Needing The Eggs: 70 Years Of Going Through The Motions

I’ve recently completed an essay and like quite a few of my essays, it’s not been ‘optimised’ for publication in a magazine, so I may not try to publish it. But in case any folks here think it’s of interest, they need only put their email in comments below or email me and I’ll send them access to it on Google docs.

The first of six sections is reproduced below:

This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says “Doc, My brother is crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.” And the doctor says “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says “I would but I need the eggs”.

Woody Allen, Annie Hall


Jokes are special purpose vehicles. Like those mirrors on sticks that dentists use, they can illuminate things that are tucked away. In a recent essay I promoted a joke I’d previously used as an embellishment to the centrepiece of my analysis. It was Lord Acton’s joke about rowing being the perfect preparation for public life — enabling you to go in one direction while facing in the other. Writing about policy to promote Indigenous wellbeing, I argued that the system goes from one fad diet to another but won’t face up to the endless ways, large and small in which it says one thing — “we put people first” — but then does another whenever its own interests or routines would otherwise be disrupted.

The difficulty of getting some candid focus on this issue within the bureaucracy — with its obsession with appearances and with keeping its political masters safe — is regrettable but at least understandable. But the problem goes far deeper. Academia seems barely more cognisant of the problem. An analysis of the subtle elisions and evasions within government is difficult to shoehorn into the standard journal article in public policy or management.1 Meanwhile, those seeking to promote solutions in government both from within and without tend to work within parameters set by the system. Whether they’ve articulated the problem of the system’s duplicity to themselves, it a safer bet both for their careers, and also for the good they might do if they take all that as given and seek improvements with ‘bolt on’ initiatives that the system might be persuaded to want (See Section V).

And so to needing the eggs. As Woody Allen explains in the last lines of Annie Hall, relationships are full of things that make no sense, “but I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs”. A simplified example of the phenomenon is provided by an actor on stage who mumbles through some lines they’ve forgotten. They don’t fess up to the audience. They keep the show on the road. They need the eggs. So does the audience. It’s slowly been dawning on me how ubiquitous this needing the eggs phenomenon is. And how much keeping up appearances drives dysfunction. The exuberant madness of the joke obscures the ubiquity of its subject — and its profundity. Indeed, as we go about our lives, our brains are keeping their own show on the road. As philosopher Michael Polanyi reported, there’s a blind spot in our field of vision which can obliterate a person’s head 6 feet away from us. Yet so good was our brain at keeping up appearances that it went unnoticed in human history until the twentieth century.

Remaining sections:
II.  Needing the eggs in the academy (wonkish and skippable)
III. It was ever thus
IV. Needing the eggs 70 years on
V. What is to be done I: Your organisation
VI.  What is to be done II: You

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, History, Humour, Indigenous, Isegoria, Sortition and citizens’ juries | 2 Comments

Club Troppo Is On The (Hiccoughing) Move

We’re currently moving Club Troppo from one server to another and you might be experiencing an interruption to ordinary services.

At the time of writing, you’re probably seeing security warnings, which is a temporary problem and not something to be alarmed about. We’re bringing things back online and playing whack-a-mole with all of the little things that need to get done.

Rest assured, Club Troppo will be back in full once all those moles get whacked!

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Science is about the universe that is: Design is about the multiverse that might be

From a recent podcast interview with Tyson Yunkaporta

This post began as a comment on David Walker’s post on David Card’s Nobel Prize for his study which showed that at least in the situation he investigated a smallish rise in the minimum wage didn’t reduce employment. This was regarded as a huge result — still is judging by the Nobel Prize he got for his trouble.

What this makes me think of is how impoverished economic discourse is for its preoccupation with being a ‘science’. Of course that doesn’t mean it should make stuff up. In my opinion, economics should be like medicine. It should understand itself as helping us navigate the world with a view to improving it. That makes it, in Herbert Simon’s lingo a ‘science of the artificial‘.

Simon divides the disciplines into ‘sciences’ and ‘design’. My way of summarising this is to say that the sciences are about the universe. They are about what is. And design is about the multiverse which is to say the infinitude of ways the universe might come to be configured, and most particularly the sub-set of those universes that we think we might be able to bring into existence. Design is then about seeking to build the best world we think is possible.

Medicine and engineering are in the same boat. None of this means that they have any ‘get out of gaol cards’ as far as obeying the laws of nature is concerned or any other laws for that matter. They’re reality based. But the laws of nature are just one input, with other inputs being such things as:

  • the things we value most and least
  • what we have control/mastery or some influence over and
  • what we might gain control over

This then situates or frames what we are doing much better. You’ll note that neither medicine, nor engineering (nor pretty much any other discipline) do anything as weird as separate their discipline into ‘normative’ and ‘positive’. That’s because it’s understood that the ‘positive’ exists for the purpose of the normative.

More to the point, in such disciplines one doesn’t have the preoccupation with these set piece factoids that one does in economics such as ‘do higher minimum wages depress employment’. The equivalent question in engineering might be “are bridges built of concrete more or less stable than bridges built of steel?”. If one is trying to raise the incomes of those on low incomes, what we know of this set piece about minimum wages is of course of some significance. But it will appear alongside other issues that are relevant. Other things that might be taken into account include: Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Philosophy, Science, Social Policy, Society | 3 Comments

A Nobel Prize leaves the minimum wage question open

David Card

David Card, 2021 Nobel winner (and nice guy to boot)

One of economics’ most famous papers – the 1994 minimum wage study by David Card and Alan Krueger – has just won David Card (pictured) half of a Nobel Prize in Economics. The overall reasons for Card’s award are well explored here and here and here, and by Card himself here.

