Thursday, 15 November 2018

The Forest and the Trees

How much have you thought about the common expression, "Can't see the Forest for the Trees?" You get what it means, right? Ignoring the big picture or the key detail (the Forest) because of a fixation on the trivial, but true details that are all around (the Trees). That to truly get to grips with something it's necessary to take a step back and zoom out.

Now, you might be thinking that it might just be me who thinks that's what the phrase means, but it's not.
(idiomatic, in the negative, by extension) To be overwhelmed by detail to the point where it obscures the overall situation. [Wikitionary]
 When you are too close to a situation you need to step back and get a little perspective. When you do you will notice there was a whole forest you couldn't see before because you were too close, and focusing on the trees.
Simply that you have focused on the many details and have failed to see the overall view, impression or key point. [Urban Dictionary]

 : to not understand or appreciate a larger situation, problem, etc., because one is considering only a few parts of it [Merriam-Webster, with an American formulation]

All are as I say. But it's also a really easy metaphor to grasp, right? Look at this photo of a forest from in among the trees. I've got no idea what's going on here.

From Here
Now look at this version of a forest. We can see an actual forest, right? It's not just trees.

From Here
So why does this matter? What value does this idiom have today?

Well, it's actually very relevant.

Consider, for instance, the question of prison reform. There are lots of different ways of looking at criminal justice. That's true of a lot of things. But with prisons many people have quite different views of not only the goals but the actual logic... why there is imprisonment at all is disputed. It's not even clear to me that people want the same outcomes. But it is universally agreed that groups like Maori or African-Americans in NZ or the US respectively are disproportionately arrested, jailed and sentenced. Which begs the question: why?

How should we go about answering this question? A very natural approach would be to go out there and talk to Maori or African-Americans (especially men). But they might be stuck in their own experiences confronted with inescapable little truths and don't hold the forest. So, don't talk to them? Maybe let's go talk to some... I don't know.. criminologists?

So we're talking to a bunch of criminologists who are giving us an appropriately zoomed out view. We presupposed that they'd tell us about the Forest and what we're getting matches those beliefs. But all the ones we're talking to are suggesting, just for sake of argument, that the reason we're looking for is that Maori men are violent thugs and African-American men are terrifying brutes. This... sounds wrong. Are we talking to the right criminologists? How can we tell? Who do we ask?

We have decided to approach a statistician, let's call them Jordan. We learn that what we should do is draw up a list of different criminologists and talk to a random sample of criminologists. Jordan tells us that such a list probably doesn't exist but it'd be easy enough to grab a bunch of universities and ask all the criminologists in a random subset of those (if there are any). That would, Jordan assures us, probably work. But Jordan also tells us that we were wrong to not talk to the Maori and African-American men. Just because they might tell us about trees doesn't mean (a) they will or (b) that the trees are important too.

I make Jordan the hero of this contrived example because I control every aspect of it and therefore can. But it's a real point. It truly is, and not just with prison reform, unclear who talk to or how to talk to them. Often consultations are conducted for policy or law changes but who gets in touch is not treated as being problematic (when it so often is). And the reasons we'd talk to people can be in conflict. Like, in this example, I massively profiled Maori and African-Americans... I am sure there are a great many who are criminologists... but the people who will only talk about trees do have something to say. We need to synthesise it. At the same time, if we were to fixate too much on the zoomed in experiences we'd miss other details. I have an example of this.

So, obviously America's a pretty screwed up place. It's got a very militarised approach to policing which is very decentralised... not like here where the idea that police aren't "civilians" is absurd or where there is only one police force for the entire country. And, as a result, we do need to exercise caution but it's plausible that the reason so many black Americans are shot and killed by the people who are meant to help them is a training issue. That is, once you're in a situation with police officers you, as an American, face a disturbingly high probability of being shot and killed by public servants. And when you, as an American, are an ethnic minority (especially if you're black) you are vastly more likely to end up talking to the police in the first place. Which is to say, American cops are trigger happy and the American public is racist enough that more black Americans are shot and killed by cops than would be expected based on population size.

It's really important to develop some kind of appreciation for the expectations and beliefs that members of the black American community have about police and criminal justice more generally. These expectations and beliefs shape how they live their entire lives. But if this is theory is correct, we'd miss that American cops shoot (to kill?) too much full stop in favour of seeing a racialised component in the decision to shoot were we to not zoom out. And this hypothesis is potentially an explanation for a finding in a paper I have not read and do not know how much serious attention it got (predatory journals are a thing, for instance). Or it might not at all for obvious reasons you'll notice when you read it. But the kind of finding that this paper reached is only possible by zooming out. Yet, notice in its last paragraph:
If, for instance, blacks use their lived experience with police as evidence that the world is discriminatory, then it is easy to understand why black youth invest less in human capital or black adults are more likely to believe discrimination is an important determinant of economic outcomes. 
We've got to obsess about trees and forests.

It seems to me that the standard approach is to let the forests dominate the serious conversations by the policy wonks. This is actually a good idea as far as it makes people complain about neglecting, and hence putting front and centre, the trees. (This is a clumsy metaphor at this point.) It'd probably be more useful to bite the bullet and spend about half the time on each because public outrage probably doesn't affect the conversations the wonks had the day before too much. But the reverse order is much less useful because no-one's signing up to fight for zoomed out academic discourse, it's not sexy and is actively trying not to be.

Frankly, it might be best to let these kinds of conversations be organised by two people. One a philosopher. The other a statistician. Remove is useful. And sometimes the tree is simply that you're in the field yourself.

History in the Education System

Why learn history? What is the point of the subject?

Well, why learn anything at all? What is the point of school subjects?

I'm pretty sure I've answered that second question on this blog before. Normally I'd check but I want to bash this out quickly and research slows you down (especially if you're a narcissist like me/all bloggers and what you're researching is stuff you wrote) so I'm just going to blurt out an answer and hope it's consistent. We learn and teach stuff to make pupils as good as possible. That's what Plato or Aristotle or someone like that thought and it's what I think. The difference is that this Ancient felt there was a moral air to education. I don't.

We're a social species and our societies are designed for social interaction. It seems logical to me that the first point explains the second but it might not. And it is being good at social interactions that occupies a lot of that good. We want to churn out people who can hold conversations and who can think... so that they make their own lives easier and so that they don't irritate others.

 We want people who will find themselves in a situation and have tools to do something in that situation. It doesn't matter if they're trying to build a pen for sheep, fly an aeroplane or decide to kill the fat man or the group of people. It doesn't matter if you're being asked to sign a contract, have sex or the way to Queen Street. We want people who can do something in any situation.

So, what's the contribution of history to that?

Well, what is history?

History is a way of thinking as much as anything else. Most subjects are when it comes down to it. I mean, I'm probably more likely to ridicule accounting than your average person but even something as vocational as accounting or plumbing offers a framework for thinking about things. Maybe not everyone can see it and it's not necessarily going to be that useful trying to solve nuclear war or gerrymandering as accounting or plumbing problems but I assure you, it's possible. But this isn't about transferable skills... not research or writing or argument or imagination or empathy, which are the most obvious transferable skills in history. Don't get me wrong. They could help in the sense I mean. But what I am talking about is essential elements of the subject. No matter how distant the context at hand might seem (where to stand at a concert versus accounting or doing your taxes versus plumbing) the subject can be applied. So, what does that mean with history?

An historian thinks about the past. More particularly, they think about humanity in the past. History is stuff that happened in the past involving people. The historical lens on the world, in other words, magnifies two things: people and the past. This is a subject about inter-temporal causality and flow ons. About emotions and change. It's big. Accounting, we might say, is about information and representing it in a certain structure. Plumbing is... well, honestly, all I can tell you about plumbing is that it's fixing pipes. But that does mean seeing causal pathways (in this case related to water). The point is, given any problem, the historian should be able to say, "Okay, where are the people here? How is the past here?" It's a system, right? The research, the empathy, the imagination, the argument and the writing that all comes after you have the question... it's what you put in to get something out of the system.

