Friday, August 24, 2012

Empire State Building shooting

A little scary this morning, even if it wasn't terrorism. Random violence on the street is just awful.



I finished Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction by Lyman Tower Sargent yesterday. It's quite compressed, but interesting.

There are two traditions or views of the good life associated with utopias, he says. Perhaps the oldest are Utopias of escape, or body Utopias, which are

focused on pleasure, and bodily pleasure in particular,with plenty of food and drink at its center, with, in done versions, readily available sex. The other focuses on social organization.

That second type is what we now more usually associate with Utopias.

The first is fantasy and is brought onto being by Nature, God, or the gods: the second is presented realistically and is brought about by human beings using their intelligence. Both versions are ancient and both continue today. For some, only the second qualifies as a utopia, but others see the first as an important current in the river that is utopia. P10-12

I think the first type is interesting, because i've been puzzled that the first glimmers of abundance, in the sixties, led straight to flower power, free love and the counterculture. The Age of Aquarius appeared as if from nowhere out of previous 1950s conservatism. Part of the explanation was probably technological, especially the pill. But part of it must be that much older stream of thinking, the first type, that reaches back to the ancient world and beyond - Arcadia, Peach-blossom spring, Cockaigne, a land of plenty and ease, with no toil or war.

It wasn't something new. It was a very old dream with little or no intellectual intent or thought. The Sixites went straight to Cockaigne.

Sargent looks at many other aspects of utopia, including intentional communities like communes or monasteries. Many think that Utopias are generally tied up with some idea of common ownership, he says, but they range across the political spectrum and different cultures.

That said, much of our modern idea of utopia has Christian roots, he argues. Indeed, I think that like so many aspects of political thought, Sir Thomas More's Utopia was not the first utopian literature so much as when the religious tradition crossed over and got expressed in secular terms.

Interestingly, dystopias have been dominant in twentieth century, he notes, perhaps a reaction to world war and the failure of earlier hopes.

One dilemma is fascinating. Do you need a Better society or better people?

A central issue for utopia is whether a better social order allows people to become better or better people create a better social order...The better social order allowing for better people is the classic utopian model and is the focus of most of the attacks by the opponents of Utopianism... Where better people are expected to create the better social order, the problem of where these people will come from is most often solved by religion, and a common theme of Christian utopias is that people practice what Christ taught and, in doing do, bring about a better world. p111-112

I would incline more towards the better people side, given my interest in the older virtue ethics tradition. Institutions can help, of course, like law and checks and balances. But there are any number of countries where pristine constitutions guaranteeing all sorts of rights are ignored, because it has no roots in popular culture or attitudes.

It's difficult to completely separate the two, of course. But we've had a century or more of emphasis on univeralized rules and social prescriptions. And we have divorce and drug problems and meth and TMZ.

One other point which I hadn't come across is Karl Mannheim's book Ideology and Utopia, which was immensely influential in late 1920s Germany.

He called the beliefs of those in power ideology and the beliefs of those who hoped to overturn the system utopia. In both cases, their beliefs hide or masked the reality of their positions. Ideology kept those in power from becoming aware of any weaknesses in their position; utopia kept those out of power from being aware of the difficulties of changing the system. And both kept the believers from seeing the strengths in the other's position. P120

I find this interesting because I am so intrigued by people's blind spots and failure to see aspects of situations. Maybe I will have to read it some time.

Finally, utopia comes down to hope and the failure of hope. Most Utopias fail. Sargent concludes:

This almost inevitable dialectic of hope, failure or at least partial failure, despondency and the rejection of hope, followed in time by the renewal of hope, seems to be the basic pattern of social change, and is, perhaps, the actual logic of utopia, combining, as it does, parts of both previous logics. This dialectic is part of our humanity. Utopia is a tragic vision of a life of hope, but one that is always realized and always fails. We can hope, fail and hope again. We can live with repeated failure and still improve the societies we build. P127


Some people have an almost cult-like form of hope to the exclusion of present reality. Thinking through what's meant by "hope" could explain a lot of our current politics. Perhaps we have actually lost hope in many forms of politics, which is why we have least-common- denominator coexistence liberalism. Perhaps abundance could lead to renewal of hope.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Chefs and Earls

G and I have been watching the second season of Downton Abbey on Amazon streaming, covering the First World War and Spanish flu.

