Archive for April, 2010

Neoliberalism and Wikipedia

April 25, 2010

I’ve been reading The Road from Mont Pèlerin, by Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, and thought I’d share an early reaction.

In the volume’s closing essay, Mirowski takes aim at Wikipedia and its founder, Jimmy Wales, who ‘claims that he got the idea for the site from his reading of Friedrich Hayek’s famous essay on “The Use of Knowledge in Society“, the ur-text of the Mont Pèlerin thought collective.’

After a section discussing Wikipedia’s business model, its relationship with Google and the ‘fetid quality’ of its entries, Mirowski concludes with lessons learnt:

First and foremost, neoliberalism masquerades as a radically populist philosophy, which begins with a set of philosophical theses about knowledge and its relationship to society.

It seems to be a radical levelling philosophy, denigrating expertise and elite pretensions to hard-won knowledge, instead praising the “wisdom of crowds”. It appeals to the vanity of every self-absorbed narcissist, who would be glad to ridicule intellectuals as “professional secondhand dealers in ideas.”

In Hayekian language, it elevates a “cosmos” – a supposed spontaneous order that no one has intentionally designed or structured – over a “taxis” – rationally constructed orders designed to achieve intentional ends.

Whatever it says about neoliberalism, this seems to me a mistaken analysis of Wikipedia.

Mirowski takes Wales and other Hayekians at their (dubious) word: suggesting that every time we aggregate the distributed, micro-level knowledge of individual agents, rather than consult a centralised ‘body of suitably chosen experts’, we vindicate capitalism and its price signals.

But Wikipedia scarcely relies on its contributors’ specific knowledge of the ‘local conditions and special circumstances’ of time and place, which Hayek considered ‘unorganized knowledge’, and which he thought was best coordinated through market prices.

Rather, Wikipedia works – and it does, superbly well – because of the statistical virtues of repeated measurement. As in information processing and telecoms, for large sample sizes (the masses of ordinary people who contribute to Wikipedia) the signal-to-noise ratio becomes very large.

In reality, Wikipedia provides as little support for a market economy (or the Austrian-libertarian worldview) as does Elinor Ostrom’s work on how people coordinate to manage common-pool resources (water, fishing rights etc) and avoid the tragedy of the commons.

But Mirowski goes along with Wales in believing that Wikipedia tells us something about the comparative worth of centralized vs distributed economic calculation. As such, he can only salvage his political position by pretending that Wikipedia does a poor job as an encyclopedia:

I cannot resist highlighting the irony that Wikipedia, purported poster child of neoliberalism, cannot even manage to get its own internal entry of neoliberalism straight. But that irony is achieved at too low a price: after all, Wikipedia can’t manage to get much of anything straight for very long (unless it is so arcane and dull that no precocious 12-year old feels tempted to “edit” the entry).

What it does manage to do is capture what passes for common knowledge of the median participant on the Internet at some specific point in time. The conviction that the truth emerges from random interactions of variously challenged participants in the precincts of Wiki-world (sometimes retailed in the popular press as “the wisdom of crowds”) only holds water if we are allowed great latitude in the definition of truth.

Sure, maybe if you consult the entries for Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush. But as a general description this is silly and unfair. Perhaps all the high-quality stuff falls under ‘arcane and dull’.

Are books sacred or fetishised?

April 22, 2010

Or, does the idea that books are sacred imply that they are fetishised objects? I got to thinking about the ‘sanctity’ of books through a couple of completely divergent experiences.  The first time I ever seriously considered the why and wherefore of the sanctity of books in our culture, I felt ashamed at the accusation, by my boyfriend at the time, that my habit of writing in the margins of novels and textbooks was akin to book burning. Then, about two years later, I felt the same sort of humiliation when a different boyfriend concurred that if I was going to annotate my books, I might as well salute the Führer and throw my reading material on a pyre. Well, he might not have used those exact words, but I did sense that he was appalled at my blithe underlining of the passages I most adore in my favourite novels, done with the same spirit of selfish disregard as Maude Flanders, who infamously underlined her favourite bits in Ned’s bible.

