Saturday, February 12, 2011

Farcical Tragedies

From Whatever It Is I'm Against, we learn that Americans in 1911 weren't any better at prognostication:
It is Lincoln’s birthday and, hey, it’s also (nearly) the 50th anniversary of the election of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy. The NYT thinks that after all this time “we ought to be willing to leave the civil war to history.” It says that the South is no longer hostile to the North and the “occasional demonstrations of the sectional spirit” are only ginned up in order to pressure the states to keep paying pensions to Confederate veterans. “The new South, full of commercial and industrial energy, will not long pretend to mourn the failure of the Confederacy.” Not long, huh?

At a Lincoln Day speech, Teddy Roosevelt comes out in favor of the direct election of US senators and the president. He also says that “the Republican Party must be not only progressive but sane.” (So how’s that going?)
Speaking of the South's lack of pretense, did you know that they want to give one of the treasonous founders of the KKK and other horrors an honored place among the license plates of our time?

The arc of history doesn't bend; it gets bent, if you see what I mean.

Have a nice weekend.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Here in Wisconsin

People like to make with the jokes about the authoritarian tendencies lying latent within the Tea Party/Conservative/Republican alliance. Well, in the wake of his decision to unilaterally revoke unions, Walker
made the dramatic announcement this morning that he is prepared to call in the Wisconsin National Guard to respond if there is any unrest among state employees in the wake of his announcement that he wants to revoke nearly all of their collective bargaining rights.
Walker said he has not called the National Guard into action, but he has briefed them and other state agencies in preparation of any labor problems.
It would be nice if once when one of these folks sees a problem, they decide that the solution lies in something other than waging war on it. Let's hope that some, if not all, of the Nat Guard members, who aren't already overseas, are union members.  They could save as ton of money by repressing themselves in the quiet of their own home.


History is a Discipline

I realize that this might get tedious but this misuse of history really has to stop
history upended Mr. Mubarak and in the end, which came as suddenly and surprisingly as his unlikely elevation to the presidency, he was forced to resign.
History isn't a disembodied force upending icons and stability nor yet is it a diverse group of actors demanding the same thing.  History is some guy or gal in the archives long after the event under consideration occurred trying to piece together a plausible analysis based on an accurate narrative using primary and secondary sources. The folks standing together and demanding the same thing are motivated by diverse impulses and interests and if the journalists and pundits continue on blurring this reality by appeal to some non-existent entity, history as the agent of historical change, all that they accomplish is misinforming folks about what is going on.

Tragical Farces

So, just now on CNN James Woolsey, former CIA director and all around jerk, argued that the US needs to start picking winners and losers in Egypt's current revolution. He instanced the French Revolution as proof that "revolutions eat their children."  As I mentioned the other day, this kind of formulation denies agency.  The Jacobean's gained power because of the King's trial and retained power, in important part, because of outside intervention. The Terror was horrid, stupid, and wrong, but France was, in fact, surrounded by enemies and infiltrated by counter revolutionaries.  Had Louis not been suchmediocrity too blinkered to understand the utter bankruptcy of the Old Regime's social, political, and economic institutions, who knows what would have happened.  If you want to take a lesson from history, it would be to not intervene, aina?

Woolsey also claimed that the US needs to go back to the Cold War mindset and replicate CIA successes in creating a new and more democratic world.  We all know of the disasters that followed on the CIA's intervention into Iran after Premier Mohammad Mossadeq' election, so no real comment here is needed. But it is important to remember, that the CIA's influence on the countries with which it interfered was nearly always benighted.

On Fox someone who used to be an undersecretary for some Republican or another was making more or less the same argument but a was bit more vehement in demanding that the US send a military man to Egypt as our new ambassador and work closely with the Egyptian army and the decents in Egyptian society to create a new democracy which will exclude the Muslim Brotherhood.  This is just a terrible idea.  If the democracy you create can't defuse anti-democratic elements via the ballot box what other method will or must it use?

Hands off, I say, of both history and the present because if you understood the former you'd do the latter.


So he's gone and, it seems, his leaving proves the old saw, bruited about by the IWW and related Anarcho-Syndicalists, that
Violence is not necessary when, united as a class, all that workers need to do is fold their arms to gain the world.
Let's hope as things go forward the various bully boys of the world let the Egyptians work things out for themselves. And lets hope that the Egyptian military and the people of Egypt learned the lesson of the Kapp Putsch.