There is a lot to say about war and class and change. One thing particularly struck me, though. In some ways social prestige has almost inverted. The Earl and his family are at the pinnacle of society and very wealthy. The kitchen staff labor anonymously downstairs.

Now a successful head of the kitchen, a Chef, is more likely to be famous and a rich media celebrity than the Earl. Aristocracy has lost most of its unconscious social prestige, the money has mostly gone and they have little or no power.

(As you can see, I have discovered the ability to search and drag google images into a post using Blogsy. So I am crazed with power.)





Harvard researchers have made a breakthrough in storing data using DNA. They stored 700 TB, or about 350 very large hard disks, in a gram of DNA. It is just lab experimenation at this stage, and it would be slow to access. But it lasts for hundreds of thousands of years, which is something to think about next time your hard disk turns into a clunky paperweight.

As we've seen elsewhere, technology is still advancing rapidly, leading to potentially disruptive change. Fusing together biology and computing could be transfomative - but also raise some worries. We're not close to coming to terms with how technology is altering the social landscape.


97% of job creation is local non-tradable sectors

Most new jobs in the last twenty years have been in non-tradable sectors, especially education and healthcare, says the Atlantic.

About half of the jobs created between 1990 and 2008 (before our current downturn) were created in education, health care, and government. What do those sectors have in common? They're all local. You can't send them to Korea. As Michael Spence has explained, corporations have gotten so good at "creating and managing global supply chains" that large companies no longer grow much in the United States. They expand abroad. As a result, the vast majority (more than 97%, Spence says!) of job creation now happens in so-called nontradable sectors -- those that exist outside of the global supply chain -- that are often low-profit-margin businesses, like a hospital, or else not even businesses at all, like a school or mayor's office.

That helps explain middle-class stagnation. There is a link to this report by (Nobel Laureate) Michael Spence. I'll have to read it in full.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The robots are coming

The NYT looks at how better robotic technology is starting to have a transformative effect in manufacturing and distribution. Improvements in vision, touch and sensing technologies and more flexible software means robots are becoming much more capable.

We’re on the cusp of completely changing manufacturing and distribution,” said Gary Bradski, a machine-vision scientist who is a founder of Industrial Perception. “I think it’s not as singular an event, but it will ultimately have as big an impact as the Internet.”

We've seen before how Foxconn is planning to replace most of its Chinese workforce with robots in coming years. Improved algorithms are also an important part of the story.


Stalinist incentives

Incidentally, Sandel's discussion of incentives below reminded me of some brilliant examples in Acemoglu and Robinson's book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty , which I looked at starting here. A focus on incentives turns out not to be just an artifact of hard-nosed capitalism. Stalin was very focused on incentives as well... but it did not work very well.

Stalin understood that in the Soviet economy, people had few incentives to work hard. ..In a famous speech he criticized “equality mongering,” and thereafter not only did different jobs get paid different wages but also a bonus system was introduced. .. But paying such bonuses created all sorts of disincentives to technological change. For one thing, innovation, which took resources away from current production, risked the output targets not being met and the bonuses not being paid.
The system of prices used to calculate profits was almost completely unconnected to the value of new innovations or technology. Unlike in a market economy, prices in the Soviet Union were set by the government, and thus bore little relation to value. To more specifically create incentives for innovation, the Soviet Union introduced explicit innovation bonuses in 1946.
Incentives also included prison and being shot.

In June 1940, for example, a law made absenteeism, defined as any twenty minutes unauthorized absence or even idling on the job, a criminal offense that could be punished by six months’ hard labor and a 25 percent cut in pay. All sorts of similar punishments were introduced, and were implemented with astonishing frequency. Between 1940 and 1955, 36 million people, about one-third of the adult population, were found guilty of such offenses. Of these, 15 million were sent to prison and 250,000 were shot. ..In any year, there would be 1 million adults in prison for labor violations; this is not to mention the 2.5 million people Stalin exiled to the gulags of Siberia. Still, it didn’t work. Though you can move someone to a factory, you cannot force people to think and have good ideas by threatening to shoot them.
There's nothing as Communist as incentives.

