[T]he great thing in all education is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. . .  A ‘character,’ as J.S. Mill says, “is a completely fashioned will”.

William James, The Laws of Habit

“Taste” is a word and an idea that comes from another time. But I think it’s loss is a big deal. First there’s some good news about its demise. The idea of taste was freighted with class superiority. Good taste is typically taken to be associated with the upper and upper-middle classes. There’s also the idea of taste as setting some bounds on public discussion – which doesn’t have much going for it. So in some ways we’re good to be rid of it. But the upside of taste – the thing we’ve lost – is the idea of a desire that’s not a simple ‘preference’ but somehow an enlightened preference – and one that’s typically acquired. It’s an ability to see a little beyond simple appearances, to allow experience to speak of something deeper than appearances. An object in bad taste typically appeals to the untutored. Before megalomania overcame her, before she became a mega-star, Edna Everage’s schtick involved satirising bad taste by referring to the art-work she liked to have around. Ducks flying across the wall, a picture of Chinese girl with a beautiful green face. She would demonstrate her sense of taste by advising her audience “You can always tell an original. The eyes follow you all around the room”.


A Google n-graph of the use of the expression “good taste” at its height in 1930 and leading up to 1960 as you can see.

And here’s the thing. The death of taste as a cultural resource is killing us. Fast food tastes yummy. It’s scientifically optimised to allow you to mainline unmediated yumminess. When I was a kid and first encountered Kentucky Fried Chicken and then saw McDonalds restaurants I remember thinking that McDonalds would never beat Kentucky because Kentucky was so, so yummy – so rich as all that salt, sugar and oil and those secret herbs and spices made the chicken taste unbelievably good. My fish and chip shop just wasn’t close. Anyway, I was wrong. McDonalds, slightly less in-your-face yummy to my juvenile palate seems to have won that battle. Perhaps Maccas were optimising for my adult palate. Today I find the oiliness of KFC off-putting but I do wolf down a very occasional Maccas hamburger when travelling. I enjoy the utter accessibility of Macca’s scientifically optimised yumminess. It’s not hard to see how I could crave them – well I do crave them actually – but only very rarely.  Continue reading

Holding out against the GotchaBots

I know nothing of Jeremy Corbyn other than that he’s reported to be about to win the leadership of the British Labour Party. The video above was literally the first I’d seen of him. But on looking at it I was struck by the similarity of his interview with the first I saw of Yanis Varoufakis interviewed by a similar GotchaBot. Unfortunately the interview with Varoufakis was removed from YouTube by the BBC almost immediately, but it had the same quality of a person trying to express clear views – with which one might agree or disagree – but being systematically harassed to undermine that effort so that the conversation could be corralled into the grooves of the gotcha talking points of the day.

I know nothing of Liz Kendall either, but as you can see she’s got the talking points schtick down pat and works them into the little crevices left her by the GotchaBot.

I’ve long thought that one of the main reasons that Julia Gillard failed was that she went from the appearance of being a feisty, Deputy Leader who said what she thought to being a talking points ZombieBot. People hate that. I think they do anyway, but that might just be my projection. I really really hate it. It makes me feel like we’re all going mad. Perhaps that’s why Corbyn is winning in the party. Not so much for his ideology, but because people want out of BotWorld.

Theorising in science: theorising in economics

Robert Waldman has a fantastic critique of Paul Romer’s recent missives on economic science. He’s commenting ultimately on why Lucas’s work isn’t such a breakthrough. In it he highlights something of immense importance. It’s hard to think of many developments in economic theory in recent decades to which his observations do not apply. His point is that ‘advances’ in theory tend to be advances in conventions of professional practice, rather than new insights into the world.

General Relativity explained an anomaly … the precession of the perihelion of Mercury… predict[ed]… how much gravity caused light to curve… has yielded a huge number of predictions which fit the data exactly… was easily modified to correspond to an expanding universe…. Physicists are quite sure general relativity is not the truth (because it is inconsistent with quantum mechanics and therefore a lot of data). But it is a very empirically successful theory.