So, there's a reason to learn history. That's how History, as a subject, can give people something to do in any arbitrary situation. But why should we value that particular contribution? Why not, say, have everyone learn accounting from the age of five?

The truth is, in New Zealand, you don't learn history from the age of five. I mean, sure, you might get some names and some dates but that's not a system. That's a system in the same way a bunch of bricks is a wall. Where's the mortar? Where's the positioning? Where's everything that makes a brick wall other than the bricks? No where because a bunch of bricks doesn't make a wall. But should history be taught that young? Isn't this paragraph a pedantic clarification?

Education isn't just about what to know. It's also about when to know it. There's no point teaching scarcity to five year olds. There just isn't. Five year olds need to learn how to read and write and work with numbers so much more than they need to know about scarcity. The uses of scarcity in their lives is unclear. The (arbitrary) situations they could find themselves skew very strongly towards valuing something the traditional Three R's a lot more. Hell, five year olds need fine motor control a lot more than they need to know the fundamental economic problem. But what about a fifteen year old? A ten year old? What's a generalisable lesson here? How soon something becomes valuable?

History becomes valuable to people faster than accounting does for one simple reason: history is immediately obvious everywhere. Why people go to school here rather than there. Why they get to school that way versus these other ways. Why you learn in such and such language, why.... Past dependency (and path dependency) is everywhere. The canonical problems in accounting? Well, they're not. As I said, you can use accounting to explain nuclear war or why we'd name teams at school "the Teletubbies" but these situations don't really help make what accounting is clear. They do with history.

I'm one of those people who thinks that knowledge for knowledge's sake is a good enough reason. That informs my answers here. As does my belief that "But miiissss what do you use this for?" is beside the point. It's just that we've got to be real here. Concrete examples help. Interesting examples help (although, with history, if you approach the subject right... not boring worksheets... the things people like about history are going to be there). And practical immediacy can definitely help decide when to talk about [subject]. History just so happens to immediate far sooner than a lot of other subjects. It also happens to control the situations people can end up in for a lot of reasons.

We don't learn history to avoid making the same mistakes other people already did. We don't learn it because we're worried about propaganda. We learn history because it gives us a way to understand the world we inhabit. And, yeah, it'd be nice if you could pick up a comprehensive book like this person did and go, "Hey, I knew all that"* but knowing what happened isn't as important as being able to frame historical questions... teaching people to see history is just made easier by showing them history. 

* Technically they were continually amazed at how many new things they were learning. What they want is a world where already knowing it was the response. This blog is kind of a counter-point.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

House of Cards

I can't quite recall if I've written about House of Cards before. I know I have in a comment on a Medium post but that would be very hard to find again. The basic gist was this: the original adaptation craps all over the Netflix version... even if technically only its first story is called House of Cards.

According to Wikipedia, House of Cards is "political drama" and/or a "political thriller" depending on which exact article you're looking at. To clarify its premise is thus, "What happens when a ruthless, immoral and criminal man's ambitions are thwarted by the party hierarchy?" and its outcome is... either that or "What happens when said man is put in new circumstances?"

The American version was always an intriguing possibility. You see, you can't get more reliant on Westminster politics than House of Cards. The first story is about the internal party machinations that allows a whip to become prime minister and the second story pits a king incapable of shutting up against the murderous PM. In the USA there are, obviously, no kings and party politics almost doesn't exist: certainly, it shouldn't be possible to manipulate your way into the Presidency. But they managed both, I think, in reverse order. Tusk as the king and some loopholes around the "elect the president" thing were found.

The problems with the US version probably started at this point. A review listed on the Wikipedia page argued that Underwood's becoming president was where it ran out of steam. Well, there's a reason for that: that's where the show's very premise runs out. In the UK version this wasn't such a big deal. You see, Francis Urqhart had absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The British creators weren't afraid to create a complete monster; an entity who always had your attention but never your sympathies. This was the purpose of the King: the character who should win if the world was upstanding and fair. In the American version, they lacked the guts to make Underwood a complete villain and his rivals unambiguously decent. You can't put the man in new circumstances if you strip out what made him the character in the first place.

This was particularly obvious with Conway. In the US version he's another attempt at the King character except... he's working with dubious figures and engaged in unethical to illegal activities. The King isn't just another power source in the original to conspire against. Indeed, the big thing is that the King shouldn't have power... Urqhart has a line something like (I watched this years ago), "The only reason people listen to you is king, if you weren't no-one would care." Tusk shouldn't have influence and the seeds of the American version's future problems might have been planted here... the show lets Underwood position himself as doing something almost noble through underhanded means. Conway, on the other hand, should have influence as a rival presidential candidate in elections Underwood said he would not contest so to draw on the "King" archetype he needed to be as upstanding as he first appeared. It is possible to have good and decent and compelling characters. Just as it is possible to have bad men whose ability to capture your interest as dissipated. You don't care that Underwood is manipulating social media because it's just tit for tat. That's not the point of the character.

The ends of both House of Cards have certain similarities. After all, the Francis character dies. In the original, Urqhart is assassinated by his wife to preserve his legacy since he was political toast. This is literally why Stamper kills Underwood... except this happens with eight hours of television left to remain. And here we find Claire Underwood/Hale, the new US president after Frank Underwood realised he was political toast and needed someone to pardon him, left to conspire against... more just as evil people as herself. It's not actually clear to me if Series Six of the American version remembers that "President Hale" is just as bad as her predecessor. It's certainly obvious that they've forgotten about DNA evidence left on a body that Hale murdered. But how to use those eight hours?

Urqhart gets assassinated because of war crimes committed in his youth. The Final Cut is, really, about trying to get out from under machinations driven by crimes you're actually guilty of. Almost everything in the US version after Underwood becomes president is driven to a greater or lesser extent by this plot line and they always wriggle out from it. Except, do they? The show wants you to believe that Hale has found a way to silence everyone but that's not true. The Shepherd's don't care about Usher enough to not throw him under the bus and why when Hale's faking depression does literally no-one suspect that she's manipulating things? Hadn't they just spent hours pointing out that "manipulative" is an essential premise of their beliefs about Hale? And why wouldn't they release the will? It does exactly the same things that they wanted the abortion story to do but without the possibility of blowback. Why don't Nora and that woman in the nuclear option briefings come forward? It doesn't make sense, what I'm saying. Hale does plenty of things herself that in a just world would bring her down. All the cards fall into place just right, just so, in order to give us what?

The way series six ends is a complete non-ending. Hale's probably going to get away with it all... the Shepherds and Usher and all the rest are likely to be arrested or murdered (Hale drops more bodies than Underwood, I think)... that's what the writers, I guess, supposed would be thematically appropriate. Except, no. The tension in almost all the previous episodes was premised on the belief that the Underwoods could fall. The end of House of Cards US is, thus, a thematic betrayal that tops off several hours of plot contrivances.

As another thought it seems to be that all novelists want to be screenwriters, all screenwriters journalists and half of the journalists novelists... the other half are big fans of the movies so actually want to be journalists. The American House of Cards has exactly this fawning relationship, bordering on worship, of journalists. And don't give me any crap about Trump because it's been this way for a long time, pre-Trump in other words. Hale has Hammerschmidt murdered and there are other silenced journalists along the way (Tom Yates can even count here, I think) because House of Cards truly, deeply wants the audience to believe journalists and their scandals can bring down the mighty. This is sort of why Underwood has to keep scheming in the absence of elections and people to depose. But they did it for too long and ultimately did nothing with it. House of Cards just... ends in large part because we never meet anyone who'd put the truth out there even without evidence. Because the Shepherds are devious, evil people and the only powerful enemies of Hale and/or Underwood. They have to be... it's why Skorsky can't work with them and fill in blanks behind Stamper's back.

So, how should House of Cards have been adapted? We've seen the ideas that they had so I think a fairly logical better alternative presents itself.

