David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: economics (page 3 of 4)

Note on Corporate and Academic Institutions

Ray wrote:

Cholly on Software : The Signifying Code Monkey

There are benefits — non-financial, obviously — to working for an institution of higher education. But in a 27-year career I remember only four people with whom I couldn’t establish some sort of working relationship, and I met three of them after leaving what’s oddly called “private industry.” Similarly, two of the three pieces I’ve regretted publishing were written within the context of a (mostly) academic website. Maybe it’s true that there’s something peculiarly toxic about this environment? Or maybe this particular pachyderm happens to find my own blend of tones and pheromones peculiarly noxious? For whatever reason, I’ve spent a painful number of turns playing the wrong side of Whac-a-Mole.

I responded:

Academia tolerates and even fosters antisocial behavior in various forms, while the private sector is much more strict in its codes of behavior hewing to some practical norm. Coders who work in academic nonprofits tend to be those who were “too weird” for industry, by their own account. Much of this may have to do with the ultimate bottom line of the holy dollar asserting itself far more incessantly in the private sector. (The exceptions were research-focused places like Bell Labs, which also attracted the types of pig-headed people you simply could not deal with. They have gone under precisely because their employees would rather spend their time perfecting an IETF RFC than writing server monitoring scripts in Python or, god forbid, Perl.) So given an insufferable, ambitious, and/or dogmatic person, that person will either have the rare good fortune to rise to a management position in the private sector that he (occasionally she, mostly he) will then use to attempt to realize his treasured, pure vision of paradise, and fail repeatedly while inflicting untold suffering on his peons; OR, that person will be thrown aside by the capitalist machinery and will seek refuge in locations where the almighty dollar holds less immediate sway. There, in academia or a like-minded non-profit, their high rhetoric and uncompromising passion will convince prestige-hungry administrators that here is a person with the vision to save the university from the capitalist chopping block, money and reasonableness be damned! Lather, rinse, repeat. See Albert O. Hirschmann’s The Passions and the Interests for what I genuinely believe is the dynamic at work.


Charles Sanders Peirce: Summary of Human Knowledge


Winter–Spring 1892

Plan for a scientific dictionary, to be called Summa Scientiæ; or,Summary of Human Knowledge. To be contained in one volume of 1500 pages of 1000 words per page. The articles, though elementary, to be masterly summaries valuable even to specialists. C. S. Peirce to be editor and to write about a third of the whole. The other writers to be young men, specialists who have not yet achieved great reputations, but found out and selected by the editor as having exceptional mental power and special competence. These men to conform to certain rules as to matter, arrangement, and style;and required to rewrite until they became trained in the kind of composition required.

Economy of space to be effected by every device that ingenuity and many years’ reflection upon this problem can suggest. Facts to be tabulated as far as possible. The style of writing to be extremely compact, yet scrupulously elegant. The ideas dominant in each branch of science to be emphatically indicated, and its leading principles distinctly stated.Every page, even the tables, to be interesting in matter, stimulating and agreeable in manner. The leading works to be always named.

The arrangement to be alphabetical. The length of the articles such as best subserves economy of space. This generally forbids very short articles; yet articles of more than one page should be rare.

The copy to be completed in two years. As every word would have to be weighed and every statement verified, it would cost $10 to $15 a thousand words. The editor to receive, besides, $3000 a year. The contents to be somewhat as follows:

                          A. Mathematics.
 1.  History of mathematics                                  25   pages
 2.  Pure mathematics. A complete synopsis,                 100      "
     mostly without proofs.
 3.  Tables                                                  25      "
 4.  Rigid dynamics                                          25      "
 5.  Hydrodynamics                                           15      "
 6.  Thermodynamics                                          10      "
 7.  Kinetical theory of bodies                               5      "
 8.  Thermotics, etc.                                         5      "
 9.  Optics                                                   5      "
10.  Electricity and magnetism                               10      "
11.  Mathematical psychics                                    5      "
12.  Mathematical economics                                   5      "
13.  Probabilities                                           10      "
14.  Miscellaneous                                            5      " 

       Total mathematics                                    250   pages. 

                           B. Philosophy.
 1.  History of logic                                         5   pages
 2.  Principles of logic                                     25      "
 3.  Traditional rules of logic                              15      "
 4.  Terminology of logic                                     5      "
 5.  Outlines of the principal ontological and               50      "
     cosmological and transcendental systems
       Total philosophy                                     100   pages. 


