A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Quote of the Day

"A policy of conciliation makes sense only if both sides take it seriously. In relation to communist power, whose political vocabulary lacks the word conciliation, such a policy has meaning only if it is conducted from a position of strength. Otherwise, conciliation turns into capitulation, and the policy of conciliation into a march toward political self-annihilation."
- Adam Michnik in A New Evolutionism from his Letters from Prison and Other Essays (1986), p.141

In the context of discussing why previous reform movements within Poland had not only failed to achieve anything, but had in many cases ended up as shills for the Marxist régime.

A Challenge for Heath on Coercive Institutions

I'm a massive fan of Joseph Heath's work, and in particular his article The Benefits of Cooperation I have found to be remarkably clear and illuminating. However, it occurs to me that the arguments he gives in that essay would justify arranged marriages. Unless he is willing to bite that bullet, there must be a problem with his broader argument for the welfare state.

Arranged marriages have tended to be seen as a way for the men of a society to reinforce their control over the family. Hence, it is precisely the kind of social institution that liberalism was supposed to abolish and feminism to eviscerate. Using Heath's tools, however, we have a powerful defence of this institution. I'm not disputing Heath's account of how such arrangements might be socially beneficial; rather, I wish to challenge the idea that, given the beneficial nature of these arrangements, individuals are morally obliged to comply.

In the article Heath identifies five (somewhat roughly defined) ways in which we benefit from the existence of other people: economies of scale, gains from trade, transmission of information, risk-pooling, and self-binding. He argues (I forget whether he makes this argument here or whether you have to move onto The Welfare State: Three Normative Models) that the imperative of efficiency means people can be bound by rules which are designed to achieve these efficiencies, even if they do not actually consent to these rules. His defence of the welfare state, then, is a means of achieving risk-pooling among society at large and of achieving self-binding among people with poor self-control.

(To be clear, in political theory the welfare state - at least as traditionally understood - is marked by two features, both of which are normally taken to require justification: (1) coercive redistribution of income from wealthier members of a polity to poorer members, and (2) that redistribution to take place in the form of in-kind benefits such as healthcare, pensions and food stamps, rather than in terms of pure money. Heath claims that (1) is really just a massive risk-pooling arrangement, and (2) is about self-binding.)

Here's another area of massive risk: choice of spouse. Making a poor choice of spouse can wreck your life and destroy your happiness, as we all know from innumerable stories. (And that's hardly the worst of it. I sometimes joke that I will propose to my future wife with the words, "I love you. Will you become the person most likely to kill me?")

So we have an area where it is massively important to make the right decision. Furthermore, people who are in love are not exactly known for their judgement. So from an efficiency perspective, perhaps you want someone else making - or at least having significant influence over - who any given person marries.

Obviously you can't just let anyone make that decision. So for a person X, what are the ideal characteristics of X's marital-decision-maker? They should know X well, should be in some way invested in X or otherwise motivated to help X do well, and should have reasonable experience of what makes for a good marriage. Who better than X's parents? Hang on a moment, this is starting to look an awful lot like traditional arranged marriages!

As a sociological account, this is reasonably persuasive as an explanation of why arranged marriages came to be (although I doubt many feminists will be receptive to the idea that women forced into arranged marriages are so coerced "for their own benefit"). And perhaps the modern, more liberal forms of arranged marriages (in which both prospective partners have the option of refusing) aren't really so bad. But it does raise some uncomfortable questions: firstly, given the theorem of the second-best and the fact that a transition towards a more liberal system might be difficult if not to achieve, does this mean that people living in a society with coercive arranged marriages must go along with them? And second, does this mean that advocates of a welfare state ought also to advocate for a return to arranged marriages?

Perhaps one might try denying that parents really do operate in the interests of their children, and instead use arranged marriages as a way to threaten the daughter and to shore up familial alliances. But this problem is limited by the fact that parents who make utterly awful choices of son-in-law or daughter-in-law will have fewer grandchildren and so, over generations, will pass on fewer of their genes. Furthermore, real-world states of the kinds that Heath thinks we must obey are themselves far from ideal. Many regulations have a basis less in promoting efficiency than in creating work for lawyers, both in compliance and in enforcement. Other regulations exist due to regulatory capture (for example, most restrictions upon Uber - most egregiously, the recently proposed law in London which would require Uber drivers to wait five minutes before picking up a given passenger, a law with no possible purpose other than protecting the interests of black cab drivers at the expense of everyone else). Taxes go to fund not only the welfare state that Heath defends, but a whole host of programs of dubious utility (e.g. immigration restrictions, military interventions in the Middle East) and even boondoggles. So Heath faces a choice between either denying the duty to obey the law, or affirming the duty to participate in arranged marriages.

If he were a utilitarian, this would be simple: just say that while there's no actual duty to obey the law, the state is nevertheless justified in compelling obedience - if necessary through outright violence. But when you're a deontologist, it becomes harder to reject the intuitive claim that if you lack a duty to do X, no-one can force you to do X. I don't mean this as an endorsement of utilitarianism - that system has its own weird and unpleasant implications - but it's one possible way out of the dilemma.

