Friday, April 30, 2010

Evolution Croak

John Cole, who this bird mostly thinks well of, writes:
It is a shame that most Americans can’t make the connection that if this is happening to the animals, think about what the effects on humans will be.
So, what are humans, robots? But it put me in mind of a Gregory Bateson quote:
If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation and if you have the idea that your are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be your and your folks or conspecifics [members of your species] against the environment of other social units, other races, and the brutes and vegetables.

If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of overpopulation and overgrazing. The raw materials of the world are finite.—Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind

I want to start writing more about religion and philosophy. There are issues coming up that I want to address & this is one of them.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Licensing Econometricians?

Further thoughts on economics as a discipline.

Most engineering is based, not on novel applications of science, but on re-application of existing practice. Engineering applies pure science in ways that avoid unpredictability; science itself engages unpredictability, as in meteorology and geology. Part of what engineers do that scientists don’t is know where the areas of unpredictability are, and avoid them. Novel engineering is applied science research in itself, always a bit unpredictable, and the best of us can get caught by it. For instance, this from Arup, a well-respected architectural engineering firm:

The bridge opened to the public on 10 June 2000 when an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people crossed it. As with all bridge structures, the Millennium Bridge is subject to a degree of movement. However, when large groups of people were crossing, greater than expected sideways movements occurred. The maximum sway of the deck was approximately 70mm. In order to fully investigate and resolve this phenomenon the decision was taken to close the bridge on 12 June. The movement and its effect on the crowds can be seen from the video footage.–

Note also the plea for publication of novel research at the end of the short essay–apparently the phenomenon had been noted before and not written up.

This leads to the following thought: perhaps one of the problems of having a weak distinction between pure and applied economics is that there is no disciplinary body of practice on the applied side: untested theories are put into practice on a grand scale, and when they fail, huge areas of the economy fail with them. This is rare in more mature disciplines; professional discipline makes large-scale failures unlikely. I find it interesting that I do not even have a name for the type of disciplines that are based on pure economics; neither “engineering” nor “design” seems to capture them.

Would there perhaps be some value in modeling an econometrics professional license on engineering or architectural licenses? Milton Friedman would be spinning in his grave if he could see this–he regarded professional licensing as a protection racket, pure and simple. But in fact licensing engineers and architects has worked out fairly well from the viewpoint of public safety, even when very large amounts of money are involved. Could that success perhaps be duplicated in econometrics?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Economics as a Science & Paul Krugman as a Scientist

(This is in response to Ian Welsh's evaluation of Paul Krugman's strengths and weaknesses as an expert. It is slightly revised from my remarks in comments.)

K-k-k. There is in science and engineering a distinction between pure science, which is descriptive in character, and applied science and engineering, which use the descriptions of pure science to some goal. In economics, this distinction is often lost. There is a descriptive social science which might be called pure economics and an applied practice of economic policy making which doesn’t have a separate name. I think, as a matter of scientific practice and ethics, it is important to clarify the distinction.

Equally important, and widely overlooked, are the scientific basics of explicitly stating the assumptions of theory and checking theory against experimental data. In the area of stating assumptions, economics fares poorly: economic behavior occurs in a social context, and it is part of the assumptions of any economic theory (= model.) Without stating the social context of an economic result, one can get remarkably boneheaded results: as Galbraith points out, one can end up assuming that people negotiate for jobs in the same way they haggle over fish.

Which brings us back to Krugman. Points in Krugman’s favor which I don’t think you’ve covered: he is aware of the distinction between pure and applied economics, he is willing, after a struggle to be sure, but willing, to check his theories against experimental data, and he accepts that people behave differently in different markets.

On the other hand, he himself has acknowledged a theoretician’s weakness for elegant general theories and he is not a strong applied economist. Since his time with the Reagan administration, he has refused policy-making positions, and I think this may be why.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Croak of the Day: Brad Delong's "After Copenhagen, What?"

Brad Delong's proposals on climate change. I don't know how much he believes these, as opposed to putting them out for discussion, but it's probably the strongest macro-policy summary on climate change I have seen. It is also, by any reasonable construction of the word, a green socialist plan. When this is what the moderates are saying, I think it may be time for moderate capitalists to just surrender and start waving a red flag with a green theta.
  • Pour money like water into research into closed-carbon and non-carbon energy technologies in order to maximize the chance that we will get lucky—on energy technologies at least, if not on climate sensitivity.
  • Beg the rulers of China and India to properly understand their long-term interests
  • Nationalize the energy industry in the United States.
  • Restrict future climate negotiations to a group of seven—the U.S., the E.U., Japan, China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil—and enforce their agreement by substantial and painful trade sanctions on countries that do not accept their place in the resulting negotiated system.