It didn't work very well not because Stalin was not focused on incentives, both positive and negative, but because the system as a whole was morally bankrupt.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Artificial Smarts

Artificial Intelligence is getting better. One system came close to the Turing Test threshold a few months ago:

Will this summer be remembered as a turning point in the story of man versus machine? On June 23, with little fanfare, a computer program came within a hair’s breadth of passing the Turing test, a kind of parlour game for evaluating machine intelligence devised by mathematician Alan Turing more than 60 years ago.


Artists and Dogs

G and I watched The Artist the other night on DVD. It's a beautifully shot movie, lyrical in its evocation of 1920s Hollywood. It's amazing that a French movie was devoted to Hollywood and shot in LA.

Incidentally, we debated for some tie whether Uggie the Dog stole the show or overacted. (Conclusion: stole the show!)

Uggie the Dog


Something about the movie resonated with enough people to deliver a Best Movie Oscar. Yes, it was a wonderful production. Yes, it was evocative movie nostalgia, which must play well with the Academy. But I wonder if the storyline - silent movie star is ruined by the advent of talkies, but eventually makes a partial comeback in dance - is part of the reason in itself. It's about fear of the disruptive effects of technological change. One minute you're up, living in a mansion and pictured on billboards. Next minute you're down. It's not just about the late 1920s.

Technological change is a frequent movie theme, of course - usually some malevolent robot or computer taking over the world, like Skynet or Hal. But this is about technology mixed with abrupt shifts in popular taste. G says it's like the fashion industry. One minute you're in, one minute you're out.



Almost half of doctors suffer from burnout

This is a sign that there is something very wrong with what people get from their jobs.

More than four in 10 U.S. physicians said they were emotionally exhausted or felt a high degree of cynicism, or "depersonalization," toward their patients, said researchers whose findings appeared in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

That has consequences for both doctors and their patients:

Previous studies have shown that burned-out doctors are more prone to thinking about suicide and to making medical errors than their peers, Shanafelt added.

So a highly paid, highly skilled profession which has a high level of social respect and status, and directly related to helping others, has a percentage of people so burned out so they get almost no pleasure from the job. Perhaps doctors have to get through patients so fast they lose the emotional satisfaction of talking to people, as well as having too much workload. The article suggests too much paperwork and loss of professional autonomy could also be factors.

It is not just doctors, though.

The researchers compared physicians with a random sample of 3,400 employed people who were not doctors. Based on a modified version of the original questionnaire, 38 percent of the doctors had burnout symptoms against 28 percent of the rest.

So almost a third of the population feels emotional burnout on their jobs. There must be high readings for lawyers, teachers and other professions too. Surely we can aim for better lives than that. It's certainly not part of the good life.


Our deepest mistakes are often a matter of Scope

The Sandel argument in the post below is an instance of a more general issue. Markets are wonderful things, up to a point.

Many problems of public policy are not so much about right rules, as the right scope: the right boundaries for what we do. We often overapply rules or approaches.

I've been educated as an economist, so I understand the ingeniousness of the tools, the thrill of seeing the problem in a new way, of how simple ideas like transaction costs or principal-agent problems can be illuminating. But just because you have a hammer, it does not mean every problem is a nail. Sometimes it pays to use saws, or drills, or planes or levels or tower cranes instead.

Some people find difficulty understanding this, however, because they like the automaticity, the pristine purity of applying the same rules to everything. It is a matter of personality, of temperament, of intellectual inclination, of being a hedgehog rather than a fox. Some people want a guarantee that applying a set of rules will provide one unambiguous outcome.

But it is also wrong. For most things, if you take them too far you get a bad outcome. This is common sense in daily life. One chocolate chip cookie, good. Twenty, bad - queasy, uncomfortable and fat. Two headache pills, good. Twenty, bad - a stomach pump in the hospital.

But we often don't follow this when it comes to universal rules or one-size-fits-all methodology. Economists take pride in "rigor" instead. Internal consistency may be a mark of technical rationality, but it also closes off any influence from outside or a sense of limitations or balance. Scope becomes too wide. "Rigor" is only remotely sustainable because economics has closed itself off from moral dilemmas, reducing welfare to a monistic utility.

