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Conscientiousness

I’ve received a ton of correspondence about the role computers may play in the future of central planning. My responses are generally of the following nature:

(1) If computing power and complexity improved to the extent that we COULD in principle do central planning, we would NOT NEED them to do central planning.

(2) I suspect that our problems would get worse, not better.

Here is a nice discussion of the computing challenges:

But, and this is I think something Marx did not sufficiently appreciate, human beings confront all the structures which emerge from our massed interactions in this way. A bureaucracy, or even a thoroughly democratic polity of which one is a citizen, can feel, can be, just as much of a cold monster as the market. We have no choice but to live among these alien powers which we create, and to try to direct them to human ends. It is beyond us, it is even beyond all of us, to find “a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all”, which says how everyone should go. What we can do is try to find the specific ways in which these powers we have conjured up are hurting us, and use them to check each other, or deflect them into better paths. Sometimes this will mean more use of market mechanisms, sometimes it will mean removing some goods and services from market allocation, either through public provision7 or through other institutional arrangements8. Sometimes it will mean expanding the scope of democratic decision-making (for instance, into the insides of firms), and sometimes it will mean narrowing its scope (for instance, not allowing the demos to censor speech it finds objectionable). Sometimes it will mean leaving some tasks to experts, deferring to the internal norms of their professions, and sometimes it will mean recognizing claims of expertise to be mere assertions of authority, to be resisted or countered.

Given the myriad ways that our “elite” colleges and universities massage and manipulate admissions data, financial aid data, yield data, alumni giving data, who teaches classes, and so on (often in order to increase their “profits”, often in order to stay high up in the rankings, etc.), how can we take seriously the idea that they are the active promoters of the public good? If, at the very core, our universities and colleges are manipulating and deceiving students, families, taxpayers and onlookers about how selective they really are, about how their finances are really working, about what it takes to be admitted to a college and so on, what gives us any confidence that the rest of the enterprise is operating the “way we think” it should be running?

 

I just finished reading Peter Brannen’s interesting book on the five previous major mass extinctions that have struck planet Earth. It is, of course, a book that is very much intended to warn us that we are on our way to the sixth if we do not keep carbon dioxide levels low (CO2 ramp ups and downs are a major factor in all previous extinctions). I am not here to debate that or provide some context, instead, I just wanted to demonstrate what is not going to get people of goodwill to take arguments seriously, especially us economists who are trying to get a better handle on these sorts of things. Here he is on Page 259 (and there is plenty more of this throughout the book, if less direct):

The fate of the world, then, becomes an easily calculable cost-benefit analysis, one amenable to smug op-eds by economists. The corn belt will shift north by so and so degrees latitude, the GDP of certain countries will respond in mind, and it’s all very orderly and predictable.

As many readers know, this has almost become the default view of economists. Simply calling the tool of cost-benefit analysis a pejorative name like “economisticy” of course doesn’t actually count as a serious argument. What is funny about the above quote is that many serious economists are very much wedded to the idea of epistemic humility and modestly in the name of highly uncertain complex processes. So as we apply a health dose of skepticism to very closely model out complex interactions in a crazy global ecological “system” we, too, are skeptical of being able to model out how humans may or may not respond in a very complex social world. But, the argument above is taking the planning economists among us, who may not be very skeptical of our ability to model these things out, and having them “speak” for the profession. Furthermore, the skepticism of we economists about our ability to really understand a highly causal density social world seems to meld nicely with a humble approach to climate and extinctions. I have no idea how the climate will respond going forward, and how likely various tipping points will be in the global ecological niches out there. That doesn’t mean we ignore them, it doesn’t mean we downgrade them or upgrade them, it means we have an open mind to the possibility that we just don’t know, in either direction, what might go on, and think hard about how to navigate a world where this kind of uncertainty pervades.

