War on empathy, war on confidence, war on context

Cross posted with the Mandarin

Nicholas Gruen has argued that it’s much harder to realise evidence-based policy – both institutionally and intellectually – than many calling for it realise. Here he explains how putatively ‘scientific’ and ‘objective’ approaches can, paradoxically, compromise their efficacy by squeezing out empathy and relatedness.How learning a new language can change your life ...

Russ Roberts has (yet another) great interview on EconTalk. He’s always been gregarious in his interests, but is becoming more so—and also more sceptical of social progress and of economics as a master discipline. Be that as it may, on listening to this interview with psychiatrist Gary Greenberg on the placebo effect it struck me that a phenomenon of some interest to me might be far more general than I’d imagined.

War on empathy

Empathy tends to get squeezed out of interactions between bureaucracy and the life world. And even professions that one might imagine would be built on empathy — like social work — often operate according to other professional imperatives. Hence, the power of finding ways for the community to administer social repair through the empathic bond of peers rather than professionals, as The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI), which I chaired until the end of 2016, tried to do with Family by Family.

In any event, the basic idea promoted by Greenwood (slightly extrapolated by me) is this: as medicine was made more scientific, the placebo effect was discovered, and then marginalised. Yet it was of unarguable therapeutic power. Of course it’s entirely appropriate that, if one is looking for drug therapies, one wants to find drugs that, other things being equal, do better than sugar pills.

But in the process, the trail goes cold on keeping the placebo effect in the frame, not only for what it might help us understand, but, more remarkably, even for its therapeutic potential. There’s been vanishingly little investigation of the joint effect of the drug and the placebo acting together. And it turns out that, investigating the placebo effect more broadly, it seems likely that it has something to do with empathic bonds — between some source of authority like the doctor and the patient. Or perhaps from anyone.

War on confidence

Continue reading

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An unpublished column on Brexit: until now!

From around January this year I’ve tried to get the column below published – in the Guardian UK where my previous column was published. Unfortunately, and even after endless cajoling via the Guardian at this end, I couldn’t get a reply which is piss poor but there you go. Martin Wolf tried for me at the FT. At least they responded – but with a ‘no’, which is fair enough given the oversupply of articles on Brexit. Anyway as the Brexit Brouhaha Burbles on I thought I’d pop it up here.

The result of the 2016 Brexit referendum looms over the career politicians assembled in the Palace of Westminster as the black monolith loomed over the apes in the movie 2001.

It’s taken over thirty months of thrashing through actual options – as opposed to the wild partisan imaginings in the campaign – for a ghastly, if entirely foreseeable realisation to dawn. Despite the people’s clear instruction to Leave, any specific way of doing so would command far less than the 48 percent vote for Remain.

In the teeth of the greatest crisis of British statecraft since World War II, the institutional imperatives of political combat ensure the politicians perform rather than deliberate. Not only Corbyn, but extraordinarily enough, May has clung to fantasies about getting a better deal, though the end game will presumably see her change her tune.

How did it come to this? Continue reading

Posted in Democracy, Sortition and citizens’ juries | 4 Comments

We know WHAT we need to do. Will someone tell us HOW?

When policy problems are complex, we need to understand and learn from the front line. With desperately need to improve the early, middle and late stages of institutional learning and change-making, to enable successful policy development.

From the recent Mandarin article.

It’s election season in Australia.

I can feel the announceables coming on; indeed whole focus groups of them.

Pilots make an easy announceable. They’re cheap, they sound innovative and they’ll be conveniently off the books by the time some new announceables are needed. Pilots are to policy what start-ups are to innovation: cheap, worthwhile and almost invariably around for a short time before they’re replaced by new ones. And most of them are unsuccessful.

Innovation policy has a name for the problem. It’s called the Valley of Death, and refers to all those byways and traps that must be navigated before the Good Idea can make it into a successful product. A similar valley of death bedevils innovation in government.