I wonder if the underlying intuition of dialectic, leaving aside its technical Hegelian aspects, is not so much a matter of contradiction as a natural tendency of people to carry things beyond the bounds of good judgement until crisis or catastrophe intervenes: at which point they go to the other extreme and overlearn the lessons of failure. It is not so much thesis/antithesis and synthesis, as a drunk veering from one side of the road to the other in a car, weaving up the road just before ending up in the ditch.

This is why we tend to value experience in practice. You can learn principles in books, explicit propositional knowledge. But the tacit knowledge and skill is often in grasping where the principles need to be adapted to a particular situation, or how to make them work in the field. Experience and expertise is often a matter of seeing the problem more accurately in the first place, rather than knowing the universalist rules.

You can see underlying features with parsimonious models, sure. But one-size-fits-all theories inevitably create blind spots. And they make us less flexible in adapting to circumstances. Consistency only works if the same set of rules apply without distinction in all circumstances. But that is not accurate. Consistency has to be weighed against scope.


Monday, August 20, 2012

Limits to markets and morality

I just read Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Sandel is a Harvard professor who teaches a famous course in ethics (much of the content of which is in his book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, which I'd strongly recommend.)

Sandel does not question markets as such, so much as applying markets where they don't belong. Reliance on markets can displace or corrupt social norms and meanings, he says.

We need to ask whether there are some things money should not buy. The reach of markets, and market-oriented thinking, into aspects of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms is one of the most significant developments of our time.

This is not just a matter of whether we should sell kidneys, or faster passage through security lines, or the norms implied by carbon trading. Overapplying markets also helps empty public life of deeper moral content or substance.

The problem with our politics is not too much moral argument but too little. Our politics is overheated because it is mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content. It fails to engage with big questions that people care about. The moral vacancy of contemporary politics has a number of sources. One is the attempt to banish notions of the good life from public discourse. In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But despite its good intention, the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics prepared the way for market triumphalism and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.

This is very important. I keep coming back to the need for some conception of the good life, which tends to be connected with some sense of purpose. We lack any public conception of what makes for human flourishing, and so it is no wonder we increasingly settle for lowest-common-denominator solutions.

Public life is increasingly seen as a matter of coexistence, not flourishing. in large part because this is the root motivation of enlightenment liberalism. We are still haunted by the wars of religion in the seventeenth century, which motivated thinkers to turn to reason and neutrality. Reason is by its very nature universalist. And in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was far too much emphasis on aspirational aims, whether the nation, the Volk, real existing socialism or local ethnic power.

But coexistence is a very minimal aspiration. It tends to erode the legitimacy of politics itself, as coexistence is not really enough to motivate loyalty or common feeling. In fact, it suggests the absence of common feeling.


Economics and Morality

Economics as a discipline contributed to this problem, Sandel says.

Most economists prefer not to deal with moral questions, at least not in their role as economists. They say their job is to explain people’s behavior, not judge it. Telling us what norms should govern this or that activity or how we should value this or that good is not, they insist, what they do. The price system allocates goods according to people’s preferences; it doesn’t assess those preferences as worthy or admirable or appropriate to the circumstance. But despite their protestations, economists increasingly find themselves entangled in moral questions.

The reason for this is economists have got increasingly focused on incentives:

Today, economics has wandered quite a distance from its traditional subject matter. Consider this definition of an economy offered by Greg Mankiw in a recent edition of his own influential economics textbook: “There is no mystery to what an ‘economy’ is. An economy is just a group of people interacting with one another as they go about their lives.” In this account, economics is about not only the production, distribution, and consumption of material goods but also about human interaction in general and the principles by which individuals make decisions. One of the most important of these principles, Mankiw observes, is that “people respond to incentives.”Talk of incentives has become so pervasive in contemporary economics that it has come to define the discipline.

But this is quite a recent change.

It is easy to miss the novelty of this definition. The language of incentives is a recent development in economic thought. The word “incentive” does not appear in the writings of Adam Smith or other classical economists. In fact, it didn’t enter economic discourse until the twentieth century and didn’t become prominent until the 1980s and 1990s.

And it is now present with a vengeance. Sandel cites the authors of Freakonomics :

“Economists love incentives,” write Levitt and Dubner. “They love to dream them up and enact them, study them and tinker with them. The typical economist believes the world has not yet invented a problem that he cannot fix if given a free hand to design the proper incentive scheme.

