothing new. Conservatives during the Obama era took delight in highlighting Obama's dependency on teleprompters and the challenges he faced in speaking articulately without one.


Double click to enlarge.

Well, there is one difference. Conservatives generally were seeking to denigrate Obama's intelligence or talent for public speaking, rather than trying to make a case for cognitive incapacity as Begley seems to be doing.

The reporting of Begley's speculation was in such outlets as Huffington Post. I read the headline and nothing more, anticipating that the research or reportage or both would be the product of TDS.

Which is unfortunate as there are a couple of legitimate issues in here.

While Ronald Reagan's presidency was immensely successful in many respects, he was, at that time, our oldest elected presidents and his age was always a partisan talking point and criticism. Reagan, being the communication master that he was, turned the criticism on its head in the October 21, 1984 second presidential debate against Walter Mondale. Henry "Hank" Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun asked:
You already are the oldest President in history, and some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall, yes, that President Kennedy, who had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuba missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?
To which Reagan famously replied:
Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.
And yet, it is a fair question. Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's just five years after leaving office. Were there demonstrable symptoms earlier, perhaps in the closing years of his presidency? Did it affect his performance? And how could we know? In a chronic wasting condition of that sort, there is no red line of transition, just increasing shades of grey.

At what point can a chronic condition, mental or physical, be considered disbarring of office? It is ironic that Trewhitt used Kennedy as the counterexample to age, positing him as young and vigorous. While youth and vigor were the Kennedy campaign brand, that was not Kennedy's condition at the time. Would we today consider John F. Kennedy unfit for office owing to his heavy dependence on an "extraordinary variety of medications" for a wide range of serious physical conditions?

While these are all good questions, it is almost impossible to have a discussion of the issues in a political context. The answers are predetermined by one's partisanship, not by query and evidence.

While I did not read Begley's original charge sheet, I did read Donald Trump: Cognitive decline or TDS? by Mark Liberman. Liberman is a professor of linguistics at my alma mater, University of Pennsylvania. Liberman is skeptical of Begley's thesis on methodological grounds. Begley appears to have made her criticism by creating a possible hypothesis rather than working the scientific method to create a plausible argument.

Liberman:
STAT may have reviewed decades of Donald Trump’s on-air interviews, but what’s presented in the article is a scant handful of anecdotes. There’s one example of a verbal flub from an (unidentified) interview in May of 2017; 41 seconds of a Larry King interview from 1987; 13 seconds from another unidentified NBC News interview “earlier this month”; a hundred words of transcript from an unidentified “interview with the Associated Press last month”; and one or two other fragments. Begley asserts that
[L]inguistic decline is also obvious in two interviews with David Letterman, in 1988 and 2013, presumably with much the same kind of audience. In the first, Trump threw around words such as “aesthetically” and “precarious,” and used long, complex sentences. In the second, he used simpler speech patterns, few polysyllabic words, and noticeably more fillers such as “uh” and “I mean.”
This comparison between 1988 and 2013 brought to mind a post from November 6th, 2014, When progress doesn't at first seem like progress. In it I note research indicating "Presidential speeches have been declining in complexity since 1800, with a big drop in complexity circa 1925." In 1800, presidential speeches came in as college level in their structural complexity and vocabulary choice. In recent decades they are at a sixth-grade level.

Under Begley's position, our presidential cognitive capability has declined by more than half since the beginning of Republic. While there is a certain nostalgic attachment to the idea of declinism, I do not think such an indulgence is sustainable when you look at the academic, military, commercial, and political achievements of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, etc. No fools they, regardless of how you might assess their policy or moral conditions.

Conceding those accomplishments highlights a fundamental weakness of Begley's position. As I note in When progress doesn't at first seem like progress, presidential speech complexity did not decline because presidents became cognitively more disabled. The speeches became simpler as the electorate expanded from educated property owners to all citizens. Presidents deliberately simplified their speech patterns.

Occam's Razor suggests that what is true historically might also be true for individuals. In 1988 Donald Trump was a property and casino developer, also involved in event promotions (wrestling and boxing). 1988 was also his first consideration whether to run for the presidency (he did not). It would hardly be surprising that since 1988, his speech patterns and habits would have changed. He became a daily radio talk show host from 2004-2008. He was executive producer and star of a reality show, The Apprentice from 2003 to 2015. He owned and ran the Miss Universe pageant from 1996 till 2015.

One would expect his speech patterns to morph from those acceptable in the boardroom and at the negotiating table to patterns more pertinent to a wide American and global audience. I am making no argument as to whether those patterns should be deemed appropriate or effective, simply that you would expect there to have been change. Begley has to disentangle changes resulting from changed audiences and changed contexts to changes that might be arising from cognitive function (her thesis).

As far as I can tell, she makes no effort to disentangle these confounding variables and therefore her thesis remains possible but not yet plausible.

Liberman reaches the same conclusion but on methodological grounds.
So Begley and her mostly-unnamed “experts in neurolinguistics and cognitive assessment, as well as psychologists and psychiatrists” might be right to wave their hands at “a neurodegenerative disease or the normal cognitive decline that comes with aging”. But the evidence that they offer is anecdotal at best, without even citations or links to let readers check out the context of the anecdotes.
J.W. Brewer, in the comments, makes a point not dissimilar to mine:
I am fascinated to note that three out of the four things “indicative of dementia” according to Fraser et al as summarized in the Neurocritic blog post linked above sound exactly like things a fully cognitively-competent person might deliberately do in order to communicate more effectively to a comparatively unsophisticated audience of oh let’s say swing voters in a swing state.

“Semantic impairment – using overly simple words”
“Acoustic impairment – e.g., speaking more slowly”
“Syntactic impairment – using less complex grammar”

I expect my own idiolect is different in all sorts of ways from Trump’s earlier idiolect as exhibited in the vintage talking-to-Letterman clips, but I certainly suspect that I would not be a particularly effective giver of political stump speeches to an audience of median American registered voters, not least on account of how, left to my own devices, I almost certainly (as judged for optimal rapport with that sort of audience): a) use too many complicated/obscure words; b) talk too fast; and c) use unduly complex or convoluted syntax. If for some improbable reason I wanted to learn to communicate effectively to that sort of audience in that sort of context, I would need a lot of coaching to help me develop all three of those “impairments.”

Friday, May 26, 2017

Charming and vivacious

We attended, this morning, the funeral and celebration of life of a charming, vivacious woman who was a model of good cheer, happy acceptance, and respectful interest in people, Sally Tyler Lehr.


There were five or six hundred people in attendance and the service was very much a joyous celebration of life.
A beloved Emory University professor, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, and friend, Sally lived with intention and loved well. She will be remembered by many for her infectious smile, her great sense of humor, and her unconditional love for everyone she met.
In that wonderful Southern way, it was a service of stories. Stories humorous, illuminating and touching.

Among her many roles, Sally was a professor of nursing at Emory University. There were many, many touching moments in the service, but among the most touching was when the euologist asked everyone who had been a student of hers to stand and perhaps fifty or so women rose. Women from fresh young students to matrons of established years. What a legacy. We will miss her.

A full memory of her is here.

Every year he drank a glass of wine in observance of the anniversary of the battle of Antietam

From The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. Menand opens with a discussion of one of the founding members of the Metaphysical Club, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was an officer in the Union Army. He stood six feet three inches tall and had a soldierly bearing. In later life, he loved to use military metaphors in his speeches and his conversation; he didn't mind being referred to good-naturedly as Captain Holmes; and he wore his enormous military mustaches until his death, in 1935, at the age of ninety-three. The war was the central experience of his life, and he kept its memory alive. Every year he drank a glass of wine in observance of the anniversary of the battle of Antietam, where he had been shot in the neck and left, briefly behind enemy lines, for dead.