                            F. Sociology.
 1.  Tables of languages                                 50   pages
 2.  Miscellaneous linguistics                           20      "
 3.  Rhetoric                                            10      "
 4.  History of literature                                5      "
 5.  Weights, measures, chronology                        5      "
 6.  Anthropological tables                              40      "
 7.  Games and sports                                    10      "
 8.  War                                                 10      "
 9.  History of religion in tables                       40      "
10.  Politics                                            25      "
11.  Ethics                                               5      "
12.  Jurisprudence and criminology                       10      "
13.  History of law                                       5      "
14.  Our law and customs                                 50      "
15.  Domestic economy                                    25   pages
16.  Education                                           25     "
17.  Miscellaneous                                       15     " 

                           G. Individual facts.
 1.  Astronomy and its history                           20   pages
 2.  Geology                                             10     "
 3.  Geography                                           80     "
 4.  Statistics                                          10     "
 5.  General history                                     80     "
 6.  Biography                                           90     "
 7.  Miscellaneous                                       10     " 

      Total individual facts                            300   pages.
      Grand total                                      1500   pages.

This distribution of the contents is subject to changes of detail; but its general character will remain.

The aim is to make the volume the most useful one ever published to persons of modern liberal education.

C. S. Peirce

Battle Lines

Reductionistic Framework Alert!

I recently ran across an old essay by Lisp expert, venture capitalist, and general software guru Paul Graham. Graham is a very sharp person and his Lisp books are excellent, but he writes almost exclusively from a prism of an engineering-centric, Manicheistic worldview.

A good scientist, in other words, does not merely ignore conventional wisdom, but makes a special effort to break it. Scientists go looking for trouble. This should be the m.o. of any scholar, but scientists seem much more willing to look under rocks. [10]

Why? It could be that the scientists are simply smarter; most physicists could, if necessary, make it through a PhD program in French literature, but few professors of French literature could make it through a PhD program in physics. Or it could be because it’s clearer in the sciences whether theories are true or false, and this makes scientists bolder. (Or it could be that, because it’s clearer in the sciences whether theories are true or false, you have to be smart to get jobs as a scientist, rather than just a good politician.)

“What You Can’t Say”

[10] I don’t mean to suggest that scientists’ opinions are inevitably right, just that their willingness to consider unconventional ideas gives them a head start. In other respects they are sometimes at a disadvantage. Like other scholars, many scientists have never directly earned a living– never, that is, been paid in return for services rendered. Most scholars live in an anomalous microworld in which money is something doled out by committees instead of a representation for work, and it seems natural to them that national economies should be run along the same lines. As a result, many otherwise intelligent people were socialists in the middle of the twentieth century.

Some would call him a representative of “scientism,” which is the pejorative term for scientific positivism. Because I’m equally suspicious of reductionistic worldviews as well as quasi-spiritual appeals to the metaphysically irreducible, I’m not going to attack him for presenting the former and make it look like I’m appealing to the latter. I want to talk about him because I’ve been thinking about the future as the new year has come and I have been looking at depressing statistics about employment and poverty like these.

So I’ve been thinking about the future, and Graham seems to be a pure representative of one side of the two dominant power bases that appear to be duking it out for control of the US right now. The battle is between technocrats and ideologues, Whigs and Tories, libertarians and moralists. To avoid using any loaded terms, I’m just going to create two generic types of my own:

  • Type L: libertarian, technocratic, meritocratic, pro-business, anti-government, laissez faire,  pro-science, positivist, secular, elitist, progress-driven, Whiggish, optimistic.
    “The best should have the power.”
  • Type C: tradition-oriented, pro-status quo, nationalistic, protectionist, isolationist, xenophobic, social conservative, pro-business, pro-government (at least in regards to furthering other goals), pro-religion, cronyistic, chauvinistic.
    “The powerful should have the power.”

These are not types of voters, but types of people of influence, people who in some way affect the policies that are being made. It’s my own heuristic. I thought about government policies of the last 30 years, from Reagan’s tax cuts to welfare reform to the health care bill, and then excluded all those people whose viewpoints didn’t seem to be reflected in them. This is what I was left with.

(Type C clearly holds assorted beliefs reflected in my less-funny-by-the-day Taxonomy of Conservatives, while Type L has beliefs called out in the taxonomy as not actually being conservative at all.)

If, like most people reading this, you don’t fit into either of these types, congratulations! Your opinion is probably not relevant to the dominant discourse in America. You’ll notice that what is not covered in these two types is any sort of socialist attitude advocating government intervention to encourage equality and welfare. This attitude appears to have vanished amongst the influential forces in American life, possibly owing to the decline of labor unions. When you realize that Paul Krugman is several degrees to the right of John Maynard Keynes, you see exactly how little purchase any sort of genuinely socialist attitude has in the country.