And while these problems are frustrating in markets, at least markets are an open system capable of being disrupted (as we say now) by competitors with enough nous and other resources to do so.

Innovators in government face a similar thicket of obstacles, but in a centrally planned system, it can be virtually impossible to get through — because if you’re a small new initiative, you’ve got few champions fighting for you, and plenty of people within the system to whom you’re an inconvenience or worse.

Through thick and thin: Improving policy in Australia’s regions

These things came to mind as Lateral Economics was working on a report to the Regional Australia InstituteThrough thick and thin: Improving policy in Australia’s regions. Yet just as Australia has managed some commercial start-up successes, a few Atlassians and Seeks, so too there are a few government innovations that have scaled — although only one in regional policy.

Not only does this prove that it’s possible, it helps us understand how such success might be replicated.

At least during the reform glory days from 1983 to 2001, Australia excelled at top-down economic policy reform. This included the setting of tax and benefit levels (whereby Australia has the most targeted welfare system in the world) and adapting existing infrastructure like the tax and benefits system in new ways, as we did with HECS and the Child Support Agency.

Scrapping stuff that probably never made economic sense — like tariffs, shopping hours and the two-airline policy — was also something we led the world in. However beyond this, we’re coming to realise (aren’t we?) that even back in the glory days we weren’t so flash where problems are complex.

The obstacle course

When problems are complex, we need to understand and learn from what’s happening on the ground.

Adapting language from anthropology, we call the former policy problem, which is amenable to top-down reform, ‘thin’, and the latter, more complex problem, ‘thick’.

Whereas thin problems can be effectively designed and managed from the top, for thick problems, institutional learning must travel up the chain of command as well as down — from the outfield to the centre and also in the other direction.

However, there are profound institutional and cultural obstacles preventing this from occurring, and where it does occur, preventing it from being embedded or properly institutionalised.

The greater status given to policy-making compared with delivery is a central obstacle to achieving what must be achieved if small-scale variations and experiments in the field are to be learned from — which is to say:

  • assessed and understood; and
  • scaled on their merits.

In our report, we anatomised these inadequacies in terms of the early, middle and late stages of the necessary process of institutional learning and change-making — which we summarised using a rhyming triplet: Will — Skill — Fulfil

We found deficiencies of practice in each of these stages:

Will: Governments frequently announce their intention to introduce some new policy or approach. Then, poor attention to detail often follows and the initiative quietly dies. Sometimes little progress is made beyond announcement or some stated intention. On other occasions, a pilot proceeds and appears successful but is not continued further as priorities change.

Skill: Pilots, trials and other small-scale initiatives are often used to develop new skills and investigate the value of various new approaches. Some pilots have trialled integration of service delivery and funding streams between agencies — one of the holy grails in ‘joined-up government’ — but this has been very rare. More disconcertingly, the scaling of such learning into larger programs with learning feeding back to agencies has been rarer again.

Fulfil: For innovation to be truly ‘fulfilled’ in our lexicon, it needs to be grown to the appropriate size and to become incumbent — embedded within organisational and political expectations and business-as-usual.

The Landcare example

We can think of only one example where this has occurred for regional Australia: Landcare.

Landcare was a highly successful initiative in which a range of success factors coalesced:

  • It had high-level political support throughout.
  • This coincided with its being a very cost-effective and popular response to a policy and political enthusiasm of the time, ecologically sustainable development.
  • It was not expensive and was seen by the government as saving money in a range of respects.
  • The above factors led to early scaling, which was not difficult to do as the principles and administration of the program were relatively straightforward.
  • It did not require any difficult cross-agency collaboration or funding.

Partly because of a political culture that valorises announceables, pilots and small-scale policy innovations are relatively easily established, but then tend to disappear, often irrespective of their merits, to be replaced by new announceables, many of which are also pilots.

The need for accountability: some recommendations

Governments urgently need to establish greater accountability for the extent to which the system as a whole supports a healthy process by which trials, pilot programs or just variations within existing programs are widely learned from and grown in scale and impact where appropriate.