I wonder if authors take the time to seriously read and think about the ideas of the folks they condemn. We obviously can’t expect everyone to read everything – does the author really think the typical economist who studies ecological questions really things the world is very orderly and predictable? Even if said economists are using models as a way to get a grip on what ways we can connect cause and effect, does that mean economists think the world works that way? Would the author take a similarly skeptical view of the guys doing climate modeling? After all, the GCMs don’t seem to be able to include tipping points in them, they have all kinds of linearities built into them, they include fudge factors to calibrate them, they can’t possibly model the interactions between all of the importance ecosystems impacted by changes in forcings, etc. Yet there is not a shred of evidence in the book that the author is concerned about the quality of the results from climate models So in one hand he holds the idea that if humans keep doing so and so to the planet, then X will happen, and on the other hand, he rejects the economists who may be doing the same thing.

In any case, the book is a fun read, so long as you can get past the every other page insinuation that carbon dioxide is going to kill everything again (he rolls it back at the end, a bit) and is helpful in thinking about how the end times end up happening.

Next up: Chris Thomas’ Inheritors of the Earth. I’m curious how it compares to Emma Maris’ Rambunctious Garden, which I recommend. Of course, Thomas’ book is really popular, here is an Amazon review:

on December 19, 2017
Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book but I just read his interview in Vox. This man is completely insane. He considers breeds of dogs and other domesticated animals to be new species (complete hogwash). He somehow equates invasive species to be indicative of biodiversity when they have a completely inverse relationship. He is a disgrace to the field of conservation biology, if that’s what he is claiming he represents.
Or how about this one:
Lots more too:

Very true. The word “cherrypick” provides a perfect description for the examples the author uses to hide his bizarre agenda under the guise of “science”. Of course some piece of nature will thrive after any extinction. Bulldoze a rainforest and there will be at least one species that benefits from the ecological vacuum you’ve created–a third grader could tell you that. The author seems to think his cherrypicked examples justify a hands-off approach to invasive species and other biodiversity disasters.

In the field of conservation, so many people are looking to save themselves from the heartache of watching constant biodiversity loss. Sadly, the opiate-like effects of pretending there’s not a problem are so appetizing that many environmentalists eagerly swallow these ideas whole. But there are plenty of reasons for hope in conservation! I’ll choose to be optimistic and strive for further conservation success, long before I numb my conscience by pretending humanity’s obliteration of other life is simply the new norm.

One of my son’s favorite books at the moment is the Book of General Ignorance. In today’s lesson, he informs me that none of kilts, bagpipes, haggis, porridge, whisky and tartan that we so readily identify as authentically Scottish actually emanates from Scotland.

While kilts seem to have been invented by the Irish (who are closely related to the Scots, as a Celtic tribe from Ireland were the first settlers in what is now Scotland), the term is Danish. Bagpipes? Central Asia – and likely carried to Europe by the Romans. Haggis? Greek. Oak porridge? Found in bog bodies of 5,000 year old neolithic northern Europeans. Whisky? As with most awesome stuff … China. Tartans? Largely made up in 19th century, at least insofar as its relevance to clans.

 

Give them credit for their creativity, again this from Josh Muravchik’s book:

Several thousand Party members had been arrested, and many had been executed,” charged with being members of an antiparty conspiracy, a label borrowed from Stalin’s purges. “Supposed conspiritors were persecuted to devilish cruelty,” continues Salisbury. “One group of local Party leaders was paraded through a village street, each man led by a rusty wire that penetrated his testicles. At the village square, all were shot.”

All in an effort to get some real Communism underway of course. Those darn obstinate reactionaries make it so hard.

Here is Uncle Karl in an 1850 address to the Central Committee of the Communist League (via Josh Muravchik’s work):

the workers must counteract … the bourgeois endeavors to allay the storm, and must compel the democrats to carry out their present terrorist phrases. Their actions must be so aimed as to prevent the direct revolutionary excitement from being suppressed again immediately after the victory. On the contrary, they must keep it alive as long as possible. Far from opposing so-called excesses, instances of popular revenge against hated individuals or public buildings that are associated only with hateful recollections, such instances must not only be tolerated but the leadership of them taken in hand.

In other words … violence.