These two types are darker analogues of the “conservative” and “liberal” classes described by Leszek Kolakowski in his short essay “How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist.” Here are the ideas that fall under his “socialist” type:

A Socialist Believes:

1. That societies in which the pursuit of profit is the sole regulator of the productive system are threatened with as grievous–perhaps more grievous–catastrophes as are societies in which the profit motive has been entirely eliminated from the production-regulating forces. There are good reasons why freedom of economic activity should be limited for the sake of security, and why money should not automatically produce more money. But the limitation of freedom should be called precisely that, and should not be called a higher form of freedom.

2. That it is absurd and hypocritical to conclude that, simply because a perfect, conflictless society is impossible, every existing form of inequality is inevitable and all ways of profit-making justified. The kind of conservative anthropological pessimism which led to the astonishing belief that a progressive income tax was an inhuman abomination is just as suspect as the kind of historical optimism on which the Gulag Archipelago was based.

3. That the tendency to subject the economy to important social controls should be encouraged, even though the price to be paid is an increase in bureaucracy. Such controls, however, must be exercised within representative democracy. Thus it is essential to plan institutions that counteract the menace to freedom which is produced by the growth of these very controls.

I really don’t see much evidence of any of these attitudes in any of our ruling elites. Do you? I don’t think of myself as a socialist and I don’t endorse these views over those of Kolakowski’s other two classes, but the absence of fierce advocates for these views amongst the powerful is a really bad thing.

Democrats and Republicans as well as those calling themselves “conservative” and “liberals” each consist of various proportions of these two sides, but the mix is such a mess that I suspect there will be some serious realignment in the next ten or fifteen years. However, since the disconnect between what people say they believe and what policies they actually endorse only seems to be growing, I don’t dare predict what shape this realignment will take. It is very hard to predict how those depressing statistics will affect voting patterns. (Please see Larry Bartels’ “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas? to understand how wrong the conventional wisdom about voter bases can be. Stick with the raw statistics.)

So obviously Paul Graham is Type L and Glenn Beck is Type C. Why divide people in the middle by these two categories? Because this is where the social fissures seem to lie. The sharp engineering Type L’s like Graham want to be left alone so that their genius can rain prosperity down on society. Though they may believe in a social safety net, they are hostile to any sort of traditional authority structure not based in purportedly objective measures of merit. They don’t want to deal with people who haven’t earned their place beside them, and they definitely don’t want to work for them. The Type C’s have no such standard. They like people who are like themselves, and would much rather work with someone who shares their hobbies than with someone smarter than them. Type L will advocate for equality of opportunity and scholarships for smart kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. Type C most certainly do not want the best and the brightest of the unwashed masses rising up. They’re still unwashed, after all.

Graham is representative of many science and engineering types, the sorts that the US so desperately cultivated during the Cold War to keep pace with Soviet technology. Now they are cultivated by tech companies. Their strong libertarian streak comes from their (frequently mistaken) belief that talent and skill will deservedly win out and help improve the world, and so the more talented are entitled to more wealth and the fruit of their labors. They are not necessarily Ayn Rand sorts, but they are generally enamored of the view that competition encourages progress and efficiency. (I agree, to a point.)

It is a major mistake to think that the CEOs and bankers of today are Type L. While many of them lack the overt social conservatism and xenophobic stances of many Type C’s, they have no love for what Joseph Schumpeter called the “creative destruction” of capitalism. They have endorsed free trade and laissez faire policies because they have been good for their own interests, but they will beg for government handouts in a second and see no problem with colluding with the government to crush their competition and enemies. Lemon socialism, crony capitalism, socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor; whatever it’s called, Type C loves it. Type L will sometimes, when push comes to shove, concede defeat and accede to a rebalancing of the playing field in the hopes of a better tomorrow. Type C wants the playing field tilted forever in their favor.

This is, more or less, the major reason why Microsoft was sued by the government while banks, energy companies, and so many others were left untouched. Microsoft didn’t think it needed to pal around with the old boy network. They were wrong. Tech companies have learned their lesson and now employ lobbyists as aggressively as those other companies, but their tendency toward Type L put them behind the Type C executives of most corporations when it came to politicking. You can get some idea of whether a company tends toward Type C or Type L by seeing to what extent minorities and women have infiltrated their executive ranks: Type C will keep them out without even realizing they’re doing it. Another good post facto signal for identifying Type L: they sometimes admit they were wrong. Type C will go to the grave believing in their divine right to be at the top of the ladder. While JFK’s “best and the brightest” might have had some loose claim to the title, Enron’s “smartest guys in the room” were so flagrantly not that it dirties the term “intelligence” to claim it for them.