How to assault human rights like a shitlord

Sarah Conly advocates a One Child policy - officially on environmental grounds, but the Straussian reading is that she's actually really concerned about dysgenics and wants a way to impose fines which will limit poor people's ability to reproduce while not significantly reducing procreation among the middle and upper classes.

Friday, 27 November 2015

On Disagreement

People disagree about politics all the time. Sometimes this is due to different beliefs about how the world works, sometimes it is due to different moral beliefs. Neither of these possibilities automatically implies that someone is doing wrong: there is usually room for legitimate disagreement on both counts.

Take the current debate about whether or not the UK should intervene in Syria. There are essentially two ways to make the case for intervention, presented here in a very rough form:

(A1) Intervening in Syria will make the UK safer.
(A2) If a policy makes the UK safer, it is justified.
(C) Intervention in Syria is justified.

(B1) Intervening in Syria will improve the lives of people in Syria.
(B2) If a policy improves the lives of people in Syria, it is justified.
(C) Intervention in Syria is justified.

One can plausibly reject any of these premises. One might believe that bombing ISIS makes terrorist attacks in the UK more likely, that the situation in the Middle East is unlikely to be improved by UK intervention, or that UK Foreign Policy should aim only at promoting the interests of the UK. The ideal of a deliberative democracy is that we establish where precisely we disagree, and debate the topic until we have general agreement. This is of course very fanciful, but so is most democratic theory.

All of this is to say that when we disagree with someone on a political issue, there are strong reasons not to automatically attack them. If you know precisely what the disagreement is, then you may well be in a position to declare your opponent wrong and/or evil - but this is not generally the case.

This is similar to, but not identical with, the Principle of Charity. I'm not advocating that opposition should always be presented in its most favourable (to you) light; rather, you should aim to understand your opponents' position as they themselves understand it. If, after you've done that, they still seem evil - then perhaps they are in fact evil.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Is Economics a Science?

Based upon the fact that this was submitted to /r/science, I would guess that economics is a science if and only if it supports the political goals of the speaker.

(This is not, of course, to say that the article linked to is wrong. Indeed, it seems entirely plausible to me that the phenomenon it describes is real. Monarchs were not renowned for their generosity, the welfare state - or its precursors - is/were not about redistribution, and in general it seems likely that higher segregation by income will lead to lower social cohesion and trust, which are likely to play a large role in determining how generous people are. Or indeed, perhaps higher inequality means that it's harder for rich people to comprehend that there are other people who are considerably worse off than they are).

Reading the Best of 2015: Part Four

(Previous instalments)

Fare Trade: Breaking Down London's Taxi Debate by John Bull is an engaging, balanced, meticulously researched discussion of the London Black Cabs and the challenges they currently face, in particular from Uber. Bull eventually concludes that "there are no easy answers", but unfortunately for him there are. If people want Black Cabs to stick around they can pay for them to stay around, and if they don't need Black Cabs then TfL should just let the Cabs go. I could write a long essay explaining this point by point, but I really have better things to do with my time. Nevertheless, this essay is quite plausibly the best essay of the year that happens to be demonstrably wrong.

After the snide jab that was the last article I read about Trump, I was not looking forward to Scott
Adams' Clown Genius. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. The article is neither an endorsement nor a mockery of Trump, it simply explains a plausible account of why Trump is doing so well in polling. My prior is to be sceptical that anyone in a sufficiently demanding occupation really knows what they're doing, so I'm not really convinced, but Adams is nevertheless persuasive and demonstrates both a grasp of important psychological concepts, and intellectual humility. At the moment the topic feels a bit too facile to go beyond the shortlist, but if Trump does somehow go on to win nomination or even the presidency, I will be ready to posthumously declare this the winner.

A more unusual topic was covered by Howard Shulman in an abridged excerpt from his autobiography, Running from the Mirror. Having lost his face to a bacterial infection at three days old and having been abandoned by his parents shortly after, Shulman endured a difficult childhood with multiple foster parents and numerous operations. Eventually he traced down his biological mother - his father having since died - and confronted her about it, after which the narrative ends.

The writing is fluent, if unexceptional.

I can't say I liked the author as a person. Sure, the problems he endured while growing up were caused to a considerable extent by other people and by his infection, but there's no sense of responsibility. And while he has a genuine case for anger at his parents, there's no attempt to empathise, no attempt to interpret their actions in anything approaching a charitable light. He finds out that she - mistakenly - believed him to have been adopted, and doesn't rethink his judgement of her in the slightest. He may have had an unpleasant start, but that doesn't justify or excuse the person he has become. If I may be unkind for a moment, I find it not in the least bit surprising that he is 38, still single, and seems somewhat insecure about it.

It's hard to assess Andrew Schwarz's The Illiad and the IPO without reading the article it summarises. Schwarz begins by observing that many publicly-traded companies have defences against takeovers, despite this leading to lower share prices. He theorises, with reference first to the Illiad and then to other, less mythical, historical greats, that this is due to the desire of founders to achieve a place in history.

I'm not going to read the article, so I'm hardly in a position to say that he's wrong. That said, Schwarz fails in the summary to explain what would count as evidence for this claim, much less provide it. But without this, his article is at best providing a different possible model for companies, and not an informative one given that it is constructed purely in order to merge existing data with an unsubstantiated theory.