But Holmes hated the war. He was twenty years old and weighed just 136 pounds at the time of his first battle, at Ball's Bluff, where he was shot through the chest. He fought bravely and he was resilient, but he was not strong in a brute sense, and as the war went on the physical ordeal was punishing. He was wounded three times in all, the third time in an engagement leading up to the battle of Chancellorsville, when he was shot in the foot. He hoped the foot would have to be amputated so he could be discharged, but it was spared, and he served out his commission. Many of his friends were killed in battle, some of them in front of his eyes. Those glasses of wine were toasts to pain.

Holmes recovered from the wounds. The effects of the mental or-deal were permanent. He had gone off to fight because of his moral beliefs, which he held with singular fervor. The war did more than make him lose those beliefs. It made him lose his belief in beliefs. It impressed on his mind, in the most graphic and indelible way, a certain idea about the limits of ideas. This idea he stuck to, with a grimness and, at times, a cynicism that have occasionally repelled people who have studied his life and thought. But it is the idea that underlies many of the opinions he wrote, long after the war ended, as an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court. To understand the road Holmes had to travel in order to write those opinions, we have to go back to one of the worlds the Civil War made obsolete, the world of prewar Boston.

Predictive capacities tend to select for unpredictability in counter-strategies

From Protean primates: The evolution of adaptive unpredictability in competition and courtship by Geoffrey Miller
From the Abstract:
Machiavellian intelligence evolves because it lets primates predict and manipulate each others’ behavior. But game theory suggests that evolution will not stop there: predictive capacities tend to select for unpredictability in counter-strategies, just as many competitive games favor “mixed” (stochastic) strategies. For example, prey animals often evolve “protean” (adaptively unpredictable) evasion behavior to foil the predictive pursuit tactics used by their predators. The same adaptive logic should apply to more abstract social tactics, but protean social behavior remains overlooked in primatology and psychology, because complex order rather than useful chaos has been considered the hallmark of evolved adaptations. This chapter reviews the notions of psychological selection from evolutionary theory, mixed strategies from game theory, and protean behavior from behavioral ecology. It then presents six possible types of social proteanism in primates, and develops a model of how sexual selection through mate choice could have elaborated primate social proteanism into human creative intelligence.
An interesting proposition. It certainly seems plausible. However, the world is full of things which are plausible not true and of things which are true but not plausible. Now all we need is the evidence to support the proposition.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Grace, honour, praise, delight

From Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais. Rabelais describes a type of cognitive utopia called, Abbey of Thélème. On the entrance gate to the Abbey there is this inscription.
Grace, honour, praise, delight,
Here sojourn day and night.
Sound bodies lined
With a good mind,
Do here pursue with might
Grace, honour, praise, delight.
Rabelais describes the Abbey:
All their life was spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labour, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. None did awake them, none did offer to constrain them to eat, drink, nor to do any other thing; for so had Gargantua established it. In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed,
Do What Thou Wilt;
because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour. Those same men, when by base subjection and constraint they are brought under and kept down, turn aside from that noble disposition by which they formerly were inclined to virtue, to shake off and break that bond of servitude wherein they are so tyrannously enslaved; for it is agreeable with the nature of man to long after things forbidden and to desire what is denied us.
Regrettably, I suspect our stockpiles of honor are dangerously low. Otherwise this might work.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Health conundrum

From Is Preventive Care Worth the Cost? Evidence from Mandatory Checkups in Japan by Toshiaki Iizuka, Katsuhiko Nishiyama, Brian Chen, Karen Eggleston. The abstract:
Using unique individual-level panel data, we investigate whether preventive medical care triggered by health checkups is worth the cost. We exploit the fact that biomarkers just below and above a threshold may be viewed as random. We find that people respond to health signals and increase physician visits. However, we find no evidence that additional care is cost effective. For the “borderline type” (“pre-diabetes”) threshold for diabetes, medical care utilization increases but neither physical measures nor predicted risks of mortality or serious complications improve. For efficient use of medical resources, cost effectiveness of preventive care must be carefully examined.
This is consistent with much other data I have seen, including natural experiments such as in Oregon. All are either dispositive or ambiguous about the benefit of preventive care.

It is an interesting question. I have been monitoring this and related issues ever since the mid-eighties. As a management consultant I had a Fortune 500 client. It was tangential to my project but they were at that time questioning the investments they had made in employee fitness centers. The justification in part rested on an anticipated improvement in employee health if they were able to more easily access health/exercise centers. It was thought that the monetary investment in fitness centers would be offset by declines in health costs. Fitter, healthier employees should have lower health costs, right?

Their actual experience was that they expended money to build the exercise centers. Employees used the centers but not to quite the extent that they had anticipated. The problem was that they did not see any linkage whatsoever between investments in exercise/health centers and declines in health costs.

And that, in many fashions, seems to have been the pattern since then. It is logical that better fitness and preventative care ought to lower long term healthcare costs but it is hard to find robust evidence that that is actually what happens.

Lamenting the death of expertise is lamenting the loss of power

Tom Nichols has a new book out, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. I have not read it but have read the original essay from which the book is derived, the eponymous Death of Expertise.

Nichols is a deeply knowledgeable individual but the original essay struck me as an articulation of the arrogance which has become such a force in our governance and to which, I suspect, many voters are reacting. It came across as a plea that the peasants should leave the thinking to the, well, to the experts.
I am (or at least think I am) an expert. Not on everything, but in a particular area of human knowledge, specifically social science and public policy. When I say something on those subjects, I expect that my opinion holds more weight than that of most other people.

[snip]

I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.

This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us. But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.
While there are many points in his essay with which I agree, there are as many, or more, with which I disagree. He concludes:
Expertise is necessary, and it’s not going away. Unless we return it to a healthy role in public policy, we’re going to have stupider and less productive arguments every day. So here, presented without modesty or political sensitivity, are some things to think about when engaging with experts in their area of specialization.
1. We can all stipulate: the expert isn’t always right.

2. But an expert is far more likely to be right than you are. On a question of factual interpretation or evaluation, it shouldn’t engender insecurity or anxiety to think that an expert’s view is likely to be better-informed than yours. (Because, likely, it is.)

3. Experts come in many flavors. Education enables it, but practitioners in a field acquire expertise through experience; usually the combination of the two is the mark of a true expert in a field. But if you have neither education nor experience, you might want to consider exactly what it is you’re bringing to the argument.

4. In any discussion, you have a positive obligation to learn at least enough to make the conversation possible. The University of Google doesn’t count. Remember: having a strong opinion about something isn’t the same as knowing something.

5. And yes, your political opinions have value. Of course they do: you’re a member of a democracy and what you want is as important as what any other voter wants. As a layman, however, your political analysis, has far less value, and probably isn’t — indeed, almost certainly isn’t — as good as you think it is.
I agree - opinions aren't facts. So why do I disagree with so much of the essay?

Till now I simply left this unanswered. Too many other useful questions to answer first. But I came across an essay, The Expertocracy by Barton Swaim which helped crystalize the issues. I think my objection to Nichols' argument comes down to four elements which I do not think are taken into account in the original article.
Expertise in static and/or simple systems versus expertise in dynamic and/or complex systems.

Credentials versus expertise.

Variance in goals of individuals.

Inclination of experts to prognosticate beyond their realm of expertise.
In many field of expertise, there are bounds on that expertise which allow one to develop not only knowledge but also practice. One can become an expert plumber or an expert orthopedic surgeon because there are limits to the domain of knowledge. Only so much can happen to a leg, only so much variance in a system of plumbing. This is not to deny that those bounds might be broad and complicated, but it acknowledges that those boundaries exist. You can study in the classroom to know everything that there is useful to know and then you can practice to become familiar with the applied knowledge.

On the other hand, there are also innumerable fields of knowledge for which there are no bounds or for which the system is dynamic and complex. It is always changing and exogenous forces impinge to a much greater degree. Politics, diplomacy, sociology, culture, psychology, language, economics, education, etc. Basically, most human systems.

You can know a great deal about these topics. You can be an expert. However, because they are dynamic and complex and subject to exogenous forces, the variability of outcome can be enormous, no matter how much you know. Paul Krugman, winner of the Clark Medal in Economics and the Nobel Prize in Economics, is indisputably an expert. He knows his stuff. But economics is complex, dynamic, and subject to exogenous events.