Put in such stark terms, it’s easy for me to pick a side, but it doesn’t make me any happier with the choices.

One of the major annoyances with Type L is how shallow the use of reason often runs, leading to thinks like Graham’s conclusions above. This is not even a problem of scientific positivism per se, but just cursory laziness in its application. Yes, at the top of the heap there are good, searching thinkers like Joseph Schumpeter and a number of other economists, but the majority of the Type L people in the ruling class get their rigorous intellectual precision from Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Levitt, Kenneth Pollack, and other proof-by-anecdote writers. They often commit the fallacy of thinking that others have as rigorous standards as they do, when (a) not only are their own standards not rigorous enough, but (b) others have even sloppier standards.

Paul Graham almost certainly has more raw brainpower than I do, but the mental heuristics used to assess evidence and theories in the hard sciences are usually catastrophic when applied to the social sciences. His statement is doubly ironic because he admits that theories in the sciences are more easily assessable even as he is declaiming The Way People Are with the same certainty with which Newton laid down his physical laws.

Type L are prone to believing in simple social laws for the same reason why scientists have so often been duped by psychics: they aren’t used to being tricked. Psychologists and economists aren’t deliberately trying to trick people, but their theories are built on sand compared to those of math and science, and so what they call a “conclusion” or “evidence” is usually an insult to the history of science. This is why things like Social Darwinism, The Bell Curve, and assorted other “scientific” justifications for inequality persistently make their way into supposedly rational people’s conventional wisdom. (The price of rationality is eternal vigilance. And eternal skepticism.)

For a perfect example of this sort of slippage from quantitative to qualitative, check out the collected works of Richard Posner. True to Type L, he has recently changed his views while still maintaining faith in efficient rational markets. Admitting a failure in the current implementation of free market capitalism is within his intellectual horizon; admitting irrationality into his view of the world is not.

So those are the two sorts of rulers I see. They got along reasonably well for a while, but the continuing economic problems are going to make it harder for them to paper over their differences as frequently. Let’s hope they look out for us all. Happy new year to you all and thanks for reading.

PS: As for the people who aren’t part of the above two power structures and receive their beliefs and dictats in a bewildering variety of ideologies and forms only tenuously linked to the real motivations at work…well, I quote Yes, Prime Minister:

Hacker: Don’t tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers:

  • The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country;
  • The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country;
  • The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country;
  • The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country;
  • The Financial Times is read by people who own the country;
  • The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country;
  • And The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?
BernardSun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits.

William Ian Miller on Academic Aristocracy

(Or why graduate school may be counterproductive in preparing one for not entering the academy.)

The story is an old one: the seller and his quest for money was believed to dissolve values, status, and dignity into a soup of tawdry slop, one spoonful as bad as the next. The trader disrupted certain useful illusions; he created and fed cravings. He offered everything for a price; he was a pimp, a go-between, a purveyor; money went a-whoring or made everything and everyone a whore; nothing meant filthy lucre and holy dollars anything because everything was for sale. Selling for a price polluted the thing bought and sold, the person buying and the person selling.

This is an irony that should give some pause about the company one keeps: the antimarket, antitrader, anticommercial, antibourgeois spirit of the left academic makes him or her the heir of the old aristocratic distaste for working in trade, whether that view is embodied in the person of an Achaean warrior, a sixteenth-century English duke, or a nineteenth-century impoverished habitue of St. Moritz looking for a rich American heiress to fund his uselessness. The people? Hoi polloi? They higgle and haggle, or in more successful guise they were the fathers of those rich American heiresses, men who hawked their daughters to old European blue bloods at fancy watering holes to gain grandchildren who would soon learn to be ashamed of them for having been in trade.

It should hardly need to be pointed out that money is as money does. The antimarket people want money, too, but they want it to know its place and to be devoted to purposes deemed dignifying, or paid out indirectly via various subsidies, just as aristocrats wanted it via inheritance or by marrying rich spouses and felt it should be devoted to the glorifying, because wasteful, purposes of sumptuous display. If through its history money has been demeaned as barren metal or filthy shit – it is never quite clear whether sterility or fecundity is what makes it revolting – at least as excrement it can fertilize schools and the arts.

That said…

But the discourse of hard-nosed economists, the faux toughness of the marketeers, of those economists who wish to measure commitment and caring by a “willingness-to-pay-in-dollars” standard, is no less parasitical on dignity talk than the apples-and-oranges position is parasitical on fairly healthy amounts of filthy lucre. The everything-is-about-self-interest crowd, the market priests, the willingness-to-pay guys, know that their game is played for pretty safe stakes, not just because they make a living by flattering and being serviceable to the rich and powerful, but for the very reason that no one will kill them for their tastelessness and bad manners, for letting money speak with a megaphone in our ears, for telling us that we are motivated by nothing more than a painfully risible view of human behavior as driven solely by self-interest.