More recently, I’ve been reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and one of the central themes seems to be the iconoclastic book burnings that occurred throughout Nazi Germany. I have to admit that I haven’t yet finished the novel; in fact, I’m only about a quarter of the way through. And no, I haven’t read Fahrenheit 451, but rest assured that it’s next on my reading list. Nevertheless, book burning has always resonated with me as a tragedy: I consider it the most violent and destructive form of censorship, perpetrated by terrifying people and horrific regimes, like the Nazis.

Honestly though, I don’t think it’s fair to claim that the act of scribbling on the pages of your favourite novel is the same as ritualistically burning it in public (or anywhere for that matter). Let me be clear: the books that I own are among my most valued possessions, and admittedly, there are some books that I have kept since childhood and will never part with. I can understand not wanting to ruin a book by rendering it unreadable, and I agree that book burning is wrong. But the whole idea that books should be kept pristine, that it’s disrespectful to write in them, tear them, batter them, put creases in their spines or even cover them with Contact, irks me to no end.

In this context, I have come to the conclusion that books are indeed fetishised, and I’m of the opinion that this is bizarre and unhelpful to anyone who actually enjoys reading. I like to carry novels around with me and naturally, they get a little battered and creased even if I try hard to keep them ‘nice’. I refuse to feel bad about this, because books are designed to be handled. I love second-hand and library books for this very reason: it’s almost as if they have been ‘worn in’ for you. Although, it is annoying when a book is so well-thumbed that it automatically falls open at a page that reveals a crucial part of the mystery too early. Nevertheless, books do not need to be handled with kid gloves* and I believe the idea that they are to be looked at and kept nice has spawned such unpleasant phenomena as the ‘coffee table book’ and suchlike. Indeed, I’ve just been skimming an interesting article by Matt Erlin about the history of the commodification of literature in eighteenth century Germany. It makes for very interesting reading, not least this bit:

“Literary works…not only served as an important medium for the dissemination of knowledge about and attitudes towards commodities in Germany; they were themselves understood as commodities, and the rapid production, circulation, and consumption of books generated a great deal of anxiety among German elites” (p. 356).

Which I guess brings me back to book burning in Nazi Germany. The Nazis also had anxieties about the consumption of books – what was being consumed and who was consuming it – but this must be distinguished from strange ideals that elevate books to a status that means people like me feel bad about engaging with – interacting with – texts in ways that helps us to better understand, critique, admire and emulate what an author might be saying and how they are saying it. I get the feeling that classist attitudes underly peoples’ reverence for the printed word, almost as if the physical act of reading indicates middle-class refinement and taste, and anyone who doesn’t know how to read ‘properly’ shouldn’t be allowed to read at all.

So to conclude, allow me to indulge my hyperbolic imagination: to claim that books should be read and not written on brings to mind images of Victorian schoolmasters wrapping the knukles of children who feel more comfortable writing with their left hand. Just because YOU don’t like to write on your books doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or that I’m a bad person because I do. Just like those poor little Victorian lefties, I should be allowed to do what feels most comfortable. And I’m comfortable making notes on the pages of my books. Fair enough, right?

Unless, I guess, if you’re borrowing the same high-use book that I’ve just had checked out for the last 2 hours.

*I concede that some books do, in fact, require handling with kid gloves. Examples can be found here and here.

Orlando furioso

April 20, 2010

Anyone who’s opened a book by Orlando Figes will immediately have felt his ambition stream off the pages like halitosis.

Here’s how The Guardian reviewed A People’s Tragedy:

The primary weakness of this book is simply arrogance. Figes’s accomplishment is enormous, but his apparent delight in that accomplishment outstrips it. He is officious and patronising and often self-aggrandising, and he presents the book’s banalities with the air of magnificence that only its real insights deserve. He writes as though his book were definitive.

For all that, A People’s Tragedy was wildly acclaimed. Its portrait of Russians ‘trapped by the tyranny of their own history’ and the ‘legacies of their own cultural backwardness’, steamrolled by the cynical ‘philistine’ Lenin, made good reading in 1996.

As Yeltsin’s Russia produced millions of excess deaths, Figes helpfully explained that ‘Russian democracy can be rather like the Russians themselves: chaotic and disorganised.’