On election night, as markets plunged on the unexpected news that Donald Trump had won the election, Paul Krugman offered his expert opinion of what was likely to happen.
It really does now look like President Donald J. Trump, and markets are plunging. When might we expect them to recover?

Frankly, I find it hard to care much, even though this is my specialty. The disaster for America and the world has so many aspects that the economic ramifications are way down my list of things to fear.

Still, I guess people want an answer: If the question is when markets will recover, a first-pass answer is never.
A forecast which was almost immediately invalidated by a strong and continuing market rally over many months. Krugman is routinely wrong about many economic things. It is wrong to say he is ignorant, and it is too easy to say that he is simply a partisan commentator. You can know a great deal about economics and still wrestle with making reliably useful forecasts of cause and consequence. It is the nature of a boundless, complex, dynamic system that is consequentially affected by exogenous events.

Credentialism is another bane. There are many people who have credentials but who do not know what they are talking about. I am not sure that needs much elaboration other than to say that with the rise in university attendance, credentialism has become even more prevalent than in the past.

A most critical issue is the totalitarian mindset which admits only one set of goals. However arrived at, there are only one set of goals and all knowledge/expertise is purposed towards achieving those goals. It puts the personal preferences of the expert above those of everyone else.

Keeping with the theme of economics, most mainstream economists are reasonably ardent in their support for unfettered global trade or at least managed trade. And they are perfectly correct - free trade leads to better allocation of resources, reduced waste, and rising prosperity for the global system. But, critically, not for every person.

When trade restrictions fall, there will always be some group of people who suffer from the changes. The expert in global trade can afford to make decisions about global trade because they will not be affected by those changes. Those who will lose their jobs and their communities might be willing to accept a marginally lower standard of living in order to maintain their communities and livelihoods.

The final weakness in the argument for deference to experts is that experts never stay within their domains of expertise. They have opinions about many things, most, necessarily, being unrelated to their expertise. They trade on their expertise in one field in order to gain power or influence in a separate field in which they have an interest but not expertise.

The above case of Krugman is likely an example of this. Yes, he is an expert in economics but he is also a rabid political partisan who hates conservatives in general and Republicans in particular. His forecast that markets would never recover from the election of Donald Trump was almost certainly not an expert economic opinion, though issued under the color of authority of expertise, but rather a passionate partisan comment. A comment on politics, a field in which he has no expertise.

UPDATE: A related argument is being made in On truth: A revolt against deference by Frank Furedi

Higher education enrollment declines 1.5%

From Current Term Enrollment Estimates – Spring 2017 by National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Probably primarily just a product of declining cohort of 18 year-olds but clearly there are other dynamics in play including the increasing cost, the increasing repression on campus, and sometimes (such as University of Missouri which has declined 15% since its BLM protests) decreasing effectiveness of campus leadership and disconnect from the paying public. Strange we haven't seen much press about this.

From the article:
In spring 2017, overall postsecondary enrollments decreased 1.5 percent from the previous spring. Figure 1 shows the 12-month percentage change (fall-to-fall and spring-to-spring) for each term over the last three years. Enrollments decreased among four-year for-profit institutions (-10.1 percent), two-year public institutions (-2.5 percent), and four-year private nonprofit institutions (-0.2 percent). Enrollments increased slightly among four-year public institutions (+0.2 percent). Taken as a whole, public sector enrollments (two-year and four-year combined) declined by 0.9 percent this spring.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Before the gods that made the gods

The opening stanzas of The Ballad of the White Horse by G.K. Chesterton
Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.

Before the gods that made the gods
Had drunk at dawn their fill,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was hoary on the hill.

Age beyond age on British land,
Aeons on aeons gone,
Was peace and war in western hills,
And the White Horse looked on.

For the White Horse knew England
When there was none to know;
He saw the first oar break or bend,
He saw heaven fall and the world end,
O God, how long ago.

For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.

Only about a third of the IT workforce has an IT-related college degree

From Guestworkers in the high-skill U.S. labor market An analysis of supply, employment, and wage trends by Hal Salzman, Daniel Kuehn, and B. Lindsay Lowell. From the summary:
This paper reviews and analyzes the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) labor market and workforce and the supply of high-skill temporary foreign workers, who serve as “guestworkers.” It addresses three central issues in the ongoing discussion about the need for high-skill guestworkers in the United States:
Is there a problem producing enough STEM-educated students at sufficient performance levels to supply the labor market?

How large is the flow of guestworkers into the STEM workforce and into the information technology (IT) workforce in particular? And what are the characteristics of these workers?

What are the dynamics of the STEM labor market, and what are the employment and wage trends in the IT labor market?
Analysis of these issues provides the basis for assessing the extent of demand for STEM workers and the impact of guestworker flows on the STEM and IT workforces.

Our examination of the IT labor market, guestworker flows, and the STEM education pipeline finds consistent and clear trends suggesting that the United States has more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations:
The flow of U.S. students (citizens and permanent residents) into STEM fields has been strong over the past decade, and the number of U.S. graduates with STEM majors appears to be responsive to changes in employment levels and wages.

For every two students that U.S. colleges graduate with STEM degrees, only one is hired into a STEM job.

In computer and information science and in engineering, U.S. colleges graduate 50 percent more students than are hired into those fields each year; of the computer science graduates not entering the IT workforce, 32 percent say it is because IT jobs are unavailable, and 53 percent say they found better job opportunities outside of IT occupations. These responses suggest that the supply of graduates is substantially larger than the demand for them in industry.
Analyzing new data, drawing on a number of our prior analyses, and reviewing other studies of wages and employment in the STEM and IT industries, we find that industry trends are strikingly consistent:
Over the past decade IT employment has gradually increased, but it only recovered to its 2000–2001 peak level by the end of the decade.

Wages have remained flat, with real wages hovering around their late 1990s levels.
We also find that, while there were strong increases in the number of computer science graduates and entrants from other fields that supply the IT industry during the late 1990s, after the dot-com bubble burst in 2001 a declining number of both guestworkers and U.S. students entered the IT pipeline. But since then, the number of IT college graduates has recovered modestly, while the number of guestworkers has increased sharply, suggesting a fundamental change in this labor market.

Our review of the data finds that guestworkers make up a large and increasing portion of the IT labor market:

The flow of guestworkers has increased over the past decade and continues to rise (the rate of increase dropped briefly with the economic collapse of 2008, but the flow of guestworkers has since continued its rapid upward pace).

The annual inflows of guestworkers amount to one-third to one-half the number of all new IT job holders.
It could appear to casual observers that the striking increase in guestworkers might be a response to increased labor demand in the IT field. But employment and wage levels in IT jobs have been weak, trends that are not consistent with strong demand. The data also show that there are multiple routes into IT employment, most of which do not require a STEM degree:
Only about a third of the IT workforce has an IT-related college degree.

36 percent of IT workers do not hold a college degree at all.

Only 24 percent of IT workers have a four-year computer science or math degree.
The data also strongly suggest that there is a robust supply of domestic workers available for the IT industry:
The number of domestic STEM graduates has grown strongly, and many of these graduates could qualify for IT jobs.

The annual number of computer science graduates doubled between 1998 and 2004, and is currently over 50 percent higher than its 1998 level.
At the same time, current U.S. high-skill immigration policy, which includes the granting of work permits to foreign students and the issuance of a variety of nonimmigrant guestworker visas, provides employers with large numbers of STEM guestworkers, most of whom are in IT occupations.

Until about 2001, when the dot-com bubble burst, the IT labor market performed in the way that economic fundamentals suggest it should, with the supply of IT graduates and workers responding to strong wage increases and reflected in growing employment. Since then, however, the IT field appears to be functioning with two distinct labor market patterns:
The domestic supply of IT workers exhibits increasing but slow growth in line with market signals.