Wisconsin: Open for Monkey Business

In this morning's Wisconsin State Journal the editors deplored an unnecessary, I think they thought, investigation of a clearly overly, let's say, enthusiastic police officer and lamented the fact that she couldn't just be fired. Damn unions, they fume, it's like their primary purpose is to protect workers from arbitrary dismissal. They don't hesitate to condemn the Union for its failure to put "tax payers" first when trying to protect workers from arbitrary dismissal. Apparently, members of the many, if increasingly attacked and weakened, unions are neither tax payers nor yet citizens.  The WSJ would like, as I read the thing, to condemn the police officer's punishment and condemn the Union that sought to defend her from that punishment.  It's remarkably incoherent.

In a related matter, Walker declares war on collective bargaining; our AG declares, all evidence to the contrary, that ACA is a dead letter; despite the clear advantages the Act promises to the least amongst us, Ted Nickel sent money back to the Federal Government designed to aid the poor in making informed decisions about which insurance policy to purchase.

There then you have it, the editors of the WSJ pretend not to know that union members pay taxes and that unions exist to protect worker.  Walker thinks, if that's the word I want, that union members are the cause of all our economic woes, the AG doesn't understand neither how the judicial branch works nor the Constitution's plain meaning, and a state official decides that the last thing people need is unbiased information about insurance options. It's like a Marx Brothers' movie except for not being funny.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

History is a Discipline

David Remnick over to The New Yorker argues that
[t]he delusions of dictators are never more poignant—or more dangerous—than when they are in their death throes. To watch Hosni Mubarak today in his late-night speech Cairo, as he used every means of rhetorical deflection to delay his inevitable end, was to watch a man so deluded, so deaf to the demands of history, that he was incapable of hearing an entire people screaming in his ear.
It is, I suppose, a literary trope but this use of history as an agent is a kind of pathetic fallacy and really ought to be avoided.

Never Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Narrative

Just now Anderson Cooper was on CNN touting the Army as the good guys on the establishment side of the ledger in Egypt.  Maybe, but than again, maybe not:
The Egyptian military has secretly detained hundreds and possibly thousands of suspected government opponents since mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak began, and at least some of these detainees have been tortured, according to testimony gathered by the Guardian.
It'd be nice if Cooper and his cohort would spend more time dealing in the facts of the matter and less time making stuff up. An idle dream, I realize.

Yes, Indeedy, Heh

Over to IOZ we read:
I suppose it is no longer necessary to point out that Matthew Yglesias does not know what he is talking about, regardless the subject. He has a preternatural ability to opine knowingly on any subject, his confidence in his own correctness existing in inverse proportion to the accuracy of whatever he is saying at a given time. His ability to miss the point even as he swashbuckles into a conversation to argue that everyone else is missing the point is completely awesome, and I mean that in the most strictly religious sense. He is like a minor god of misunderstanding, a numinous spirit of getting it wrong.
Followed by:
Oh, god, I really want to stop talking about him, but I just can't resist:
People often don’t realize it . . . but Marx was in many ways working in the tradition of classical economists like David Ricardo and Adam Smith.
What people, Matt? You and Glenn Beck?
Yglesias' ignorant wrongness or wrong-headed ignorance explains stupid thing he has ever said, and he has said a lot of them.  What I don't understand is why he has job.  He isn't witty; he doesn't wrap Neoliberalism is some palatible coating of dense knowledge and erudition; he doesn't even write well. So why has he got a job talking about things he knows nothing about? Which is to say anything.

Kerensky Screwed Up

So, it looks like Mubarak is going to step down, or that something is a brewing.  Already various voices have warned ominously of the Muslim Brotherhood's standing in the shadows waiting to radicalize the call for democracy.  Keep in mind that the radicalization of various revolutions, from the French to the Iranian, or their hijacking by forces of the old order, like some of the color revolutions in the old Soviet Union, played out the way they played out because of actual people making decision and taking concrete actions.  Take, as an example, Alexander Kerensky the liberal leader of the Provisional Government until the Bolshevik coup.  He and his fellow politicians worried excessively about Russia's commitments to the Allies while the Allies pressured the Provisional Government to greater exertions. Consequently, Kerensky and his fellows not only refused to pull Russia out of a war that was ruining its economy and was more or less universally despised, they actually authorized an attack on the Germans which destroyed the Army and led to the Provisional Government's destruction.

In other words, who gets what in the wake of Mubarak's resignation, should he resign, is an internal matter and an external matter.  If the US and others try to engineer against some group or another, they may well delegitimate the whole process leading to greater chaos leading to an aggressive minority, of what ever stripe, to seize control.

Well he didn't resign nor yet even give any evidence of being interested in resigning or really understanding the nature of those opposed to his continued reign. Also, an Egyptian history where short means long.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Skynet Lives

European scientists have embarked on a project to let robots share and store what they discover about the world.
Called RoboEarth it will be a place that robots can upload data to when they master a task, and ask for help in carrying out new ones.