As a side note: why is immortal fame better than fame in one's lifetime? Sure, they go together to some extent, but if it were a choice between the two then I'll note that there's only one of them which you can exploit for money, power and sex.

On Controversial Premises

I very rarely find Chris Dillow worth reading. It's not that he doesn't have anything of interesting to say: it's that so much of what he says is predicated upon the assumption that his controversial economic beliefs are right. Today's post is as good an example as any, the first two-thirds of which says nothing more than "the far left is correct about the economy, George Osborne is wrong, but mainstream Labourites can't bring themselves to admit this." If you don't accept that, then there's really nothing you gain from reading him - which is a disappointment, since I like to learn stuff, and especially to learn from people with whom I tend to disagree.

But then again, it would be stupid to require people to stick only to saying what is uncontroversial. Partly because the meaning of "controversial" would become heavily contested, and partly because the way progress happens is that people build upon past work and newcomers to the field, excited by all the new work happen, adopt the most productive theories. The point of science is not to convince everyone of what is true, but to use our knowledge to do cool stuff.

Thursday, 19 November 2015


Back when I lived in Manchester, I used to take coffee with a retired bishop. Once, when describing what it had been like to be a student - some sixty years earlier - he mentioned having owned only two sets of clothing. That is, two pairs of socks, two underwear, and so on. It struck me as incredible that in the mid-20th Century people in Britian might have struggled to afford clothing.

More recently, the thought occurs to me: what if the issue was less one of money, and more one of the time required to wash extra clothes? Washing machines would have been starting to become commonplace at that time, but for many people - especially students in temporary accommodation - they would still have been an unaffordable luxury. Perhaps people simply did not think it worth spending an extra hour or so each work cleaning socks and underwear in order to have a new set of underclothes each day.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Uses and Abuses of Signalling

Epistemic Status: I wrote this between about 10pm-2am on Tuesday, and have decided that I'm unlikely to find the motivation to go over it. Hence I'm publishing it, with a proviso that it is more than usually likely to contain mistakes and is undoubtedly too long.

BD Sixsmith has a post discussing the nature of virtue signalling. There's much to agree with and little if anything that I directly disagree with, but the notion of signalling which he inherits is less precise than signalling in the Hansonian sense. This post, then, is my attempt to reintroduce that precision.

What is signalling?

Signalling, in  Robin Hanson's sense, is spending resources in order to communicate information about oneself. There are two differences between this definition and that which Sixsmith* inherits from James Bartholomew ("the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous.") First, Hanson's account covers a wide range of actions, rather than being restricted to speech. (To be fair, Sixsmith makes the observation in his own post that signalling is hardly a property solely of verbal communication). Second, crucial to Hanson's account is the idea that resources are consumed by signalling.

Why and what do people signal?

Or more precisely, what information are they trying to convey about themselves? So far as I am aware, the traits which we signal fall into two categories: commitments/values, and abilities.

When one is aiming to signal a particular trait, it is crucial to the value of one's signalling that someone who did not possess the trait in question could not perform the behaviour which constitutes signalling. If anyone could do it, then there is no way for the signalling behaviour to mark you out as someone who possesses this valuable trait.

The behaviour one chooses in order to signal a trait, then, will depend heavily upon whether the trait in question is an ability or a commitment. If the trait is an ability, then the signalling behaviour should be one that is easy to perform only if one possesses the trait. This is at the heart of Bryan Caplan's signalling model of education: a degree is relatively easy to obtain if one is intelligent, whereas if one is of average or below-average intelligence then the cost is far higher**.

If the trait is a commitment, on the other hand, then the behaviour should be one that is costly to perform, even if one does possess the trait. The logic here is that if one did not place so much import on this commitment, one would not be willing to make the sacrifice which is entailed by the signalling behaviour. A perhaps out-of-date example of this might be buying an expensive engagement ring: one would only be willing to spend so much money if one really did want to be married to the beloved. Back in the days when becoming pregnant out of wedlock was considered shameful, the engagement ring functioned as a signal that the man did not intend to run away if his fiancée did indeed become pregnant.

What is costly varies hugely from person to person. For example, suppose Jim earns £25,000 per annum but manages to donate more than £10k to charity each and every year. Wow! one might think, What a generous guy! Jim's charitable donations successfully signal generosity. But now, suppose that he in fact earns more than a million pounds per annum. Now he looks positively miserly, because £10,000 is no longer a significant cost to him. If Jim wishes to signal generosity, he really needs to up his game.

Thus the cost of a signal may be either high or low. Whether or not it ought to be depends upon the nature of the trait being signalled.

So is virtue an ability or a commitment?

This is a tough question, one that philosophers have been debating for more than two millenia. (Admittedly, that's actually a fairly low standard). Clearly there is some extent to which it is an ability - i.e. the ability to recognise what is the morally right thing to do in a range of situations - but there's an ongoing debate as to whether one needs motivation to act morally, beyond the simple knowledge of which actions are moral.

