Political Economy is Depressing

I don’t want to turn the overall tone of this blog more conservative, especially as I’m detecting a slow but certain leftward trend in my political views, but I’m afraid this is going to be another conservative post. This is not, however, an anti-Occupy-Wall-Street post, just an anti-Marxism one.

Partly due to Occupy Wall Street, I was reading some Marxist theory-distilled, condensed, simplified, etc, but in book form, and it seems to cover the basics- and it’s really startling to see how so many of the arguments have remained essentially unchanged. Post-scarcity economics has always been a contradiction in terms but at least it is something that can be considered in a science-fictional setting; however, a similar optimism about the abundance of the industrial age and the bounty of the coming era seems to me to be woven into much of Marxist theory.

The basic idea that wealth becomes ever more concentrated and that this is the inevitable product of the system and so on is something that I have a certain amount of sympathy with, but on the other hand, the clear failure of Marx‘s theory that wages will always be pushed down to subsistence levels and that productivity gains will always be captured by capital and not labour do not seem to be sufficiently impressed in the minds of those who continue to call themselves Marxists. Even more, the simple fact that Marx’s theory of human nature- human nature having always been the largest and most obvious impediment to the success of practically every alternative to plain old capitalism that has ever been suggested or implemented- was wrong doesn’t seem to be fazing anyone in the slightest. Clearly, though, the less-than-necessarily-pliant selfishness of man is a fact that most people grow up to accept (I have always thought this rather than a decreasing sympathy for unfortunates was at the core of that old joke: “if you’re not a socialist before 20, you have no heart; if you are a socialist after 20, you have no head.”)

This, then, is why the “why don’t these people have any actual demands?” question is worth asking, all rhetoric about pushing “the idea” and “maintaining unity” and “not allowing ourselves to be boxed in” aside. (I feel fairly comfortable calling it rhetoric because after all the focus on rhetoric is precisely what “momentum” and “the idea” are all about.) I can accept their premises in the narrowest sense: inequality is widening, and this is bad. I can’t accept their details because the details vary with every telling*, and I can’t accept their solutions because there aren’t any**. Capitalism-as-she-is-practised may well be a system nobody wants, but neither an alternative workable system nor a feasible transition to it (the bigger hurdle, in my opinion) seem to be on offer.

PS: This isn’t to say there’s nowhere to go from here, of course. The system could use more than a few tweaks, and a fair bit of re-shaping. It’s not going to change it’s essential incentive-based structure, that’s all.

PS2: And, of course, burning books is bad.

* I mean, of course crony capitalism is bad, of course banks shouldn’t be given bailouts and then turn around and hand their executives huge bonuses, of course we should avoid moral hazards and try for a more stable, better balanced financial system- but yet again, these aren’t details, those are practically tautologies!

**Some solutions that have been proposed by some people, like a well-targeted debt jubilee, I actually think make sense. (I will, however, wager a small sum of money that no broad-based debt jubilee will happen in the United States for the next 5 years.) The same goes for a reasonable tax increase, although I have a better sense for the numbers than to suggest that it can be restricted to the top 1% and still be sufficient to reduce the deficit.

Ooh, and here’s an inkling of the sort of crap I’m talking about.

Take Control of Your Life and Live Longer!

Via the Art of Manliness:

The need to feel in control in our lives cannot be overstated. In Stumbling on Happiness, Dr. Daniel Gilbert argues:

“Being effective-changing things, influencing things, making things happen-is one of the fundamental needs with which the human brain seem to be naturally endowed, and much of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of this penchant for control…The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed. And occasionally dead.”

The dead part refers to a pair of studies done to test the link between feelings of control and health.

In the first study, the elderly residents of a nursing home were each given a houseplant and divided into two groups-the high control group and the low control group. The high control group was told that the plant’s care was in their hands while the plants in the low control group were taken care of by a staff member. The results at the end of the study were startling-30% of the members of the low control group had died, compared to only 15% of the members of the high control group.

A follow-up study garnered similar results. College students were paired with residents at another nursing home. One group of the elderly residents (the low control group) could not control when the students would come; the student would set the appointment date. The high control group was able to dictate when the students would visit. “After two months, the residents in the high control group were happier, healthier, more active, and taking fewer medications than those in the low control group.”

