#BoySplaining: How not to argue

I made up the term #Bossplaining. Or thought I did. Turns out it’s already a thing.

The one thing I learned in my university education, the one thing that excited me, was the need for people to exercise real effort in understanding each other. The language we use is so full of shades of meaning and we’re such emotional creatures – particularly when we’re arguing. Johnathan Haight has popularised lots of the evidence of the truth of Hume’s claim that our reason is the slave to our passions.

There’s something funny about the commentary in this thread about aggressive debate in economics faculties. It’s recently acquired a gender politics dimension and the first commenter – a male economist confesses to misreading the motives of the piece assuming the author was a man. Thinking he is dealing with one kind of meaning making – in which someone is right and the other wrong – he encounters another.

Anyway, like my gradual disenchantment with almost all political debate, which I see as simply the thin artefact of the rituals of competition, where words mean less and less (and are chosen for that purpose) with everything in the body language (the body language of an argument – ha ha) I’m pretty disenchanted with aggressive argument itself. I’ve never seen it turn up much, though I guess it could when the argument is about things that are sufficiently formal that there really is a right and wrong answer. Even then though, argument should be direct, but not aggressive as it’s less efficient that way.

Compete if you must – it’s not only natural but it’s good up to a point. It tests ideas. But even if one side wins, there’s usually quite a lot to be gained by looking at the perspective of others. This came to mind when reading this terrific piece by Kevin Kelly. He’s fantastic to read – such a powerful, curious intellect. That’s one reason why he’s not in the footnote chase of academia of course.  Anyway, he disagrees with Robert Gordon. I’ve not read Gordon, but he’s certainly a well regarded economist. An A leaguer.

If I had to guess who’s going to be proven right, I think maybe Kelly will be, but who knows? Certainly Gordon looks to be right about all the panic about robots coming for our jobs – at least for now. It’s future gazing so a very difficult call. Both sides have a good case to make. What’s shocking is how juvenile Gordon’s response is. The lack of graciousness is unfortunate, but the lack of curiosity is unforgivable. Rather than explore the issues, elaborate on where he thinks the weaker parts of his thesis are, or take up some of the fertile threads Kelly weaves through his piece, Gordon is in high school debating mode. He’s right and Kelly’s wrong. Note how, in this style the antagonist defines the terms – making the debate about his contribution – and any deviation from those terms results from their opponent’s foolishness or knavery.

What a tragedy that academia is so often policed by people of such desicated, reductive sensibility as Gordon. I’ve been reading recently about the foundation of the internet and it was populated by such clever and curious people with a passion for humanity – seriously, it’s amazing how many of them had a human vision for computers – how much they anticipated the ‘social turn’ that IT took at the turn of the millennium, though that’s now being set upon by various dystopian forces.

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy | 12 Comments

A recent presentation on ‘Making an impact’

Here’s a presentation I gave to a recent Government Economists’ Conference in Canberra. Like some other reflections of my book launching years (only some of which have been preserved for posterity),1 it tries to describe how I go about thinking about economics.

And the thing is, I don’t really know anyone who describes their own approach similarly. Most of the people who are unsatisfied with economics as it is, and that certainly describes me, want some new paradigm to take hold. I guess I could say the same, but only by saying that the paradigm change I want is some self-reflectiveness of the discipline and an ability to get the best out of the paradigms available to it. As I intimate with my use of the image of the plane with feathered wings, a discipline like economics which cannot really mark its knowledge much to market – where falsifiction is mostly only available to prove the obvious – one of the greatest enemies is impatience. The hankering for a new paradigm for the outsiders is like the hankering for the next bit of economic theory from the insiders.

In my experience, most of the good economists can do comes from patiently looking at things, asking people on the scene and trying to find productive ways of describing the situation and finding ways to improve it. Hence my little man with the magnifying glass and the chart suggesting that ‘doing economics’ in a professional capacity is and should be mostly the act of applying ideas. There’s plenty of different ways quite simple ideas can be applied, and the task is to find a principled and productive way to do so rather than just turn up, announce that you’ve got your “economists’ hat on” (what’s with it with these hats all of a sudden?) and then uttering some econo-robo-babble like “it’s all about supply and demand” it’s all about the “incentives”. It’s not that those ideas shouldn’t be used, but, like the idea of putting wings on a plane, they’re the very beginning of the search for insight, not the end.

  1. I know you’ll be looking for book launches at this stage, so here are two.
Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Information, Philosophy | 2 Comments

We’ve already had Our Very Own Brexit

In good bookstores everywhere – at a very reasonable price

Cross-posted from the Lowy Institute Blog.

Instead of munching popcorn at the political theatre, citizens’
assemblies would give the community a chance to reflect.

