Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Achilles Heel of (Neoclassical) Economics

Economic theory is counterintuitive for a lot of people. Many just don't like it and think it's a load of hooey. Not understanding something, or just not liking something is not an excuse for throwing out a set of methodologies, and a body of knowledge, that a lot of really smart people have put a lot of hard work into. Economic theory provides a lot of good insights because it's counterintuitive, and provides a good forum for honest discussion among opposing but honestly held views.

But that funny feeling of discomfort can be justifiable. And sometimes economics is the wrong forum for discussion. That won't sit well with anyone who subscribes to a worldview more or less made up of clearing markets, perfect information, and perfectly rational individuals. That's ok, there's no need to accept someone else's views when their ground in what Karl Popper (a neoclassical darling, and smart guy in his own right) would call metaphysics.. Metaphysics can pose as science, but actually isn't. Scientific propositions can be proven wrong, metaphysical ones, propositions in issues such as identity and moral values, cannot be.

Value theory is firmly in the metaphysical camp but it underlies many of the assumptions that allow us to practice economics as we currently do. Sadly, the profession has done little work the implications of these nonscientific assumptions underlying its work. This is partly because there isn't any way to scientifically resolve the issues broached by value theory. This is also because broaching the subject will lead to all types of heated discussion and undermine the scientific legitimacy of the profession in society at large. This is unfortunate, because the profession currently has little insight to offer us on our current "jobless" recovery. In fact, you can't actually understand what an economy is without some understanding of value theory. This article has a very good primer on the value theory of classical political economists such as Adam Smith in contrast with that of the current day orthodoxy from the "marginalist revolution." You can dig into Phil Mirowski's More Heat Than Light for a more (math!) rigorous exposition on the subject.

So if an economist seems like he's being a jerk, it may be because you don't understand what he's saying. Maybe you're the jerk. Or maybe he just is a jerk, and he doesn't understand what he's saying. But at any rate, it pays to know whether the issue at hand can be objectively resolved, or whether you should be discussing legitimate moral and ethical values that underly the disagreement.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Placeholder Post: The Role of Metaphysics in Organizing Knowledge

The role of metaphysics in Popper's writing is that of a pseudoscience. But positive science science has not provided us clear guides to how to live our lives, or even how to interpret most knowledge in human terms. I will discuss role of humility, such as that of Orwell, in making metaphysical assertions that cannot be tied to objective truths.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Tension and Collapse

Working on a post on why tensions, paradoxes, and ultimate irreducibility of a system makes for an ultimately stronger, more robust system.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Evaluating the Concept of Political Positions Through the Frame of Sports

Sports and politics both use the term position quite a bit. In both it brings to mind a point in some frame of reference, in sports the field of play, in politics some sort of spectrum of ideas organized ideologically. In both, we get the picture of someone standing at some specific location or general area either on a field or in idealized political space. Stance and posture are also applicable, reflecting tendencies or dispositions of individuals or teams in the respective spheres.

In some ways, it’s incredibly odd that we apply physical analogies directly to politics. In the West, we don’t tend to seamlessly traffic between the physical and the ideal (and even if we do, there is no commonly accepted framework on how to do it). Yes, it’s intuitively a good way to convey information since we all have an understanding of position and stance are from our day to day lives. But it promotes sloppy thinking, partly because politics inhabits more dimensions than a sports field, and partly because our understanding of these physical analogies in sports is far superior to our understanding in politics, simply because the applications of physical analogies take place right before our eyes and are easy to communicate what happened in a specific case and thus build more sophisticated understandings of what the general physical analogies mean.

Political space at first seems very intuitive, a line running from left to right and various positions on issues marked on that line. But then we have to account for libertarians and more populist consevativism a la Huckabee and we now have two dimensions, socially liberal-socially conservative, fiscally liberal-fiscally conservative. We can put women’s rights in the socially liberal box, and restrictive positions on abortion in the socially conservative box. Animal rights and environmentalism in the socially liberal boxes (but maybe pull ‘em out of the fiscally conservative one) and gun rights over in the socially conservative. But how do you represent duck hunters, who are pro gun rights, but also want their hunting grounds protected. What local food movements and their general anti-regulatory/anti corporate postions? What about the migration of political positions such as those espoused by neo-conservatism from being generally left wing positions to being right wing ones? I’ve lost track of how many dimensions we have now. And even if we could sort them out, the political space and the positions issues occupy within the space are no longer intuitive.

Our political space is now volatized, and revealed for what it is. A quick way of lumping very complicated issues into simple categories. How we lump depends a lot more on the immediate political environment and our emotional and ideological prejudices, than any inherent content or interrelation of the issues or ideas themselves.

And even if we are able to find a way to adequately represent political space, knowing the position a person takes, tells us very little about the person, and may not tell us anything about their general political stance. Are they there because of how it relates to their core belief system? Is it a position they inherited uncritically from others? Are they there because they are seeking political gain and they think other people will like it? Are they there because they’re stupid and have no real clue how the world works and are ignoring all the evidence staring them in their face. Idiot.

Anyway, it’s very hard to know without a personal knowledge of the person and the process by which they came about that position. And since you tend to treat positions that you don’t agree with more critically, it’s not always easy to evaluate the validity of your own position on said issue. What you can evaluate, is consistency, which acts as a proxy for whether that position is connected to a coherent core belief system, i.e. they’re principled, or they’re stubborn or stupid, but at any rate you can’t rule out principled. If they seem to move around a lot, they may be confused, not really have thought things through, or be trying to maneuver to get themselves out of uncomfortable positions or just create conflict for no good reason. So we tend to associate consistency with being principled. Given the issues raised above, this is another short-cut, and given that political actors will try to appear consistent so they appear to be principled, another distortion and promoter of sloppy thinking, the old hobgoblin of small minds.