  • Becoming Vice-President
  • Becoming President (leave these two series the same)
  • Manipulating Dunbar into the Supreme Court to avoid a Primary Challenger
  • Tussle with Conway
  • Escaping the Journalists, or How I Made My Wife the President (so that she would pardon me)
  • Dunbar vs Hale, otherwise entitled The Death of a President and What Comes After
The US Supreme Court is forced to consider several political questions that no court should ever have to engage with and while Americans don't appear to recognise or understand this truth, they would probably be open to a Supreme Court justice who takes steps to see a sitting president tried for murder. You can still have the Shepherds make their attempts to become a Third Party and still have all the journalists floating around but this time it would end with, say, a ruling in Hale's favour but at the cost of having made her a lame duck... unable to do anything. That, I think, would be thematically consistent. You can get away with everything, but that doesn't mean you win.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Honest Remider: Some Dumb People Write for The Spinoff

When we were learning how to debate at school we got some advice which is... wrong. But we got it early enough and acted on it enough that we were basically the kind of debating team that would, if we were a soccer team instead, huddle around the ref and demand our own players get red cards for simulation. You see, what we were told is that you shouldn't put rebuttal in the leader's reply. What you're actually meant to do is present a biased adjudication... which is both indistinguishable to rebuttal and enormously presumptive.

 To illustrate what I mean, consider the following paragraph:
In war it is effective to target civilian populations. A key element of strategic decision making during conflict relates to the allocation of resources to areas most likely to result in successes. Without entertaining the full possibility of strategic options, especially opportunities, military command must be considered incompetent and at fault for negative outcomes.
Did that work for you? Perhaps this one instead:
The major purposes of the fourth wave feminist movement relate to the successful assertion of female interests and prominence of femininity in society. By campaigning to increase the number of women working in scientific and technical fields, promoting equitable access to social support and advocating for legal reform in key areas such as family law fourth wave feminists hope to improve the emotional and material standing of women.
No? What about:
When people complain about the data sharing scandals like that of Cambridge Analytica or leaks such as the Ashley Madison leak they typically evoke high-sounding concepts like "privacy", "liberty", "data ethics" or "security". The reality is that fostering an effective data market is crucial to achieving productivity reforms. For the developed world, development and other macroeconomists have highlighted productivity reform and growth as the major components of sustained economic progression. Without productivity improvement in important sectors of the economy, countries are ultimately unable to support increased standards of living leaving to a host of negative social outcomes such as disillusionment, mental illness and rabies.

What I'm talking about is probably a kind of enthymeme, which is a word I've been trying to insert into casual conversation these past two weeks. In all of these examples I have made some big claims which are problematic. I haven't written, for example, something like:
The contemporary hysteria surrounding overpopulation is largely misplaced. Demographic transition theory states that countries and the world as a whole experience a consistent pattern of fertility and mortality. Basically, the concern facing society in the next 100 years is not overpopulation but the collapse of society as we know it with the inversion of population pyramids. Ever since Bismarck developed the first welfare state in the late 1800s, the developed world has worked on an industrial version of the classic model: have lots of kids when you're young so that they can feed you when you're old. As societies like Japan and Germany age, demographers and economists have become increasingly concerned about when the carrying capacity of the working age population is exceeded by the retired/elderly populace. These concerns also apply in China which in these circles is described in terms like "the first country to get old before it gets rich".
Or, more famously:
The human jaw is a lot stronger than it needs to be and this is particularly pronounced in human males. A potential explanation for this biologically expensive feature is that sexual selection has acted to result in over-muscled mandibles. By "bulking" up the face, it's possible to sustain higher and different kinds of forces, which allows the face to be used in different fashions. 
Both sexual selection and the demographic transition theory are well supported positions and if you read the latter's Wikipedia article you'll notice most of the criticisms are irrelevant in the context of what I'm discussing. In the first three examples, the statements are problematic because quite aside from the level of evidence for each of the basic ideas there's not even an orthodoxy on these positions or, if there is, the idea I've quoted is heterodox. Just linking to, in this case completely arbitrary links, doesn't change this status. All it does is create the illusion of intellectual credibility.

You see, all five examples are really dodgy. Where's the reflection or even explanation of the key ideas? Is "sexual selection" something you can take just like that? What about the efficacy of attacking civilians in wars? Is that the only concern that exists? What does efficacy mean anyway? I've made some pretty big presumptions in all of these hypothetical arguments (none of which are completely unreasonable, I don't think, and generally only incidentally resemble my own beliefs1) but you're probably only going to notice them if you happen to disagree with what I'm presuming. The point is that there are all sorts of necessary attendant issues which I need to talk about, but I'm not.

Frankly, it's a bit like reporting on a survey without quoting standard errors or even response rates. Uncertainty exists in claims and the reason why statisticians try to quantify/assess uncertainty is the same reason why we hold that everyone should hold that ambition. Statisticians are lucky because usually they can just use a number or so, essayists tend not to have such a succinct statement to make but they've got to do it all the same...

Which is what brings me to this month's old Spinoff article I'm resurrecting for kicks (I wrote this in August... shh, don't tell):
A friendly reminder that reverse racism is still not a real thing
You're probably already rolling your eyes (because you just know they're not going to be pointing out how reverse racism is just ordinary, conventional racism).

Except, wait. Don't.

Instead laugh outrageously. Or cry unashamedly. I'm not sure which is the appropriate response.

You see, the examples that Chapman has turned to don't actually mention reverse racism. As far as her authors are concerned, they are talking about everyday, normal racism. They don't make it into another category that doesn't exist. They're just talking about something they see as being racist (which Chapman does not).

So, that's really dumb. And Chapman has to be dumb for writing it.

(Obligatory reminder that The Spinoff wiped its comments section for completely spurious reasons. This article will thus never be confronted.)

Notice also how Chapman completely uncritically accepts her links. There's no evaluation. There's no reflection. There's barely any introduction. There's not even any "do not read this sign" stuff... which is what I've really offered here. Look at it, the article only exists because they didn't let Chapman submit the headline and the links... you could strip out everything she wrote and it wouldn't add anything beyond the headline.

Moral: if you're going to introduce an idea, don't just take it on faith... confront, compare and contest. And if that's too hard, a brief aside that others disagree is a sufficient an overture to intellectual responsibility (although if doing so gets in the entire way of what you're writing... maybe don't write it).

1 For example, I really do think privacy is just about control. So much so that I wrote it into an assignment definition where we were obviously meant to use a more conventional definition. 

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Why are Public Parks so Dark?

Auckland Domain at Night, View of the Winter Gardens
I was inspired to write this post after reading a Medium piece kind of about it... Why Are Public Parks So Dark? Read that first and get back to this post. Trigger Warning: if the word Feminist makes you roll your eyes, you will have sore eyes at the end of that piece.

There's a very simple reason why parks are dark at night... it's because they're not meant to be used at night. By anyone. They have the lighting that they do in the same way that New Zealand has speed cameras... physical manifestations of an intellectual recognition that people don't do what they're meant to.

There is, though, a big difference between speeding and using a park at night. Namely, you shouldn't be speeding but you should be using a park at night.

Auckland War Memorial Museum, Auckland Domain
Now, personally, I walk through the Domain at night all the time. Emily Place and Albert Park have seen my foot traffic after dark quite a lot too. And, for the most part, I don't think about the dangerous man round the corner or hiding in the bush. Frankly, you'd have to be a bit insane to attack me (unless you know me: I'm a complete wimp) since I'm extremely heavy and very tall (which means I don't look as spherical as in practice I am). And, in any case, for some of the routes in the Domain I carry a torch (since there is no lighting whatsoever between Lower Domain Drive and Parnell Station).

Walking through the Domain at night is actually really cool. I recommend that everyone tries it. If you are concerned about safety, probably stay close to the Museum but otherwise keep at it.

Lower Domain Drive, i.e. the Domain but not near the Museum
The thing is, one of the reasons why walking through the Domain at night is cool is because it's poorly lit. You get a nice interplay of what lighting there is. So that's another reason why parks are dark (I suppose it's the same underlying motivation as designing for pomp... see the Medium piece).

We might also wonder what a brightly lit park would look like. Obviously there are concerns about light pollution in general but also the impacts on the animals that live in the parks. And if we just lit the paths(not so helpful, I must confess, in the Domain... that's a pretty hardcore road above, right?) I think we run the risk of blinding pedestrians to those lurking in the margins (bright lights kill night vision). So, what would an appropriately lit park look like?