The supply of IT guestworkers appears to be growing dramatically, despite stagnant or even declining wages.
The immigration debate is complicated and polarizing, but the implications of the data for enacting high-skill guestworker policy are clear: Immigration policies that facilitate large flows of guestworkers will supply labor at wages that are too low to induce significant increases in supply from the domestic workforce.

Family structure as the origin of partisan policy differences

From President Trump Is the Enemy of Their Enemies by Thomas B. Edsall

Edsall is making an entirely different argument but in his essay, he includes this chart.
Click to enlarge

The NYT is awkward in their expression of what this graph shows. On the left of the chart are states with more traditional family structures and values. People marry younger, have more children, are less likely to divorce, are less likely to cohabitate, are less likely to have children out-of-wedlock. On the right are states with more postmodernist familial structures: later marriages, fewer children, more cohabitation, more divorce, more out-of-wedlock children.

Edsall does not mention it but these two patterns of family formation have dramatically different demographic consequences. Those who self-identify as strong liberals (the family pattern on the right of the chart) have a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of 1.6, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. Those self-identifying as strongly conservative have a TFR of 2.6, well above the replacement rate.

Many conservatives have long taken solace in demographic inevitability. Demographics is destiny. They view the wins and losses of the quotidian political struggle with greater equanimity, confident that because of the difference in TFR, conservative sentiments will replace liberal.

Maybe. But simplistic demographic projections don't ever seem to turn out the way anyone expects. Democrats have long been much more enthusiastic about generous immigration than Republicans, in part because of their belief that immigrants will be more liberal and will vote Democrat. And while that has to some extent been marginally true so far, it hasn't helped Democrats locally or nationally. I suspect that this is principally because immigrants often locate into areas already heavily Democrat; they are adding votes but are not changing the outcomes.

Expansive immigration policies have often harmed Democrats' own base of blue collar workers and African American communities leading to defections. In addition, not all immigrant groups remain solidly Democrat affiliated once they have integrated within the community. The point is that demography is destiny, but not always in ways that we can anticipate.

However, I wonder if there isn't a different TFR dynamic going on that might tend towards the same outcome as expected by conservatives but by a different mechanism than simple displacement.

To make the point, I'll use extreme examples. Reality is much more shaded. However, the marginal differences will show up, just in the longer term.

I suspect groups (in developed countries) with high TFR probably differ materially in at least three existential ways from groups with low TFR and that it is these existential differences which actually drive displacement rather than simply outbreeding. The three existential differences would be:
Tragic View over Rationalist View
Main Street View over Wall Street View
Long Term View over Short Term View
Tragic View versus Rationalist View

Having multiple children will almost always force several realizations on a person that differ from someone who has no children or only one.
There are things beyond your control. Each child is their own person, regardless of your preferences.

There is variability among children outside your control. Three children raised in the same family, of the same parents,
and as equally as feasible, will still turn out quite differently from one another and from their parents.
If you have no children or only one, it is possible to sustain the conceit that all matters can be resolved rationally and amicably. Everything becomes simply a matter of planning, engineering and communication. It fosters a deterministic view.

If you have multiple children, it forces a degree of humility and acceptance. Regardless of what you want, there are others who have to be taken into account and those others can be highly variant from you. You either learn tolerance for variability or you suffer constant contention.

Main Street versus Wall Street

If you have no children, planning and managing your life arc entails a different financial perspective and a different risk sensitivity. You generate value financially and you manage your income statements (costs and expenses) and your balance sheets (accumulated capital). It is not so much how well is the economy doing which interests you as it is how well are your investments doing? You can be very charitable to others but it always under your control, subject to your personal finances. This is very much a Wall Street view. You also tend to have much more latitude for discretionary spending.

If you have multiple children, the pressures on you are much more extreme and force you to make more, and harder, trade-off decisions. You have to mind your personal income and balance sheets closer but you also have to take a much more holistic view to ensure coverage for spouse and dependents. Can you, do you, invest in private school education K-12 or University or both? How much do you restrict your own consumption to ensure that there is a rainy day nest egg for a much larger range of contingencies? How much longer do you put up with a difficult employment circumstance in order to ensure income continuity given all your dependents, etc.? Given the tightness of budgets and absence of discretionary income, you become much more sensitive to tax rates.

In the midst of all this, with children, you are forced to confront that there are value calculations that cannot easily be translated into financial terms. Your value calculations become more complex and more nuanced.

As your children mature into adulthood, you are not just interested in how well your financial returns are accumulating (Wall Street), you are as interested, or more, in how well real business is doing, whether there are jobs for your children (Main Street). A Wall Street mindset pursues one set of policies, a Main Street mindset another.

Long Term versus Short Term

With many children, you tend towards a thirty and sixty year time horizon with a much lower temporal discount rate. You are keeping in mind how what you do today might affect your children and grandchildren in the future. You are also probably more risk averse in terms of policy. You don't undertake longterm, consequential policies unless there is a deep knowledge base to support it. You are risk adverse because managing a five person unit through major change is inherently more challenging than managing a one or two person unit.




The upshot of this train of speculation is that familial structure might be driving more of the division between left and right than is being acknowledged.

Policy differences between conservatives and liberals may be less about partisan differences than it might be as a consequence of the differences in world view being generated because of the difference in their familial traditions.

Under this scenario, because of their families, conservatives are more tolerant of variance among people, more focused on values (and less on money), more focused on the long term and less on the short, more focused on the economy and less on the financial markets, more aware of constraints, more accepting of trade-off decisions or of accepting the least bad of two bad options, etc. And of course, liberals are, because of their family choices, correspondingly the mirror of the above attributes: more consumption and less saving, more present oriented than future oriented, more focused on excellence than on the optimal, less accustomed to compromise, more likely to rely on abstract rationality than on human calculation, less aware of human system complexity and fragility, etc.

I think this is an interesting train of thought but I am reluctant to put too great a store by it. I suspect something of this order is happening at the margin but that it likely has cumulative consequence.

Here are several examples where this difference likely has significant impact based on family considerations over and above partisanship or ideology per se. Take two families earning exactly the same amount of household income but one family has five persons and the other only three.
Tax rates - If you are a five person family, your finances are both constrained and you need to cover a broader range of risk scenarios. You simply do not have the leeway in your budget to accommodate higher taxes compared to the three person family. Any rise in taxes is necessarily going to come at the expense of reduced consumption or saving. You would expect states with more and larger families to have lower tax rates, and that is what you see in Edsall's chart above. States with high taxation also have smaller families.

Inheritance taxes - If you are a five person family, you almost certainly have a higher probability of wanting to pass along accumulated savings untouched by inheritance taxes. If you pass early, you want to ensure that your young adult children have the benefit of your estate. If you pass later, likely the same equation with grandchildren. With three children, you also are more likely to have one with health, behavioral, or other issues that you wish to shelter with money even after you are gone. The net impact is that states with many larger families are likely to have no or fewer estate taxes. I am not as informed in this area, but eyeballing the states in the chart, I think that is also what we see.

Global Warming - If you are a five person family, you likely are more skeptical of the trade-offs implied under climate change policies. Not because you are unconcerned about the climate but because the uncertainty surrounding the models, the forecasts, and the necessary reduction in the economy implied by the various climate change policies. With a higher risk aversion and a longer time horizon, there is likely greater aversion to climate change advocates. Again, that is what we see in the chart above.

Public Finance - The five person family is likely much less tolerant of lax public finances. They themselves are having to manage against many demands, risks and contingencies, they expect their public finances to also be closely managed. You would forecast that states with more, larger families would have more balanced state budgets, more fully funded state pension plans, less deficit spending, less public spending, and fewer municipal and state level bankruptcies or financial disruptions. Again, that is exactly what you see in the chart above. The states to the right, with much smaller families, also have more deficit spending, more municipal bankruptcies, more underfunded state pensions, etc.
I don't want to over invest in this train of speculation, but once you start thinking in this fashion, it does seem to explain a lot. The implication is that we have overweighted the importance of partisan differences (Democrat versus Republican) and maybe even overweighted the importance of political differences (Liberal versus Conservative). Perhaps the more important variable is familial structure.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Everyone believes in genes as the cause of life outcomes

From The Politics of the Gene: Social Status and Beliefs About Genetics for Individual Outcomes by Sara Shostak, Jeremy Freese, Bruce G. Link, and Jo C. Phelan.