Two observations that should probably have been made via the comments page on their site:

  1. Whoa. You can KILL people by not letting them have control over their lives, even if the decisions you make are probably better for them? (Of course, they’re not really dealing with that aspect, but it’s easy to imagine how it could work that way, for a small enough increase in well-being.) This deals a rather big blow to my endorsement of futarchy over democracy. (I realize that people living in democracies hardly feel as if they have full control over their lives; but they probably would feel more in control than under futarchy, although their lives would probably be better on most other parameters.)
  2. If they could have predicted the effect of these experiments at the nursing home- if they at least had some intuition as to the results, which they surely must have had- then isn’t it grossly unethical to perform this sort of experiment at all? And on a related note, shouldn’t this have major implications for the care of the sick and the elderly (and children), who all have control over their lives routinely taken away from them by their caretakers in some way or the other? 

PS: They do, right? This is just what I have observed from my limited exposure to these institutions in my very small part of India, I have no idea how they are in the rest of the country/world.

Creationism: My Speech

A slightly modified but not necessarily better version. Crippled by all the f**king shivering. I did NOT know I had that much stage fright! I don’t! I don’t balk from going on stage, like the majority of people I know. In fact, I even particularly relish the idea of speaking out for something I already believe in, like I did last night. I was perfectly fine when i went on stage- aside from tripping on the judge’s suitcase but then come on, he kept it on the steps!!- but once I start to speak…my fingers were trembling and I just couldn’t force a smile. The speech wasn’t necessarily all that fabulous, but I can’t help thinking that if I delivered it a little better, we could easily have got something decent. Anyway, here’s the speech.

The distinguished philosopher Philip Kitcher once said that creationism was not so much a dead science or a pseudo science as it is a zombie science…even though it has effectively been disproved several decades ago, it continues to rear up its ugly head and drool blood over the scientific cornerstone of evolution. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Nikhil Punnoose, and if my gory metaphors weren’t clear enough, I will be speaking against the motion*.

There are several parts to this topic that make it rather easy to refute. The foremost is that it refers to creationism, a term that is now reserved for the more outrageous theories with explicit-as opposed to thinly veiled-theistic motivations. Creationism can mean anything from God creating the earth in six days to the entire universe being sneezed out by the Great Green Arkleseisure. I will not take a swipe at the straw man that has been so conveniently set up for me, but instead look at it’s more “scientific”** cousin, intelligent design. Alas, here also we run into the obvious difficulty:

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has stated that “creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science.” In other words, “If ideas are based upon purported forces outside of nature, they cannot be tested using scientific methods.” The only leap of faith that needs to be made from this before we decide that creationism should not be given any sort of space in a class room is a rather obvious one: science classrooms should teach science, not the whims and fancies of men that happened to have been transmitted down the centuries through our respective scriptures.

This is not to say that what has not been proved yet can never be true. There are several examples that spring to mind, likeNewtonian vs. Einsteinian physics, or the then-obvious idea that the atom is indivisible. However, we can agree that any reasonable decision making procedure requires us to accept, however temporarily, that something that has an overwhelmingly high probability of being true IS true, unless fresh objections can be made for it.  When the consensus shifts to creationism as a reasonable theory of origin, we can discuss it in classrooms. What will plan to teach is NOT ground breaking research, but the introduction of the already largely-discredited theory.

A friend of mine argued, “but why not simply take a few hours to teach it in a classroom? What’s the harm?” What’s the harm? The harm is, we are NOT talking about a couple of hours here. We are talking about clarity of concept, of making sure that the students get the right view of reality, not a distorted one, not one that weighs improbable theories at higher probabilities than they would be given in any real scientific institution.

I speak to you as a man who is truly afraid of the prevailing trends and climate of opinion in countries like the United States. Given the scientific consensus on evolution, the only reason we have to even consider introducing creationism in schools is based on superstition, not reason. I see this motion not simply as a clash of two scientific viewpoints, or some intellectual concern over the contents of high school textbooks. I see it as one of the last frontiers of the oldest battle ever fought, between the enlightening power of science and rationality and the false, if comforting, darkness of myth and superstition, and sincerely hope that we don’t let darkness carry the day. Thank you.