Fortunately I solved meta-ethics one day on the bus a couple of weeks back, and so can tell you the answer. For perfectly rational, ideal agents: yes, moral beliefs are inherently motivating (though this is actually a rather misleading way of putting it, since something's being motivating comes prior to its being moral). However, humans are not perfectly rational. Most pertinently we suffer from "Akrasia", or weakness of the will. The fact that we recognise we in some sense "should" do something does not mean that we actually will do it. The ability to resist akrasia and perform moral actions, then, is a type of commitment - in this case a commitment to doing good.

Real-world Virtue Signalling

So let us take what a left-wing person might think of as "the virtue of progressivism". How is one to signal this virtue? Progressivism seems less like an ability than a commitment, so the key to a successful signal will be that it is a signal one will make only if one is truly committed to the cause. Such signals might include: long hours of unpaid labour, spent knocking on doors or stuffing envelopes; taking the time to read long and often incomprehensible Marxist tracts (also a way of signalling intelligence); saying things which induce non-progressives to take you less seriously.

There are also a variety of things which one can do to suggest that one is progressive, but which involve lower costs and will therefore be taken less seriously. Mocking the Daily Mail is a British national pastime, and serves poorly as an indication of one's progressivism. Ditto expressing concern for the poor, which can be done equally well by Tories. These are simply too commonplace.

Alternatively, suppose one wishes to signal that one cares for the global poor. The most obvious way to help them is to give money to a charity which works in the third world, but this is not the most visible activity. Since signalling is an act of communication, it must of necessity be visible to the desired audience. Hence instead of doing overtime at work and donating one's extra pay, one might perform an impressive, embarrassing, or otherwise unusual activity and solicit donations.

An even more extreme way to demonstrate one's commitment to helping the people of the third world is to actually travel there to help. Some students do this, and we talk about it "builds moral character". (Yeah, Bryan Caplan might say, it builds moral character in exactly the same way that going to university builds intelligence.) In recent years there has been increasing suspicion that these trips are actually more leisure than work, and the status of the people who go on these trips has taken a corresponding hit.

Is everything signalling?

No. Sixsmith is of course correct to note that "When teenagers get involved in musical subcultures and buy new clothes, and cut their hair, and paint their nails or pierce their lips it is informed by their need to appeal to their peers, yet it would be foolish to think that they don’t like the music." Perhaps one might try to salvage more of the signalling view by claiming that appreciation for a particular aesthetic is in fact an ability of sorts, but this is surely pushing the model too far.

Socially Useful Signalling

Sixsmith claims that "The problem of virtue signalling in the modern age is in large part a problem of scale. When the world was not so criss-crossed with roads, flights and wireless connections one demonstrated one’s virtues in one’s own community. On such a local scale, one’s beliefs regarding, say, the proper treatment of poor people in one’s neighbourhood had to be actualised in one’s behaviour. Modest and productive virtues could take precedence." 

Perhaps this was true among the general populace. I imagine it varied from community to community, since while the principles behind signalling are the same across communities, the specific acts which are socially accepted as signals vary greatly. My concern here is with signalling as it was (and still is) practised by aristocrats and nations. The principle "virtues" these actors have traditionally sought to convey are power, wealth***, sophistication, and piety. Hence they have built large palaces, commissioned great cathedrals and works of art, and many other things besides. Some of these (such as many of the Oxbridge colleges, or the Szechenyi Chain Bridge) have been of great use to society. (Though how much of that is post hoc rationalisation? If we could send money back into the Middle Ages, would we want it spent upon founding Elizabeth College Oxford, or would we want it spent upon bringing peasants out of dire poverty?) Much of it, however, was spent upon buildings that are nice to look at, but don't really serve any purpose other than attracting tourists.

Perhaps the world's most beautiful COMPLETE WASTE OF RESOURCES.
I really don't know what gets us out of this trap of socially-wasteful signalling, perhaps other than unilateral action by people already recognised as possessing certain virtues. Effective Altruism appears to be achieving a beneficial form of wealth-signalling, but there are many other things which we signal using behaviours which are wasteful if not outright damaging. Sixsmith suggests "spending more time in our communities and less on Twitter," but this is of course reliant upon his belief that signalling within communities is usually socially beneficial. This is not to say that he is wrong, merely that I reserve judgement either in favour or against.

A second problem with signalling is that it is inevitably a positional good: my signal makes yours less useful, either by showing that it's easy enough that I can also perform it or sufficiently low-cost that I am also willing to perform it. Again I don't know how to tackle this: the ideal solution is a Pigovian tax, and indeed this provides the most solid justification for heavy taxation of luxuries. But such taxes are difficult to implement (Marathon-running tax, anyone?) and easy to mess up. Nor does this give us any guidance upon what to do as individuals (apart from thinking up new ways of signalling which have yet to be exploited by all and sundry).

* I would use his first name, but am uncertain as to his preference between Ben, Benjamin, or BD.

** For purposes of simplicity, I'm leaving out the extent to which (in Caplan's view) a degree also signals conscientiousness and/or conformity.

*** Wealth signalling: also known as Conspicuous Consumption.

Some Thoughts on the Attack on Paris

129+ people are dead, murdered. A further 300+ are critically injured. There are a few things to be said about this:

(1) Obviously, this is a tragedy. The victims and their families have my deepest condolences.

