04/03/2014 § Leave a comment
The leader of the ACT party, Jamie Whyte, stirred up controversy last week with comments on incest. For context, it must be recalled that Dr Whyte is a former philosophy lecturer at Cambridge University. Incest is thus to him a philosophical puzzle he must solve with logic. His logic led him to suggest that adults should be allowed to do what they want, regardless.
Two angles on this. First, the incest taboo, according to anthropologists, is common in human societies. See, for example, Freud’s Totem and Taboo, or Claude Levi-Strauss’s work. What’s fascinating, though, is that the specific taboo differs across societies/cultures. Thus, as Anne Laurie at Balloon Juice put it so memorably:
As my Intro to Anthropology professor told us, it is a fact universally acknowledged that The Tribe Over There is full of lowlife degenerates who eat taboo foods, have sex with their relatives, worship false idols & use entirely too much of the common resources. All else is commentary…
Whyte goes further, and suggests that the group does not have an interest in regulating the sex behaviours of its members. This is entirely consistent with an individualistic formulation of philosophy, rights, etc.
The second angle is that any appeal to society, culture, history, or group harmony ends up sounding like any racist justification for ‘the way things are’. Anti-miscegenation laws are based on a taboo that Those People should not be mixing with These People. It isn’t right, it will create mongrels, it degrades our purity of essence, and the rest.
Now, I worry about incest taboos because of a Freudian/Lacanian concern with the return of the primal father. One of the bulwarks against an Id-driven regime, one element of the Super-ego, is an incest taboo, however constructed. In a blunt sense, I don’t stand a chance in an Id-driven world. I’d rather avoid it. I appreciate the Super-ego.
So…is there a justification for an incest taboo that doesn’t wind up sounding exactly like a racist rant? And if there isn’t, what is human society without an incest taboo?
10/02/2014 § 13 Comments
Universities in the United States run on adjunct faculty. Adjuncts are part-time, temporary, untenured faculty paid per course to teach. They have little time for research or administrative duties, and they are finding it hard.
Paid a few thousand dollars per course, they apparently now make up around half of US university faculty. There is concern about what it means for the quality of education and the future of universities. If teaching staff don’t have time to research, how do they stay current? If they can’t contribute to administration, how will all the curriculum and ethics committees get their work done?
The neologism ‘adjunctivitis’ is revealing. The suffix ‘-itis’ suggests a medical condition that has befallen the faculty — think appendicitis, bronchitis, etc. But what we have here is a choice. These faculty haven’t suddenly come down with adjunctivitis. They have been building towards it for years, making a series of choices, continuing on this particular path despite the difficulties.
It is a hard choice, yes, but a choice nonetheless. Maybe they feel driven to teach. Maybe they really like their specific area of research. Maybe they like where they live, or their partners are settled into their own jobs. But let’s not forget that these are people with options. They are clever people with good work ethics who know how to communicate. They are choosing to continue being adjunct faculty because they feel it is better than the alternatives.
Hey, sorry, it’s not my problem if you can’t land your dream job. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be Prof Reg Chronotis – a little office, a little sinecure, no teaching load? But such positions are works of fiction.
What if a bunch of them said no? What if they just decided, y’know what, selling real estate or writing computer code or being in middle management is less stress and more money? I don’t know what would happen, but it would be interesting to find out. A new cohort of adjuncts might appear, ready to do the same work at the same pay. Or, universities might have to do something about pay and conditions.
Universities are under pressure to offer students luxury facilities at reasonable prices (air conditioning?! private bathrooms?! hah!). Universities are also affected by governments cutting spending:
In 1980, states provided 46 percent of the operating support for public colleges and universities, according to the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. By 2005, average support had fallen to 27 percent.
Something’s got to give. In this case, it’s the cost of producing the lectures and assessments. A big variable cost with them is the teaching staff. If there’s no countervailing pressure from people, oh I don’t know, refusing to work for peanuts, then that’s where the universities will cut the costs.
Finally, there’s a revealed preference here about the attributes in the bundled good ‘university education’. This adjunct trend has been going on for years, and the complaints about impacts on teaching quality are nothing new. And yet, people keep shelling out more money for poorer teaching. Why? It does suggest that going to university is about getting that certification, or building networks, or being socialised, or buying the name brand if you can. People — students, parents, employers — seem less worried about the quality of the education.
Until they do — can I interest you in a little fixer-upper bungalow with nice harbour views?