In what we now see in retrospect as something of a political “golden age” – say from the early 20th century through to the 1980s or so – political parties were the institution through which the political aspirations of different sections of the community were articulated and conveyed to the commanding heights of government. Millions of members joined those parties, which were embedded in the community alongside churches, unions, and business associations.

Yet as Sam Roggeveen has described in Our Very Own Brexit, “hollowing out” has now inverted that process. Senior officers of the parties now comprise a political caste, the majority of whom secured their parliamentary position within their party’s career structure with scant achievements elsewhere.

Each party manages their “brand”, and politics has become a Punch and Judy show. We barrack for our side if we have one – or our point of view in innumerable improvised or staged culture-war skirmishes. We cheer and boo, tweet and retweet.

The governance that emerges from this is an uncanny mix of stasis and instability. Stasis because, at least when seeking their votes, each party hews to a small target strategy on policy while probing for ways to misrepresent and catastrophise their opponents’ policies and purposes. Instability because we the people so hate it all.

We tell ourselves that the pollies are only in it for themselves. There’s truth in that. But also evasion. They’re victims too. The lead players in the show could be living happier wealthier lives out of the madhouse. We fancy we deserve better than this as we sit in the stalls munching our popcorn. Indeed we do. Yet our clicks and our tweets – above all our votes – drive the whole system. Ultimately we decide who represents us and the terms on which they do.

The most significant achievement of Australian voters’ emphatic decision at the 2013 election was the abolition of carbon pricing, which had taken a decade of political struggle to be absorbed into the apparent political security of bipartisan consensus.

Whenever a political party offers a skerrick of leadership – whenever they depart, however cautiously, from their traditional “small target” or “comms” strategies of relentless manipulation and tendentious evasion, they’re easy meat for the scare campaigns and outrage machines of their party political and ideological opponents.

Roggeveen’s definition of what constitutes “a Brexit” for his purposes is situated within his own, and the Lowy Institute’s focus on Australia’s external relations. I would characterise the UK’s Brexit moment and the US’s Trump moment more generally as the point at which the electorate perpetrated some action that the overwhelming bulk of the political class regarded in their heart of hearts as crazy.

If that’s your definition, then just as Australia led the world in various aspects of economic policy – such as income-contingent loans, community strategies on AIDS, and the strengthening and targeting of welfare – our rendezvous with political crazy predates its moment elsewhere in the Anglosphere by three years.

For the most significant achievement of Australian voters’ emphatic decision at the 2013 election was the abolition of carbon pricing. Its demise has plunged our energy sector into crisis and dysfunction. And it’s rarely noted by the commentariat (why am I not surprised?), but it’s also costing our budget more than $10 billion annually and rising.  Continue reading

Posted in Climate Change, Cultural Critique, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Sortition and citizens’ juries | 4 Comments

Why we should fear a world Empire

Universalists dream of a world empire in which a world government works to solve global problems, enforcing the same law all over the world.

There are many different ideologies that envision a world government, ranging from international socialism, to the brotherhood of Islam, to universal humanism. They squabble about what a world government would do or how it would justify its powers, but they share a dream of one world.

There are many different scenarios for how a world government would arise that truly has the power to force all other entities to abide by a single law. Some envision a collapse in ecosystems to force to a moment of enlightenment and contrition, leading to one government. Others have visions of conquest, either by arms or by divine persuasion. Others envisage a world government emerging in the aftermaths of some huge catastrophe, like a nuclear war, whereupon the survivors combine into one government. Yet others think it will emerge gradually from increased connectivity between nations and increased roles for existing international institutions.

I fear such a world government. I believe it would enslave the vast majority and lead to dreadful abuse, no matter how it arises. I have difficulties imagining it capable of remaining intact too, but that is another point.

My fear is based on the forces that disappear with the end of competing nation states.

A major force that disappears with a single governments is individuals voting with their feet, which currently forces countries to compete to attract talent and avoid losing talent. Countries do this because the individual elites in those countries benefit from having smart populations under their care. With a single world government, power is centralised and hence what matters to any local elite is their relation to the central governing system. What migrating populations do or think is then, at best, of indirect concern.

Another force that disappears is the pressure on a local elite to have the support of their population, simply because that is their power base. At present the need for that support leads the elites of countries to want to grow and to look after their populations, at least to some extent. With a centralised world system, that pressure no longer exists.

The loss of any interest in anything local is even worse at the central level, where the only pressure that remains is control of the single system and survival within it. We know from history exactly what that leads to: the centre becomes an Empire that absorbs all independent sources of power. Everything will be brought under central control. Businesses, villages, households, sports entities, culture, etc. Without the pressure to limit its power, the world will move to a Chine-style single Imperial system, but much worse because China always had some foreign pressures and its leadership could be taken over when it started to atrophy too much. When there is but one centralised government, we would get absolute control by an Imperial court.