In contrast, the Dixit-Stiglitz example did not attempt to explain anomalies. … The aim was to make models with imperfect competition tractable… an example…. They made a modelling choice… neither would guess that people might actually have Dixit-Stiglitz preferences…. It meant there was a standard way to handle imperfect competition…. [But] there are no general results…. Together the assumptions of imperfect competition and Nash equilibrium imply almost nothing….[Dixit-Stiglitz] made it possible to have the illusion that economic theorists understood imperfect competition, but this was discovery by assuming we have a can opener. The example was fruitful because, once a lot of people decided to explore the same special case, they could discuss its interesting behavior…. Theory can grow if people agree on core assumptions. This is progress if the assumptions are useful approximations. Once a field of economic theory has developed, its core assumptions are no longer vulnerable to data. I do not think the the development of a new branch of theory is necessarily scientific progress. Continue reading

Hayek – left right and centre

My friend Martin Stewart-Weeks points me to this piece by Simon Griffiths which argues that “an engagement with Hayek does not mean a capitulation to the market”. Quite. Indeed it’s always struck me that it’s a pity that Hayek pursued his ideas in such a tendentious way. He had a great critique of the necessary foibles of central planning and he won that debate, even if it took until the fall of the Berlin Wall to really drive the victory home.

I wonder how much this is actually typical of many political philosophers. They start with some ideological intuition they want to support and then produce a set of considerations that tend in that direction. Still I think Hayek’s ideas and sensibilities have plenty of implications that don’t point particularly clearly to the right, implications that Hayek, and sadly, so many of his followers show virtually no interest in. Continue reading

Syriza: the latest disaster for the left

I don’t have much time to offer anything very considered but want to just say how bemused I am at the carryings on of Syriza. The whole sorry business has been horrible to watch with creditors showing no interest in their own self-interest let alone a little enlightenment in their self-interest. But the Syriza Government? I was and remain a huge fan of how coherent and compelling Varoufakis was in articulating his case – of Syriza’s arrival as some kind of circuit breaker that might rescue Europe from itself as it rescued Greece from Europe.

But to negotiate properly, to negotiate as a broke borrower, you have to be able to show how you’re going to make your loan the creditor’s problem – not just your own. That requires a Plan A – in which the creditors and the borrower negotiate some mutually satisfactory settlement and this needs to be done with a Plan B clearly in view in which the creditors lose their shirts – and the borrower recovers.

I’ve always been kind of surprised at Syriza’s commitment to the Euro. Not that it wouldn’t be saying that it would strongly prefer an outcome in which the Euro remains its sole currency, but that that is all contingent on satisfactory negotiation. And to negotiate credibly in that situation one needs a clear Plan B. Perhaps it might make sense to conceal the plan for a while. But here we are at the end game and there’s no Plan B.

The referendum is a bizarre plebiscite on . . . well no-one really knows what it’s about. The Greek people get to vote on whether they will agree to the Troika’s terms. Those terms are not current. They’ve been withdrawn. Now they’ll probably be back on the table if they Greek’s vote ‘Yes’. But if they vote that way – presumably Syriza’s days are numbered – if it doesn’t resign immediately. And if they vote “No”. Well it’s completely unclear what that means other than that the Greek populace are where they were when they elected Syriza which is to say that they don’t want to pay their government’s debts. Well so what? The German populace want them to pay those debts. So where does that get us?

If BHP Billiton owes NAB a billion dollars, it’s not a very compelling result if a plebiscite of its shareholders say they’d rather not repay the loan. So we have Plan A which is that the Europeans offer Greece a deal that they won’t offer them, and Plan A with a tantrum, which is to say that the Greeks come back to the negotiating table saying “you know how we said we really don’t want to repay the loans. Well we really really don’t want to repay the loans. What do you say now?”

And the thing is that this seems of a piece with the left in so many instances – utterly lacking in the courage of what they claim are their convictions.

The generative commons of generalised social capital

Paul Krugman has an interesting blog post on the extent to which there might be contagion from one area of social capital (or lack thereof) to another. He’s responding to the claim CEOs made to him that they only started arcing up their pay demands when they saw sportspeople doing it. And we can all understand the micro-foundations for rises in superstar sportspeople – local sub-urban live audiences morphing into TV audiences at the city, national or global level.