07/02/2014 § 4 Comments
Paul Walker asked a question recently — why are some of us focusing on inequality? That started a discussion on the Dismal Science feed at Sciblogs. Since I’ve been implicated by link, I figured I should say something.
Well, first, other people are talking about inequality, but they are getting it wrong. One thing I’m trying to do is establish a sort of factual basis for the discussion. For example, people like to point to The Spirit Level as somehow the final word in the evils of inequality. So I’ve read the book and pointed out its faults, which I think are serious enough that the book doesn’t prove its thesis. Or, alternatively, I’ve calculated that mobility of income quantile doesn’t tell you as much as you think it might. I’m doing this work 500 words at a time, so it takes a while.
Secondly, I’m interested in the economy as a human construction. We’ve designed it, and we can re-design it. Note that I’m not suggesting something like a New Socialist Man. I’m not advocating that we re-make people. But if as economists we believe that (a) incentives matter and (b) institutions matter, then changing incentives and institutions produces different results. So, I’m interested in exploring how we make changes to meet different goals.
Finally, I’m acting according to my preferences. I like fairness. I like symmetry and order. There’s something about equity that appeals to my sense of order. Now, perhaps you think the economy is fair, in the sense that people get what they deserve and actions lead to appropriate consequences. Or, perhaps you think that life is not fair and that’s enough of an explanation. Me? I look around and see more than just the background cussedness of it all. I see people using power and privilege to maintain their own positions, and then saying that it’s just The Way Things Are. Or, more academically, that we shouldn’t turn away from the fraud that accompanied the global financial crisis, for example.
That’s why I’ve been writing about inequality. It’s just my tiny little effort to make the world a better place.
03/02/2014 § Leave a comment
While it is in vogue to talk about inequality, it would be better to focus on poverty. The inequality strategy is intended to reduce the ‘othering’ effect of poverty: the poor are those other people over there, who are different from us. However, it lets all of us non-poor, non-elite assume the stance of victim. We get to say that we, too, are suffering. In our heated houses and comfortable clothes, wondering what to eat from our full pantries.
The biggest mistake with the inequality strategy is that it activates our demands for fairness, which prompts people to make judgements about whether the poor are ‘deserving’. On the one hand are people arguing that it is inequitable for lots of children not to have enough to eat and two pairs of shoes, while on the other hand are people arguing that it is inequitable to take money from people who work hard and scrimp and save and give it to people who don’t. Two sets of judgements, two set of preferences, and no clear solution.
I was also dismayed to find that in some ways, it is actually more expensive to be poor than not poor. If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced.
She also traced the development of attitudes towards poor people. The US War on Poverty started by President Johnson arose from the idea that government should do something to help the disadvantaged. The conservative backlash argued, instead, that people were not ‘disadvantaged’ — which is a social condition, and speaks of what is done to someone – but that ‘poverty arises from the twisted psychology of the poor themselves’. She continued,
pundits and politicians have bemoaned the character failings and bad habits of the poor for at least the past 50 years.
Of course, it has been going on much longer than that. I’m currently reading Emile Zola’s Germinal, a story about miners in a company town in the 1860s. The life of the miners is juxtaposed with that of the bourgeois investors, the Gregoires. Zola captures the attitude of the comfortable bourgeois towards the miners (source):
One must be charitable. They said themselves that their house was the house of God. Besides, they flattered themselves that they performed their charity with intelligence, and they were exercised by a constant fear lest they should be deceived, and so encourage vice. So they never gave money, never! Not ten sous, not two sous, for it is a well-known fact that as soon as a poor man gets two sous he drinks them. Their alms were, therefore, always in kind, especially in warm clothing, distributed during the winter to needy children.
In the meanwhile, M. Grégoire repeated aloud the reflections inspired by the sight of these starving ones.
“There is evil in this world, it is quite true; but, my good woman, it must also be said that workpeople are never prudent. Thus, instead of putting aside a few sous like our peasants, miners drink, get into debt, and end by not having enough to support their families.”
We are still having the same argument.
27/01/2014 § Leave a comment
My family has a little place — a cabin, a crib, a bach — near Lake Dunstan in Central Otago. I can walk to the lake in 5 minutes and see it from the property if I stand in the right place. The area is beautiful in an arid, unforgiving way. The lake is warm as South Island lakes go, and supports a lot of boating and swimming in the summer months.