We also know from centralised Empires what happens if some group wins absolute power and is practically without competitors: everyone gets enslaved and does the bidding of the Emperor, who becomes a god. The whole population then gets pressed into service to God. Previously that included building the Pyramids and the Terracotta armies.

Indeed, we know from human history that the move to absolutism is very rapid in a world empire: in the generation under which power is truly centralised, the deification of the leader(s) already emerges. The monstrous projects of the Chinese emperors began with the very first emperor, he of the Terracotta armies.

I have an even deeper fear, which is that enslavement might be the best future humanity can hope for. This fear comes from the realisation that in a world political system where you have lots of competing blocks that each have the weaponry to wipe out most of humanity, sooner or later most of us will get wiped out, either by accident or malice.

Would a single world empire under the rule of a human elite safeguard us from this though? I fear not. The history of empires has shown us that the fight for control simply shifts from open camps to hidden camps. Competition between the children of the emperor emerges. Different ministries compete. Army generals dream of revolt. Such tensions lead to assassinations and shadow societies at the top. When there is pressure on the whole system, due to climate disasters or a running out of food, the empire cracks and huge civil wars emerge. With devastating technology, the civil wars would be devastating, and perhaps exceedingly quick.

So I fear a world empire lead by humans and expect nothing good from it. My fleeting hope is the end of human control over world politics. A world empire lead by gods might just be workable.

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, History, Philosophy, Politics - international, Politics - national, Society | 27 Comments

Is it the duty of the state to police a positive national history story?

Something very odd happens when people get told a story of how other people with some shared characteristic have behaved in the past: they take it personal and see themselves in those ‘ancestors’, even if they share no actual family relationship to those people and even though they were of course not involved anyway. When a group of people who see themselves as Polish now get told a story of how other people described as Polish behaved 300 years ago, that story becomes part of the self-image of the listeners, making them proud when they hear something that sounds good about those previous Poles. When hearing something bad or shameful, they feel bad about their own ‘Polishness’.

People thus cannot help but ascribe historical continuity in their story of how they relate to the history of their country. Honesty dictates they shouldn’t, but they do and that has enormous consequences for the telling of the history of groups. It makes history politically contentious and a potential reason to go to war, to break up a country, or to work towards a positive shared future. The history story of groups should not be treated lightly.

The inevitability that people see themselves in the story told about ‘the history of their country’ forces a country that wishes to remain united and strong to police the story of its own history. A unified country needs to punish those who put something too negative for the living into the story of that history. The alternative is a recipe for civil war and break-up into smaller bits that then are prepared to police their national story.

Poland shows you how that policing is done. Spain and the UK show you what happens if you don’t.

The Polish government, newly reelected in October 2019 with a majority in parliament, passed a law punishing anyone from mentioning Polish complicity in the Holocaust, despite ample evidence of enthousiastic complicity in WWII. After all, how could a thousand years of Catholicism in that area not lead to complicity? It is now illegal to bring up that evidence in Poland in a public forum.

The government also sacked the director of the national history museum and put a new one in place who ironed out any negative stories about Poles over the ages. The fault of any misdeeds in the past, like, say, the mass murder of the population of Gdansk by the Teutonic Knights in the Middle Ages, is now described as due to someone non-Polish, which means one must avert ones eyes when one looks at just who made up the rank and file in that army of the Teutonic knights.

Intellectuals are of course up in arms about this in Poland, but what the Polish government is doing can also be seen elsewhere in the world for the same underlying reason of needing a positive story for the population to buy into now.

[Added due to persistent misunderstandings:] One should of course not confuse the need for a positive history with blind adherence to the history telling of today, or that one should abide by the history telling of a large dominant group in a society. On the contrary, the logic of needing a positive story for the population to go forward leads one to advocate additional elements and changes in emphasis to the existing history telling to accommodate new migrants and marginalised groups in society. Rather than accepting a particular story and not revisiting history, one is then continuously updating one’s view of history to ensure (almost) no-one is depicted as having an evil history. What we are now seeing in the world is many countries re-defining their history, some indeed accommodating groups not previously catered for, but sometimes not accommodating the whole population but merely a large part of them. The history re-writing is inevitable, leaving out large minorities is not.

In India, a similar historic cleansing is underway to generate a continuous narrative from the Veddas to ‘modern’ Hinduism. In China, the government facilitated the creation of a story of 2,000 years of the Han Chinese nation, falling due to outsiders and rising again due to its innate greatness. We see similar processes in Turkey, Japan, South Korea, and much of Eastern Europe. In each case the new national history story is in a literal sense a made up story, concocted in committees and overseen by politicians, a fabrication that falls apart if you look too close.