For Ian

Tubas, it seems, rock


Egypt Isn't 18th Century France

Yesterday via a variety of sites I went to this site and read this, number 11 of 20 dealios that explain Egypt:
To amplify: I can't find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations - but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.
I don't know which historian he has in mind but the poor lawyers characterization is most likely some garbled version of Burke's prediction, in the Reflections, that provincial lawyers with no experience in governance would seize control over the Revolution with disastrous results. Presumably we're meant to think of Robespierre and the Terror. However, if you think about the Revolution as it occurred the key event would have been the alliance of members of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Estates walked out of the Estates General, when voting by head instead of Estate was rejected, created the National Assembly, and agreed to the Tennis Court Oath. It is simply not true that lawyers, of whatever economic class, made up the men who created this diverse group of dedicated reformers.  "Radicalization" and Robespierre's domination of the Revolution's course waited on the King reneging on the agreement to make a constitutional monarch, his flight, and clear desire to wage war on the France with his fellow absolutists, which led to his trial and execution and Jacobean domination.  It's not even vaguely correct to associated the Jacobeans with poor or provincial lawyers.

The French Revolution was more about the desire of reformers to reform France through the expansion of, what Hirschman called, voice, understood here to mean effective participation in France's governance. Reducing the event to poverty among the "middle class" and then insisting on a rough parallel between then and now misleads on both revolutions and will have the unpleasant result of distorting response to the Egyptians' demands. It is, after all, difficult to fit the Google guy into the category of poor lawyers and he is not the only one of his "class" taking part in the multivocal revolt against tyranny and despotism, is he? Personally, I've always thought the notion of "excess men" overblown as a causal explanation for revolution at whatever point in history or geography.

The "arguments" he makes about 19th century France are equally vapid and superficial; cafes weren't like raves for example.

On economic success, Egyptian history and the Revolution see also, too.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Guessing isn't Reasoning

J.M. Keynes once quipped that
[w]hen the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?
Today, Paul Krugman argued that a committment to an ideology isn't like race in that former is mutable and latter isn't. In response, Megan McArdle blathered that
I presume that Paul Krugman holds the beliefs he does because they are his best guess at what is true, and that he could no more change his beliefs than he could change his native language.
McArdle, in short, thinks that people arrive at an unshakeable world view because they "guess" at how the world works and having once guessed they can never alter their guesses, which -- I suppose -- explains her own refusal to change her mind even as the world proves her guess to be wildly off base.

Sort of like John Derbyshire's admission that he can't  or, in any event, won't reason at all., this is really all you need to know of the Glibertarian mindset. See also.

Robots and Education

From here, I went here and learned that
one school, Carnegie Mellon, has come very close to a self-contained course with no instructor at all, but still toes the party line on the notion that human capital is crucial to the educational experience.

But what’s keeping a less-scrupulous school from making professors disappear entirely? The cost of the technology, explains Stross:
Developing that best-in-the-world online course — in which students would learn as much, or more, than in an ordinary classroom or a hybrid online class — requires significant investment. The Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, which has developed about 15 sophisticated online courses, mostly in the sciences, spent $500,000 to $1 million to write software for each.
Proponents of distance education might tell you something about how wonderful it is that students can learn all the way from India or in their pajamas, but anybody who knows anything about labor history knows that this kind of large-scale technological investment is really all about costs. Professors demand salaries. Cut out the professors and save the cost of their salaries.

But that’s where the labor history analogy breaks down. The Bonsack cigarette rolling machine not only destroyed the jobs of untold thousands of workers, it led to really, really cheap cigarettes. Online education, an education so bad that some employers won’t even consider someone with a degree earned from a for-profit college administered this way, is actually seven times more expensive than a real education at a typical community college. Professors haven’t disappeared entirely yet, but obviously none of the cost-savings from online education have been passed on to students. Since even online courses with poorly-paid adjuncts save schools so much money in costs compared to real classes, shouldn’t they cost less rather than seven times more?

And this weird robot could never carry and deliver the mail

Certainly the last thing we would want to do is have a discussion about creative destruction and technological innovation because that might mitigate against the market's genius

Monday, February 7, 2011

Creative Destruction

Over to "The London Review of Books'" blog, we read about the Neoliberalization in the name of "modernisation" of the Royal Mail from someone with the improbable name of Roy Mayall. In the course of the discussion he mentions something called the Pegasus Geo-Route, which is some sort of GPS dealio, that
measures the precise distance of every walk, up and down every garden path, to every door. It tells the postal worker exactly how fast he is supposed to be walking and therefore how long each round is supposed to take.
And a
new walk-sequencing machines are made by Solystic, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, which describes itself as ‘a leading global security company whose 120,000 employees provide innovative systems, products, and solutions in aerospace, electronics, information systems, shipbuilding and technical services to government and commercial customers worldwide.’
To say nothing of the replacement of bicycles with trucks.