(2) Some people have been politicising the tragedy, some have been getting annoyed at people politicising it, some have been saying that it is inherently political and that to resist politicisation is to accept that it will happen again.

This third group is of course right, but that doesn't mean we should politicise it immediately. If we can avoid attacks on people between death and burial (empirically, of course, most people can't - but at least we have that rule, and it's one that I hold myself to) then I don't see why we can't allow a similar grace period after events like this.

Furthermore, immediate reactions are knee-jerk reactions. Until we know more about the attackers than "They were Syrian and ISIS is claiming responsibility," everyone who considers this evidence for their viewpoint is guilty of updating based upon fictional evidence.

(3) There are fears that this will lead to reduced freedoms in France and in the Western world generally due to heightened security. I hope these fears turn out to be wrong, though I suspect that they probably will be.

The French government has sealed the border. We would do well to recall the words of the Marquis de Condorcet, who wrote (something along the lines of) "All moral principles admit of exceptions, and laws that are usually unjust may be required in certain emergencies. The injustice occurs when these laws are permitted to continue beyond the emergency." There are exceptions to any presumption of liberty, and they are probably much more frequent than Caplan and Huemer would like to believe.

(4) 129 deaths is, in the grand scheme of things, not many (See Brienne Yudkowsky; I endorse the sentiment, if not necessarily the tone. Around 100 people die each day in traffic accidents in the US alone.) If maintaining liberal society meant sacrificing 130 people every day, I would do it in a heartbeat.

Of course, "liberal society" is not a single package. One is free to say that, without some restrictions on freedom for security's sake, there would be vastly more than 130 extra deaths every day. We could, one might claim, implement this extra security without leading to bigger government in any other domains. Both claims are, in my view, fanciful. Most people are basically alright, and there are not enough people evil or misguided enough to sustain that rate of terrorism. Moreover, the tendency is in most cases for government power to be abused.

In addition, more powers for security agencies are useless unless these powers are actually used.

(5) I'm sympathetic to Muslims who see anti-immigration and anti-Islamic statements and feel the need to respond before a superweapon develops. They have a partial pass on politicisation.

(6) The most obvious political statements to be made about the attack are (a) allowing immigration does indeed have dangers, and (b) Obama was incorrect when he claimed that "No [non-US] country has a problem with shootings" and blamed gun ownership. As someone who is very pro-immigration and who leans pro-gun but sees it as a relatively unimportant issue, my reluctance to have the issue politicised may of course be because the politicisation is inconvenient for me. This might also be related to why I'm downplaying the significance of the attacks. We are all biased, and Russ Roberts is right to say that we should admit our biases (though I think he is perhaps too resigned to this fact, and ought to put more effort into being less biased).

How Successful Have Communists Been?

Towards the end of the second chapter of The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels set out ten policies which they see as necessary to the establishment of communist societies. This post is a brief look at how far these policies have been implemented in what we generally think of as capitalist countries.

(This post is intended partly as an exposition of the limited extent to which Western societies can be called "capitalist", but also as a response to hyperbolic claims by libertarians - including my past self - who like to suggest that these have been completely enacted).

1: Abolition of Private Property in Land, and Application of Rent to Public Purposes
This is the case in a limited and perhaps misleading sense. It is true that the biggest landowner in the US is the Federal Government, but the areas which it owns are not for the most part areas where people actually live - rather, they are vast and inhospitable deserts which are used for testing nuclear arms and such.

What about the second part, of taxing away rents? This does not happen, and so far as I can tell the main people advocating for it to happen are in fact the Marxists of the Adam Smith Institute.

2: A heavy progressive income tax
What counts as heavy? The highest rate of income tax in the UK is 45%, although there are of course other taxes which reduce people's take-home pay; National Insurance and Corporation Tax are the biggest, although for anyone my age or younger who went to university (which will include the vast majority of future higher-rate taxpayers), there's also a 9% tax to repay your tuition fees. I'm a bit hazy on how it all interacts, but I'd guess that we're close to if not past the topmost point of the Laffer Curve. (And the fact that maximising government revenue is seen as an acceptable aim for policy is itself pretty indicative). Let's say that this one has been achieved.

3: Abolition of all rights of inheritance
There are taxes on inheritance, it is true, but this was true for centuries before Marx was writing. Back in 2010, I remember Labour's intention to raise inheritance tax ("the Death Tax") being a major campaigning point for the Tories. To the extent that this has been achieved, I don't think one can honestly credit/blame Marxists.

4: Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels
The US taxes the wealth of those who renounce citizenship, but at a relatively low rate. Certainly it's far short of full confiscation. More normal practice is for taxation to be continued upon emigrants regardless upon where they are earning, but such a policy would have been utterly unenforcible in 1848. I think it's best to regard this proposal as obselete.

And rebels? I guess that occurs to an extent - if you leave the UK to fight for ISIS, you won't be allowed back in and your assets will likely be frozen - but again this hardly seems like a specifically Marxist policy, and more a policy of any government which wants to disincentivise rebellion.