Ok, so the last paragraph is admittedly a bit over the top. I had all these plans for saying it,too: drop the paper, look up at everyone, pause, lower my voice(and bring the mike closer) and then slowly say it. I even practised! But when it got to the real thing, despite not being all THAT short of time, I ended up not pausing and not slowing down, just going full steam ahead, which clearly robs it of its impact. If that weren’t enough, I ended up fumbling: comforting, if false as opposed to false, if comforting, which totally screws up the meaning. Anyway, we placed 8th, which IS a position i.e. my hostel gets points in the larger inter-hostel tournament, so it wasn;t a total loss. Dammit, I’m going for Saarang, and I am NOT going to screw it up!

*Where the motion is: “The House believes that Creationism is a worldview that is steadfastly held by many to be true, and hence deserves to be taught in classrooms on an equal footing as Evolution, which is part of a different, scientific worldview.”

**I did/planned to do air quotes here 🙂

More on the Markets

Warren Buffett gives reasonable, and frankly obvious, advice. Too bad it only applies to people who have enough money saved up (and coming in) that they don’t have to worry about how to survive over the next couple of months.

Hilarious and pointed article at The Onion: the next bubble.

Bad news for the markets is good news for Obama; although I have to say, the more I read about his economic policies, the more I hope that he’s just a really charismatic liar.(And why I wouldn’t have a problem with that as long as he’s not stupid as well is a whole other post.

And speaking about the election and Obama raising taxes on the rich: how can you explain this?

From MR:

The Bush administration, having entered office as social conservatives, leaves office as conservative socialists, proprietors of the most sudden large expansion of the state’s role in the US economy since mobilisation for the second world war.

Oh, and of course: Sensex dips below 10K.

Redirect: on Reservations

To The Slow Painful Death of Secularism, mostly because I’ve left a pretty huge comment there, in response to another even larger comment. The post isn’t actually as dramatic as the title sounds, just the prestidigitator expressing his surprise and dismay in a few short paragraphs over the new reservations policy, and the remarks of a priest at a televised debate over the NRP. It’s mildly interesting. Far more serious to me, of course, is the utterly dimwitted plan to put reservations for FACULTY at the IITs, IIMs, and IISc s, something that i sincerely hope will only be phased in after I graduate. Here’s a link to the story. Here’s a link to a petition to revoke the above idiotic proposal, although I doubt it will do any good. On the other hand, taking the 1 minute to express your sanity might make you feel a little better.

Just in case the idea does NOT strike you as ridiculous, recall that faculty reservations will have a much more severely degrading influence on the academic quality of the institute, with a substantially reduced possible benefit (being restricted to the few additional, unqualified new lecturers), as compared to student reservations. Which is something else I don’t like, but more because they’re unfair than because they are clearly ridiculous. But I digress. Even if one is willing to accept that students who score far lower than their peers on the selection test will do as well given proper training, it is easy enough to see that both groups of students will suffer immensely without it. And the chances are far higher that a lecturer selected on the basis of caste will do a much worse job than one selected on the basis of merit. I’m not saying it’s impossible for someone selected on the basis of caste to do the job as well as existing faculty, simply that its less likely. And given that this decision will help only a few backward caste academics, probably at the expense of the far greater number of students in all the premier institutes, the (damn it, I AM going to say it!!!) brightest minds of the country, wouldn’t it make sense to be a little less haphazard?

Another important factor is that most IIT faculty (at least, the ones I know) have taken significant pay cuts to work in what they consider an institute of academic excellence, in the company of the BMotC. They work  because of their belief that they are doing something for the country, for the students, and for science and learning in general. Take away that belief, and then we’ll REALLY be f*cked.

Just my two cents. I expect a quick search will deliver far more detailed criticisms( my own quick search didn’t find many endorsements, but I’m sure they are out there as well). Am home, so posting frequency will be reduced.

Authority, Obedience and Indoctrination

I think I’m coming off as more and more anarchist in these pages, but I thought this made sense. The extract is from a comment, not from the original post, which spoke about how cops would “like” to police, which as far as I was concerned was simply a listing of various types of police brutailty, the only difference being that they did it to the “bad guys”. Vigilantism, in other words. So if you’re interested, read the post, then scroll down for this comment. The commenter refers to “America”, but you can probably use the same language for any organized society. Even more ours than theirs, I think.