So let’s go back to sports. I play a fair amount of pick-up soccer, so I’m going to use it for my analogies out of familiarity. We have position used in terms of the general area on the field each player occupies. We also have position used in terms of where ball is on the field. The amount of time that the ball spends on one side of the field gives us a general, but not a definite metric, of which team is pushing more aggressively against the other. Of course, this doesn’t tell us definitively who is doing better, because the team with the ball on its side of the field the most may have a vicious counterattack and so may be up on the one metric that matters, how many times it positions the ball in the other team’s net. At any rate, we have a nice consistent two dimensional field to work with.

There are non-instrumental aspects of the game, just as there are non-instrumental aspects to politics. Who puts the ball in the goal matters, whether individual players or the coach get credit or blame for the win or loss matters, whether fair play was followed matters, and general style preferences and personal rivalries and egos also matter. But let’s set those aside and agree for now that, all things being equal, the team wants to put as many goals in the opponent’s goal as it can, while minimizing those scored on it.

So we have our players in their respective "fixed" positions, and generally, we want to recover the ball from the opponent and put it upfield and take a shot on the goal. For the team to be effective the forwards need to stay up, the defenders back, and the defenders will recover the ball from the opponent. If everyone is in their correct positions as organized at the beginning of the game we can get some quick passes up the field and take a shot on goal. Maybe it goes in, maybe it doesn’t, but the opponent then counterattacks, sending quick passes up the field to his players in their respective positions, takes a shot and misses or scores.

Well, this is kinda a silly game. And you feel like you can do better, so you let your players move around a little to block your opponent’s passing lanes. Your opponent adapts and does the same thing and now no one is getting really close to the goals. But by chance or astute observation you start notice, that your opponent’s defensive formations admit certain weaknesses against certain attacks. Maybe a chip over the defense by a midfielder to a sprinting forward creates an opening far up field in front to the goal. Maybe a give and go by the midfielder to the forward allows the midfielder a space he can run into to take a shot on goal.

Maybe the other team starts looking for the chip over the defenders? Well that might open up opportunities for the give and go and vice versa. A good dribble might open up a new line of attack as might a quick and accurate pass. The players positions become less defined, we start expecting them to display judgement, to make opportunities and be creative. The coach’s role becomes less to tell the players exactly what to do, but rather find ways to exploit and maximize their talents for the benefit of the team. What becomes more important are "relational" principles such maintaining good shape in regards to teammates and opponents, maintaining ball control, and creating space in the opponent’s position that can be exploited. The players gain a lot of flexibility in how they move around the field, and can create a lot of vulnerabilities in the opponent’s position, provide they can hue to these principles. But this flexibility is premised on players looking at their relations to other players, as opposed to their fixed position in regards to the field.

So a show boating but inpredictable player such as business might have a place on the team. Yeah, he may be erratic, and lose the ball trying to do what cannot be done, but the bursts of brilliance may rescue a lost game. An unflashy, slow, but predictable workhorse such as government may also have a place feeding balls to old business. Replication and predictability can pay big dividends in the midfield and backfield. But we’ve got to make sure they keep their egos out of it, ‘cause they’ve got very different styles.

This added flexibility may go wrong and lead to vulnerabilities. In trying to innovate players may leave their established positions, and if other players don’t or can’t cover for them, the team is very vulnerable. Under the old, fixed system, the responsibilities of the players were clear, stay in your positions. But with more flexibility, the problem may not be that the player left the position, but that no one else covered for him, or he didn’t get the pass he made the run for. At the same time, if he stays in his position, he may not be making the run, or covering for another player. So when someone is “out of position” in the old, inflexible system we know who bears the responsibility. In the new system, the fixed and the flexible are not necessarily distinguishable. The team bears responsibility for the success or failures on the field. Flexibility can lead to brilliance as it innovates on and even discovers new principles and fundamentals, or it can become a mess, a collapse into chaos as players each try out their own ideas with total lack of coordination.

Fundamentalisms (of which I hold Libertarianism to be one) are the ideologies and theologies of such a collapse. They grow out of a collapse in faith in the team in the above case or in our modern world, our political, economic, and ethical systems. They find what they take to be an absolute truth (“government is bad,” “abortion is murder”) that they believe can be fully extricated from the noise of the old, multidimensional order and try to build a new ethical and social order on it. This new order is pure and true because it is built on these absolute ethical precepts. We know the role of God, we know the role of men and women, we know the role of business, we know the role of government. Agency is only given to those worthy of it. For Christian fundamentalists, there is no positive agency that the individual can have, the individual can only be a moral agent as he does God’s work. For Libertarians, government can have no positive agency, anything the government does that is not narrowly prescribed is defined as necessarily bad by the ideology.

Whether fundamentalism is necessary depends on whether the systems of the current order are indeed headed towards collapse, a subject I will address in future posts. But make no mistake, by denying agency to many potential actors a fundamentalist system is far less adaptable and effective than a highly functioning flexible system. Fundamentalist systems are also uniquely unsuited to deal with other fundamentalist systems, though they can derive substantial strength and certainty from the conflict generated. We will see in the coming decades whether our institutions can deal with the fundamentalist challenge and address the systemic issues that gave rise to the challenge.