And in thinking about the prospects of war, here is Muravchek:

In applauding the progressive consequences of war, Engels and Marx did not shirk from facing its destructive effects. They welcomed those, too — if the objects of destruction were regressive or outmoded (Wintercow: in their eyes of course). In this way, entire nations might be consigned to the ash heap of history. Slavs, in particular, needed to be done away with so that more progressive races might reach their fulfillment. Engels declared in Neue Rheinische Zeitung: “The universal war which [is coming] will crush the Slav alliance and will wipe out completely those obstinate peoples so that their very names will be forgotten … [It] will wipe out not only reactionary classes and dynasties but it will also destroy these utterly reactionary races … and that will be a real step forward.” Marx said much the same, looking forward to the “annihilation” of “reactionary races” such as the “Croats, Pandurs, Czechs and similar scum.”

Classy dudes. Damn those obstinate reactionaries.

It is thought that if only artificial intelligence proceeds apace, and computing power increases apace, that the knowledge and information demands imposed by the economic problem could conceivably be dealt with, and then socialist central planning could succeed.

It is thought that if only men were angels, then we could run an economy without having to rely on the self-interest of the butcher and the baker.

We could argue for years about whether in fact that is true.

But …

… IF we had amazing computing power and AI, and IF we had men act as angels … we would not need socialism or central planning in the first place.

 

I enjoyed this Quillette piece. It speaks for itself (I read Vox, I listen to Sam Harris, I read Charles Murray, and all of it) …

Sam Harris was Right; Ezra Klein Should Know Better

Earlier this week, Ph.D. neuroscientist turned pop-philosopher Sam Harris invited Vox Editor-at-Large Ezra Klein to debate Harris on his popular podcast. The topic: Harris’s decision to feature Charles Murray for the purposes of defending him— from charges of racism, on his show last year. Murray is famous in part for writing The Bell Curve, which included a controversial chapter which mentions racial differences in IQ. But this isn’t Klein’s first flirtation with character assassinations.

In case you missed it, Harris and Klein have been feuding publicly since Murray appeared on Harris’s show last year. Vox published a piece attacking Harris for featuring Murray, accusing the two of participating in “pseudoscientific racialist speculation.” Vox then refused to publish a rebuttal written by Richard Haier, respected psychologist and editor-in-chief of the scientific journal Intelligence. (It finally found a home at this publication, here.) Next, Harris released his email correspondence with Klein, and that eventually led to this week’s heated podcast. Mid-way through the podcast, Harris says:

you appear to be willing to believe people… are not speaking with real integrity about data because it serves political ends, and you appear to be willing to help destroy people’s reputations who take the other side of these conversations.

Throughout the conflict, Harris has argued that false claims of racism represent a moral panic that can severely damage the lives of real people, including Murray and himself. Instead, he believes we should dispassionately analyze facts as they are, i.e. scientists need to be able to be scientists. Meanwhile, Klein sees Murray’s scholarship as a tool to harm African Americans, which he justifies by citing Murray’s libertarian beliefs in shrinking government welfare programs.

That view cuts to the core of the difference between the Right and the Left on economic policy: The Right believes a smaller government and a less regulated economy can benefit everyone, especially impoverished minorities who have the most to gain. The Left believes a larger government, along with taxpayer-funded social welfare programs, are the only way to reverse the disparate impact of generations of racism.

The Left, however, is unique in attributing racist tendencies to those who disagree. Ezra Klein is no stranger to this practice, and he’s well aware of how opinion journalists will work together to amplify such slanderous accusations; he witnessed it on his very own platform.

Before founding Vox, Ezra Klein gained notoriety for starting an online listserv for progressive journalists called “JournoList.” Leaked messages from The Daily Caller showed some left-wing opinion journalists in the group attempted to coordinate messages, and suggested members to use certain angles to push their political agendas. JournoList counted influential liberal spokesmen such as Eric Alterman of The Nation, Jeffrey Toobin of CNN, and Paul Krugman of the New York Times, as members.

