Monday, June 22, 2009

A History of Economics

I forgot to mention I read this book a few weeks ago. Galbraith is an excellent and entertaining writer.

An underlying theme is Galbraith's emphasis on how the economic ideology of different historical periods seems to flatter those who hold power. Hence you have physiocrats in France during the 18th century, mercantilists during the 17th century, and neoliberalism during much of the 20th century, with a dash of Keynesianism for those who like that sort of thing.

I was reminded of this book whilst reading this lengthy thread at Crooked Timber in which Daniel "dsquared" Davis argues that economics should really be split into two disciplines: industrial cybernetics and political economy, with one being based on the development of practical applications of empirical research (like engineering) and the other being based on a discussion of the ethics, morality, and political consequences of different policies (basically a branch of political philosophy).

IIRC Galbraith endorsed this point: the idea that you can separate ideology from reality in political discussions is naive in the extreme (as Daniel argues here). Also Galbraith coined the term "the conventional wisdom" to describe beliefs that are widely assumed to be true for the sake of ideological convenience (think EMH, rational agents, drugs are evil etc)

I was going to write up a lot of quotations but frankly I can't be bothered: I advise you to buy and read a copy of this excellent history of this peculiar science.

[image from here]

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Steep Approach to Garbadale: incest and interest

A good book, all told.

Reading Bank's mainstream fiction is kinda weird. I keep expecting to discover that someone is a Special Circumstances agent in disguise.

Also the shoe-horning in of circa 2005 TWAT lefty politics is interesting. Although nothing has changed in an objective sense it does seem that the world is a better place.

There is just a shimmer of Banks' patented gratuitous-unpleasantness towards the end, otherwise this is a superb novel about family, forbidden love, and beautiful mathematicians.

[image from here]

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Enemas of reason

I have established to my own satisfaction the prime source of everything that is wrong with British politics.

Surprisingly, it is not the Daily Mail (at least directly).

The problem is our first-past-the-post system of voting for MPs. This allows parties to gain power despite not having a majority of voters actually vote for them.

Further it means that politicians are not interested in garnering a wide base of support, they are only interested in attracting the votes of "scorekeepers" in marginal constituencies.

Scorekeepers, as detailed in this article by Danny Finkelstein, are people with no particular ideological commitments but who vote for the party (or more accurately, the individual at the head of the party) who they believe to be the most effective manager of the government:

The Scorekeepers “are non-ideological pragmatists who trust or distrust each side equally. They tend to see politics not as a contest of world views, but merely as alternate teams of possible managers of government, each contending that they can do a better job. The Scorekeepers are not choosing directions in their votes, they are hiring managers.”

The problem is that these scorekeepers are engaging in the same folly as managerialists or progressives. The notion that all our problems could be solved if only we all followed this or that political programme, or this or that heroic manager.

If the history of the 21st century teaches us anything it is that grand schemes for the improvement of the masses rarely work, and often have strongly negative outcomes for everyone. And all those scorekeepers are bound to be disappointed, so their support gradually wanders over to the other control party after a few elections.

Polly Toynbee highlights this here:

Our electoral system is the reason why each campaign seems more reductionist and vacuous than the last. The parties are competing for an ever more cleverly identified few thousand wavering voters in marginal constituencies. Pollsters find these few vague voters hardly think about politics at all. They are difficult to engage even for a fleeting moment, don't read papers but may vote if taken by some slogan that catches their eye. Most people are not like that: even if party tribalism has weakened, these target voters tend to be exceptionally uninterested in politics. Yet everything depends on them.

What matters most in politics is the constant churn of debate and argument and conversation and trial and error. I don't believe there is or can ever be one ultimate solution to political problems, rather there must be (controlled) conflict between parties against a backdrop of individual freedom, democracy, and an open society.

This outcome is best served in this country by the replacement of the current FPTP parliamentary system with an STV proportional representation system, a written constitution, separation of powers, and a reduction in the power of the executive relative to the legislature.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Vox stopped

I do not hate. I am not a hater.

However there are a handful of things I loathe.