From the abstract:
Social scientists have predicted that individuals who occupy socially privileged positions or who have conservative political orientations are most likely to endorse the idea that genes are the root cause of differences among individuals. Drawing on a nationally representative sample of the US population, this study examines belief in the importance of genes for understanding individual differences in a series of broad domains: physical illness, serious mental illness, intelligence, personality, and success in life. We also assess whether the belief that genetics are important for these outcomes is more common among those in relatively advantaged positions or among those who are more politically conservative. Finally, we consider whether such beliefs predict attitudes toward genetics-related social policies. Our analyses suggest that belief in the importance of genetics for individual differences may well have a substantial effect on attitudes toward genetics-related policies, independent of political orientation or other measures. Our study identifies high levels of endorsement for genes as causes of health and social outcomes. We describe a cultural schema in which outcomes that are “closer to the body” are more commonly attributed to genetics. Contrary to expectations, however, we find little evidence that it is more common for whites, the socioeconomically advantaged, or political conservatives to believe that genetics are important for health and social outcomes.
In other words, it is common to believe that genes cause health and social outcomes and there is no measurable difference by race, status, or political orientation in terms of this common belief.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Their grave's an altar

Simonides of Ceos famously wrote the epigram at Thermopylae marking the self-sacrifice of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans:
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their laws we lie.
Ὦ ξεῖν', ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.
From After Thermopylae: The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars by Paul Cartledge I learn that there was another encomium by Simonides to the Spartans. From Diodorus Siculus, Books 11-12.37.1 by Peter Green.
Of those who died at Thermopylae
Renowned is the fortune, noble the fate:
Their grave's an altar, their memorial our mourning, their fate our praise.

Such a shroud neither decay
Nor all-conquering Time shall destroy.
This sepulcher of brave men has taken the high
Renown of Hellas for its fellow occupant, as witness
Leonidas, Sparta's king who left behind a great
Memorial of valor, everlasting renown.

Fame, as it reaches the furthest limits of the sunlit earth, Shall learn the valor of these men

After the Battle of Marathon in which 192 Greeks died, the Athenian dead were interred in a great funerary mound at the edge of the Marathon plain. Ten white marble slabs, one for each of the ten Athenian tribes, were set up at the foot of the mound.

Of these, only one survives with the memorialization of the twenty-two members of the tribe Erechtheis.


The inscription reads:
Fame, as it reaches the furthest limits of the sunlit earth,
Shall learn the valor of these men: how they died
In battle with the Medes, and how they garlanded Athens,
The few who undertook the war of many.
There is a very faint echo of Churchill's August 20th 1940 speech in Parliament paying tribute to the pilots of the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain:
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

All you know about them is what they say of themselves

From Miss Marple and the Problem of Modern Identity by Alan Jacobs. A lot of insights into the nature of identity, privacy, knowledge, progress, and productivity.

Physical movement from one place to another is a progenitor of expanded knowledge and knowledge is a predicate to productivity. But with movement comes uncertainty as to identity. Not only does the new community want to know who you are but so does the state. The more transparency there is, the greater the certainty we can have as to what we are dealing with and therefore the greater the productivity. But that transparency and certainty comes at the price of lost privacy.

As we shift ourselves from the physical world to the digital world, where, on the internet, "No ones knows you are a dog", the historical problems of identity multiply and the balance of interests between individuals and the state are in terrific flux. We want our certainty of identities in order to fuel the security and productivity of our lives and yet we want our privacy as well and we don't want the government to intrude too much.

It is a time of change and potential but also great anxiety as we sense tectonic forces at work but with no clarity as to the nature, direction or destination of those forces.

Jacobs:
One of Agatha Christie’s more famous mysteries is A Murder Is Announced. A Miss Marple story published in 1950, the novel partakes fully in the anxious and pinched mood of postwar “austerity Britain.” Christie typically writes efficiently and briskly, with much give-and-take dialogue presented in short paragraphs, so the passage I’m about to cite is an unusual one: it’s essentially a monologue by Jane Marple, who is talking to a policeman who has expressed concern for her well-being — a murderer is on the loose — and would prefer her not to “snoop around.”
“But I’m afraid,” she said, “that we old women always do snoop. It would be very odd and much more noticeable if I didn’t. Questions about mutual friends in different parts of the world and whether they remember so and so, and do they remember who it was that Lady Somebody’s daughter married? All that helps, doesn’t it?”

“Helps?” said the Inspector, rather stupidly.

“Helps to find out if people are who they say they are,” said Miss Marple.
This is a story in which several characters are not — or may not be — who they say they are. So when Miss Marple continues by asking the policeman, “Because that’s what’s worrying you, isn’t it?” she puts her finger on the precise problem.

She then — and this is key — goes on to explain why the problem of identity is a particularly significant one for them, situated in their particular time and place:
“And that’s really the particular way the world has changed since the war. Take this place, Chipping Cleghorn, for instance. It’s very much like St. Mary Mead where I live. Fifteen years ago one knew who everybody was. The Bantrys in the big house — and the Hartnells and the Price Ridleys and the Weatherbys ... They were people whose fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers, or whose aunts and uncles, had lived there before them. If somebody new came to live there, they brought letters of introduction, or they’d been in the same regiment or served in the same ship as someone there already. If anybody new — really new — really a stranger — came, well, they stuck out — everybody wondered about them and didn’t rest till they found out.”
And Miss Marple’s conclusion: “But it’s not like that any more. Every village and small country place is full of people who’ve just come and settled there without any ties to bring them. The big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come — and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.” All you know about them is what they say of themselves — this is, in a nutshell, one of the core problems of modernity.
Smallness, locality, insularity and stability are powerful agents keeping the question of identity at bay. We know you because we have always known you. There are no strangers.

But sometime after the transition from hunting/gathering to permanent settlements, the question of the stranger entered the social equation. With roads, then steam engines and then internal combustion engines, the question of identity amplified. Places that were insular became connected. Communities of known people became crowds of strangers.

How do we know you?

Back to Jacobs:
But the essential point that we can discern from this brief look at A Murder Is Announced is that identity documents play a double role in the social changes that Miss Marple describes. On the one hand, they are a response to those changes: as MacLean, Landry, and Ward comment, the “profound shift [that] occurred in the balance between the urban and rural populations of England” between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries had “particular consequences for the making of social identities.” One of those was that people had to turn to official documents to compensate for a lack of direct, personal acquaintance. On the other hand, as Inspector Craddock reflects, they contribute to those changes: “partly because of” the rise of identity cards, which are so easily forged, “the subtler links that had held together English social rural life had fallen apart.”

[snip]

What makes Miss Marple distinctively insightful, and useful to the police, is her ability to transfer her minute observations of “the subtler links” that once held society together to a context in which those links have broken. The same small traits of speech and action that once would have instructed her in social belonging now enable her to discern social displacement. The same attentiveness that enabled her to interpret a social photograph now enables her to interpret its negative. The police can consult their records, can obtain files from their counterparts in Switzerland, but as servants of an administrative and bureaucratic regime they have no training in or understanding of the social cues Miss Marple has mastered.
Which is a lesson we are relearning. It is easy to slip into the anonymity and structure of the digital world - but the digital world only exists at the sufferance of the social world. If you are not a master of the subtler links of sociability, of person-to-person interaction, digital mastery only takes you to a lonely basement.

Jacobs introduces James C. Scott's insight about "legibility"(from Scott's Seeing Like A State, well worth reading, in fact it should be mandatory in understanding the evolving relationship between the individual and the state):
It is not easy to see — though I think it is necessary to see — how many of the technologies of modernity, from filing systems to postal systems, from photography to fingerprint analysis, have arisen in the service of making us “legible” to the state. We are all legible people now, and most of us see no alternative; thus the quests by so many to have their own sense of identity — who or what they “identify as” — be officially recognized by the state. If the state cannot read us — “legible” is from the Latin legere, “to read” — do we exist at all?