During the 2008 elections, when Obama’s connection to controversial pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright entered the news, Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent messaged:

What is necessary is to raise the cost on the right of going after the left. In other words, find a rightwinger’s [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take a snapshot of the bleeding mess and send it out in a Christmas card to let the right know that it needs to live in a state of constant fear. Obviously I mean this rhetorically.

And I think this threads the needle. If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they’ve put upon us. Instead, take one of them Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares and call them racists.

Sound like a familiar tactic?

After the JournoList story broke, Ezra Klein shut it down, but then the current Vox editor, Matthew Yglesias, headed up the former members to coordinate their responses in their various outlets to the controversy. Yglesias has also since attacked Harris as a racist on Twitter.

Not all JournoList members agreed on every tactic, and I don’t use its example to allege a vast-left-wing conspiracy, but I use it to show that Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias are familiar with the tactic of slandering opponents as racist and coordinating that narrative behind closed doors. Yet Klein denied doing the same thing to Harris and Murray on this week’s podcast.

Harris accused Klein of acting in bad faith, from the start of this dispute. He walked that back on this week’s podcast, but he was right the first time.

Klein ought to stop deploying the disingenuous journalistic practice of regurgitating falsehoods for political purposes. You’d have thought he’d have learned his lesson the first time with JournoList.

Sam Harris and Ezra Klein’s mutual friend Andrew Sullivan wrote a piece decrying what happened with JournoList: “what’s depressing is the way in which liberal journalists are not responding to events in order to find out the truth, but playing strategic games to cover or not cover events and controversies in order to win a media/political war.”

That quote could just as easily apply to what Klein and Vox have done to Harris and Murray.

 

What is to Be Done?

Perhaps that is not a very funny title, but it comes from this:

Huge Knowledge Gap

OK, I’ll bite. Not as hard as I used to, but I’ll bite.

What is needed is a mandatory course on ethics and the limits of knowledge

Well, “mandatory?” What is the meaning of mandatory? In any case I like the idea that everyone be encouraged to take it. Heck, that’s what used to happen at colleges, until that sort of thing was deemed unacceptable. I doubt Mr. Smith or many others are out there advocating everyone in every discipline take a methodology class and an ethics class (or some combined version), but it ought to happen. Of course, it also should happen in an unbiased setting. And remember, the limits of knowledge, and ethics, probably should be very respected by folks who plan to use the awesome powers of government to direct us in our affairs.

The models they learn in their college classes inform the way they think about the world, even if they don’t end up using them for quantitative purposes after final exams are over.

So, I teach at one of the top 50 universities in the country, and I can assure you that very few of our students take the “models” they learn in college classes and use that to inform the way they think about the world. Indeed, when college kids are tested on how much they learned in college, economics majors seem to do no better on the test a couple years after graduation than if they never took the major at all. And I can assure you that if I gave an impromptu exit exam to our students before we handed them their diplomas in a few weeks, we’d be left with an excess of paper before the ceremony ended. And is there empirical support for Mr. Smith’s claim? Has he at least done a representative survey of professionals to ask them about how they think about the world? Furthermore, does it matter what kids come into college classes thinking about the world? Because not only does it not appear that they do not learn much in college, they seem to come into college with pretty rigid views of how the world works. So should we now start pushing down this discussion earlier into the students’ careers? And which ones?

They learn plenty of models, but they aren’t often taught to think critically about what they learn. At best, they absorb a few ideas from offhand comments by their professors, or from the tone of their textbooks. As a result, many of them leave class with deep reservations over whether economics theories represent real science, or whether economists approach the world in a moral, socially responsible manner.

Again, assuming we can believe much of this, what evidence is there for it? Does it have anything to do with economics? Also, when students walk into a non-economics class, do students leave those classes with deep reservations over whether the theories they are learning there represent real science, or whether their professors approach the world in a moral, socially responsible manner?

We’ll get to the rest in the future.  I find the general topic of epistemology and ethics to be fantastically important, but I do not believe this treatment is doing the issue justice.

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