I have a visceral dislike of those vox pops you get on the TV News where the journos go out into the streets and ask passers by for their opinion on whatever the current Issue of Note is.

My objection to these bits is threefold:

1) They are meaningless. If the intention is to gain an understanding of the public's views on a particular topic then a far more rigorous method is to use polling.

2) They are embarassing. It is painful listening to my fellow citizens embarass themselves with comments that they have not had the time to prepare beforehand. It is clearly patently unfair of the journos to pounce on someone in the street with a question concerning what may be a very complex issue and expect them to contribute a well-thought-out answer.

3) They are fake. There is a script to these things. Journos only ever seem to ask questions that have one obvious answer viz "Are you in favour of MPs swindling the taxpayer?" A: "It is distgusting. They are all the same etc"

The clear and obvious solution to my problem is to stop watching the news. Unfortunately, as I've already discussed, this is not really an option.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Proportional representin'

According to this 'ere news post by the Beeb Gordon Brown is proposing an alternative vote semi-proportional representation system and a fully-elected House of Lords.

This could be big.

A strange love: or how I learned to stop worrying and enjoy politics

I am interested in politics.

This is a matter of some concern.

The reason is simple: what goes on in Westminster is largely irrelevant to me and my life. I live in an advanced, socially stable, pluralistic liberal democracy. I have easy access to clean water, good housing, good food, healthcare, education, information, the company of others, culture, and the opportunity to pursue whatever idle desires may remain now that the problem of my personal comfort has largely been solved.

Politics, however, is a source of depression and irritation. There is so much wrong with how our political system works that observing it is like watching a man sweeping a dusty hall with the brush extension of a fully functional industrial-strength vacuum cleaner.

The costs of any possible, and hence marginal, improvements in my personal condition are so high that they outweigh the gains.

Spending more than £10.6 billion on an ID card system that might fractionally reduce the already miniscule probability of me dying in a terrorist attack is an act of such revolting waste and intellectual squalor that I am sick at the thought of it.

The act of vetoing the publication of the minutes of the meetings in which our government decided to embark on an illegal and murderous war (not to mention going to war in the first place) is one of cowardice, both political and primal.

There are better political systems out there. Ones that are more representative and more democratic. And yet we're stuck here with an absurd system of elected kingship.

Given the failure inherent in the Westminster of politics the rational response is to simply ignore the newspapers and blogs that discuss these remote phenomena and concentrate on things of genuine local importance, whatever they may be.

But I am, of course, not rational.

Given I cannot ignore this irrational interest in politics I can only ask the question:

Why am I interested in politics?

The stock answer is that I consider myself a responsible citizen and therefore ought to be aware of and engage in the democratic process. This is of course nonsense. The only duty of a citizen is to obey the law.

I suspect that the source of this political disease is similar to that of the unfathomable interest that some of my friends have in the game of association football. They, like me, lack the power to make any substantive changes to the rules of the game and who gets which job for which team, and frequently decry what they see as poor decisions on the part of those appointed, but ultimately it is the same impulse that leads them to read the sports pages just as I read the politics and business pages.

Chris Dillow comments on this idea of rational inattention of politics:

So, what would be wrong with someone who avoids, as far as possible, all political knowledge - they don’t buy a newspaper, ignore political websites, don’t watch TV news, turn off the radio when the news comes on, and so on?
The obvious answer is that paying attention to politics isn’t a matter of narrow utility maximizing. We should do so because virtue requires it. Being a good citizen requires us to follow politics.

But does it? There’s a long tradition of people shunning public life: monks, hermits, Voltaire advising us to cultivate our gardens, MacIntyre urging us to retreat into local communities. And what’s virtuous about wishing to impose one’s own ego and limited knowledge onto the rest of society?