How Cops Really Want to Police – Freakonomics – Opinion – New York Times Blog

I don’t think the primary trouble is with the cops. The cops are made possible by a society with an ethos that the good is simply something that you do because you ‘have to’, because you ought, because you owe it to society, and that all human civilisation rests upon authority and obedience. The parents, the churches, the class structure teach everyone that a person who doesn’t obey the tribe and play its game is a threat to everyone else. The tolerance of police thuggery is but a consequence.

The hideous comments David Houser alluded to show that the essential problem is not internal to police culture- people in the larger society think that you have to keep order, no matter what. They treat their wives and children and employees this way- and even if they are the wives and the children and the employees they probably don’t question the basic view of human beings and society which inevitably leads to people being tasered to make them ‘behave’. They just get upset that someone else is on top (and never mind that when you have this atavistic morality, men of prestige and violence will always come out on top.)

This is the reason it has been impossible to rally ineffective opposition to authoritarianism in America- people don’t object to authoritarianism because they share its mind- even most libertarians and progressives. Here, the libertarians merely obsess that the authority is wielded by the state and not civil society and the most of the left is more concerned with the fact that one group is lording it over another than with the ethos of authority shared by all the groups.

Everyone paying attention knows by now that America has a gulag scale prison system where rape and torture are simple part of the social order. And yet it is impossible to get significant numbers of people to care. Yes, this is because the system continually rewards the type of people that don’t care- but the ‘system’ starts in childhood and doesn’t change much across class lines; even if the oligarchy helped create this kind of culture (and it clearly and consciously did in the last generation and a half), today the oligarchy’s values are shared by the public at large. In fact to a large degree I think the authoritarianism of the American public makes an oligarchy inevitable. If the elite and the cops were to disappear tomorrow, the public would rise up a new elite and a new set of cops as bad as the old ones.

The police conduct the worst and most direct physical brutality, yes. They’re bastards- I’ve certainly [got] myself a few stories. But what makes it possible is all the ‘good Germans’… er, ‘good Americans’- all the nice everday people who teach their kids from day zero to conform and obey if they want to get ahead; who prize ‘getting ahead’ (and ‘getting along’) more than integrity or happiness; who believe that we have to stuff our humanity down deep if we’re to be civil to everyone else and hide miserable nastiness under suffocating demands for public neatness and politeness.

The dominant cultures in America take it as common sense that rights are mainly the property of ‘good citizens’, which primarily means those people who are best at showing their compliance to others. American meritocracy has become a system which is ‘individualist’ only in the sense that it expects people to ruthless compete with each other to see who is best at conforming and obeying, and in the sense that the most idiotic forms to personal gratification are available to those who win the bloody game well enough.

People can’t complain about police abuses because they share the premises of the police. When people revere the inner policeman in their hearts (or the big one in the sky) as the most necessary part of their souls, they will never be effective at combating even gross and obvious police brutality because they share the mindset that causes it and only object to the last consequence of visible violence and blood. Patriarchs who believe women should keep in their place can’t stop wife-beating even when they genuinely believe in paternalism without violence. The ‘good patriarchs’ endlessly blame the ‘bad patriarchs’ and never get that the difference between the two is merely one of degree and circumstance. And unfortunately in patriarchy most of the wives feel the same way (they’ve been brought up with the same values, and survive to the degree they adopt them), and their absolutely just complaints about their own oppression too often translate merely into more demands for resources to put down the bad patriarchs without any challenge to the system. American police statism is simply the bad patriarch of a generally authoritarian culture.

The average German in Hitler’s time probably didn’t want to murder Jews, but shared a warped view of society, ethics, and history which caused them to see Jews as a ‘problem’. Similarly, the average American today probably doesn’t believe that gays, social deviants, drug users, poor people, or whatever should be treated in the way they are. But they don’t do anything to stop it because they do basically feel that such people aren’t being good and behaving as they ‘ought to’ (and ‘ought to’ no matter what was done to them or what real chance they have to do anything else). They don’t believe gay men should be bashed but do believe gay men are a threat to others, or at least bad people for being themselves at the ‘expense’ of others’ conventions. They believe that poor people must be bad if they didn’t succeed because they take for granted a respect for the virtues which result in success in a heirarchical society. It’s all just parents beating on children in the sincere (and of course also ideological) belief that they are performing the most necessity of social duties and defending good by beating down the bad.