By the Winter Gardens
So far I've mentioned four things that we need to consider in our design process:
  1. parks are not meant to be used at night
  2. parks (can) look good at night with poor lighting
  3. parks are also for wildlife, not just people
  4. parks are made less safe by ruining night vision
There is obviously a big thing that's missing: why do we even have parks at all? Well, the short answer to that is that parks exist for people. Okay, so what? 

If parks are for people then points (1) and (2) are basically invalidated. Points (3) and (4) seen through this lens become something like tradeoffs that we're going to have to balance.

Now, obviously we're going to want to get some design experts in to solve this issue but I'm thinking if we made the official pathways reasonably bright we create access in the parks for people. And if we also had lights angling out away from the paths you'd make the night vision issue lesser (and possibly would allow night-time CCTV to be practicable) whilst still keeping the lighting broadly to the paths. So what about the animals? Well, the animals will not be using the paths that much... they are, after all, the least natural part of a well designed park (the Domain also has a bunch of roads, which is a poor design feature).

So, appropriately lighting parks may be difficult even ignoring beside the point design motivations. But what about the example used in the Medium piece?

The late Zaha Hadid's Bratislava Sky Park, praised by the Medium Author

This looks like it's going for brightly lit but it's also not what I would call a park. Like at all. I would call this a garden. Presumably the author means park in the sense of "Industrial Park" which is wildly misleading in context. For an actual park look at the Domain:

Auckland Domain from Grafton Road

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

On the Matter of Steak

I was recently reminded of the Donald Trump steak controversy.

It's a real thing.

A whole deal, actually. Complete with pop psychology dribblings of raving lunatics.

Here's the truth: well done, even slightly burnt, steaks taste better than this blood filled disgusting rubbish. How do I know? Because I've actually eaten both.

Unlike the pop psychology raving dribblers, who clearly haven't. (That person is so lacking in self-awareness it's truly hilarious. "Don't get huffy" they cry but then go on to write hundreds of words in a huff, so sure, so convinced that there is meaning in steak. There isn't and never was. Most things don't mean anything. It's childishly immature to imagine otherwise.)

It's probably not even the case that you want risk taking individuals in charge of the so called "nuclear football". Because that's the only possible pop psychological lesson to be drawn from consistent food choices: people eat stuff they like because it's actually risky to not do so.

Now, maybe, people want to claim that the risks of eating food you don't like are so low as to not matter. Here's another truth for anyone who claims that: check your privilege.

It's fun, I have to say, to try something new. But you can only try something new from a place of privilege where it is actually low stakes. If you buy this it doesn't matter if you don't like it... you're not going to miss the money and you're not going to miss the meal. And if you're a God damn billionaire with the sensible cost/benefit assessment that's a God damn good thing. It is, simply, more pleasurable to have the privilege of eating something you like than wondering whether or not some complete loser has ruined a perfectly good meal by adding cheese or fish or whatever.

(And, by the way, if you think the cheese hasn't got any taste there's a reason for that... it's called tolerance you dumb arse.)

Let's say, for a minute, that there are no other forces compromising this... that there are no costs associated, harms to avoid, in trying new foods (especially other ways of eating steaks; if you can't chew your meat, are you even eating?) that we can generate some kind of consistent meaning which is, "If you won't try something new, you can't entertain the idea that there might be something better". Is this true with those (completely unrealistic, horrible naive at best and, if we're being honest, utterly insane) assumptions? Well, probably not.

Think about it.

People do things one way, and one way only, whilst cursing that there "must be" a better way all the time. In fact, a lot of these people know there's a better way... they get tripped up by the costs. It turns out, unlike the lunatic dribbler, most people have this thing called imagination. I'll say that again for the cheap seats. Imagination. It lets us entertain all sorts of things intellectually that have absolutely no connection to our lived experiences.

Eat your steak however you damn well please. But the moment you try to make a Thing about it, you reveal yourself to be a complete tosser. And, if you then try to derive this particular moral lesson from it, not only are you a wanker, but you're a stupid and parochial one at that. How do I know? Because if you weren't, you couldn't exhibit the thought pattern you've just revealed to us.

Also, people have memories. Memories. As with imagination, actual psychologists care about it quite a lot.

Friday, 14 September 2018

The Plutocrat

My title is misleading. My post time is misleading. My words are honest.

Here's plutocracy:
A plutocracy (Greek: πλοῦτος, ploutos, 'wealth' + κράτος, kratos, 'rule') or plutarchy is a society that is ruled or controlled by people of great wealth or income.
Here's plutocrat:
A person whose power derives from their wealth.
Interesting... perhaps my title is not that misleading after all because here's where my title comes from...
Towards the end of Captain America: Civil War there's the quote "The futurist, gentlemen! The futurist is here! He sees all! He knows what's best for you, whether your like it or not."
No, I'm not going to talk to you about Tony Stark. Not even now when it's kind of relevant (early August around when Infinity War made it to home release) let alone when this is being published (mid-September). What I want to talk about is the potential of the super-rich to take transformative actions in society today. So let's get into it...

David Koch by Gage Skidmore
If you're American or familiar with American politics, you've probably heard people talk about the Koch Brothers. These dudes have an estimated wealth of something like $50 billion (US!) each and they're not afraid to spread it around to groups that they favour. They're involved in research, campaign funding and charitable efforts. In fact, they've got their own Wikipedia page dedicated to their political existence.

I don't know too much about what the Koch brothers actually do. Their interest in libertarian and Republican causes does suggest that I wouldn't care for those activities. At least, not all of them. But this isn't why the Koch brothers aren't really what I mean by transformative impact. I'm sure they've used their wealth to achieve some stuff they find to be fairly meaningful. Some of it might even be pretty transformative. But, to me, the Koch brothers are just campaign donors. They do more than that, as you can read, but that's the archetype of plutocrat I want them to represent.

Donald Trump 
You probably recognise Trump from the hotel lobby in Home Alone 2. Or possibly from the Apprentice. If you're a serious follower of ultra high net worth individuals, you probably don't know him all that well. With an estimated worth of about $3 billion US, Trump's a lot richer than me but pretty much a pauper in terms of the sums I want to be talking about.

The archetype that Trump represents is not celebrity wealth (see below) but plutocrat as politician. Yes, Trump is undeniably a media personality. Referencing the cameo in Home Alone 2 (it's real) is fairly facetious but his role in the Apprentice is really the only reason I know who he is. Well, until he became a birther leader and, soon after that, a Republican politician. And... as you can probably guess from the vitriol I've thrown Andrew Little's way, I'm not a fan of Trump. But he's done something eminently respectable... he's gone out there and got involved in politics. More people need to do that.

But I'm not really talking about wealthy politicians.

Oprah Winfrey by Alan Light
For someone whose wealth comes entirely from working in entertainment as an entertainer first, Winfrey is extremely wealthy but, like Trump, she's a pauper in my context being worth about USD 2 billion. And as a public figure I think the best way to describe her is as a thought leader.

Celebrity Wealth is always an interesting question. In some ways the appropriate currency here isn't money but followers. And certainly in her heyday Winfrey had that. Given all the talk about her Trumping it up some years ago and gunning for US president, she's probably still got it. So if it's not money that matters with celebrities and I'm obviously pretty dismissive of philanthropy why have a celebrity wealth archetype of the plutocrat? And the answer is that it's precisely because I have to ask this question. People look at America's 2016 election and talk about celebrity as a feature of the Democratic campaign.

Money is just another currency. And when celebrities have money as well as fame, they can do more than just guide opinions or represent a target lifestyle. This is an important category of analysis.

Elon Musk by Steve Jurvetson
Some of you are probably think, "Not this dickhead?" But, yes, this dickhead. Musk is a quintessential example of the self-proclaimed transformer. And he's even wealthy in my context at around US 20 billion (dollars, duh). Although, obviously, he's not what I'm talking about either.