Nor is it the case that ignorance about politics need, in principle, be associated with general ignorance or incuriosity. It’s perfectly possible in principle to be very informed and cultured on all sorts of matters whilst paying no attention to politics - just as one can be clever and cultivated whilst being ignorant about, say, fruit flies or medieval plainchant

Further: as Nassim Taleb argues in Fooled by Randomness politics is one of those areas of human endeavour where success has more to do with random luck than any exceptional, empirically measurable, skill. What Taleb says about corporate CEOs can be paraphrased for politicians:

Politicians are not administrators. [...] they are often "empty suits" [...] persons who are good at looking the part but nothing more. [...] what they have is skill in getting promoted within a political party rather than pure skills in making optimal decisions - we call that "political skill."

So not only do I lack the power to change things substantively, neither do most of the participants.

Another problem with politics is that most of it is filtered through what is written by journalists.

Taleb argues against listening to journalists' opinions on anything, as the skills required of a successful journalist are not those required of a good political scientist[1]:

A journalist is trained in methods to express himself rather that to plumb the depths of things - the selection process favors the most communicative, not necessarily the most knowledgeable.

To conclude. Politics is my idle entertainment. Just as some watch soap operas and others watch association football games, I watch Newsnight and read political blogs. It isn't all I do, of course, but at least it is explicable.

[1]: Taleb is also highly critical of the whole notion of "political science", but is even more critical of journalists, so I'll let that slide for a moment.

Monday, June 08, 2009

House of Suns: definitely not a review

Just finished this 'ere book by Al Reynolds.


1) An alright 500 page book with a good 250 page book struggling to get out.

2) There is a lot of boring, pompous, non-political politics goes on in "the Line". I feel the concept of someone creating thousands of clones of themselves and sending them out to explore the galaxy is good, but Reynolds kind of let it go without thinking through how it would operate IRL.

3) I don't know if it's a style thing (Stephen Baxter does it as well) but none of the characters talk as people talk. Ken MacLeod is much better at this sort of thing.

4) The most interesting characters (the Doctor and the Spirit of the Wind) don't get nearly enough of the airtime that is instead given over to the unconvincing political pomposity.

That said I really enjoyed this book. It's not as good as Century Rain or Pushing Ice, but is considerably better than Prefect.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Will Hutton, constitutional glutton

Will Hutton summarises what is wrong with British politics rather well:

Departments of state and, with them, great swaths of public spending, are treated as political spoils. With Geoff Hoon's resignation as transport secretary, this department alone will have had four secretaries of state in three years. It's a similar story in defence, with environment and energy only marginally less hard hit; these are all departments with long-term planning horizons, but whose political leaders are birds of passage. What chance is there of difficult decisions being taken? Systematic policy developed? Of careful attention invested in how effectively and efficiently cash is spent?

Damn straight. The problem is that, as Charlotte Gore points out when discussing proportional representation, a new constitutional structure is a procedural story and as such something no one has the slightest bit of interest in. Except me and other political geeks.

But all the moralising nonsense spoken about MPs and Parliament over the last few weeks ultimately comes back to problems inherent in the system. The press commit the fundamental attribution error and assert that the problem is with the character of individual MPs, rather than a problem endemic to the way the system works.

My own thoughts on parliamentary reform are with those of Thomas Paine, and I describe them over on Charlotte Gore's discussion of an elected Lords.

They are as follows:

Why not have the Lords elected for terms of (say) 12 years, and also have a term limit of one term per person?

Have 300 lords with 1/3 elected every four years.

Also set a time-limit of say, 12 years, until people who have served in the Commons can subsequently run for office in the Lords.

Combine this with an upper age limit of 35 for lords and you have a chamber that consists of older (and hence more experienced) non-career politicians that are not required to respond to every tabloid-editor’s whim or whip’s demand and can use their own moral and intellectual judgement on whether to accept or reject legislation.

Also you need to have separation of the legislature and executive, have independence of tenure of the legislature (i.e. elections every four years), and use the STV PR system to select MPs in the Commons.

And I still want my pony.

And otherwise I basically agree with this Martyn Richard Jones guy[1]. Lashings of democracy.

[1]: The only slight note of disagreement with Richard Jones is with his point 11 - "Elections for all Public offices - no appointments on the nod" - I assume he doesn't mean to elect every clerk and mid-ranking bureaucrat by popular vote. But apart from this he seems bang on the money.