The lake is artificial, the result of the Clyde Dam, built in the early 1990s. Underneath the lake are the old Bannockburn bridge, parts of the town of Cromwell, farms, and a rapids called the Cromwell Gap. In an emotive piece in the December 2013 New Zealand Geographic, Dave Hansford quotes a kayaker who once shot the Cromwell Gap. The kayaker describes how rising to the challenge was a life-changing experience.
Fair enough — he got something out of the rivers as they were before the dam. But my family gets a lot out the lake as it is. So, in response to Hansford, here is my equally emotional (and deliberately parallel) response to the imagined destruction of the Clyde Dam:
Bill Kaye-Blake has lost a lot of water from his life, a whole hydro-lake’s worth of water. For him, it is — or was — a place he went to find tranquillity while reconnecting with his loved ones. Where currently thunders the dangerous Cromwell Gap, says the former Lincoln University student and lecturer and ardent advocate for lake recreation, “there was a thing called Lake Dunstan, and this is where the Clutha and Kawarau arms of the lake met. It used to be a tourist attraction, it was such a big wide lake. Now it’s fallen 80 metres in depth.
“We used to sit on the shingle beaches in the shade of willows and think, ‘how lovely that our children have a safe place to swim and grow to love the water’. It was a central experience in their growing up, in their Kiwi childhoods. There might be 10 to 20 motorboats lined up along the shore, with parents teaching kids how to kayak and swim and waterski. On a hot day, there would be hundreds of people enjoying the lake at the different swimming coves and boat ramps. But that experience is now no longer available to anybody. The last waterskier was in the year before they dynamited the dam.”
Change leads to winners and losers. Focusing on the negatives may get you published in New Zealand Geographic, but it is only half the story. Probably less than half.
01/09/2013 § Leave a comment
The science sector in New Zealand wants to get more people — particular young people – interested in science. It believes that science careers get short shrift when students are planning their education. It also wants to encourage more girls into STEM subjects. Don’t take my word for it. There’s a 2008 Science Maniesto from the Royal Society explaining all this.
I’m certainly in favour of my daughters having interesting, rewarding jobs. If a science career provides that, great. There’s been some science talent in the family, so it’s a possibility.
We’ve been supporting what science is available for primary and intermediate girls. Recently, one daughter participated in the NIWA Wellington Science Fair. From our experience, the event didn’t help get kids fired up for science.
The most important thing to realise is that these kids have choices. Sure, science is one possibility, but so are medicine, law, finance and more. Science has to be appealing. So let’s compare:
- My daughter’s division had over 50 entries. Only four kids won prizes. Most of those kids won more than one prize. By comparision, a singing competition might have four prizes in a division with maybe a dozen entries. One of their maths competitions has five prizes for the 30 or so schools who participate.
- There was no feedback. The kids have no idea what they did well and where they fell down. They don’t know what they could do better. By contrast, performance judges fill out sheets for each performer. They typically give positive and critical comments, which helps kids both understand their mark on the day and identify things to improve.
- The best we can figure is that the judges liked some combination of science, application and presentation. But there’s no way to gauge how much those things contribute to the rankings. On the other hand, a maths competition is judged in terms of right and wrong answers. If your team gets it right, you get the point. The kids are competing against the maths problems as much as they are competing against each other. The ICAS and Australian Mathematics Competitions are similarly based on getting the answers right, not tickling the judges’ fancy.
- My daughter’s girls’ school had one of the largest contingents from any school in her division. They won nothing. Nada, zippo, zilch. We can talk about other schools having more experience with the competition and larger schools having more resources for extra-curricular activities and the rest. But none of those explanations changes the experience this girls’ school had of sending a big group to a city-wide event and coming back empty-handed.
What my daughter and her classmates experienced seemed to be a subjective, secretive, winner-take-all tournament. Now, obviously, these folks can run any kind of competition they want. They just shouldn’t be surprised when these girls don’t rush back to do it again, and find something better to do with their time.
12/08/2013 § 5 Comments
Over the weekend, I ended up at a review of The Invention of Capitalism. The book’s author is Michael Perelmen, an economist in California who has stirred up controversy over the years. Apparently, he doesn’t disappoint in this book.
Disclaimer: I have no idea whether Perelmen is right in his history, or should I say ‘right’, as history is a matter of interpretation (written by the winners and all that). Having said that, I had two reactions:
1) Aren’t we still living with the attitudes described?