You see, the thing with Musk is that he's all show and no go. Most of what people know him for is just media spin... he was pretty lucky with PayPal and he's been riding that wave ever since. And most of the media spin, come to think of it, exists simply because of Musk-spin. But this kind of character is important because they trade on the ideas of "Great Man" historiography... the idea that the right person, at the right time with the right idea can change everything. The world doesn't work like this but because people think like this you can get a lot done.

Musk has put a lot of ideas out there and because it was him doing that, people listened. But unlike the celebrity plutocrat (which Musk has shades of) the self-proclaimed transformer has credibility in technical matters. And that credibility is hard to erode.

Musk is alternatively an example of the industrial messiah plutocrat. I didn't run with that because it's less spicy and I don't like Musk (obviously). The point here is that airtime can be given to people based on being very successful in business, at least when they are at the forefront of the age (it's hard to imagine, say, an Oil Baron doing the rounds in the way Musk, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates do today).

Bill Gates (left) and Andrew Carnegie (right) from GeekWire's Article
These are two insanely wealthy individuals. Or, rather, were. Bill Gates' fortune has been put in perspective a little lately and he's sort of become a forgotten billionaire. Andrew Carnegie has been dead for decades but depending how you look at it, his wealth exceeded the rest of this list combined. By other measures, more in Bill Gates' territory. Either way you've probably never heard of him. I've known about Andrew Carnegie for about as long as I've known who Bill Gates is, i.e. most of my life, but this is because of his association with Diplodocus. Both men, as I grew to understand, are or were philanthropic plutocrats. Basically, they do charity. I mean, so does everyone else on this list, but the scale and relative significance just doesn't compare.

If you're thinking it's odd to juxtapose what amounts to an insult (plutocrat) next to a compliment (philanthropist) remember that I wrote this, remember that opening Tony Stark appraisal  (also click on the philanthropist link) and read this from a GeekWire comparison of Gates and Carnegie:
But the field of philanthropy has gotten more sophisticated and more controversial over time, with critics calling out the tremendous wealth disparity that fuels the sector, allowing the rich to wield unaccountable, unchecked power through their donations.
“That’s clearly become something that a lot of critics are concerned about,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “When you have wealth that is as big as a small country’s economy, should you be allowed to influence things that much without democracy?”
Philanthropy is power. Never forget that.

At the same time, donating money is often basically just like throwing it into the void. It can help people in the moment out a lot but it doesn't lead to meaningful change. What you need to do, if you can donate at scale, is target some sort of system. But when you do that, well, that's when you get to this democracy point being raised here. Andrew Carnegie is the closest example I know of this... without getting into the difference between philanthropy and philanthropic imperialism and colonialism. Here's what I mean via another comparison article:
Carnegie and Rockefeller were pioneers in bricks-and-mortar philanthropy. After Carnegie sold his steel company to J. P. Morgan in 1901, he plowed his nine-figure fortune into limestone. He built the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Institution in Washington and seeded the nation with more than 2,800 libraries. "His focus was to uplift humanity, and libraries for him were the best way to reach the broadest spectrum of the people," said Peter Krass, author of "Carnegie."
Carnegie's libraries weren't just built in the US either: there are a couple in NZ, for instance. And, in fact, they were what drew my attention to Carnegie as a philanthropist in the first place... as part of an economics internal I did some research on libraries. Actually, with the controversy about economists and libraries of late, that internal might make for relevant reading here. Hmm... would probably be best if I could remember why I only got Achieved for it, I'll think about it. Anyway, the second article's main thrust is the different, less material, approach taken by Gates:
"They're giving money to school systems and telling them to restructure, to reduce the size of their schools," Professor Frumkin said.
The Gates Foundation has given more than $100 million to New York City's public school system alone, to encourage the creation of smaller schools within existing school buildings. The foundation says its programs currently touch about 8 percent of the nation's public high schools.
This is more concerning, to my mind... as in it gets a lot closer to cutting across democratic processes. Think about it.

A Memorable Cartoon by Rod Emmerson
Yes, that's right. Money talks. And in the right environment, having ideas and the money to implement them can lead to actual implementations. Which might not be good. I mentioned philanthropic colonialism before. That probably sounds like another contradiction in terms but, I mean, have you read The White Man's Burden? Check it out:
Take up the White Man's burden —
The savage wars of peace —
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
I mean, if you think that doesn't sound anything at all like World Vision or Unicef or anyone like that, you need to scrub your ears out. Sure they don't dress up their appeals as a moral duty of "Whites" or colonial masters or use phrases like "half devil and half child" but they do propose a moral duty and they do want to address famine and sickness. If you're still not convinced, read Wikipedia's article on the poem. Notice, particularly, that philanthropic, strategic and financial imperialism are not mutually exclusive or even contradictory. It might be said, in fact, that back in the days of Empire, people believed the only way you could address things like famine and sickness was imposing an entire structure on an area... and that they were okay with all that entailed. 

But we were talking about Bill Gates. And it turns out that we can use Gates as another example of philanthropy gone wrong, from the GeekWire piece:
The Gates Foundation itself has faced criticism over the years. That includes programs delivering dramatic and sometimes unsuccessful changes to public schools and initiatives supporting charter schools. Critics have pushed back on agricultural funding in developing countries that relies on technology-based solutions with less attention to bolstering traditional approaches.
I've often wondered why people are so keen to see dramatic changes in education policy. Well, okay, I don't wonder. Most of the people who say such things are in the minority who had bad experiences at school or who have no contact whatsoever with state education (being home or privately schooled... often to the nth generation). What these people don't understand is that if you screw up your policies, you screw over people for their entire lives and their families' lives (often, again, to the nth generation).

From another Blog.
You might think I'm scaremongering but here's my truth: education policy should be terrifying.

So, to recap, what have we covered:

  • Philanthropy is power.
  • It's got the potential to be highly plutocratic.
  • There are lots of different kinds of plutocrat, not just those who rule in a plutocracy.
Which is pretty much the reverse order to how I covered them. And there's a reason for this and that's because what I really wanted to write about is what I'd do if I had the sort of money that Bill Gates or the Koch Brothers do. Hell, Musk is rich enough. So, what would I do with $50 Billion (NZ)?

Greater Auckland's (transportblog) Congestion Free Network
If you paused reading my meandering post to read those articles you might remember this bit:
THE networked approach to philanthropy recognises that it's hard to make a huge impact on your own, no matter how much money you have. The Gates Foundation gave out $1.3 billion in 2005. With Mr. Buffett's pledges, it will be able to double its philanthropic output, to about $3 billion a year.
That sure sounds like a lot. But it represents only about 1 percent of annual charitable giving in the United States — which was $260.3 billion in 2005, according to Richard T. Jolly, chairman of Giving USA, based in Glenview, Ill. The Gates Foundation has $30 billion in total assets; the National Institutes of Health has an annual budget of $28.6 billion.
I told you Trump was a pauper. But I also disagree here. It's just as easy as it ever was to spend your insane wealth in ways that could make a huge impact basically on your own. You've just got to spend it on the right sort of thing. And infrastructure? Infrastructure is forever.

Early Underground Stations (1860s), Roman Aqueduct (ca. 100; by Bernard Gagnon) and the Golden Gate Bridge (1937; by Rich Niewiroski Jr.) 
Well, okay, infrastructure isn't really forever but it does have a very long life cycle and when properly maintained can manage hundreds of years of use, no problem. But it's often difficult to get the funds to do it right and it's almost always subject to some kind of extreme market failure. Which is why it'd be a good area for philanthropic donations.

However, infrastructure spending is far from being free of value judgements: just look at all the hissy fits over the City Rail Link or Light Rail in Auckland. But what I'm suggesting is that these super wealthy individuals look at public transport projects which local and national governments want to build and fund those. It's what I'd do. Or, at least, what I hope I'd do. I could really transform Auckland if I could fund, say, the Light Rail L. Which, strictly speaking, isn't a project democracy is just trying to find the funds for, but I wouldn't pretend to be apolitical about it. I'd make people know that I reached out to AT, NZTA, Auckland Council and the Government specifically in order to implement a particular vision of choice, equity and development.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Your Economic School


How often have you entered a political discussion online and seen the conversation swing towards "schools of economics"? Perhaps that was the entire point of the discussion in the first place. Did it make you feel like an idiot? Did you feel like a god because you knew yours?