The good Americans abhor the means but share the ends, and no matter how obvious it becomes that the ends necessitate the means they won’t give up on them because their bedrock sense of morality and personal identity makes these ends the unchallengable basics of civilised life. If you believe that civilisation depends on everyone working hard in order to be rewarded for serving the group you will not be able to prevent thugs from coming to power on the promise that they will make everyone do what they ought to do anyway. It’s not the thugs that did it. It’s the non-thugs who falsely believe that the thug’s virtues are responsible for everything good and true in this world.

Nothing can change the direction of the political system as long as these values pervade a culture. Most attempts to prevent the disaster include in themselves the worldview which causes it, and those that do not simply have no traction and appeal with mainstream society because they implicitly or explicitly contradict its basic understandings. We now have a homo Americanus to match homo Sovieticus- a new competitive, commercial, it’s-all-your-fault, ‘devil-take-the-hindmost’ variety of collectivist soul.

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Revisiting Libertarian Paternalism

Spurred on by the interest Niketh showed in the subject, I hereby present what is mainly a collection of links that anyone who cares enough to google “Libertarian Paternalism” can find. I’m just putting it here so that you can see it anyway…something that just happens to be the essence of libertarian paternalism 🙂 . Not that I’m taking a definite side yet, there seem to be quite a few difficulties, as Becker and Posner point out below.

First, the paper that started it all…it’s about 45 pages so I doubt anyone will read all of it, although its very well written and eminently readable:

University of Chicago Law School > Working papers
1 – 99

43. Cass R. Sunstein and Richard H. Thaler, Libertarian Paternalism Is Not an Oxymoron (May 2003). For all those who don’t want to wade through the other papers, PDF Here.

A Clarification post by the authors of the same pioneering document at the University of Chicago Law School Faculty’s blog, here. This one deals with some of the issues raised by Becker and Posner below, although probably not fully.

The University of Chicago Law School Faculty Blog: Libertarian Paternalism

What libertarian paternalists add is that the opposition between “individual choice” and “government” is confusing and unhelpful when government is inevitably establishing default rules that govern outcomes if choices haven’t been specifically made — and that influence people’s choices in any case. A key point, then, is that private and public institutions can’t possibly avoid a form of paternalism, so long as they establish default rules and starting points.

A critique of the whole concept based on the struggle between a “stronger” and “weaker” self at the Becker-Posner blog, here. By the way, for anyone even marginally interested in economics this is a must-read, along with Marginal Revolution, Freakonomics and Greg Mankiw’s blog. Too bad most of it deals with US-specific stuff.

The Becker-Posner Blog: Libertarian Paternalism: A Critique–BECKER

A libertarian paternalist is happy to accept information arguments for government regulation of behavior, but typically stresses other considerations. One of the best statements of this view argues that “Equipped with an understanding of behavioral findings of bounded rationality and bounded self-control, libertarian paternalists should attempt to steer people’s choices in welfare-promoting directions without eliminating freedom of choice. It is also possible to show how a libertarian paternalist might select among the possible options and to assess how much choice to offer.” Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, “Libertarian Paternalism is Not an Oxymoron”, University of Chicago Law Review, 70(4), Fall, 2003; for a strong response, see Daniel Klein, “Status Quo Bias”, Econ Journal Watch, August 2004.

If not literally an oxymoron, the term “libertarian paternalism” is, I believe, awfully close to it.