In short, Figes added neatly to the lineage of anti-Soviet historians for whom Lenin was arch-villain. These were people not famed for their honesty: scholarly reviews openly call Richard Pipes a liar; Robert Conquest’s estimates of excess mortality in the 1930s seem out by an order of magnitude; Dmitri Volkogonov had been head of a Soviet psychological-warfare branch before seeing the light after 1991, and becoming Yeltsin’s archival assistant.

To this existing scene of mendacity and falsification, Figes (along with Simon Sebag-Montefiore) brought a pseudo-literary style and the unhelpful innovation of “fleshing out” historical figures with imagined motivations, thoughts and episodes.

So this isn’t too surprising:

Figes’s wife confessed to writing several reviews for, praising her husband’s work and trashing that of his rivals…

“My client’s wife wrote the reviews,” said Figes’s lawyer’s statement. “My client has only just found out about this, this evening. Both he and his wife are taking steps to make the position clear.” Ms Figes added: “I can confirm that statement.” It was an extraordinary turn of events, and continues to beg several questions. How had Mr Figes known nothing until the day before? How had Ms Palmer kept quiet about being the author of several reviews that praised Figes’s books and damned his rivals?

Update: No kidding.

How hard can you possibly fail?

April 18, 2010 has sunk to a new low:

If you’re struggling to read the caption below that woman’s breasts and the litre jugs of beer they’re swilling, it says “Drink in the atmosphere: Testing out the best beer gardens in the home of Oktoberfest.” And next to that, below the picture of the poverty stricken young’un drinking mud out of a plastic bottle, it says “Ever thought about how you can make a real difference in a child’s life? Sponsor a child.”

I know stuff like this isn’t uncommon on The Age’s website, but come ON!* This is beyond the pale.**

*Since reloading The Age’s homepage, I now notice that there’s an ad for a bank next to the busty beer wenches of Oktoberfest.

**Apologies to my fellow Churls, Alex and Nick, for using this offensive idiom.

Beyond the reality principle

April 15, 2010

Slavoj Žižek interviewed by Cahiers du Cinéma, as described in the LRB blog:

Following up on a piece he wrote about Avatar, reprinted in the March issue of Cahiers, he confesses to his interviewers that he hasn’t seen the film; as a good Lacanian, the idea is enough, and we must trust theory. Žižek promises that he will see the film and then write a Stalinist ‘self-criticism’.

The good Lacanian goes on to inform the Cahiers editors that he wrote about The Talented Mr Ripley before seeing it, and that although he has seen Psycho and Vertigo (the interviewers sound quite jittery by this point), there’s a long chapter on Rossellini in Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out and, no, he hadn’t seen the films when he wrote it. Out of respect for Lacan? Not this time: ‘As a good Hegelian, between the idea and the reality, I choose the idea.’

No doubt many onlookers, accustomed to such ‘revelations’ but somehow not yet bored by them, will find this quite funny.

Compare Lyotard’s own cheerful admission to an interviewer: ‘I made up stories, I referred to a quantity of books I’d never read, apparently it impressed people, it’s all a bit of a parody… It’s simply the worst of my books, they’re almost all bad, but that one’s the worst.’

Earnest indignation leaves such characters untouched; censorious judgements are similarly unavailing, allowing the seer and his followers to pose as irreverent pranksters, scandalizing the pious, thickheaded, credulous and tradition-bound.

For Žižek’s adherents and others, there is compensation to be found, and the appearance of worldliness to be conveyed, in post facto professions that one was in on the joke with him ex ante.

Such sources of solace merely consent to the inevitable: the guru would, of course, do it anyway.

So I struggled to decide whether this is worthy of comment: Žižek has been playing the same stale game of épater for 20 years, a heliotropic pursuit of media and publishing market that has succeeded quite nicely. ‘Scandals’ of this sort merely add to his undeserved reputation for transgression; it’s probably best just to ignore him now.

But surely it’s a kind of dark minatory sign when this kind of figure, and others like him, can find success in a wing of the humanities.

For some high-status subset of society to proclaim its open disdain for reality, evidence and truth  well, that’s bound to catch on, with unpleasant consequences.

Thus the best antidote to Žižek is not mere excoriation. However richly deserved it may be, it is  like approval  just an impotent, futile bid to console oneself.