Here are some quizzes with my results:

Which economic school do you belong to?

Which School Of Economic Thought Do You Side With Most?

I was actually expecting to be able to find some more quizzes like this but I didn't really. I did find the usual "mixed economy" type ones though. Or, at least one, but these aren't really the same thing.

This difference between reality and expectation is important. The argument that I was going present was very stridently opposed to economic schools partially because I see them in political contexts being linked to the sort of ideas and questions that aren't out of place in things like the Political Context. The bent of, particularly the latter quiz, is much more what I'd term introspective. It might be said that its interest is more microeconomic than macroeconomic. Just like me. Even the former has some epistemological questions:
Relating to the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion.
I maintain that the political economy (in a naive sense*) is the usage of the question "What's your economic school?" when I've seen it deployed in politics contexts. Mind you, I just dismiss the question as a subject of relevance so I don't pay too much attention. It doesn't take much to articulate the problem with this point so we'll deal with that first (even if it does turn out to be a strawman). Once that's done I'll turn my attention to the epistemological critique.

The Politician's School of Economic Thought

As you might recall, I have a degree in economics. I also have three levels of NCEA in economics. I don't have a particularly good mathematical treatment of economics. I'm not very good at maths, you might recall. I have two econometrics papers and a bunch of stats ones, but the specific maths used in microeconomic theories? It gets away from me even what I've encountered. And I never did get 311 done so I'm missing a big perspective on macroeconomics. However, this is a vastly better education in economics than the vast majority of people out there. Including most politicians and most business leaders.

The schools of thought that people present just don't appear in an educational context. They're not relevant. Except when you're bothering to look at the history of economic thought.

In the real world, economists teach a particular approach to economics (we have not yet dismissed the epistemological critique so we mustn't use its falseness as an argument yet), which does not vary based on the economist, the university or the country. How can I tell? Because economists all try and write the same economics textbook. And they all try and put everything in it. And the reason for this is because economics is sufficiently complex and sufficiently new that we don't really know much about it. Not in the same way we do with, say, physics. At one point physics was thought to be solved/completed... since then the field has exploded... no-one has ever thought we've been remotely close to that with economics (and may I remind you that Wittgenstein once thought he'd solved philosophy. Philosophy!).

That economics is a field in expansion is really obvious when you're half in and half out of it (as the thinking undergraduate student or recent graduate of economics is). It's not really so obvious to the layman who doesn't know that economists teach themselves the same truth. They don't understand that economists don't worry about Mercantilism or Keynes or Marx or Friedman or the Austrian School. That's for business majors. (Who steal all the funding from Economics departments.) It's for dweebs. These are developments which have been synthesised. And they might influence the particular take a lecturer has on why we should laugh at the assumptions of perfect competition (Economists, but not business majors, understand what models are) or approaches to "open questions". And that's because this is how academic subjects work. All of them. Economics is not special.

So that's the problem with the Politician's view of Schools of Economics. To them the fact that Economics is taught as a coherent subject is completely mind-boggling. They have never encountered that. Many of them come from much less self aware backgrounds (law, chemistry, geography or business). And they're interested in using old ideas which are convenient to political stances they exogenously prefer to gain votes. So, yes, politicians & voters have a distinct interest in getting people to believe there is such a thing as a different school of economics (to whatever someone else is saying). It gives them credibility. So they go trawling through the history of economic thought to find whatever ideas they want. And they can find them. And they can find them packaged up into non-mathematical statements of theory.

The Epistemological Critique of a "Single" Economics

You might not find my argument above particularly compelling. I've basically just said: "There aren't Schools of Economics because it's not taught like that." The only reason I didn't say that was because I wanted to say it here. You might have found that I touched on some ideas which rather undercut my point. You might have been thinking, "Woah, hold on, that's just what they say is the case, which isn't the same as what is the case". If that last person is you, you might have even been  trying to find that quote from the start of The Big Short:

Man... that's a good film. I just now realise it was what I wanted to watch before. When I decided that I didn't feel like watching Harry Potter. Anyway, I digress... here's a quote from someone who stridently argues for different schools:
These schools are not irreconcilable enemies, however; the boundaries between schools are actually fuzzy. But it is important to recognise that there are distinctive ways of conceptualising and explaining the economy, or ‘doing’ economics, if you like. And none of these schools can claim superiority over others and still less a monopoly over truth.
The moment he (who has a much greater education in Economics than me) says the first thing, you know what's happening, don't you? You know that whatever else he's got to say he's ultimately able to see that it is still all one thing. Or, possibly, it's not.

You might remember that I was also a statistics student. In statistics, as I have mentioned before, one of the key things you have to learn to do is see nothing. We don't want to see anything in a residual plot (usually). But, as humans, all we do is see patterns. I'm bad at describing them. But I see them. So, you've got to learn when no signal is really no signal. It's not incredibly hard, but it's not easy either. And the relevant lesson here is that maybe I'm looking at a plot and saying it's nothing and he's looking at a plot and saying it's something. That the clustering of points is a cluster of schools. The tree has just enough branches.

And maybe one of us is right.

Or, maybe, we can be both right.

Or wrong.

What is for sure is that he's got a table... I'll quote the spiel attached to where I found the table after this paragraph because I think it contrasts. I don't think the sentiment is quite equivalent. Which might make you wonder if maybe I just exist to say things aren't so. And maybe you'd be right. I've never managed to understand why an insignificant p-value isn't worth publishing. But that's probably a digression too...
Despite what the experts want you to believe, there is more than one way of 'doing' economics
People have been led to believe that, like physics or chemistry, economics is a 'science', in which there is only one correct answer to everything; thus non-experts should simply accept the 'professional consensus' and stop thinking about it.
Contrary to what most economists would have you believe, there isn't just one kind of economics - Neoclassical economics. In fact there are no less than nine different kinds, or schools, as they are often known. And none of these schools can claim superiority over others and still less monopoly over truth.
I accept that being suddenly asked to taste nine different flavours of ice cream when you had thought that there was only one plain vanilla can be quite overwhelming. In order to help, the simple table below should help you overcome your initial fear.
I will show you the table very soon. But I'd like to just articulate what you should have learnt so far... the basic logic of different approaches doesn't validate the idea that there isn't one way of doing Economics, doesn't validate the idea that there are several competing schools of Economics. It is possible for similarities to exist without being real. In practice we don't rely on ourselves to detect things in statistics (we apply mathematical theories via models) but in lieu of running some kind of genetic study on the taxonomy of the social sciences, I'll stop short at having demonstrated the naivety of the apparent logic.

It should be obvious that I don't believe Chang's arguments rest on what I have quoted. The idea that I might actually offends me. But I know that people like to quote mine. And even though I have no readers, I protect myself just in case. Which I mention because if you are looking at this table you might be looking at this table and thinking, "Well, Harry, this looks pretty bloody divergent to me". And because my response to that is to look at this other bit of Chang's first quote. Namely the idea of a monopoly on truth. In other words, I'm not going to move much further from what I've already shown you. I am certainly not going to move away from the Changian conception of what I am calling the epistemological critique.

Chang attempts to pull the veil from his reader's eyes. Well, let me pull the veil he left behind from your eyes. If Chang is correct, then there are no disciplines. Not as we think about them. No physics. No chemistry. Even science itself. Not a Thing, Chang leaves only a bunch of essentially disjoint, rivalrous and insufficient abstractions. The Changian belief that there are schools of economics is to take evidence that in any other subject would be used to infer methodological debate or the existence of an unanswered question (like the Poincare Conjecture** or the Riemann Hypothesis in maths) and conclude that the whole affair is bunk. Economics is not special.
Moreover, unlike the natural sciences, economics involves value judgements, even though many Neoclassical economists would tell you that what they do is value-free science. As I will show in the following chapters, behind technical concepts and dry numbers lie all sorts of value judgements: what is the good life; how minority views should be treated; how social improvements should be defined; and what are morally acceptable ways of achieving the ‘greater good’, however it is defined. Even if one theory is more ‘correct’ from some political or ethical points of view, it may not be so from another
The Truth is that we're always having to make decisions about the world. What Chang calls value judgements in this paragraph is typically definitional. Define the parameters. Judge the outcome. Formulate hypotheses. Draw predictions. Compare with outcomes. That's the scientific method. Which, by the way, is a very rough and ready abstraction of how science advances.