One of the things that’s gradually been happening over the same period is a kind of leeching away of general social solidarity. The most striking aspect of this is a stat I heard on Radio National’s All in the Mind. Asked of the importance of “being very well off financially”

The latest data from 2013 for entering university students here in the US, 82% say that that is an important life goal. And back in the late ’60s and early ’70s only about 45% said that was an important life goal.

Continue reading

Politics in the Courtroom: Political Ideology and Jury Decision Making

by Shamena Anwar, Patrick Bayer, Randi Hjalmarsson. Publication is available here.

This paper uses data from the Gothenburg District Court in Sweden and a research design that exploits the random assignment of politically appointed jurors (termed naemndemaen) to make three contributions to the literature on jury decision-making: (i) an assessment of whether systematic biases exist in the Swedish naemndemaen system, (ii) causal evidence on the impact of juror political party on verdicts, and (iii) an empirical examination of the role of peer effects in jury decision-making. The results reveal a number of systematic biases: convictions for young defendants and those with distinctly Arabic sounding names increase substantially when they are randomly assigned jurors from the far-right (nationalist) Swedish Democrat party, while convictions in cases with a female victim increase markedly when they are assigned jurors from the far-left (feminist) Vaenster party. The results also indicate the presence of peer effects, with jurors from both the far-left and far-right parties drawing the votes of their more centrist peers towards their positions. Peer effects take the form of both sway effects, where jurors influence the opinions of their closest peers in a way that can impact trial outcomes, and dissent aversion, where jurors switch non-pivotal votes so that the decision is unanimous.

Professionalism as tyranny: a liberationist fantasy

‘People of the same trade seldom meet together even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public’ - Adam Smith

Adam Smith put it memorably above. I’ll be forever grateful for my time at the Australian Centre for Social Innovation because it has shown me the generality of that statement. Whether Smith intended it or not, it applies not just to businesspeople of the same trade, but to professions. And it applies not just to the professions whose anti-competitive practices are familiar to us all – lawyers and medical specialists for instance. The behaviour of these high status professions is consistent with the entire sentence from Smith which ends “or some contrivance to drive up prices”.

Some of the lower status professions also try to use their political power to drive up their own wages and, leaving aside the vexed question of the political and economic means by which their campaigns might be waged, I have a lot of sympathy for their desire to be paid and treated better than they are.  I’m talking of teachers and nurses most particularly, but I could be tempted to add academics and various others. However, often in an almost thoroughly well-intentioned way these professions exercise a kind of tyranny in the way they work. They see things in a particular way and, because they are either in charge of or an integral part of the functioning of some important social institution, it gets built around their world view. This is the meaning of the marvellous French expression déformation professionnelle

As I recounted in my speech launching the Centre’s family mentoring programme in Mt Druitt:

These are the words of Mystic (pronounced Mystique). She’s 21 now but was in out of home care since she was 3.

It happened so quickly. Once I turned 18, they sort of kicked me on my arse. They said ‘here’s $750, see you later, thank you’. And I’m just like ‘what the hell?’. A book and $750. That’s for being in care all your life.

Actually it makes you feel like an outsider. It makes you feel non existent on this earth. Like you are an alien. It does. It affects when you go to school too. You’re so used to being called ‘client’ and stuff that you start looking at yourself different to everyone else.

That ladies and gentlemen of the Tropposphere is, to purloin and marvellous expression of William Easterly’s the “cartel of good intentions”, or do-good professionalism as tyranny. Why is this tendency so strong and what could be done about it. Both good questions, but this post is dedicated to a fantasy of how it could be – to a bit of rhetoric. The sentiment might be said to be utopian I guess, but it’s not devoid of seriousness, or even practical import of some kind. Recall that, not only are the professions full of people who have taken them up for real love of the texture of the work, the intrinsic reward for doing it well and for the good they do, but professions are all built implicitly and often explicitly on noble ethical commitments – like the doctor’s to do no harm, the lawyers to uphold the rule of law ahead of the rule of men and the generalised duties of care of the many caring professions.

In any event, when I read Albert Camus’ magnificent lecture accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature for the first time, inside my brain the speech morphed into one in which Camus used the word ‘professional’ wherever he had used the word ‘artist’ and mutatis mutandis for all the associated derivatives of both words. This is what I read: Continue reading