Further, the state’s distinctive ways of reading us are easily extended to private organizations, and especially commercial enterprises: consider how many financial transactions require the provision of one’s Social Security number as a means of establishing unique identity in ways that mere names cannot. The larger the enterprise, the more its ways of seeing resemble those of governing bodies — and the closer it works with those bodies, though sometimes not close enough to suit governmental agencies, who demand “back doors” into customer data gathered by private companies. Thus Facebook, the largest social media company in the world, today demands that its users employ their “authentic identity,” as confirmed by a government-issued ID or by forms of nongovernmental ID that are themselves usually only obtainable with a government-issued ID. Facebook is trying to link its users’ identities as closely as possible with the ratification provided by the state.
The challenge is, of course, that the more legible we are, serving the legitimate and advantageous purposes of reducing uncertainty, increasing security, increasing productivity, the more we are also striping away our privacy. It is useful to be known but we also wish to have the right to be unknown.
Even Miss Marple puts her exceptional acuity in the service of this state-sponsored model of identity: she offers her local, personal, intuitive knowledge to supplement the deficiencies of police work, to fill in the gaps in official documentation, to bring people’s self-proclamations into line with governmental records. To “find out if people are who they say they are” is to set self-description against what the state sees, what the state reads.

This is what happens when the social structures — family, community, church — that were once key to the establishment of identity fade into insignificance, supplanted by the power of the modern nation-state. Miss Marple may seem to speak on behalf of those older, humbler sources of meaning, but in fact she quite coldbloodedly acknowledges their disappearance. “But it’s not like that any more.... And people just come — and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.” The task of the amateur detective is to bring “what they say of themselves” into line with what the state says of them; that is all. Because there is no alternative.
Jacobs concludes:
Thus we conclude one chapter — the most recent to date — of a story that begins in the early modern period with the transfer of large numbers of people from Europe’s countryside to its cities. Social mobility is preceded by literal mobility: people who can walk or ride from one place to another. Economic and technological changes (starting with the building of roads) enabled that movement, then accelerated in order to accommodate it; this in turn has made further such movement more attractive, more inevitable. Supplemental technologies of writing, record-keeping, and administrative organization (including regular naming practices and travel documentation) have also arisen in order to keep track of all the movement and to prevent descent into social chaos. The result is the world we live in, a world in which we all must ask — in a tone and for a purpose quite alien to those of the person who coined this phrase — “Who is my neighbor?”
I focus on a different question. How can we obtain all the value and benefits of legibility while preserving some necessary modicum of control over our privacy. We want to know who are our neighbors but we don't want our neighbor to know us without our consent. We want legibility to be unidirectional. We want to know others but not for others to know us. At least, not without our approval.

Is there a solution to the desire for seeing and being simultaneously unseen? I have no ready idea but that question will occupy us for a generation or more.

As a final note, reading Jacobs' essay suggests another and different idea to me. I have long ascribed the pernicious evil of Identity Politics to postmodernism and its attendant intellectual fads of post-war Europe: critical theory, critical race theory, gender theory, deconstructionism, post-colonial theory, etc. And I still think that is by-and-large true. Identity Politics is simply a noxious by-product of corrupted ideologies.

Jacobs' essay, though, opens up the possibility that perhaps postmodernism was a manifestation of, or a more formal articulation of an underlying and unseen wave of change. Post-World War II has seen immense migrations of people - from country to city; from lower class to upper class; from religiosity to secularism; from country to country. All of us now live in a sea of strangers.

Postmodernism postulates the existence of the all-powerful privilege of the male patriarchy, of white privilege, Christian dominance, class privilege etc. But all the whites and males and Christians, and even the upper class are looking around trying to figure why they haven't been given access to this secretive privilege. These privileges don't exist, at least not in the way postulated by ideologues. What postmodernism and critical theory are conjuring are not any real worlds of power and privilege. What they are conjuring are myths in an environment where we are all strangers to one another.

Those who are marginal in terms of educational achievement or race or ethnicity or religion or class or orientation, can imagine themselves as being the victim of some great conspiracy of exclusion and hidden privilege. What they fail to see is that everyone is adrift among strangers. There is no fixity of advantage. All is contingent and uncertain.

My guess, having read Jacobs, is that Identity Politics is a phenomenon that is attired in the words and ideology of postmodernism but that perhaps its shape is a product of that underlying conflict between legibility and privacy. There are no safe places and insular communities anymore. We are all adrift on a sea of change and of communities to which we are only lightly attached. It is unsurprising that the capable are still anxious and that the marginal are frightened. For the marginal there is the soothing pablum of postmodernism and Identity Politics but those are just products of the real disconnect. The real disconnect is that there is no place to call home.


Teleology, metaphysics, and epistemology

From Why Information Matters by Luciano Floridi.
While information has been a concept in the background for so long in the history of philosophy, it now also fits neatly in its foreground. Seventeenth-century philosophers redirected their attention from the nature of the knowable object (metaphysics) to the relation between the object and the knowing subject (epistemology). Problems surrounding how we come to know the world then consumed much of modern philosophy. Then, in the twentieth century, philosophers came to reflect primarily on how knowledge is organized — how it is stored and linguistically structured — thus moving from epistemology to philosophy of language and logic. And with the growth of the information society in which billions of people now spend their lives, some philosophers have increasingly focused on the very fabric of knowledge — information and its dynamics, including communication, flows, and processing. As a result, information has arisen as a concept as fundamental and important as being, knowledge, life, intelligence, meaning, and good and evil — all concepts with which it is interdependent, and so equally worthy of autonomous investigation. It is also a more impoverished concept, in terms of which the others can be expressed and to which they can be related. This is why the philosophy of information may explain and guide the purposeful construction of our intellectual environment, and provide the systematic treatment of the conceptual foundations of contemporary society.
And don't forget Teleology - the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes.

Leibniz’s law of the identity of indiscernibles and the Turing Test

Why Information Matters by Luciano Floridi.
So Turing suggested replacing the question with the imitation game, which fixes certain variables in a rules-based scenario that is easily implementable and controllable. Suppose that A and B are a human being and a computer, but you do not know which is which. You can ask A and B any question simultaneously, but they are in another place and you can only interact with them by e-mail (or, in Turing’s day, by teleprinter). If after a reasonable amount of time you cannot tell which is the human and which the computer, then the computer has passed the test — that is, the computer is at least as good as the human in providing answers to the questions you asked. Turing’s test is based on a weaker version of Leibniz’s law of the identity of indiscernibles: if, everything else being equal, significant differences between A’s and B’s answers are indiscernible, then A and B are interchangeable. Given the same input of questions, the output of answers a human and a computer can generate are such that the differences between the two are insufficient for the purposes of unmistakable recognition.

The Codpiece of the Law

From by Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais. The young giant Pantagruel comes to Paris for his education. Rabelais makes a mockery of some of the more tediously unworldly volumes of early Renaissance monasteries. I hope, at some time, to find an annotated version of this supposed index of made-up tomes. There is a lot more humor in the titles than I am getting.
In his abode there he found the library of St. Victor a very stately and magnific one, especially in some books which were there, of which followeth the Repertory and Catalogue, Et primo,
The Two-horse tumbrel of Salvation.
The Codpiece of the Law.
The Slipshoe of the Decretals.
The Pomegranate of Vice.
The Clew-bottom of Theology.
The Duster or Foxtail-flap of Preachers, composed by Turlupin.
The Churning Ballock of the Valiant.
The Henbane of the Bishops.
Marmotretus de baboonis et apis, cum Commento Dorbellis.
Decretum Universitatis Parisiensis super gorgiasitate muliercularum ad placitum.