I'm not a physicist or even well read about it. I do, however, know enough about it to say that James Clerk Maxwell was more important than Einstein and not be completely laughed out of the room. And I know enough about it to say that Einstein's work is more far-reaching than I once appreciated. But are any physicists actually worth name-dropping when all we care about is knowing what physics as a discipline thinks? Not really. Even mentioning a big problem with Einstein is that he never really grasped the implications of all the big ideas of his time is usually irrelevant. But when we're talking about Chang it's important to note that Einstein, today, would be called heterodox for disagreeing with the quantum revolution.

Does that quote remind you of anything? If it doesn't, you probably need to read Chang's table. Economics can get very probabilistic. But, apparently, it's an important distinguishing feature.  There are many examples, from many disciplines, which possess similar properties. The co-existence of divergent or opposing viewpoints is how the field of knowledge expands... until such a time it collapses into one outcome. And then it all begins again.

My economics is a very simple discipline. It begins with the issue of scarcity. That's where I started and it's where I believe the discipline starts. And it ends with a final understanding of the implications of scarcity for the human condition. Will we ever get there? I don't know.

Economics is highly dependent on advances in mathematics, ethics, statistics and psychology in its personal quest to understand the world. I could convince myself into believing we have reached the end of our knowledge in maths. I have convinced myself that just because we know we don't know if the Riemann Hypothesis is True that doesn't mean we'll ever be able to know either way. But disagreement over these points doesn't change what we're doing in any particular way. Either we're still investigating what economics is, or we're investigating within economics. And if we're within economics, then we can't be doing it differently... because whether we're using experiments, maths or shower thoughts we're still buying into the same purpose.

Let's recap. I see the epistemological critique as saying:
  • There are different ways of doing economics.
  • Therefore, there different schools of economics.
I just don't accept that the first line is enough to justify discerning different schools. Knowledge is an ever advancing wave. It can't go backwards: unknowing is not possible. It can't go in one particular direction: knowledge is everywhere. It doesn't have any destination: it's merely observed when it runs into a beach, as it were. What it can do is collapse. And when that happens new waves form from the same water. If we'd put it in one wave, then it is one wave only that exists.

Which begs two questions:
  • Under what circumstances would I accept the idea of different schools of thought?
  • What if Chang and I have different conceptions of what economics actually is, then what?
To a certain extent, the first question is answered by the second. A different school of thought exists when people have different ideas about the same thing. Not in the sense that they have a difference of opinion about how to find out information about an agreed thing or in the sense that they disagree about what something means or how it works, but strictly in the sense that they disagree about what it actually is. And you'd be right to say that Chang's schools disagree about what the economy is... whether it's individuals or classes, two take the simplest ones to type. But you'd also be right to say that I'm taking a higher level position, that I've zoomed too far out for this to matter. And that's why the second question doesn't answer the first one.

The idea that everything I've been talking about is irrelevant concerns me. I accept the idea of schools of thought as being relevant in historical discussion. I mean, the disagreement of Einstein and his contemporaries helped move physics along. But we're able to see what happened to that wave: we know how it collapsed. To have a school of thought, we must know what it is... and if you've been paying attention, you'll notice that I take a "what it is, is what it does" approach to definitions. And these things? Well, we can't know what they do until it's been done... we rely on the distance of time to discern schools in an Eastian sense. To the Changian sensibility it is enough that they disagree. To the Eastian it only matters if the disagreement mattered. And that's a much stronger test.

Notice that choice of language there... Eastian and Changian... am I not setting up two schools of thought on what schools of thought are? But I need these kinds of terms because I need these kinds of referents... in trying to have a discussion about the way people think about something, I need people to have ways of thinking (and it is easier still if they can be grouped). In other words, the world is what we thought we'd see.

The second begged question is irrelevant. If Chang and I disagree about what economics is then, well, maybe we need to wonder if Economics as a subject even makes sense. But that question is never what is being talked about by "economic schools" so it can't be what I set out to disagree with (remember that previous paragraph?!).


What I've said might be enormously unsatisfying. It basically boils down to four points:

  • People assert that there are different, valid approaches to thinking economically, which is wrong.
  • There is one way that economics' knowledge is actually taught and that's because who came up with an idea is never as relevant as what the idea is.
  • It's not enough to notice that people disagree about stuff because these disagreements are how knowledge works.
  • Economics is not special: disagreements in this one particular discipline are treated uniquely (typically because of political expediency).
Which is basically saying that I am comfortable saying economic schools don't exist mostly because there is a synthesised body of work that is taught... and that I am still okay with saying that despite epistemological criticisms. And it's leaving implied the idea that I have some ego-defensive motive here.

Look, I guess the best way of putting it is this. I know I disagree with what I see. There are not schools of economics in the same way that you're a Republican, he's a National voter, they're a Conservative and she's an Australian Liberal. There aren't even schools of economics in the way that Jacinda Ardern is Labour (populist, xenophobic leftism), David Seymour ACT (liberalism) and Winston Peters NZ First (big government conservatism). As much as I disagree with all these mentioned philosophies, they are all equally valid lines of argument in politics. Economics is different.

You don't get to say that the so-called Keynesian school is just as valid as the Classical School or the Neo-Classical school (which is really a synthesis of both). You don't get to say that because in the academic world, when you want to take a different angle or even the orthodox one, you sign up apply transparently, fairly, carefully and honestly apply the world to brainpower. In politics it is the other way around. Furthermore, when you sign up to be an economist, what you're saying you're going to do is that you'll look out the window using this filter, not sociology's, not physics', not history's, not political science's, not whatever's. In embracing this "filter" you accept all sorts of premises about how the world ought to interact with brainpower, including what those interactions look like, the shape they take.

I am perfectly comfortable saying that the so-called schools of economics are epistemologically consistent. I am even perfectly comfortable saying that the competing conclusions floating around don't justify different schools. This is because they all share the same ambitions, because they can't be pigeonholed and because rival ideas are necessary and expected. But this way of thinking about the schools economics isn't what I thought I was signing up to write about. And I want to make my strong views about what I set out to talk about public. And this matters.

The day economists start doing different things, for different reasons and stop agreeing about what the properties serious analysis should possess (if not the specific methods to be included), then I'll start thinking there are different schools that matter. But, we're not there yet. And I doubt we ever will. All that there is are patterns in the gradual process of synthesis.

*Meaning not the article (let alone the subject) but rather just this opening sentence: "Political economy is the study of production and trade and their relations with law, custom and government; and with the distribution of national income and wealth." Or, in other words, the literal meanings of the two words.

**This is actually solved. Like, they figured it out. A lot of similar problems (such as the Riemann Hypothesis, and by similar what I mean is "things people think might be true or right") are not. They may, in fact, be intractable. Or they might not be. But right now? We don't know.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

The Rule of Law

It's been said that there are as many definitions of the rule of law as there are lawyers, or, at least, constitutional lawyers. But everyone agrees it is a really important thing to have.

As I understand it, the principle of the rule of law is that everyone and anyone is subject to the same framework of justice and expected to live up to the same set of rules. That framework and those rules, obviously, are the Law. And because everyone and anyone is subject to the Law, we can say it rules.

So what about some other definitions of the rule of law? Being a layman, I shall compare my idea with Wikipedia:
The rule of law is the "authority and influence of law in society, especially when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behaviour; (hence) the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes".[2]
That seems... pretty much the same. It's got a very important bit in it about "publicly disclosed" (which I take to mean no secret courts and secret laws) and that's what I mean by "same," but it's probably important to explicitly state that transparency is part of the rule of law.