Yet this naturally takes economics into the realm of ethics, even if they do admit it.

Despite their new incentivizing bent, most economists continue to insist on the distinction between economics and ethics, between market reasoning and moral reasoning. Economics “simply doesn’t traffic in morality,” Levitt and Dubner explain. “Morality represents the way we would like the world to work, and economics represents how it actually does work.” The notion that economics is a value-free science independent of moral and political philosophy has always been questionable. But the vaunting ambition of economics today makes this claim especially difficult to defend. The more markets extend their reach into noneconomic spheres of life, the more entangled they become with moral questions.

The trouble is this is unsustainable.

... once we see that markets and commerce change the character of the goods they touch, we have to ask where markets belong—and where they don’t. And we can’t answer this question without deliberating about the meaning and purpose of goods, and the values that should govern them. Such deliberations touch, unavoidably, on competing conceptions of the good life. This is terrain on which we sometimes fear to tread. For fear of disagreement, we hesitate to bring our moral and spiritual convictions into the public square. But shrinking from these questions does not leave then undecided. It simply means that markets will decide them for us. This is the lesson of the last three decades. The era of market triumphalism has coincided with a time when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance. Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize.

So on this view, incentives are a way to talk about behavior in a neutral, ethics-free way. (This may be why economic historian Deirdre McCloskey bitterly attacks Douglass North on this score, as we saw). The word incentive has become value-laden. It carries a neutralist set of associations. In practice, manipulating incentives has often proved a failure. CEO pay packages have often not aligned them in reality with shareholder interests, for example. Investment banks have done a disastrous job of rewarding the right behavior in many cases. The issue of how to influence behavior for the better remains.

Universalism and Coexistence

I agree with what Sandel says about bringing substance back into the public square, of course. But some of the fears and taboos and ingrained reactions about coexistence are a serious obstacle. Take the sensitvities about separation of church and state in the US, for example.

How can different races and ethnicities and classes and religions get along together? All many people can imagine is a minamalist separation. Multiculturalism often develops at the same time as a loss of confidence in the predominant culture. In Canada, it came at the same time as Quebec separatism and fraying of older Commonwealth links. In the US, the old melting pot ideal faded, especially on the left, as people became disillusioned with Vietnam, the Cold War, and consumer society.

There are many reasons why minimal neutrality is not the only way to prevent hostility or conflict, however, and in fact some reasons why it may enflame suspicion.

At some levels differences are intractable. Either transubstantiation is a valid doctrine , or it is not. Either God is one entity, or many. Ideology is difficult to compromise. But people agree much more on what you look for in daily life - the traits you want in a spouse, or a colleague, or wanting to get their kids into good schools.

The problem, in fact, is one of universalism, universal hedgehog world views competing with each other. If you are content to be more situated, more reliant on a particular context, the clash of eternal ideologies is not such an intractable problem. The universalists came to believe the only answer was a minimal universalism, a rules-of the road for universal juggernauts thundering forward and hoping not to crash into each other (too much).

If you don't have universal rules, meant to apply mechanically in every possible circumstance, you don't need fearful minimal coexistence in the same way because there is less at stake. Differences can be a matter of context, not fearful exclusion from the public square.

How can we get along with less emphasis on universal rules? Is this utopian? Not at all. This, after all, is the difference between the common law view of the world, a matter of evolution and adaptation and generating principles from particulars, versus the codified law view, of the Code Napoleon and treating particulars in accordance with the general. The common law view has a thousand years of history behind it. Every rule has its exceptions or needs to be adapted in the light of new circumstances.

People can get the conception of the good life very wrong. So why did conceptions of flourishing go so wrong before, leading to extreme nationalism or class struggle? First, because they got contaminated with ideology, rather than seeing things as a matter of balance (the golden mean). And because flourishing got too connected with martial values and pride. The desire for respect and recognition can easily be distorted into resentment and rage.

We do need to bring conceptions of the good life back into the public square, or all we will have as a society is lowest-common-denominator residues. The way to do that is not to talk about universal rules, but promoting character and good situational judgement, and the virtues. We have to realize every rule or approach has its own scope.