His absence of intellectual probity is, after all, merely one individual’s response to incentives not of his own devising. There are few penalties and plenty of rewards to be won: facing such a payoff structure, and unconstrained by scruple, he behaves predictably.

Moralism is misapplied to what is not an individual aberration, but a symptom of our times. Žižek is the merest spray flung off by a vast swell of intellectual regression that has rolled in during recent decades.

Better for all to consider: who or what summoned Žižek to the stage? What historical developments led us to this grim impasse? How might we escape from it?

Take tablet to improve memory

April 13, 2010

My recall of written information is much greater when I can place it into some kind of visual context: know where it was on the page, basically. Consequently I’m able to retrieve stuff I read in a book much better than stuff I read on a computer monitor (where viewing a full page in 16:9 makes the font unreadably small). 

Has anyone else found this? Or am I the only person in the world for whom an iPad would actually be useful?

Left theories of the great recession

April 10, 2010

Here’s a recent talk on the GFC by Duncan Foley, who has this to say:

Moments of capitalist crisis greatly excite left critics of capitalism, but it is not clear to me why this should be so…[What] the left gets out a crisis is mostly determined by what the left brings into the crisis in terms of analysis, concrete political goals, and a vision for a transformed future…Thus a major crisis for the left is its current lack of a compelling vision of alternative institutions to organize economic production and distribution.

A while ago John Quiggin remarked, on his own blog and at Crooked Timber, that Marxist analyses of the 2007-09 global recession hadn’t ‘added much, in analytic terms, to the standard left-Keynesian analysis.’ Could someone, he asked, direct him to a worthwhile Marxist contribution to understanding the GFC?

Based on the comment threads for each entry, I’m not convinced that Quiggin wrote in good faith (for each linked suggestion, he averred either that it was insufficiently Marxist or excessively so). Nonetheless he had a point. Since the credit crunch hit in mid-2007, the explanation of events among many leftists (Foley, for one) has been broadly indistinguishable from interpretations put forward by followers of J.M. Keynes and Hyman Minsky. Minsky’s account of  financial instability – the progression from hedging to speculation to Ponzi borrowing – has appeared sufficiently complete and persuasive.  Marxist political economy, from this perspective, seems to offer no additional explanatory power. Despite its claims to predict the long-term trajectory of profit rates, the theory seems analytically redundant when it comes to the genesis of financial crises.

There’s a broader point here. Note that the aim is to find the most useful tools for understanding the recent economic situation. Nobody with intellectual integrity should be concerned to assert a priori the worth of any particular doctrinal perspective. The best theory explains (fits) the observed data  given the least prior information input.

How do the contenders fare? 

  • The popular journalistic view explains the GFC as the outcome of dodgy lending practices and poor risk assessment (due to lack of transparency) of mortgage-backed derivatives. The data requirement for this theory is clearly very large: explaining the crisis basically involves describing the crisis in institutional detail (including matters, like the nature of opaque financial instruments, which should properly be regarded as epiphenomenal). The information cost isn’t worth the effort.
  • Keynes-inflected behavioural economics points to the irrational ‘animal spirits’ of human psychology. In a recent book of this name by Robert Shiller and George Akerlof, the authors suggest that aggregate investment is erratic because decision-makers don’t fit orthodox microeconomic descriptions, grounded in rational choice theory. Instead, people are subject to panics and overconfidence.  Market volatility like the GFC is put down to human foibles. Again, this theory has a relatively high information cost. It involves specifying the choice behaviour of individual agents (are they intertemporal optimisers with transitive preferences? or are they only boundedly rational? Do we have a representative agent or heterogeneous ones?). Given the minimal predictive value that’s produced, it’s probably not worth the effort.
  • The Minsky-Keynes theory traces the recession to excess leveraging induced by a speculative bubble. A ‘euphoric economy…breeds a disregard of the possibility of failure’. This was originally a verbal model rather than a formal one, but it’s still elegant and simple. With very few assumptions it can explain higher leverage ratios, asset-price inflation in the housing and other markets, then the rise of loan defaults, sharp withdrawal of credit, reduced investment and depressed output. There’s little need to discuss the choice behaviour of agents or the features of particular debt instruments. The cycle is endogenous: it doesn’t rely on the propagation of external shocks (as in New Classical theory) or transmission via market imperfections (as in New Keynesian interpretations).