And another critique at a blog that seems very decent, although not as oft-cited as the ones above:

Will Wilkinson / The Fly Bottle » Blog Archive » The Hazards of “Libertarian Paternalism” and Political “Choice Architecture”

The thing is, we often rightly resent their attempts to manipulate us, but at least we are more or less in control of our exposure to such people. But when choice architecture is implemented politically, we cannot opt out of these attempts at manipulation, attempts which may or may not be benign. That’s a big problem because political choice architecture may do a great deal to shape us, even if, in its “libertarian paternalist” incarnation, it makes a show of leaving the ultimate choice open to individuals. For example, I would object if President John McCain implemented a policy of opt-out national service because such a policy would communicate all-too-clearly that individuals need some kind of special justification or rationale not to serve the state. The default rule itself contains meaningful content. If allowed to stand, such a policy could shape norms and individual preferences in a direction antagonistic to the value of autonomy. Soon enough we might find ourselves asking, “Why should you be able to opt out at all?” The paternalistic nudge may “leave the choice open” but accepting the legitimacy of certain nudges may imperil liberty.

Yes, I do know practically no one will read any of this, even if they bother clicking, but hey, it took 15 minutes…

Libertarian Paternalism

I know it sounds confusing, but give it a chance! First sighted at:

Nudge – Freakonomics – Opinion – New York Times Blog

Since people don’t think very hard about the choices they make, it is a lot easier to trick them into doing what you want than to try to educate them or incentivize them to change their behavior. There are many ways to trick people, but one of the easiest is simply by giving thought to the way choices are arrayed to them, or what they call “choice architecture.”

Not the first time I’ve heard of the concept,though, I believe my father’s used it more than once to get us to do what he wants at home :).

PS: Working on something all of my own, unlike pretty much everything else I’ve written, but too scared to publish- will get the nerve soon, watch this space.

Big Brother is Watching

I’ve thought- but not posted, I think- about this before: lack of privacy on the Internet. This story is about Google turning Evil, a terrifying(ly possible) prospect.


Even more astounding is that practically no one seems to give a damn. I’m not saying live in fear: I’m posting this using MY Google Account, after all- but live a little more carefully. Encrypt. Use anonymizers like Tor. Or better ones – Tor’s exits can be easily monitored, and if you don’t encrypt you’re just an insignificant bit ahead. Of course, there’s the “I have nothing to hide” argument, but in an increasingly authoritarian, conservative, “that’s EVIL” world that seems to be getting worse, searching for the wrong kind of porn might be enough.

Goodbye Terri!

I think most of us are already familiar with the story of Terri Schiavo.Or as of now the late Theresa Marie Schiavo. For those who are not, then in a nutshell the whole controversy is about a woman named Terri, who is in what the experts call a “permanent vegetative state”. Her husband says she wouldn’t have wanted to live like this. Her parents disagree. Very, very, vehemently.

Enough for them to file appeal after lawsuit after appeal after media campaign. And get everybody who’s anybody involved in their struggle:Vatican officials, U.S. President George W. Bush, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, many Republicans, and several Democrats in the Florida Legislature and U.S. Congress have sided with Mrs. Schiavo’s parents. Other groups and individuals, including the American Civil Liberties Union as well as many Democratic and several Republican legislators, have expressed support for the position of Michael Schiavo.However, in spite of their enormous publicity campaign, they’ve failed. Judges at the I’m going to be very,very callous for a minute,in two ways, because I think someone needs to be. The Democrats – the one’s who AREN’T “pro-life”, whatever that means – are pretty much hands-off the issue because they don’t think they can afford to be seen as such. But I guess that’s the advantage of not standing for election…I can write what I want.

First, the “acceptable callousness”: I don’t see what “culture of life” argument can convince a thinking populace to vote to keep alive something that just isn’t what it seems to be. Terry Schiavo is now just a “shadow of the past”,and we should have the sense to recognize when something is alive and when it is merely a shell.

Second, the bitterer pill to swallow: WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS? I mean I agree, this is a human life here, and there can never be a price tag put on life, but very seriously, I think this is a little too much. Especially considering the fact that, for the stupendous amount of money that was spent on this case, so many lives – full, able lives, of young children, 20,000 or so of whom die everyday of such easily solvable problems of poverty, disease and hunger, if given the required money – and I think it’s just ridiculous that we’re raking up this much of a controversy over such an easily judged question…there is no culture of life that cannot distinguish a human life from an inanimate shell, or the immeasurable vitality of the human mind from an insensate brain.And, following my new and strict policy of writing shorter posts, over and out.You’ll find more than enough information on the case on the web : that, as I mentioned, is the problem. Ciao.