This quote from a pamphlet of the day caught my attention:
The possession of a cow or two, with a hog, and a few geese, naturally exalts the peasant. . . . In sauntering after his cattle, he acquires a habit of indolence. Quarter, half, and occasionally whole days, are imperceptibly lost. Day labour becomes disgusting; the aversion increases by indulgence. And at length the sale of a half-fed calf, or hog, furnishes the means of adding intemperance to idleness.
Here we have a peasant making a decision about work and leisure. He has a few animals and the wherewithal to maintain them, and that suffices. ‘Day labour becomes disgusting’ — well, or not worthwhile. Not worth the effort. And what does our peasant do to while away the time not spent working? He drinks! He is intemperant! Oh my stars and garters!
What is the problem with this? Well, he isn’t working. He isn’t being industrious. He isn’t being productive.
The review (and thus the book) suggests that the problem to the thinkers of the time was that these were potential labourers who could produce profits for the rich. They needed to be forced out of their traditional lifestyles, and hunger was the weapon.
What I noticed, though, was the command to be productive. It wasn’t up to the individual to make such decisions. They were clearly wrong. And alcohol was clearly part of the problem.
It is the same today. When the ‘social costs of alcohol’ are computed, lost productivity and lost worklife are often included. These are largely private costs, locally affecting the drinker and perhaps a few people around the drinker who are able to make local decisions about the problem (and thus force the drinker to internalise the externalities). Nevertheless, there is horror that these people aren’t working to their full potential. So, as much as this is a history book, that same command to work and produce is still apparent today.
2) What does the forced labour of those people mean for today?
We (the industrialised West) are rich. Fabulously wealthy by historical standards. Yes, there is poverty and want, but most people have enough. We have more food than we can eat. Most individuals have their own bed (or share by choice). Our farm animals don’t live in our houses in the winter. We have one room for sleeping, one for eating, one for sitting, etc.
We rarely convert this personal wealth into anything productive. It goes on consumer goods, so many that they don’t fit in our houses and we pay people to store them for us. My daughter was marvelling this weekend at the size of the Wellington Storage King.
Many of us could take all this wealth and buy back the lifestyle of the peasant or the ‘native Highlanders’ of Scotland. And yet we don’t.
So, even though as a matter of historical record the shift to factory work may have been achieved through a deliberate campaign of dispossession, and even though this is an excellent demonstration that property rights are socially constructed and enforced by rough men standing ready to do violence, how does that help us make sense of the consumer economy? Is it about understanding that we have options — that we choose to live like this? Is it about understanding the violence inherent in the system (Help! I’m being repressed!)? Or, is it nostalgia for a simulacrum?
02/07/2013 § Leave a comment
I saw a stage production of West Side Story last night — Samuel Marsden Collegiate is putting it on this week (pdf — poster). I caught some dialogue I’ve missed in the past. The writers knew something about the ambiguity of economics. Here in the first scene, on the streets of New York, the Jets are talking about the troubles caused by the Puerto Ricans (all dialogue sourced here):
ACTION: Them PRs’re the reason my old man’s gone bust.
RIFF: Who says?
ACTION: My old man says.
BABY JOHN [to A-rab]: My old man says his old man woulda gone bust anyway.
Just a few lines capture the economic problems. A man’s business folds — why? Maybe he didn’t run it well, maybe he’s an addict (cf., ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’). That is, maybe it has nothing at all to do with immigration. On the other hand, maybe the neighbourhood is changing and immigration played a role in the bankruptcy. Lots of things go into a business’s success or failure — it’s hard to assign blame to just one of them.
The other thing this dialogue sets up is nicely captured in ‘You’ve got to be carefully taught’ from South Pacific:
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
This idea is mirrored in the dialogue towards the end of West Side Story, in the scene in Doc’s shop when Anita is attacked:
DOC: What does it take to get through to you? When do you stop? You make this world lousy!
ACTION: That’s the way we found it, Doc.
Institutions, such as anti-immigrant sentiment — they shape us, we shape them in return. They help us make sense of an ambiguous economy, to find reason in things like business failure and the death of friends. Clever people, those writers.