Recently, I mentioned that robots have taken over the warehouse. These robots work off of some kind of a grid thingy that allows them to pick up and drop off items inside the warehouse. They are the first step in the mechanization of the pick up and drop off industry. How long until someone puts together picking up and dropping off in a discrete space with the ability of GPS dealios to aid the picking up and dropping off in a larger and unenclosed space with robots and, consequently, using robots in mail delivery? Or garbage pickup? Or UPS or FedEx?

No doubt, those whose jobs are creatively destroyed by the robots will find work busing tables, waiting tables, cooking food, and paring the bunions of the every fewer and older rich folks, whose job markets will not, thankfully, suffer from the interference of union rules and licensing.

Don't Be Silly

So, Matthew Yglesias looks at the imposition of a regulatory regime that grandfathers in those already practicing and concludes
This is the bad faith that gives away the game. If licensing is primarily about ensuring quality in the face of market failure, then obviously you need to regulate existing practitioners. But if licensing is primarily about restricting competition to advance the interests of incumbents, then regulating existing practitioners is counterproductive.
It's arguments like this that give the game away. Either Yglesias is so ill-informed that he hasn't yet had to grapple with what's wanted and what's possible, which one might call the art of compromise, or he does, in fact, understand that getting to yes, as it were, requires compromising with the various groups that have a interest in the thing being regulated. Also why market failure?  We're supposed to wait until something catastrophic happens before acting?  Isn't the training inherent to licensing supposed to ensure and therefore reassure each consumer that the person from whom you are purchasing the good or service, at the very least, knows which end is up? 



Sunday, February 6, 2011

Stagnation as Misinformation

Alerted to a "bravura performance by one of the most interesting thinkers out there" on the cause of the current economic mess, I rushed, metaphorically speaking, to the Kindle store and spent 4 dollars on Tyler Cowen's How The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History,Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. This is fairly awful book. Cowen's tone is condescending; his use of history is superficial, his notion of the cause odd, and his notions of how to get better depressing.

On causation. Cowen blames overconfidence. "[R]ealtors" are not to blame because "[t]he financial crisis was not fundamentaly about the bursting othe real estate bubble" (706-17)  Okay, but then, one thinks, those who used various chicanery to spin bad loans into huge profit for no socially beneficial purpose bear the bulk of the blame. Nope: "The financial crisis is not even fundamentally about mistakes in the banking sector, although such mistakes were made" (717-28). Note the passive voice.  Well then who might be responsible oh most interesting of thinkers out there? "We were all, more or less, overconfident.  It gets increasingly harder," he argues, "to escape the conclusion that many millions of people were complicit, whether intentionally or not." He then illuminates this, apparently inescapable, conclusion by recourse to a museum director planing building expansion(718-30 to 730-40). Innovative thinking indeed.

On condescension: The title is one example. His invocation of the "fun" of the internet working to limit a sober understanding of economies' general crappiness is another (746-57 to 757-67). This bit, from his conclusion, [t]hese days, you can read the latest scientific papers, whether or not you are based at Harvard or Princeton" (797-808) ignores the fact that disseminating the latest findings in all manner of disciplines predates Jstor. Darnton's work on the Encyclopedia is one example; Francis Bacon's Novum Organon published by Society For The Diffusion Of Useful Knowledge, which yet another example of making cutting edge thought available to the masses, another. It is also an example that leads to a discussion of his use or, more precisely, abuse of history.

On roads and their history.  He makes much of the notion of "core" versus "optional" state functions. Using the example of investments on infrastructure, he argues that [w]e're valuing dollars spent on highway extensions as if they were worth as much as the dollars we spent on building the core roads that link major cities" (267-78 to 278-88). This characterization of the roads in American history is misleading in two ways.  In the first instance, he ignores the origins of the Good Road Movement, which arose from a combination of commercial and leisure interests. Cyclists intent on increasing the pleasures of live had long advocated for improved roads while agricultural and extractive commercial interests wanted to ease the movement from productive to markets. Railroads already connected "major" cities, the Interstate system came rather later and its designers had rather more in mind than linking major cities. Does this really matter, you might ask. Well, yes. The push for good roads was as much about pleasure as commerce and trying to reading the former out of the equation transforms state infrastructure investment into an activity solely dedicated to matters economic, which conveniently ignores the fact that there is more to life than making money. 

