Progress

November 26, 2011

It is fair to say, I think, that over the last 40 years or so there has been little progress in the quality of life of the average person in the West, and quite possibly there has been a deterioration. (The only indicator in which there has been steady progress, I think, is longevity.1)

Progressive ideology generally asserts that there is a wide variety of elements of conceivable and feasible policy and technology that would significantly improve average quality of life. It may be further assumed that the pursuit of any of those elements or any combination of those elements can be expected to be fruitful. To some extent this assumption – what may be termed the “parallel progress assumption” – seems to be implicit in much of present-day progressive activism: the agenda is usually very eclectic and often somewhat vague on specifics. While this is partly a tactic that is aimed at maintaining wide appeal, there is also the implication that as long as general principles are agreed to, laying out a detailed workplan is not necessary since progress can be made on any of many items quite independently of each other. While I accept the progressive assumption (i.e., that progress is possible) it appears to me that the parallel progress assumption is incorrect.
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Formal analysis

June 18, 2011

Keynes is rather dismissive of what he calls ‘“mathematical” economics’. The following passage is from chapter 21 of The General Theory:

The object of our analysis is, not to provide a machine, or method of blind manipulation, which will furnish an infallible answer, but to provide ourselves with an organised and orderly method of thinking out particular problems; and, after we have reached a provisional conclusion by isolating the complicating factors one by one, we then have to go back on ourselves and allow, as well as we can, for the probable interactions of the factors amongst themselves. This is the nature of economic thinking. Any other way of applying our formal principles of thought (without which, however, we shall be lost in the wood) will lead us into error. It is a great fault of symbolic pseudo-mathematical methods of formalising a system of economic analysis, such as we shall set down in section vi of this chapter, that they expressly assume strict independence between the factors involved and lose all their cogency and authority if this hypothesis is disallowed; whereas, in ordinary discourse, where we are not blindly manipulating but know all the time what we are doing and what the words mean, we can keep “at the back of our heads” the necessary reserves and qualifications and the adjustments which we shall have to make later on, in a way in which we cannot keep complicated partial differentials “at the back” of several pages of algebra which assume that they all vanish. Too large a proportion of recent “mathematical” economics are mere concoctions, as imprecise as the initial assumptions they rest on, which allow the author to lose sight of the complexities and interdependencies of the real world in a maze of pretentious and unhelpful symbols.

There is much truth in the above, I think, and it is truth that applies not only to “economic thinking” but to any kind of thinking that relies on formalization. Statistical analysis is plagued with this kind of problems. Keynes does lay too much stress on the matter of interaction between factors. The problem with formal methods is not particularly with neglecting various effects – it is that they simply are false in various ways (neglecting various effects is only one of the sources of falsehoods). Informal methods have the same problem, of course – and in addition have problems associated with informality.

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First part here.

Book II

P. 85:

Since cities were founded and survive for no other reason than for the benefit of their inhabitants, which is based principally in preserving the common good, this cannot be restricted to one particular person or individual except at the expense of all the others. So what, I ask you, could be more pernicious or contrary to the essence of a city than for one part of it to be, quite unjustly and for no reason, excluded from all or part of the public benefits and consequently made to suffer greater disadvantages and burdens more than the other?

P. 103:

[A]lthough it [the Venetian government] has a different name from the one we want to use, because it is called a government of nobles and ours will be called a popular government, it is not for this reason of a different type, since it is simply a government in which everybody who is qualified for office participates, making no distinction either for wealth or for family, as happens when the ottimati rule, but all are equally admitted to everything, and they are very numerous – perhaps more so than in ours. And if the plebs don’t participate, the don’t in ours either, since infinite numbers of workers, newcomers to the city and others, do not belong to our Council. And although it is more difficult in Venice for the ineligible to be qualified for office than with us, this is not because the type of government is different, but because within the same type they have different institutions. […] So if we were to call our citizens gentlemen and reserved this title for those who were qualified for office, you would find that the government of Venice is as ‘popular’ as ours and that ours is no less a government of optimates than theirs.