19/06/2013 § 3 Comments
American author David Guterson gave a high school graduation address that stirred up emotions, at the time and later on line. Why? Apart from some of the actual content — about which more in a moment — Guterson broke the cardinal rule of graduation addresses. You are supposed to tell the kids that they are bright, shiny things off on a great adventure, special people with special destinies (our Board Chair insists on reciting Oh! The Places You’ll Go to our graduands). Guterson told them they were the same as everyone else, that their existential struggle was the stuff of human thought and literature since forever.
Two ideas from the speech are challenging for economics.
The first challenge is about the individual versus the collective:
Stop thinking about yourself every second of every day, which only produces boredom, dissatisfaction, fear, dread, anxiety, and hopelessness. Put yourself away and begin to find freedom.
Guterson points to the Enlightenment and its emphasis on the individual, and says that this emphasis has been misplaced. Instead, selflessness is the key to happiness.
This is a challenge to economics, which relies on methodological individualism. The behaviours and decisions of individuals form the basis for microeconomics; it is how economists make sense of the world.
There is an easy enough way to link the two ideas, of course. If individuals decide that their preference is to be selfless, then their individual decisions will reflect selflessness, and we can have other-regarding methodological individualism. But if individual preferences get tied up with others’ preferences, it becomes a lot harder to describe and analyse where the system is going.
Also, and perhaps more importantly, it becomes harder to talk about an individual-focused economics if people decide that we should think about ourselves as selfless. Despite the issues and mistakes with economics, it does help explain the social world. If economists are ruled out of the discussion because we have the wrong Enlightenment-derived individualistic focus, then we cease to be relevant. Like I said, it’s a challenge.
Issue number two: anxiety.
While each of us is relentlessly busy chasing after his or her personal hopes and dreams, our very sophisticated modern economy is busily exploiting the psychological and emotional vulnerabilities elicited by this state of affairs. It is an economy that motors along on your dissatisfaction, that steams ahead only if it can convince you that something is missing in your life.
I have an image of a wind-up economy powered by the rubber band of dissatisfaction. We wind ourselves up with anxiety, which then plays out in our actions and purchases. It’s a good question, and one that economists answer by assumption: what is all this running around for? Answer/assumption: because we do it, we must like to do it, so it produces satisfaction.
But, of course, that’s not really our personal experience, is it? Guterson said it one way: you are supposed to be unhappy in ways that service the economy. I think it was Joan Robinson who said it a different way: price is an index of desire, not satisfaction. We want something, so we are willing to pay for it, but that price doesn’t necessarily represent the satisfaction or happiness that the consumption produces. A third way is Freudian: Jacques Lacan developed a theory that the satisfaction of desire is, in fact, impossible; desire structures people’s thinking and emotions, their being.
Of course, this is incredibly dangerous territory. If prices don’t index satisfaction and consumption doesn’t produce happiness, then absolutely any intervention by well-meaning people is justified as ‘producing true happiness’. By turning our back on individualism — on the belief that people know what’s best for them — we are potentially turning toward the worst collective abuses.
Guterson’s speech is challenging. Read as a plea for greater self-awareness, it provides some nice advice for young adults not to get too wrapped up in the world, not too different from Ecclesiastes 1:2. Read another way, though, I’m a bit worried where he would take us.
Update: If you needed any proof that unhappiness/dissatisfaction/anxiety is fodder for marketing, look no further than the recent fashion spread from Vice: suicide as artful backdrop for clothes.
05/06/2013 § 3 Comments
I know there are hundreds of things to worry about, dozens of issues to focus on. Today, let me mention Turkey. Turkey has gotten a raw deal from the EU. It was a secular democracy with a population that is majority Muslim, working towards making itself a model of a modern nation-state. Europe decided that Turkey was too different, and has consistently dragged its feet on allowing Turkey into the EU.
The events of the last few days and weeks are partly the result of this treatment. Denied the opportunities that Poles and Czechs and Romanians have received, some people in Turkey have looked for another way. That way puts Islam at the centre of the country’s identity.
Now, in the streets, Turks are fighting about what their country will be.
A Turkish colleague has been using social media to release updates. I used an online translator to put it in English. The result was oddly poetic. In particular, the first line of this excerpt made me think of ‘I sing the body electric’ from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass from my own country’s literary history.
An update from Turkey
They sing a number of forms of detention.
Detainees in police stations were there,
Who do not know how many people are looking for where-does not,
Crime, police, information processing.
There, families have applied to the losses.
We do not know what is the situation where the person is being held.
Ankara Bar Association volunteer of the attorneys
Start working with heart and soul.