The Card & Krueger paper is widely admired. Even more remarkably, it is one of that rare breed of paper which has changed minds in economics. Before its publication, most economists tended to believe minimum wages cost jobs; after they had digested Card & Krueger, some began at least to doubt that was true.

Rather than just building a model, Card & Krueger started with a good natural experiment: the minimum wage went up in New Jersey but stayed the same in Pennsylvania, which acted as a control group. The difference in the difference between the two states before and after the law change should be the effect of the minimum wage. Hence the name of this technique – “difference in differences“.

Essentially, this year’s Economics Nobel celebrated natural experiments, and natural experiments are, in general, a lot better than the armchair theorising which has featured in some previous economics Nobels. They aren’t exactly a new idea; their use in social science goes back at least to the 185os. But Card & Krueger’s natural experiment was a notable and clever one, and it seems to have rekindled enthusiasm for them within economics.

If you think that economics should make falsifiable claims about how the world works, this seems like a good development. That makes the Card Nobel, as Club Troppo‘s Paul Frijters put it, one of the best picks of recent years.

But here’s the thing I keep coming back to: Card & Krueger’s findings are very often misrepresented as proving something they don’t prove. They’re terrific economics, but they are also part of what we might call the Feynman Social Science Problem.

Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy, Employment, Social Policy | 8 Comments

Congrats to Card, Angrist, and Imbens!

The Nobel Prize for Economics got announced and I was pleased to hear it went to David Card, Josh Angrist, and Guido Imbens. Among the best picks in years, I think.

A lot will be written elsewhere about the many things they did, but what I want to honour them for is that I know all three of them as very pragmatic economists. They advocate pragmatic econometric methods over unnecessarily complicated ones (Angrist and Imbens), and broadly informed methodology to look at important issues (Card). They are almost ‘old style’ in their methods and thinking, where methods are picked to help the questions, big issues trump small issues, and policy relevant innovation trumps theoretical niceties. Congrats!

I also had a look at what each three said about lockdowns. I might have missed it, but I didn’t find them having any stated opinion at all about them. That is second-best from my point of view, but probably the best I could have hoped for in these times. I like to think the Swedish Academy thought the same!

Posted in Science | 3 Comments

Michael Polanyi, Karl Popper and the philosophy of science (with an eye to blockchain)

Michael Polanyi (L) and Karl Popper (R)

I’ve been working on a joint paper with someone else about blockchain. One way the paper might develop would be to argue that the discussion of DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) using blockchain technology should now be cognisant of the chasm between two approaches to the philosophy of science in the 20th-century — that between Popper and Polanyi. Popper focuses on science as a form of discipline of the mind which produces more and more objective knowledge. He’s also a disciplinarian in the normal sense of that word, or an intellectual authoritarian. He thinks the challenge is to codify what the scientific method is so that it can be insisted upon. This will then produce sanctioned scientific knowledge which will converge closer and closer to the objective truth. At the same time discourses that don’t measure up to such a standard are marginalised as ‘unscientific’ in their endeavours to uncover the truth. The idea is that those who think that blockchain will now automate governance should understand why Popper’s quest failed, because they’re making the same mistake all over again — which is the idea that things that actually depend on a great deal of tacit knowledge, judgement and acculturation.   

Polanyi didn’t believe Popper’s quest would work — which appears to have been proven right. Many very serious people who comment on science haven’t got the memo, but there you go. These questions are hard and it’s easy to think you understand things when you don’t. As Haack puts it, Popper’s criterion sounded simple enough. 

But in fact it never became entirely clear what, exactly, Popper’s criterion was, nor what, exactly, it was intended to rule out … nor – besides the honorific use of “science” – the motivation was for wanting a criterion of demarcation in the first place. … With the benefit of hindsight, it looks as if Popper’s criterion of demarcation proved so attractive to so many in part because it was amorphous – or rather, polymorphous — enough to seem to serve a whole variety of agendas.

Polanyi’s concerns were different. He had been an outstanding practicing scientist. And like Einstein with whom he’d worked in Berlin before moving to England on Hitler’s accession to power, he was interested in the things that united science with other grand intellectual and spiritual quests. And, having pondered the question deeply, he felt that science was an intellectual system which, like the magic of a native tribe, was a self-supporting system of faith. True enough the protocols it embraced clearly generated increasingly useful knowledge where other systems did not, but one couldn’t demonstrate why one had greater faith in it over other systems, from within the system, except circularly.  Continue reading

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A letter to Scandinavia

Dear Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland (Scandinavia),

First off, thank you for the last 18 months. Almost alone in ‘the West’, you have either avoided covid madness completely (Sweden) or at least regained your sanity more quickly (the rest). You have not deprived your children of education and the chance to be kids. You have not prevented your health services from helping the population with their pressing health needs. You have not made it impossible for families and friends to socialise. You have not destroyed your small businesses by over-regulation and forced closures. You have not forced vaccines on people but allowed them to choose. You have not militarised your police and instituted controls on free speech.

You have still been a little crazy, true, but compared to the self-destructive madness that has engulfed most of Europe, the Americas, and particularly Australia, you have been an island of reason, proof that there was another way. Thank you.

I want to briefly sketch the reality that now holds in the rest of the West because we will need you to be an island of reason for quite a bit longer, perhaps years. The developments in the rest of the West are not good. They are both an opportunity and danger to you. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | 42 Comments