How about the misinterpretation of Magna Carta? The Rule of Law is often traced back to Magna Carta you see..
XXIX. NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.[228]
The problem with taking this to mean a rule of law was established by Magna Carta is that "freeman" had a very specific meaning in the 13th Century and the meaning was quite different to that we have now where it basically just refers to anyone. This is a generally important point, though. The way the Law works is that it is written and produced by a legislative body, it is followed by agents and the executive (part of government) and it is enforced by a judiciary. The process of enforcement generally means having to decide what a law means... and there is a fair amount of scope there. In New Zealand these interpretations are meant to follow what is termed the purposive approach:
5 Ascertaining meaning of legislation
  • (1) The meaning of an enactment must be ascertained from its text and in the light of its purpose.
  • (2) The matters that may be considered in ascertaining the meaning of an enactment include the indications provided in the enactment.
  • (3) Examples of those indications are preambles, the analysis, a table of contents, headings to Parts and sections, marginal notes, diagrams, graphics, examples and explanatory material, and the organisation and format of the enactment.
I say meant but I really have absolutely no reason to imagine that statutory interpretation doesn't follow this process in practice. Except, I was never really able to figure out how a person could be said to get off on a technicality. If you're reading with the purposive approach, the plain meaning of the text above is saying that the Spirit of the law is, in fact, the Law. Hence, no such thing as a technicality. But I'm probably confused on this point because I did just the one Comlaw paper and this seems rather more appropriate to the questions surely treated in an actual Law education. The real problem (with laws having to be read/interpreted to exist), therefore, is this bit (handy dandy quote from a PDF I've read basically none of that I found literally five minutes ago):
The constitutional importance of individuals being able to understand the law, and order their affairs accordingly, is a key tenet of any legitimate legal system. Lord Bingham relates it to the rule of law which he says requires, among other things, that the law be accessible and so far as possible, intelligible, clear and predictable.8
Unlike a lot of people I really don't think footnotes are optional, so I'll quote that too:
Thomas Bingham “The Rule of Law” (2007) 66 CLJ 67. Professor Lon Fuller, an American jurist, went so far to say that “law” would not be law if it was so unclear that it was impossible to understand: Lon Fuller Morality of Law (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1969). There is an extended discussion of Fuller’s eight criteria of law at 46–91.
Only lawyers could actually say these sorts of things. I think I'm a pretty smart dude but I really couldn't make head nor tail out of British citizenship law. And, similarly, the whole reason why lawyers exist is because the Law requires its own education. And that happens because the Law is its own (very narrow, if you ask me) way of thinking. That's been obvious for hundreds of years. I suppose, charitably speaking, what they mean is that you've got to be able to get a sense of what it says... which is certainly the case with our quote from Magna Carta (which, to be clear, is to a Medievalist a contract not a constitution, to a lawyer  a constitution and to the historians of Early Modern England it's something in between). But it must be said that the purposive approach ought to make the plain meaning of our quote from Magna Carta mean something actually opposed to the legal meaning. Do we have, therefore, the Rule of Law when we've got old laws sitting around?

This is where I think I will move from a half-arsed attempt at legal theorising to making an equally half-arsed attempt at legal-political theorising.

In New Zealand we have a government (the executive) which is part of parliament (the legislature) that we hold to be sovereign. That is to say that there is nothing one parliament can do to permanently bind another parliament and there is nothing the courts can do strike down legislation, at least laws that have been enacted correctly.

To my mind, if parliamentary proceedings have not been followed it is a nonsense to say that parliament exists and hence anything that such a "parliament" did isn't really a law (because it wasn't a parliament at all). Beyond this, though, I am completely comfortable with parliamentary supremacy. Indeed, I would argue that the alternative is forcing the highest judicial bodies to confront political questions. As an example, Brown v Board of Education over in the States was not a legal matter, but a political confrontation framed in "legalese." That's a gross violation of the principles of democracy (although, technically speaking, in the US their supreme court justices don't have to be judges/lawyers, but since they always are they don't get a pass).

Why do I mention this? Well, because I make the political argument that if a parliament has not repealed a piece of legislation that this is a tacit endorsement* of that legislation and, hence, the judiciary must continually understand legislation as it makes sense now. If parliaments are truly to be sovereign and the rule of law is truly to exist, every parliament accepts laws or gets rid of them... and if they accept laws they have a purpose to doing so.

The astute reader is probably thinking that the "sense" of a statute which has already been used in a court case is going to be affected by the way it was interpreted in that court case. Such a reader might also wonder if this means that the judiciary always has some kind of legislative (as in, law making) role... even without the common law. I agree (thus why I call such a reader astute).

The simple fact of one person having decided and stated a meaning of a text colours all subsequent thinking about the same text. From the strongest of disagreements to the most forceful affirmations. Every. Subsequent. Thought. The important bit is that parliament's interpretation is the interpretation (regarding purpose). And because parliament is the people and the people are the parliament old laws are thus not a barrier to the rule of law. So what if it is affected by the judicial interpretations of the past? This is simply the mechanism by which consistent meaning is achieved. No more. No less.

All this swings on that bit about predictability. I have some quite sharp criticisms of the Law and Justice systems, including its opaqueness, so the readability of the footnote is not something I want to bring on board. We cannot predict meaning and hence laws/legalness when we're meant to be reading from some quite alien experiences (i.e. those of the past): meaning is socially constituted (i.e. it's a product of the present moment and continually updating at that). This is simply how reading and understanding work.

When I was younger I was quite sympathetic to the flag change cause and also to the other view... to my understanding, I have presented a "living" statute/constitution argument so the other view would be originalism. These days, obviously, I disagree with both; holding them to be immature and childish... the former motivated by that childish concern with what others think and originalism the classic "but teacher said" immaturity. Hopefully it should be clear that I have implicitly suggested that a problem with originalism is that it is inconsistent with the rule of law, creating caprice and unfairness instead of justice through the availability of unpredictable meanings. It might likewise be said to rely on naive ideas about reading (ignoring the every. subsequent. thought. point quite entirely).

The thing is that as far as I can tell Originalism is an American thing. Which is appropriate because what has motivated this post is the question of whether or not the rule of law can be said to exist in the United States at all. Not because Originalist interpretations occur there (that is, as it were, something I discovered in the course of developing the ideal segue) but because no-one is sure if a sitting US president can be charged with a crime and subjected to prosecution.
It is undisputed, according to legal experts, that litigation over obstruction of justice or defamation could proceed after Trump leaves office. But the question of whether the president can be sued or prosecuted while in office is murkier.
I'm afraid this is just incompatible with the rule of law. If the rule of law truly was a feature of American society it would not be a question but a known fact that the US president could be charged and prosecuted. This is what the rule of law means... and it is what I cam to talk about. The Rule of Law does not exist in United States of America... and they might appoint a dude to SCOTUS who actively argues against it). Mental.

The rule of law should exist. The idea that everyone is subject to the Law is immensely reassuring, it's what lets us know that if we managed to get the coin together we might be able to go to a court and get a just outcome. The rule of law is a fundamental assumption we make in predicting human behaviour, without confidence that it exists it's hard to see the Law as a tool.. a means of getting things done. The rule of law lets is a fundamental presumption about society, and an eminently defensible one. The USA's ambivalence to it is another nail in a coffin that, these days, is surely mostly metal.

* In the common law it is actually assumed that silence cannot mean anything other than silence (there was a case about a horse, I think). This is generally more sensible and you might have seen one of the issues that arises with using silence to infer meaning. Notice how I seemingly want it two ways. Laws can be invalid if they are made by invalid parliaments, but if they aren't subsequently repealed by later parliaments then these parliaments are saying that the laws are, in fact, real. The reconciliation is simply that these were never laws at all. The later parliaments might want to have these laws around but they can't without actually making the Law in the first place. I have started from the premise that a parliament is also the way it says it will make laws; never actually making a law is not one of the ways any parliament has ever said it will make laws. This gives room for a court to come along years later and say, "Woah, hold on guys, that's not a real law, you didn't have a parliament there".