The Apparition of Sancte Geltrude to a Nun of Poissy, being in travail at the bringing forth of a child.
Ars honeste fartandi in societate, per Marcum Corvinum (Ortuinum).
The Mustard-pot of Penance.
The Gamashes, alias the Boots of Patience.
Formicarium artium.
De brodiorum usu, et honestate quartandi, per Sylvestrem Prioratem Jacobinum
.
The Cosened or Gulled in Court.
The Frail of the Scriveners.
The Marriage-packet.
The Cruizy or Crucible of Contemplation.
The Flimflams of the Law.
The Prickle of Wine.
The Spur of Cheese.
Ruboffatorium (Decrotatorium) scholarium.
Tartaretus de modo cacandi.
The Bravades of Rome.
Bricot de Differentiis Browsarum.
The Tailpiece-Cushion, or Close-breech of Discipline.
The Cobbled Shoe of Humility.
The Trivet of good Thoughts.
The Kettle of Magnanimity.
The Cavilling Entanglements of Confessors.
The Snatchfare of the Curates.
Reverendi patris fratris Lubini, provincialis Bavardiae, de gulpendis lardslicionibus libri tres.
Pasquilli Doctoris Marmorei, de capreolis cum artichoketa comedendis, tempore Papali ab Ecclesia interdicto.

The Invention of the Holy Cross, personated by six wily Priests.
The Spectacles of Pilgrims bound for Rome.
Majoris de modo faciendi puddinos.
The Bagpipe of the Prelates.
Beda de optimitate triparum.
The Complaint of the Barristers upon the Reformation of Comfits.
The Furred Cat of the Solicitors and Attorneys.
Of Peas and Bacon, cum Commento.
The Small Vales or Drinking Money of the Indulgences.
Praeclarissimi juris utriusque Doctoris Maistre Pilloti, &c., Scrap-farthingi de botchandis glossae Accursianae Triflis repetitio enucidi-luculidissima.
Stratagemata Francharchiaeri de Baniolet
.
Carlbumpkinus de Re Militari cum Figuris Tevoti.
De usu et utilitate flayandi equos et equas, authore Magistro nostro de Quebecu.

The Sauciness of Country-Stewards.
M.N. Rostocostojambedanesse de mustarda post prandium servienda, libri quatuordecim, apostillati per M. Vaurillonis.
The Covillage or Wench-tribute of Promoters.
(Jabolenus de Cosmographia Purgatorii.)
Quaestio subtilissima, utrum Chimaera in vacuo bonbinans possit comedere secundas intentiones; et fuit debatuta per decem hebdomadas in Consilio Constantiensi.

The Bridle-champer of the Advocates.
Smutchudlamenta Scoti.
The Rasping and Hard-scraping of the Cardinals.
De calcaribus removendis, Decades undecim, per M. Albericum de Rosata.
Ejusdem de castramentandis criminibus libri tres.
The Entrance of Anthony de Leve into the Territories of Brazil.
(Marforii, bacalarii cubantis Romae) de peelandis aut unskinnandis blurrandisque Cardinalium mulis.
The said Author's Apology against those who allege that the Pope's mule doth eat but at set times.
Prognosticatio quae incipit, Silvii Triquebille, balata per M.N., the deep-dreaming gull Sion.
Boudarini Episcopi de emulgentiarum profectibus Aeneades novem, cum privilegio Papali ad triennium et postea non.
The Shitabranna of the Maids.
The Bald Arse or Peeled Breech of the Widows.
The Cowl or Capouch of the Monks.
The Mumbling Devotion of the Celestine Friars.
The Passage-toll of Beggarliness.
The Teeth-chatter or Gum-didder of Lubberly Lusks.
The Paring-shovel of the Theologues.
The Drench-horn of the Masters of Arts.
The Scullions of Olcam, the uninitiated Clerk.
Magistri N. Lickdishetis, de garbellisiftationibus horarum canonicarum, libri quadriginta.
Arsiversitatorium confratriarum, incerto authore.
The Gulsgoatony or Rasher of Cormorants and Ravenous Feeders.
The Rammishness of the Spaniards supergivuregondigaded by Friar Inigo.
The Muttering of Pitiful Wretches.
Dastardismus rerum Italicarum, authore Magistro Burnegad.
R. Lullius de Batisfolagiis Principum.

Calibistratorium caffardiae, authore M. Jacobo Hocstraten hereticometra.
Codtickler de Magistro nostrandorum Magistro nostratorumque beuvetis, libri octo galantissimi
.
The Crackarades of Balists or stone-throwing Engines, Contrepate Clerks, Scriveners, Brief-writers, Rapporters, and Papal Bull-despatchers lately compiled by Regis.
A perpetual Almanack for those that have the gout and the pox.
Manera sweepandi fornacellos per Mag. Eccium.
The Shable or Scimetar of Merchants.
The Pleasures of the Monachal Life.
The Hotchpot of Hypocrites.
The History of the Hobgoblins.
The Ragamuffinism of the pensionary maimed Soldiers.
The Gulling Fibs and Counterfeit shows of Commissaries.
The Litter of Treasurers.
The Juglingatorium of Sophisters.
Antipericatametanaparbeugedamphicribrationes Toordicantium.
The Periwinkle of Ballad-makers.
The Push-forward of the Alchemists.
The Niddy-noddy of the Satchel-loaded Seekers, by Friar Bindfastatis.
The Shackles of Religion.
The Racket of Swag-waggers.
The Leaning-stock of old Age.
The Muzzle of Nobility.
The Ape's Paternoster.
The Crickets and Hawk's-bells of Devotion.
The Pot of the Ember-weeks.
The Mortar of the Politic Life.
The Flap of the Hermits.
The Riding-hood or Monterg of the Penitentiaries.
The Trictrac of the Knocking Friars.
Blockheadodus, de vita et honestate bragadochiorum.
Lyrippii Sorbonici Moralisationes, per M. Lupoldum.
The Carrier-horse-bells of Travellers.
The Bibbings of the tippling Bishops.
Dolloporediones Doctorum Coloniensium adversus Reuclin.
The Cymbals of Ladies.
The Dunger's Martingale.
Whirlingfriskorum Chasemarkerorum per Fratrem Crackwoodloguetis.
The Clouted Patches of a Stout Heart.
The Mummery of the Racket-keeping Robin-goodfellows.
Gerson, de auferibilitate Papae ab Ecclesia.
The Catalogue of the Nominated and Graduated Persons.
Jo. Dytebrodii, terribilitate excommunicationis libellus acephalos.
Ingeniositas invocandi diabolos et diabolas, per M. Guingolphum.
The Hotchpotch or Gallimaufry of the perpetually begging Friars.
The Morris-dance of the Heretics.
The Whinings of Cajetan.
Muddisnout Doctoris Cherubici, de origine Roughfootedarum, et Wryneckedorum ritibus, libri septem.
Sixty-nine fat Breviaries.
The Nightmare of the five Orders of Beggars.
The Skinnery of the new Start-ups extracted out of the fallow-butt, incornifistibulated and plodded upon in the angelic sum.
The Raver and idle Talker in cases of Conscience.
The Fat Belly of the Presidents.
The Baffling Flouter of the Abbots.
Sutoris adversus eum qui vocaverat eum Slabsauceatorem, et quod Slabsauceatores non sunt damnati ab Ecclesia.
Cacatorium medicorum.
The Chimney-sweeper of Astrology.
Campi clysteriorum per paragraph C.
The Bumsquibcracker of Apothecaries.
The Kissbreech of Chirurgery.
Justinianus de Whiteleperotis tollendis.
Antidotarium animae.
Merlinus Coccaius, de patria diabolorum.
The Practice of Iniquity, by Cleuraunes Sadden.
The Mirror of Baseness, by Radnecu Waldenses.
The Engrained Rogue, by Dwarsencas Eldenu.
The Merciless Cormorant, by Hoxinidno the Jew.
Of which library some books are already printed, and the rest are now at the press in this noble city of Tubingen.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

An Oath of Not Remembering

From After Thermopylae: The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars by Paul Cartledge.
One absolutely key way in which the Athenians dragged themselves out of the mire of civil bloodshed and internecine hatred was by imposing upon themselves a great oath, an oath of forgetting - or, as they put it the other way round, "not-remembering." That is, in the sight of the gods as witnesses, they publicly and collectively threw a veil over the black deeds of especially those Athenians who in a frenzy of ideological madness had embraced the most extreme form of anti-democracy. Strict observance of this oath of Amnesty was put under great strain in the coming decades, but nonetheless it did still, just, hold. Even non- or anti-democrats such as Xenophon were loud in their praise of the Athenians for that achievement, and rightly so.
Not dissimilar to modern day Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. But what an example. An Oath of Not Remembering.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Eyes of the Ethiopians, eyes of the Thracians

Hasn't that always been the way? The world is as we ourselves see it. From Xenophanes of Colophon, 570 – 480 BC.
Ethiopians say that their gods are snubnosed and black
Thracians that they are pale and red-haired.
Αἰθίοπές τε <θεοὺς σφετέρους> σιμοὺς μέλανάς τε
Θρῇκἐς τε γλαυκοὺς καὶ πυρρούς <φασι πέλεσθαι>.