In light of this we offered the following recommendations:

  • Existing regulatory ‘sandbox’ approaches offer some promise but risk repeating the mistakes of the past. Policy ‘labs’ such as NESTA, Y-Lab and the Auckland Co-Design Lab, offer worthwhile models for pursuing thick policy problems, within which regulatory ‘sandbox’ ideas could happily sit.
  • As many of the issues relevant to regions span federal, state and local government, such bodies should have a federal remit. They should then work with governments at all levels and other stakeholders including users and the general public to make the thick journey to better policy and delivery.
  • Where pilots are established, their monitoring and evaluation should be provided in a way that is:
    • expert and collaborative with those in the field to help them optimise their impact; and
    • independent.
  • A unit like a behavioural insights unit could be a useful base from which to build such independent capability, ensuring the rigour of the process. But an additional objective would be the transparency of the project from outside. This will be important for the local community to be aware of the progress made. And this will assist the prospects of expanding small projects where they’re generating strong benefits and embedding them in the community’s expectations, and so in the minds of politicians ultimately responsible for decisions on the projects’ destiny.
  • There should be a register of such projects and small policy initiatives, with reporting each year by the auditor-general on the quality of the knowledge they have generated (and by implication the quality of the monitoring and evaluation being undertaken), their success or otherwise and, more importantly given the failings in the current system, in applying the lessons learned, including by adapting and growing the initiatives.
  • It would make sense to limit such an approach on regional initiatives as a trial, though if the ideas in this report have merit, they should have a wider impact.
  • An innovation fund should be established by the federal government to fund innovative programs that vary existing mainstream programs in ways that establish better knowledge about the impact of those programs under different conditions. Thus, for instance, one might trial more generous means-testing of welfare to understand the behavioural responses to such changes, and to optimise the impact of tapering welfare payments as people transition from welfare to work.
  • We should tackle the dominance of policy over delivery in the values of public service beginning with an audit of the extent to which leading successful learning and innovation in policy delivery is considered an important qualification for promotion in the public service, and take concrete steps to improve perceived problems in this regard.

This article has been adapted from a report commissioned by the Regional Australia Institute. RAI’s Regions Rising Conference will be held in Canberra on April 4-5.

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Paul Krugman’s incredible invisibility trick

It’s impossible to avoid misjudgements in life or to get all one’s predictions right. But should economists get caught out quite so often. 

Paul Krugman is honest and self-critical. So he’s up for identifying what economists missed about globalisation – including himself.

Of course, everyone’s wise in hindsight. Still, Krugman keeps reporting that economists ignored things that were … kind of obvious.

For one person to miss something is a misfortune.

But a whole profession doing it, again and again, seems like carelessness.

I’ve previously locked horns with Krugman regarding his own tolerance of economists ignoring things that were staring them in the face — about which more shortly.

In any event, Krugman was in Melbourne recently to give an informative and enjoyable lecture in Max Corden’s honour (watch below).

One of his central points was to defend trade theory against ignorant critics.

As he pointed out, although some critics accuse economists of arguing that free trade is good for everyone, that’s not economics speaking, but certain economic zealots pushing a barrow.

Standard trade theory suggests that freer trade will generate winners and losers. If imports decimate an industry, investors and workers in that industry will suffer harm. This is inter-industry trade expansion such as we’ve seen in Australia recently with increased imports of cars wiping out Australian car manufacturing, paid for by increased exports — mostly of iron ore and other primary commodities.

This was the trade that was implicit in economists’ models. But as Krugman points out, economists started realising that something else was going on from around the 1960s on.

The fog of clear thinking

Turns out Krugman blames clear thinking. Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy | 16 Comments

Crikey group sub: it’s on again

Crikey Worm: Pauline Hanson crashes the PM's tax cut gravy train

Put in “Crikey” to DuckDuckGo’s image search (Google is for data donating chumps) and you mostly get Steve Irwin and crocodiles. And Pauline, who, as we speak, is, between takes of Dancing with the Stars, fighting for second amendment rights for terrorists and us law abiding folks, so we can shoot them before they cause too much trouble to our way of life.