5: Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly
This is the one that gets Austrian economists all excited, but I think that claiming the Bank of England to be fulfilment of this policy is a somewhat dubious interpretation of Marx. The state intervenes in investment markets, but it does little to decide where private capital actually goes. Influence is not at all the same thing as deliberate determination of who receives investments.

6: Centralisation of the means of communication and transportation in the hands of the state
This used to be the case, certainly. Then along came successive Tory governments, which have gradually privatised railways and the Royal Mail. I guess that a lot of public transport is still state-owned or controlled (the difference on the quality of bus services in Birmingham, where every route is a council-granted monopoly, and Manchester, where there are four different competing bus companies, has to be seen to be believed), and in places other than the UK (including my current abode of Budapest) there is still literal nationalisation. So let's count that as achieved.

With the means of communication, though, you again can't really attribute nationalisation to communism. The US constitution, of all documents, grants a federal monopoly on postage. Indeed, the maintenance of such a monopoly has been a key priority of governments for centuries, since controlling communication makes censorship and surveillance possible.

7: Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan
Honestly, this reads like "Do good stuff, don't do bad stuff"-type rhetoric. Ultimately, Marx is just saying that there ought to be economic growth, which is hardly a uniquely Marxist policy.

8: Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially in agriculture
I'm not certain what exactly he has in mind here. The bringing of women into the workforce occurred, but this hardly due to Marxism. In general the effect of left-wing governments - which are not the same as Marxists, it is true, but are surely the medium through which Marxist policies have been implemented - has been to take people out of work, both deliberately (through the expansion of pensions, lengthening of education) and as a side effect (due to minimum wages, for example). The workforce has also been reduced by increasing the number of people classed as disabled, but this happened mainly under Thatcher.

9: Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country
Well, that hasn't happened. The Green Belts remain firmly in place, and once again it is the Marxists of the Adam Smith Institute who are pushing for their loosening or abolition.

10: Free education for all in public schools. Abolition of children's labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production
Okay, this has happened. 93% of the population is educated in state-run schools, and when you ask people why this is they'll tend to justify it on grounds of equality and such considerations. Again it's hard to establish that there's a causal link between Marxists pushing this and it happening - the fact that the principle of state education is so universally accepted could be a reflection of Marxian success, or a reason to doubt that the Marxists have any role in this becoming policy. Given that one of the sacred cows of the modern left is the abolition of the few remaining private schools, I'll grant this one.

Of the nine policies which are meaningful and still relevant, I am willing to say that Marxists achieved three, that a further four have occurred but aren't really attributable to Marxists, and two haven't really happened. (Can we still count something as a step towards Marxism if it wasn't implemented as a result of Marxists? I don't think so, since many of these policies are aimed less at achieving social justice and more at achieving security for the state apparatus - i.e. to maintain non-Marxist government).

I do think that this shows how silly it is for Marxists to label the system we have as "capitalism"; however, it's not really fair to label the system as "socialism" either. Perhaps one might describe it as a mongrel hybrid, since we have all the worst parts of socialism without either of the two key Marxist policies which are actually worth having.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Reading the Best of 2015: Part Three

(Previous installments)

Trump, Card by William Germano is vaguely interesting, but I have no idea what it's doing on this list. Etymology is a surprisingly interesting subject, but it rarely gives you anything to think about or anything more than an interesting tidbit to take away. This essay is no exception.

Izabella Kaminska's Cryptic Bullet Points could not be any more of a contrast. It is not an essay, rather it is simply a list of blog posts that she lacks the time to write properly.

This is a kind of blogging which I am happy to endorse. I'm unlikely to practice it myself, because nowadays when I have a good idea I'm less likely to blog it than to put it on my list of "potential academic papers", but I'm glad that there are people who are giving us the opportunity to learn from them rather than hoarding their ideas.

Did I learn anything from the list? Not really, largely because I didn't really understand much of it. If the post was intended for anything even close to the average reader then this could be a problem, since (having studied economics for two years in undergrad) I probably know a fair bit more about the financial industry than most people. However, the average investor presumably knows a fair bit more than I do, so perhaps it would be more useful for them. Given that I still have 91 essays to read, I'm not going to take the time to find out.

The award for "most misleading title", at least of the articles so far, goes to Evan Ratliff's My Wife Found my Email in the Ashley Madison database. The article is not about the resulting struggle to repair his marriage, but rather about the various other Mr/Mrs E Ratliffs who enter his email when they log in to a variety of sites. As with many of these articles it's interesting; as with many I would not place it in the top 100 articles that I've read this year. Most of it is just short stories, flashes from the lives of people who, were it not for that shared initial and surname, would be perfect strangers to the author.

An article which very firmly does belong on this list is Rachel Ward's I'm Sorry I Didn't Respond to Your Email, My Husband Coughed to Death Two Years Ago. This piece is a (somewhat) light-hearted retrospective on her experiences of becoming and being a widow, presented in dialogue form. I'm not certain what this presentation adds to it - perhaps it's supposed to be quirky and characterful, but really there are many more people who believe themselves to be madcap pixies than there are actual madcap pixies.