Strange epistemic times

Stipulated that President Trump can be bombastic, crass, ill-spoken and ill-mannered. Also stipulated that he is not a traditional or establishment conservative, he is a recent interloper into Republican politics. He is a phenomenon of some sort but of what sort we do not yet know.

That is no explanation for the sustained din of negative news reporting that seems to have been going on since his inauguration. I understand that Democrats are shattered that they are a shell of their former selves and thunderstruck that the election did not turn out as they expected. I also understand that establishment Republicans especially, but Burkean conservatives as well, are appalled by their candidate.

But he won the election fair and square.

If it were only Representative Maxine Waters calling for his impeachment even before his inauguration, that would be one thing. But that's not the case. During the interim between the election and the electoral college there were constant entreaties and speculation as to how the electors could overturn the election results. Then there was the constant discussion about how Trump could be prospectively disqualified. This growing cacophony since inauguration of calls for impeachment, special investigations, special prosecutors, serial false claims, baseless allegations, etc. seems extraordinary.

The closest I can recall anything like this was Ronald Reagan and even that was not the same. The press attitude was the same in the sense that both Trump and Reagan are/were cast as clueless, not too bright, and of dubious competence but I don't recall this relentless press to overturn the results of the election. It almost feels like an attempted institutional coup to give the establishment (the establishment of both parties, civil servants, universities, the media) the results they wanted over what the electorate actually chose.

The opposition claims seem to have gone from inane to insane.

Whenever there is such a disconnect between what you think you see and what the mainstream narrative is saying, you have to question whether the problem resides with yourself. And as I said at the beginning, there is plenty of reason to find Trump distasteful. But so far all I am seeing is disappointment, bias and smoke. I am not seeing anything out-of-the ordinary about Trump compared to his predecessors. And indeed, one of the striking things has been the outrage by the mainstream media when Trump either endorses or implements a policy that was happily accepted by the MSM under the previous administration.

I think I am assessing this correctly but you can't help but have doubts about your own perceptions.

And then along comes News Coverage of Donald Trump’s First 100 Days by Thomas E. Patterson. This is from Harvard's Kennedy School, hardly a hotbed of John Birchers or Breitbart devotees.

It turns out that indeed, on an objective measured basis, the mainstream media has gone crazy. They are devoting more of their news time to the president than under earlier administrations and their coverage is overwhelmingly more negative in contrast to earlier presidents. It's not an issue of misperceiving. They really are going crazy.

Donald Trump has received 80% negative coverage compared to 41% for Barack Obama, 57% for George W. Bush and 60% negative for Bill Clinton. All the traditional MSM bugbears of the right are in on the game with negative coverage from CNN (97% negative), NBC (97%), CBS (91%), New York Times (87%), and the Washington Post (83%). I read the New York Times and Washington Post and thought they were pretty unhinged. Thank goodness I don't watch CNN, NBC and CBS - it must be nauseously disorienting if they are even worse than NYT and WaPo.

Not only are they covering him more negatively but they are devoting more time to doing so.
President Trump dominated media coverage in the outlets and programs analyzed, with Trump being the topic of 41 percent of all news stories—three times the amount of coverage received by previous presidents.
It is good to know that it wasn't me going crazy and misreading the behavior of the press.

Patterson concludes:
Trump’s coverage during his first 100 days was negative even by the standards of today’s hyper-critical press. Studies of earlier presidents found nothing comparable to the level of unfavorable coverage afforded Trump. Should it continue, it would exceed even that received by Bill Clinton. There was not a single quarter during any year of Clinton’s presidency where his positive coverage exceeded his negative coverage, a dubious record no president before or since has matched. Trump can’t top that string of bad news but he could take it to a new level. During his first 100 days, Clinton’s coverage was 3-to-2 negative over positive. Trump’s first 100 days were 4-to-1 negative over positive.

[snip]

Nevertheless, the sheer level of negative coverage gives weight to Trump’s contention, one shared by his core constituency, that the media are hell bent on destroying his presidency. As he tweeted a month after taking office, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

[snip]

At the same time, the news media need to give Trump credit when his actions warrant it. The public’s low level of confidence in the press is the result of several factors, one of which is a belief that journalists are biased. That perception weakens the press’s watchdog role. One of the more remarkable features of news coverage of Trump’s first 100 days is that it has changed few minds about the president, for better or worse. The nation’s watchdog has lost much of its bite and won’t regain it until the public perceives it as an impartial broker, applying the same reporting standards to both parties.
What to do? I liked this recommendation:
The press should also start doing what it hasn’t done well for a long time—focus on policy effects. Journalists’ focus on the Washington power game—who’s up and who’s down, who’s getting the better of whom—can be a fascinating story but at the end of the day, it’s food for political junkies. It’s remote enough from the lives of most Americans to convince them that the political system doesn’t speak for them, or to them.

A broadening of the scope of political coverage would require journalists to spend less time peering at the White House. Our analysis of news coverage of Trump’s first 100 days found that, except for his court-challenged immigration orders, the press paid only minimal attention to Trump’s executive orders. He issued a large number of them, covering everything from financial regulation to climate change. Collectively, these orders, immigration aside, accounted for less than 1 percent of Trump’s coverage, and rarely did a news report track an executive order into the agencies to see how it was being handled.

Journalists would also do well to spend less time in Washington and more time in places where policy intersects with people’s lives. If they had done so during the presidential campaign, they would not have missed the story that keyed Trump’s victory—the fading of the American Dream for millions of ordinary people. Nor do all such narratives have to be a tale of woe. America at the moment is a divided society in some respects, but it’s not a broken society and the divisions in Washington are deeper than those beyond the Beltway.
The surprises don't stop. In Vox, of all places, that firmly left-left-of-center website that seeks to explain, there is this astonishing confirmation that opponents of the president are getting too desperate; Democrats are falling for fake news about Russia by Zack Beauchamp. Vox is just about the last place I would look for confirmation of some pattern I might think I see in politics.

Now granted, Beauchamp is only acknowledging that the Russia scare stories are fake news because he is concerned that it will damage Democrats, but still. The Truth is Out There. Acknowledgement is acknowledgement.
What you’ve got are prominent media figures, political operatives, scholars, and even US senators being taken in by this stuff — in addition to the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of ordinary people consuming it on Twitter and Facebook. These people, too, are letting their biases trump interest in factual accuracy.

This is the key danger: that this sort of thing becomes routine, repeated over and over again in left-leaning media outlets, to the point where accepting the Russiasphere’s fact-free claims becomes a core and important part of what Democrats believe.

“Normal people aren’t reading extensively about what Louise Mensch claims someone told her about Russia,” Nyhan says. “The question now is whether Democrats and their allies in the media — and other affiliated elites — will promote these conspiracy theories more aggressively.”
Strange epistemic times.

UPDATE: Hanson has a good round up of the churn of fake news and hysteria. Regime Change by Any Other Name? by Victor Davis Hanson