The ClubTroppo Crikey Group sub is on again.

Please email me on ngruen at G mail if you’d like to participate.

Please put ‘crikey’ in the subject heading to reduce your chances of your email getting lost in translation

(All emails are translated – for obvious reasons).

Those getting a subscription will also be flown First Class to the city of their dreams to meet Camilla Parker Bowles and her fictional Great Aunt Sally Bowles of Goodbye to Berlin for the unveiling of the latest vehicle in ClubTroppo’s Garage of automotive delights.

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The Guru recipe

[I just read a self-help book and, like Don Quixote, need to vent…]

My 10 rules for becoming a successful guru:

  1. Appear popular at the start: humans are just like dogs that follow other dogs. So have a legion of disciples and followers. Make them up when you start out. Don’t hesitate to hire actors and internet helpers.
  2. Give the audience the keys to the universe: flatter your audience by giving them a story wherein they are the heroes capable of great feats as long as they follow a recipe that you are a part of. A good guru knows the secret worries and desires of his audience and orients his stories towards those. If the audience fears asteroids, spin them a story about how the mind can influence the forces of the cosmos responsible for the trajectory of asteroids. If the audience secretly wants to control the weather, tells them about the magical rain dances. If they want to be healed, tell them your theories cure cancer or whatever else they worry about.
  3. Fit the story within the culture of the audience so that the mechanisms sound familiar and validated. Truth is completely irrelevant for this and is often a hindrance, so you only need to use familiar words and concepts, replacing the actual theories with whatever suits your story. When you talk to a Western audience where science is the source of truth and power, you thus stack your story full of the latest terms in Western science, whether that is gravitational waves, Higgs-Boson particles, intergenerational epigenetic transmissions, blockchain, Modern Monetary Theory, or whatever it is that your audience is likely to have heard of in the news. Use those terms, explain them in a way that is roughly right, and then claim some theory about them that is complete nonsense but suits you.
  4. Do not tax the intelligence of the audience for if they were smart enough to understand all the things you refer to, they wouldn’t be interested in what you had to say in the first place. So explain things in a very light and emotional storytelling manner. Speak of quantum waves as if they are friends with whom you can have a conversation. Talk about the mysticism of the carbon cycle as if your audience was born with the buttons in their hands that ruled the minutest details of that cycle. Your audience will love you for it because it will make them feel they finally understand these things in a way that makes them feel smart and powerful. Indeed, you basically cannot overdo this part: all that happens if you are spectacularly wrong in one story about some part of modern science is that you lose those members of the audience that really know that part, a negligible number.
  5. Set your audience up slowly with a hook: offer them something cheap that draws them in and only when they are in so far that they become slightly dependent on more do you increase the demands on their purses. The key thing here is that the audience will trust you if they want to trust you and hence only after you have managed to create a continued need for your message. This is a subtle game of hints, ‘proof’, personal ‘testimonies’ of your previous disciples, stories of how you really are uninterested in money, etc.
  6. Your appearance is everything so look the part and be seen to believe yourself, ie walk the walk. Whether you truly do is irrelevant because what matters is the appearance. Truth is no obstacle at all. If your audience needs you to have travelled the stars, simply tell them aliens abducted you and took you for a ride. If the audience wants to hear you spent 10 years in a cave in Tibet, then just tell them that is what you did. If they need you to have 100 kids and 50 wives, just make them up. If there is too much well-known information out there to prove you couldn’t possibly have done what your audience wants to believe, pretend you were in contact with someone who did who was your guru and that you are now following in his footsteps. Similarly, dress and behave the way the audience expects you to, whether that means you must have an enormous beard or a weird antenna sticking out of your behind. Remember the important lesson of Machiavelli: people believe what they see and hear. Don’t worry about the very few who look at your actions and deduce who you truly are: they are not into gurus anyways so you lose nothing by not appealing to them. Your potential followers resent such skeptical characters, so they are no threat to you at all (indeed, the more noise skeptics make about you, the better).
  7. Entertain and be charming. You have to make the audience want to be you or sleep with you. If you can’t be entertaining and charming, don’t even start.
  8. Have a bible. If need be, you can have a follower write that bible, but you need a holy book that people can pick over and worship.
  9. Be ambiguous: no two people truly want the same thing. So in order to have many followers you must create enough ambiguity in your story such that they can all believe something different. Like the bible, tell many different sides of the same story such that different members of the audience can buy into different aspects.
  10. Be scarce: a guru is like a Ferrari and must not be seen to be available to everyone because that limits the value to the audience of having one. They want to feel special. So when things take off you must become sparing with your time and your new public utterances. Indeed, the best thing is then to die.
Posted in bubble, Cultural Critique, Ethics, Geeky Musings, Journalism, Law, Libertarian Musings, Life, Social, Society, Space, Theatre | 18 Comments