The essay is both funny and serious, but above all it's unpretentious. Ward explains what she has learned and what has changed in her life as a result of her husband's passing, but she doesn't try to make it into anything that it's not.
[The nurse] told me I’d see him again, at the funeral, and that I should just focus on sleeping and eating. And then I said “I can’t believe it, he was such a good husband.”
And she said, “Yeah, but he did a shitty thing today.”
And that was the first time I laughed after Steve died.
It would be fair to describe this as my favourite essay so far.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Reading the Best of 2015, Part Two

(Previous instalment, and all future instalments, can be found under the Golden Giraffes tag)

A Magical Answer to an 80-Year-Old Problem, by Erica Klarreich, was interesting enough to be worth reading, but I don't feel like I really learned anything from it. It's very easy to understand, which is a massive plus when writing about maths, but that's because there's very little actual mathematical content.

Les Green's Bullshit Titles was the first essay on the list that I had already read, but was worth reading again. This essay says nothing which is profound or of great importance, but it is a worthy contribution to the philosophy of bullshit as well as an easy introduction to the subject for people who have no prior acquaintance with it. As with Klarreich's essay I would recommend it more as entertainment than as making a substantial addition to one's mental toolkit, but it should perhaps be read by all prospective humanities PhD students:
In particular, never allow doctoral students to use subtitles. Either there is good reason to study three years of decisions of the Milk-Marketing Board or there isn’t. (By ‘good reason’ I mean dissertation-wise. It’s a low standard.) If there is, they should have the courage of their convictions and make the subject their title. If there isn’t, do not allow them to waste their intellectual careers on trivia and then package it up in a bullshit title.

Past Perfect, by Richard. H. McAdams, is an extended review of Go Set a Watchman. I have not read GSAW and have not read beyond the first few pages of To Kill a Mockingbird, but this essay reinforced my impression that I really should. McAdams made the point well that, as much as an individual mights be more morally enlightened than the society in which they live, they will still be constrained by it. In TKAM Atticus Finch is genuinely a hero, but it is his respect for due process and equality before the law that motivates him: not, as we might like to imagine, a genuine belief in racial equality. This is the longest read so far, but it's worth the time.

Perhaps I would have found Peter McCleery's Thank you for calling Mamet's Appliance Centre more amusing if I were more familiar with Mamet's work. I assume that there's background I'm missing, because without that context this is nothing more than a needlessly foul-mouthed, slightly absurdist conversation between two rather dim people.

Alain de Botton starts in Why We Hate Cheap Things with the observation that experiences which a hundred or more years ago would have been enrapturing - eating a pineapple from exotic climes, flying in an aeroplane to touch the face of God, etc - are nowadays seen as commonplace, even boring. His thesis is that this is because we tend to conflate value and cost, assuming that things which cost more must necessarily provide us with greater utility. This is plainly false when one thinks about it, yet de Dotton believes that we tend to behave as though we believe it - and thereby deny ourselves a lot of the wonder of the world. The solution, then, is to be more childlike and to appreciate more the amazing world in which we live.

de Botton is correct at the start of his essay, and at the end of it. The modern world is indeed an incredible place, which we would do well to appreciate more, and goods which used to inspire great envy and desire are indeed quite ordinary. Some rainbows have, alas, been unwoven. But de Botton's explanation for this phenomenon is sorely lacking the concept of social status, which would explain most (all? I'm not certain about the aeroplanes) of what he wants to without raising a whole bunch of side questions.

Like: why do people have this tendency? de Botton claims it emerged in a time when price and quality genuinely did go hand in hand, but (a) is it really plausible to think that there was ever a time when all goods provided equal marginal utility, so that there were no cheap but really worthwhile goods? (b) Even this were the case, why would people follow this heuristic rather than one of (imperfect) utility maximisation? (c) Why do we still have this tendency? Is it biological, like many of our ethical impulses, or is it social and learned?

I did enjoy de Botton's elegy to advertising towards the end of the piece, but in general you could get the good of this essay without the bad by reading "I, Pencil." That's not to say this is a bad essay - it's just, unfortunately, wrong.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Reading the Best of 2015: part one

The Browser has a list of what it suggests are the top 100 online essays of the last year, and is conducting a survey. A handful of them are familiar, but the vast majority are not, so I'm going to attempt to read through them all - and what is more, subject the readers of this blog to my mini-reviews of each and every essay.

For the most part I'll follow the order they appear on the website. However, I'll start with Four and Twenty Bluebeards by Matthew Spellburg, which caught my eye because last month I saw Bluebeard's Castle at the Hungarian State Opera. (I didn't tremendously enjoy it, though having given some of the music a second listen I think that may be more to do with the performance than with the opera itself).

It's a magnificent tribute to Matthew Aucoin that Four and Twenty Bluebeards is still only an Honourable Mention for my "most pretentious essay of the year" award. (What is it with these musicians?) Numerous sections making points which are typically unrelated to the actual opera; musical analysis barely more complicated than that available on the opera's Wikipedia page; bold, sweeping claims made with an air of disdain for the notion of empirical support; and above all, the notion that opera is somehow a humanistic venture of the first importance:
Opera can only teach us to be who we are not, to demand a complete transformation, in which the whole of experience undergoes a great estrangement. Only once we’ve stepped into the circle of transformation—a kind of spiritual transvestitism—can we learn something. Opera says: you must believe this is the way the world is, even though it obviously isn’t like that at all. And this is why it mirrors a culture, the total sum of a society’s reinvention of the world. And this is why it is at once the most complete and most impossible of art forms.
I can't recommend reading this essay.

Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution by David Chapman makes similarly grand claims, although is perhaps more justified in doing so. Indeed, the claim which makes me most suspicious is his suggestion that the ideal ratio of Geeks (i.e. content creators and service providers) to MOPs (members of the public) within any subculture is about 1:6. Until this point I had been reading the article mainly as an exercise in abstract reasoning which might turn out to usefully model actual subcultures; the injection of an actual number, but as a conclusion, was very jarring and came across as unsupported and arbitrary

There were a couple of other things which made me sceptical. First, the claim that "subcultures died around about 2000". I could just as easily claim that subcultures exist, and are more common than ever - if perhaps shorter-lived on average. The internet is an incredible tool for creating subcultures, and even if it also accelerates their collapses then so long as they create positive social value - as Chapman thinks they do - I would be very surprised if they were indeed to die out. Perhaps Doge is a less iconic subculture than Prog Rock, and perhaps the role for Chapman's "fanatics" is reduced to providing publicity, but until there are concrete statistics showing a decline I will be highly sceptical of one of Chapman's key theses.

Second, suppose Chapman is right. His solutions are at best vague, and at worst impossible to practise.
“Slightly evil” defense of a subculture requires realism: letting go of eternalist hope and faith in imaginary guarantees that the New Thing will triumph.
Perhaps deliberate creation requires faith in the value of what one is doing. In this case, the option may be between delusion, which leaves subcultures vulnerable to sociopaths, and having no subculture in the first place.

With all that I've said in criticism, though, the piece is worth reading and its insights are worth adding to your mental armoury.

Charles Pierce's The Death of Evan Murray should be filed under "Taboo Tradeoffs". I don't necessarily disagree with the object-level campaign - at the very least, the cost to human lives of American Football seems to render it a poor "choice" for a national sport of choice - but one could just as easily argue that sending children to school will inevitably lead to some dying in car accidents, etc. The answer, in both cases, is that there is a good to be had in children's playing sport and in their being educated. Would it have been so difficult for Pierce to make the extra bit of argument showing that American Football could be replaced by a sport (more baseball or basketball? Soccer?) with lower human cost?

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Why Study History of Philosophy?

In undergrad I was fairly successful in avoiding having to study the history of philosophy. Unfortunately this could not last; as part of my MA I'm having to take no fewer than three courses on it - Ancient Philosophy, Rationalism and Empiricism (i.e. early modern philsophy - Descartes et al) and Continental Philosophy. This is a fairly fixed part of the curricula for degrees in philosophy, and for a long time I have wondered why. In this post I shall attempt to make a positive case for studying history of philosophy; I currently have no concrete plans to make the opposite case, but one might just happen to appear.

(1) The value of past philosophers
The fact that something is old does not mean its ideas are irrelevant. Indeed they may be stronger, for having stood the test of time. And perhaps there are some ideas which are just flat-out wrong (the world is not, for example, made entirely of water) but studying these ideas is useful for understanding the climate in which other, more valuable ideas, emerged. Perhaps much pre-Socratic philosophy reads like mysticism, but given that Socrates - at least in the earlier dialogues - is concerned not so much with making positive arguments so much as tearing down the ideas of others, it is important to know what he was responding to.

Kantian arguments still command respect in ethics; Jeremy Bentham, if he were alive today, would be accepted but broadly within the mainstream. The case is easier to make for ethics than for "natural philosophy", it is true, but this shows that there is still value to be had by learning historical ideas.

(2) Unlearning assumptions
Nowadays we take a great many ideas for granted. But these are not ideas you can genuinely project from a blank canvas: we believe them because we were brought up to believe them. If we are to hold (for example) advocacy of democracy as a substantive belief rather than as a tenet of unreasoning faith, we need to look at the thoughts of people for whom democracy was a strange and frightening idea. (And who knows, they might be right! The historical progression of ideas is not guaranteed to be in a positive direction!)

(3) Practice at interpretation
One of the key tasks of any philosopher is to respond to other philosophers and their arguments. Studying the history of philosophy helps to develop a number of skills useful for this. Upon first reading, many historical philosophers appear to be obscure and/or blatantly wrong. To properly apprehend what they have to say, we have to apply hermeneutics and the principle of charity - both of which will be useful when engaged in discussions with fellow contemporary philosophers.

NB. Even if the case I am making here is correct, I doubt it is really why we have to study history of philosophy. (1) provides little justification for reading anyone in the original, rather than merely in summary; (2) provides little justification for teaching history of philosophy as independent courses, when we could teach history of metaphysics as part of a metaphysics class*; (3) suggests that the choice of texts is in fact fairly arbitrary.

* Imagine that! A class mixing metaphysics with history of philosophy! The ultimate feast of utterly worthless mental masturbation!