It is not necessary that the actual events and interpretations in the favoured national history story are completely made up, though that is rather normal. What is necessary is that certain things are accentuated and others not, ie the perspective is always selective. Hence the new Polish national story does not have to pretend that the murder of the population of Gdansk did not happen, but it does require downplaying the role of anyone described as Polish as perpetrators.

We see stirrings of new history fabrications in the UK and Western Europe, usually in response to the failure to police or update old fabrications. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Geeky Musings, History, Politics - international, Politics - national, Religion, Society | 18 Comments

Academia: from inefficient effectiveness to efficient ineffectiveness

If, as I think, academia has gone from being inefficient but effective to being efficient but ineffective (a proposition I won’t defend here), the mechanism for making the switch was going from embodied cognition to abstract Cartesian cognition, or to be more precise from a rich to a shallow and superficial form of embodied cognition. Along the way a God’s eye view of the sector replaced a system in which the thinking and doing was deeply embedded in and emergent from the system.

The most important thing an academic system must do is determine relative academic merit. Alas, it’s also the hardest thing to do. Here we are at the forefront of human knowledge where literally every next step, if it’s worthwhile, is two things. It’s at the forefront of its field – which may require a substantial amount of learning and specialisation even to understand. And it’s uncertain as to its its outcome – as a rule radically so.

In this situation, the academic system we had in the 1950s was built around a centuries-old institution – the university. At least in its idealised form expressed by the conservative political theorist Michael Oakeshot, a university was “a corporate body of scholars … a home of learning, a place where a tradition of learning is preserved and extended”. Oakeshot’s description of the nature of scientific endeavour within universities helps clarify how potentially momentous the reform we’ve undertaken might have been:

Scientific activity is not the pursuit of a premeditated end; nobody knows or can imagine where it will reach. There is no perfection, prefigured in our minds, which we can set up as a standard by which to judge current achievements. What holds science together and gives it impetus and direction is not a known purpose to be achieved, but the knowledge scientists have of how to conduct a scientific investigation. Their particular pursuits and purposes are not superimposed upon that knowledge, but emerge within it. 

Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy, Education | 19 Comments

Pedantry is not its own reward – and it’s certainly not ours!

Pedant 1Pedantry is alluring. Especially if one gets some aesthetic satisfaction from the way words are used. Take “begs the question” for instance. I love this term because it is such a simple, chummy way of naming something that’s maddening in is subtlety. To beg the question in its traditional meaning is to mistake the form of answering a question for its substance. One ‘answers’ the question by simply asking it again in another guise.

This can be the product of deliberate deception. But in my experience, and in some ways more maddeningly questions are begged more often by people deceiving themselves. They conclude their ‘explanation’ with great satisfaction, blissfully unaware that their explanation is no explanation at all. Here’s an example of begging the question – which involves answering a question by asserting its premise in different words.  From Wikipedia.

To allow every man an unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole, advantageous to the State, for it is highly conducive to the interests of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited of expressing his sentiments.

Today, ‘begs the question’ is much more often used to mean ‘prompts the question’. “The minister says he wasn’t at the lunch, which begs the question ‘Where was he?'” This was a mistake a few decades ago. It pisses me off that it’s not still a mistake. But there you go. Language moves on. A small aesthetic diminishment of the language and that’s it. I don’t use ‘begs the question’ in this way that I dislike but I don’t pull people up on it either. Language is a socially given thing.

I recall a friend of my father’s objecting to the world ‘hopefully’ as in ‘hopefully nothing bad will happen to us’. If you think about it, other than its familiarity, this usage is a bit odd. Because it’s an adverb with an absent verb [I’m no great shakes at grammar so I won’t be surprised if someone corrects anything in this last sentence]. The more logical way to put it is “we are hopeful that nothing bad will happen to us”. But here’s the thing – well two things really:

  1. These horses have bolted so we need to get on with our lives
  2. Their cost can be almost entirely restricted to the aesthetic

But there’s a long tradition of schoolmarmish finger-wagging about precisely this kind of thing as occurred in this Age column by Stephen Downes. The author takes exception to people using the word ‘multiple’ to mean ‘many’. Like ‘hopefully’, I can see the logic in his point, but so what? I use the word in the way he deplores. With him having pointed it out, I might take to the aesthetic of being more pernickety about it. But so what? Others certainly won’t so it’s a lost battle already and, much more to the point a battle that’s hardly worth anything. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique | 21 Comments