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Danilo Zolo’s book Democracy and Complexity (1992) is a critique of the “classical” and the “neo-classical” doctrines of democracy. The classical theory espouses the idea that in a democracy the entire population of a country, en masse, can – in some way, usually assumed to rely heavily on elections – determine public policy. The neo-classical doctrine, sometimes referred to as the Schumpeterian theory, asserts that the people do not, and indeed cannot, determine public policy. According to this theory, democracy is merely the situation in which people are able to occasionally select, through “free” elections, which elite group is to set public policy.

Zolo agrees with the neo-classical argument against the classical theory, namely, that a large population does not, and cannot, determine policy. He is, however, critical of the neo-classical theory as well. He argues that for various reasons (resulting from “complexity”) elections are not only not a tool for setting policy, they cannot even be seen as reflecting popular choice of an alternative among elites.1
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I argued before that the standard definition of a free market [“a market in which prices of goods and services are arranged completely by the mutual consent of sellers and buyers”, as it was defined on Wikipedia in March 2008, or “a market without economic intervention and regulation by government except to enforce ownership (“property rights”) and contracts”, as Wikipedia defines it today] does not clearly correspond to any specific situation in society, but rather leaves tremendous discretion to whoever sets the rules of “ownership”.

In fact, as I added in the comments, this discretion is essentially unlimited: given any desired resource allocation, it is possible to set up an ownership and “free market” system that would guarantee that allocation as its outcome. To achieve a certain allocation of resources, each of the group members is assigned “ownership” or “property rights” of the means of productions of those resources. Partial ownership can be assigned to those means of production whose output needs to be shared. Ownership can even be made non-transferable so that the arrangement is permanent. An example of such non-transferable ownership exists in all present day societies in ownership of oneself (and other less established arrangements).

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I found George Englebersten’s book Bare Facts and Naked Truths in a used book shop and was attracted to it because of the interesting (if often wrongheaded) quotations it contained. My favorites are:

Most writers regard the truth as their most valuable possession, and therefore are most economical in its use. –Mark Twain

This kind of thing is frightening to me because it gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world … I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously colored what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘the facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable. -Orwell

We’ve reached a point where, in an orgy of political correctness, everything is true, and nothing is permitted. -Dean Kuipers

Truths are illusions. -Nietzsche
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Glenn Greenwald is excoriating the hate speech laws of Canada. It turns out that an official in a Canadian university in which an American, one Ms. Coulter, has been invited to speak has sent that speaker a letter notifying her that expressing certain types of ideas while in Canada would be against the Canadian law.

As has been the case with his post dealing with the court decision regarding regulations of election campaigns, Greenwald’s argument weaves several related but distinct claims – of varying validity – into a single narrative. Unpacking the argument, I identify several claims. The first three seem almost gratuitous:

  • The official’s letter is “threatening”.
  • The official is anointing himself as the arbiter of what is and is not sufficiently “civilized discussion”.
  • For the two reasons above, the letter is “hateful” and is therefore itself a violation of the hate speech laws.

Those three claims can be easily dismissed. The letter itself is informative rather than threatening. It does not indicate that the official or anyone else in the university would try to instigate a criminal prosecution against the speaker. The official to some limited extent expresses some opinion that certain ideas are uncivilized, but so do many people, more or less convincingly, in countries with or without hate speech laws. In this particular case, the official seems to indicate that in his opinion the speech outlawed by his country’s laws is uncivilized. This is hardly outrageous, hateful, or even unusual or controversial. That is his opinion and nothing more. Whether a certain idea is illegal under Canadian law is decided on grounds that are not directly affected by that opinion.