The House in the 2010 elections

In many places now, liberals are noticing that the Republicans are polling very well for 2010. There are a number of reasons for this: there's a huge amount of money being pumped into the system to swing the Republicans to the radical right. The post-health-care-reform media blitz has given the teabaggers wide, if inch-deep, popularity. The lackluster performance of the Democrats on financial services regulation (including health insurance), women's rights, civil rights and torture, and (likely) the environment does not energize either the mass of Democratic voters, or the party's activists, who are largely liberal. The Democrats are reduced to tossing their liberals sops as a strategy: things of real value, like bike lanes and LGBT hospital visitation rights, but much less than was promised and hinted at during the 2010 elections. To survive, I think the Democrats will have to rebuild their activist base from moderate conservatives, and I do not see how that can be done in six months.

Personally, I do not have the heart to work for a conservative party, though I have and will vote Democratic until a plausible liberal opposition comes along.


Friday, April 9, 2010

Political Spectrum

(Offered in the interests of clarity.)

Far Right
  Grover Norquist

Moderate Right
  Eugene Volokh

  Josh Marshall

Moderate Left
  Jane Hamsher

Far Left
  Noam Chomsky

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Obama: Teflon President II?

So now Obama has taken conservative positions on civil rights, women's rights, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care, and now offshore drilling and greenhouse gas regulation. I am struck by a consistent pattern in these: there is just enough movement to the left from Republican positions to separate the Democratic position from the Republican. At the same time, wealth and power are left secure. This is similar to Obama's campaign position: just far enough to the left to win votes, no further, and never concessions to the moderate left or the actual US center. Through all this Obama remains popular.

Reagan was the "Teflon President." No matter how horrible his position was, no matter who was hurt, no matter if his administration connived at treason (younger people look up Iran-Contra), he kept popular support, often from the people who his politics harmed. Possibly his most destructive policies were the gutting of the securities regulatory system and the abandonment of the FCC's fairness policy: those have come to haunt us in the last decade. Many of his supporters, aging, have become the Teabaggers. Obama seems to be Teflon President II. As with Reagan, too, his worst policy failures will make themselves felt after he is out of office: the poorly-designed health care system and the apparent sellout to the coal and oil industry on greenhouse gases now beginning. I wonder if, in 25 years, there will not be an aging group of Obama supporters defending his policies against their failings, even as the seas rise.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sore Losers in the Authoritarian Interregnum

(This is a meditation on our metahistorical situation. It started as a response to Jim Macdonald's comparison of the recent violence in response to the passage of health care with Kristallnacht over at Making Light.)

I have a different take on the current situation. I think the violence we are seeing is from sore losers. With the passage of health care "reform," the radical right has suffered a crushing defeat, and all they can do now is flail.

That's the good part. The bad part is: this is the authoritarian interregnum. The violence began in the 1990s, reached a peak with the Oklahoma City bombing, retreated. A questionably-decided election in 2000 put a radical-right administration (Bush II) in power, and the fear generated by an act of terror (9/11), gave the Bush II administration the mandate to do as it wished. There were numerous abuses and acts of violence perpetrated by the Bush II administration. The greatest, undoubtedly, was the Iraq war.

The Republicans were roundly defeated in 2008, and a Democratic Senate, House, and President moved in. And what have the Democrats done with their new power? Continued the Bush II torture agenda, resisted bringing the perpetrators of the crimes of the Bush II administration to justice, let the health insurance companies reform health care to their benefit, dealt women's rights the biggest blow in decades, failed to restrain the abuses of the banking system. The Democrats have become a ruling conservative party, though with a liberal wing, and they have no effective opposition. Meanwhile the Republicans have shuffled off to gamma quadrant.

We desperately need a revived left, and I think one is in the works. But it is going to take time, and another decade of corporatist government is going to be hard indeed.

To a Friend, On Supporting Democrats and Not

(A post that started as a reply on a friend's blog, about third-party votes and progressive activism.)

I decided years ago that I would vote for the less crazy candidates which have a chance to win, and for a long time those have been the Democratic candidates. But I did not have the heart to work for the conservative Obama, and I do not have the heart to work for a conservative party. This is not the Democratic party of our youth: all the great liberal Democratic Senators of that time are gone and the Democrats are dominated by their conservatives. On a personal level, I think you will find supporting a party which compromises with the anti-abortion right very hard. (And the opening of new coasts to offshore drilling, as well, which hadn't occurred when I wrote the original letter.) I don't see the Democrats as moving to the left in this decade. Maybe if there are more major environmental disasters they will improve their environmental policies.

The Greens were grandstanding in 2000. I hope we never see that again. Any third party has to start at the state and local level, and in the House. On the other hand, the Republicans are a rump party. Their policies are enormously unpopular and, without the arcane rules of the Senate, and its undemocratic electoral structure, they would be very weak. Yet on major environmental issues the conservative Democrats are so far only a little better than the Republicans. At least the Democrats are willing to accept and support science. I like Dr. Stephen Chu--besides, he may fund a job for me. But I don't see the Democratic leadership challenging the oil (called that one!), coal, automobile, or road-building industries, any more than they have challenged the financial services industry or its health insurance branch. Matters are going to have to get much worse before the Senate will act, and I think a challenge is more likely to come from outside the Democrats than within.

Meantime: more women in the House, more women in the Senate, more women on the Federal bench. Electoral reform. Separation of church and state. Health care for everyone. Jobs. It's the environment, stupid!