The Central Theme or Metaphor: Cowen makes much of his notion of the fact that 
the American economy has enjoyed lots of low-hanging fruit since at least the seventeenth century, whether it be free land, lots of immigrant labor, or powerful new technologies.  Yet during the last forty years, that low-hanging fruit started disappearing, and we started pretending it was still there.  We have failed to recognize that we are at a technological plateau and the trees are more bare than we would like to think.  That's it.  That is what has gone wrong.(60-71)
He accepts that some of this stuff was "not completely new"; however, he insists they "expanded rapidly" in the period under consideration effectively "tying together the world economy." Although there was a "somewhat longer time frame, agriculture" underwent a similar process.  What was, he suggests, "fundamentally new to human history" was the "gains . . . from playing out the idea of advanced machines combined with powerful fossil fuels" (81-81).

And to be clear, when he discusses low-hanging fruit he doesn't mean the fruits you ate first:
Have you ever walked into a cherry orchard? There are plenty of cherries right there for the  picking. Imagine a tropical island where the citrus and banannas hang from trees.  Low-hanging literal fruit-- you don't even have to cook the stuff (60-71).
It's helpful to ask if we didn't have to cook the stuff that, literally and metaphorically, hung so low. Take, as one example, access to America's wide-open lands.  If you ignore the long history of the "Age of Exploration" or, if you want to consider things from the opposite perspective, the "Age of Conquest" leading up to the seizure of lands from the pre-existing inhabitants, then yes easy peasy.  Did you know that over 50% of the conquistadors perished either during the trip over or on first landing?[2] Or that the technological changes, financial support, and religious justification of the Portuguese expansion and colonization came from the state?  It's true.The longer time frame for the agricultural sector? Depending on how you want to think about it, agricultural revolution's time frame is rather longer.

You can do the same thing for each and every low-hanging fruit Cowen mentions.  They didn't just appear all of sudden when needed for the economic exploitation of this or that resource but rather they came about through the intersection of state and society seeking to improve the condition of men even on this earth and individuals more concerned with lining their own pockets then anything else. The American Transcontinental railroad is a nearly perfect example of the inter-mixture of state, society, cupidity, and charity, in is ancient meaning. What I think Cowen actually means is if you ignore the actual history of the picking of the fruit, it hung very low indeed.

On the state of technological breakthroughs he argues that "[t]he period from 1880 to 1945 brought numerous major technological advances into our lives"; he then lists the usual suspects and argues that "life [now] in broad material terms isn't so different from what it was in 1953" (81-91).[1] His pessimism on the future of innovation relies, in part, on the work of Charles I. Jones, who "has 'disassembled' American economic growth into component parts" and "[l]ooking at 1950-1993. . . found that 80 percent of the growth . . . came from he application of previously discovered ideas . . . with heavy additional investment in education and research, in a manner that cannot be easily repeated for the future" (177-88).  Cowen also reproduces the work of Jonathan Huebner which shows that current rates of "innovation" are nearly medieval (188-93); Huebner suggests that we will out do the medievals in our lack of inventiveness by 2024.

It would be nice to know why we can't  repeat investments in education and research. It would also be nice to know why figuring out how to use the technology we have right now to improve the conditions of humanity without regard to ever expanding profits is, apparently, off the table.

This brings me to Cowen's cure for what ails us. He argues that one "favorable trend" is his expectation that "[o]ver time, we can expect" China and India "to assume a greater role as innovators" and that "their manufacturing and services efforts" will "free up a lot of our time and energy for innovation."  He is, of course, unclear as to why the Chinese and Indians will be able to that which he has ruled out for us; although, to be fair, Cowen waves his hands toward markets.(787-96 to 797-808) Secondly, the "internet may do more for revenue generation in the future." (ibid.) See, the way out of the current bubble induced crises is a new  bubble. He likes the various market-based solutions to the "crisis" in America's educational system, despite the evidence that they don't work. (808-19). And, improve the "status" of science by adopting "one point that Ayn Rand . . . got right, namely that we should all revere creators and scientific innovators (830-42 to 841-52). Want a better economy?  All Hail John Galt lest Galt go.

Taken in the round, this is a remarkable passive response to the current malaise for such an interesting thinker; given that the take-away seems to be that we can't do much except wait for the system that failed so spectacularly to fix itself except train ourselves to revere our Galtian overlords.

[1] This last has set off a enormously contentious discussion of kitchen utensils.

[2] Here some stuff on one of them, Cabaza de Vaca, who is actually worth googling.