Scaling knowledge: Should our disciplines have mesh or tree-like relation to each other?

Beyond Open: Culture and Scaling in the Making of KnowledgeI’ve just been reading some of Tim Berners-Lee’s Weaving the Web about building the World Wide Web and it put me in mind of Paul Frijters’ recent post on teaching the social sciences. Paul argued that:

The biggest change needed is to teach the material in terms of basic patterns, with more complex arguments taught later as combinations of basic patterns. Another change needed is to enforce a single language on the entire curriculum. Finally, what is needed is far more use of virtual reality-teaching and field trips so that students experience the phenomena they are meant to understand, unlocking their visual acuity and emotional skills as learning tools. Students should learn with their whole being, not merely with their abstractive capacities.

Regarding the first two points, 1Berners-Lee’s frustrations with the world before he changed it seem to mirror Paul’s. He was frustrated with the ‘tree like’ organisation of knowledge 2. and wanted to invent a looser, more ‘associative’ form of knowledge architecture which he called ‘mesh’.

Be that as it may this seems like quite a big deal to me. Indeed, as the internet grew in order to effectively scale it needed to move away from ‘tree-like’ architectures for sending data packets through the net as outlined in this write up of the Border Gateway Protocol (or as us aficionados call it the BGP – some of us have only been aficionados for the last couple of minutes, but we’ll leave that to one side).

Anyway, the way knowledge started being classified in the 19th century was by discipline. Sometimes a discipline disappeared because it was discredited – as in the case of phrenology. But mostly the disciplines stayed in place and each spawned endless sub-disciplines. The disciplines are tree-like structures of knowledge, sometimes paying obsessive attention to their unitary structure as in the case of micro-foundations in economics and selfish genes as in the case of neo-Darwinism.

There are occasional cross-overs, as in the case of behavioural science and economics or imaging and psychology or evolutionary psychology for instance. Interdisciplinarity is spoken of at least by some with reverence, but all the disciplinary incentives are against it and the tree-like structures of each discipline remain in place. Thus these crossovers might be likened to rhizomes rather than any real challenge to the tree-like structure of disciplines and plantation like structures of knowledge generally.

As knowledge has proliferated over the last two centuries, you’d expect some re-architecture of the relations between disciplines, but there’s been no systematic change whatever, and what occasional change there has been, has been limited to ad hoc marriages of sub-disciplines where new technical possibilities present themselves or where exhaustion with the sterility of one discipline sets in and some (usually very limited) reaction is in order. An example of the former is where MRI imaging is now used in psychology and even in philosophy and of the latter is behavioural economics or the empirical or ‘Freakonomic’ turn in economics (though this is also to some extent the response to the new technical possibilities of ‘big data’ and desktop computing).

  1. I won’t comment on his third point other than including it here because of its importance and my strong agreement with it.
  2. The paper proposing that he work on what became the World Wide Web had a heading “The problem with trees” and began “Many systems are organised hierarchically”
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