(From Miller’s Eye for an Eye.)

Jenny Diski on Erving Goffman

Rejecting any possibility of an essential identity, his notion is of the self as purely contingent, a shape-shifting construction of altering circumstances. The individual, Goffman says, arrives into an already established social world, and is shaped by, rather than shapes, his environment. All interaction is performance; each individual (or ‘team’) performs for the other and is the other’s audience. Careful ritual and fear of embarrassment are all that hold social order together, which results in the social actor’s impression management being colluded with (if it is not too incompetent or absurd: the comb-over in preference to a bad wig) by the audience, which no more wishes to be embarrassed by the unmasking of the other than the other wishes to be unmasked.

Thus we are actors or con artists or gamblers or audiences or team members or marks, who walk into discrete situational frames and become whatever will get us through. There is no essential morality, only human nature, anxious risk avoidance or calculative dealings. Read Goffman all these years on, and you see the ghostly images of sociobiology and Thatcherism to come. He made no pretence that he was doing anything about the world, he merely described it, using the metaphor of drama as a tool. When he was accused, as he had to be in the early 1970s, of making no attempt to analyse the world in terms of social or economic advantage or disadvantage, or to reveal the true reality behind appearances, he shrugged: ‘I think that is true. I can only suggest that he who would combat false consciousness and awaken people to their true interests has much to do, because the sleep is very deep. And I do not intend here to provide a lullaby but merely to sneak in and watch the way people snore.’ He had no interest in endearing himself to others.

More than thirty years later, academic sociologists are still enraged or delighted by him for his refusal to conform to the rules of sociology, his lack of political passion, his early perception of the fragmented, postmodern, socially constructed individual, his contempt for orthodoxies (we sociologists ‘haven’t managed to produce in our students the high level of trained incompetence that psychologists have achieved in theirs, although, God knows, we’re working on it’). According to Thomas Scheff’s essay, his work is ‘so advanced that we haven’t yet understood it . . . none of us, not even his fans are yet as free of the assumptive world as Goffman. We haven’t caught up with him yet.’ Norman Denzin, on the other hand, believes he offered a sociology ‘that seemed to turn human beings into Kafkaesque insects to be studied under glass’. He did not address ‘social injustice, violence or war under capitalism’. Goffman’s actors were men and women in grey flannel suits who did not resist, ‘they conformed to the requirements of a local and global capitalism that erased class, race and gender in the name of a universal, circumspect human nature . . . Capital was a missing term . . . His was a universal sociology, part of a pandisciplinary project, that moved from linguistics to psychoanalysis, sociology, anthropology, psychology and economics.’

I am still unable to understand what is so wrong with a pandisciplinary project, but I can see the rest of Denzin’s point. Reading Goffman now is alarmingly claustrophobic. He presents a world where there is nowhere to run; a perpetual dinner party of status seeking, jockeying for position and saving face. Any idea of an authentic self becomes a nonsense. You may or may not believe in what you are performing; either type of performance is believed in or it is not. There is, as Goffman repeatedly says, no real reality. Still, you wonder, what is it then in either actor or audience that’s doing the believing or not believing? And when the individual is alone, does she continue to perform for herself? Always? And when she is asleep and dreaming? And if she is ever not performing, what or who is she? Certainly something, because Javier Treviño tells us Goffman acknowledged that the self is ‘always “anchored” in an individual’s “continuing biography” before and after every social event’. I remain baffled, no image comes of this accrued history sitting alone in her bath with flashes of me-ness in between performances. Marshall Berman is quoted as writing of Goffman: ‘Although he was magnificent at evoking human situations, he seemed . . . to lack empathy with actual human beings. People seemed to exist for him only as manipulative players in an endless series of games people play. Feelings, emotions, love, hate, the self, did not seem to come in anywhere at all.’

“Think of Mrs Darling,” LRB, 4 March 2004

But I don’t see how Berman’s assessment can be. For me the anger seeps off the page in his books, especially Asylums, which had to be the inspiration for Frederick Wiseman’s Titticut Follies a few years later. He just knew how difficult the task of action would be, and abdicated responsibility.

And how much more concrete and realistic his visions are than the abstractions given to us by our contemporary social theorists. If we can’t generalize from the reality at hand, the one Goffman described, to the greater world situation, that is our blindness and not his.

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