The more substantial points are Greenwald’s arguments for the inadvisability of criminalizing certain ideas:

  • “The hubris required to believe that you can declare certain views so objectively hateful that they should be criminalized is astronomical; in so many eras, views that were most scorned by majorities ended up emerging as truth,”
  • “I’ll never understand how people want to vest in the Government the power to criminalize particular viewpoints it dislikes,”
  • “[I] will never understand the view that it’s better to try to suppress adverse beliefs than to air them,”
  • “[I] will especially never understand people’s failure to realize that endorsing this power will, one day, very likely result in their own views being criminalized when their political enemies (rather than allies) are empowered.”

And, in the comments,

  • “[If the majority can suppress certain ideas then] all opinions held by a minority could be criminalized. Who would endorse a standard like that?”

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Organizations: function, power

February 17, 2010

Coming, finally, to Greenwald’s point #2, I find that much of the groundwork has been laid out in my treatment of points #1, #3, and #4, so the analysis is straightforward.

Greenwald manages here to pack tightly several assertions, which are better considered separately. His first point is that

organizations are created to further the interests of people, and should thus be given powers appropriate to the task.

This point is valid. The cavalier derivation of the next point, however, as a supposed consequence is completely false:

one of those powers must be the possibility to broadcast ideas, unrestricted by the government

This represents a complete misreading of the nature of broadcasting of ideas, as discussed before. Read the rest of this entry »

This post deals with point #3 on my list of arguments made by Glen Greenwald in his articles regarding the court decision invalidating certain campaign finance regulations.

This is, on the face of it, the most specific of Greenwald’s points, although as it turns out, it does have some wide ranging implications. He begins:

What is overlooked […] is how ineffective these campaign finance laws are.  Large corporations employ teams of lawyers and lobbyists and easily circumvent these restrictions; wealthy individuals and well-funded unincorporated organizations are unlimited in what they can spend.  It’s the smaller non-profit advocacy groups whose political speech tends to be most burdened by these laws.  Campaign finance laws are a bit like gun control statutes:  actual criminals continue to possess large stockpiles of weapons, but law-abiding citizens are disarmed.

There is very little question in my mind that Greenwald is completely correct in saying that campaign finance laws are ineffectual. In a society that is built around the concept of ownership, it would be quite difficult to insulate political discourse from the effects of this institution, and the government has no interest in spending the effort in doing so, since it is populated by people who got there by being backed by wealthy organizations and people.

The rest of the argument, however, is without merit for several reasons:
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“Money is speech”

February 1, 2010

In point #4 of my list of Glenn Greenwald’s arguments regarding “free speech”, I quote Greenwald’s argument regarding what may be called the “money is speech” doctrine. I cannot find a concise explicit statement of this doctrine online, but I think it is fair to say that it says that

money can be used to help disseminate ideas and therefore its use in this way must be “unrestricted” in the same sense that “speech” (dissemination of ideas) is.

Greenwald’s argument at point #4 shows that indeed money can be used (or maybe to some extent must be used) to disseminate ideas. Therefore an outright ban on the use of money in disseminating a certain idea would be a very powerful way to hinder the dissemination of that idea. This is definitely true – indeed, it is a truism. The notion that money is a useful tool for disseminating ideas can be stretched much further to produce another truism: money is such a useful tool for disseminating ideas that a wealthy person or organization is at an inherent advantage in disseminating their ideas over a person or organization without access to large amounts of money. (A contradictory idea – that ideas gain support based solely on their values irrespective of the resources that are used to back them and thus ideas that are widely believed must be valuable – is also sometimes voiced by interested parties, but this idea can be safely, and usually is, dismissed.)

None of this would come as a surprise to those who argue that “money is not speech”. Indeed it is the latter, stronger statement that is the reason for their objection to the “money is speech” doctrine. The “money is not speech” claim is not the negation of the claim of usefulness of money in disseminating ideas, but to the claim that use of money should be “unrestricted”, in the same way that the mere act of speaking or writing should be “unrestricted”.

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