This last one is a nice explanatory fit; but we can, with equal simplicity, explain the asset-price bubble without reference to the psychology of borrowers. When the return on capital declines, the level of productive investment becomes insufficient to absorb the inflow of savings into the financial system. The book value of paper assets will rise, as will bonuses paid to workers and executives in the financial-services industry, ensuring a corresponding outflow of funds. But the process eventually runs up against the credit-worthiness of borrowers and capitalisation of banks. Adequately formalised, this model generates all the aperiodic boom-then-bust behaviour of the Minsky hypothesis.  This account also has the added virtue – which the Minsky theory lacks – of dealing with global imbalances like the lending of China, Japan, Germany and the Gulf states to the US. 

As for Foley’s other argument, of the need for ‘concrete political goals’ and ‘a compelling vision of alternative institutions’, it’s a point well taken, but best left to another post.

Climate change idiocy and the fate of scientists’ credibility

April 8, 2010

Recently I’ve been engaging with a lot of popular science, because I have time, and also because I enjoy feeling smart when I explain how plants employ quantum effects during photosynthesis at the swanky dinner parties I attend, you know, like…practically every night. While a lot of the material I encounter is in “fun fact” form, like the quantum photosynthesis thing, lately I have noticed that scientists and science reporters have been increasingly writing and lecturing on the dangers of climate change denial. Understandably, they seem more and more frustrated with the prevalence of mainstream denial of climate change in publications that have national and international distribution; indeed, Wilson Da Silva, editor of Cosmos Magazine, lambasts The Australian for giving editorial precedence to its political agenda at the expense of accurate and credible scientific reportage:

“Even worse than not covering science is to dismiss it when it doesn’t meet political prejudices. Sounds absurd, but that’s what The Australian appears to do, particularly on climate change. Many of its articles dismiss or underplay scientific concerns, undermine widely accepted scientific evidence and highlight minority opinions from scientists with little or no credibility among their peers. Its editorials are even more ludicrous: reading them, you could think man-made climate change is nothing but a conspiracy of left-wing scientists determined to de-industrialise society.” (Editorial, Cosmos 32, p. 5)

It’s not just scientists and science reporters who are fed up with irresponsible editorialising spouted by publications like The Australian. Jonathon Holmes (the guy on the ABC’s Media Watch) actually managed to get into a textual stoush with Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman over his use of an unsubstantiated quote in an article attempting to ridicule climate change science. Holmes often condemns the pervasiveness of editorialised climate change denial in the mass media, and eloquently teases out the intricate tactics that allow dickheads who promulgate denial (under the guise of “healthy scepticism”) to get away with it. Furthermore, if you listen to a podcast of last week’s Science Show (ABC Radio National), you can hear a bunch of actual scientists from America (where climate change denial is virtually endemic) discussing the cultural implications of denial, and how it will impact the way we actually deal with the lived reality of climate change.

The climate change “debate” is so beyond a joke now that I worry for the future of scientists’ credibility in matters of even the most ubiquitous and mundane technological advances (male contraceptives? a new, organic substitute for nylon? the cataloguing of species inhabiting Tasmania’s waters?). For a while, I was convinced that scientists needed to overhaul their PR methods, that it was the pressure to publish new findings as soon as you can vaguely substantiate them, and corporate funding for research that was causing all the problems. These are still major issues for all research scientists, everywhere. But the ostensible decline of scientists’ credibility in the mainstream media has moved beyond the realms of PR. Media organisations need to be held accountable for the geyser of bullshit they’re spouting. It’s scientists, experts in the field of climate science, as well as all other scientific researchers who know that climate change denial is an irresponsible lie that has mass appeal, that need to know how mass media operates and challenge the very mechanisms that are undermining their own credibility! Damn it scientists, you can do better!

Raise your hand if you love statistics and want to do a survey

April 8, 2010

‘I keep saying the sexy job in the next ten years will be statisticians. People think I’m joking, but who would’ve guessed that computer engineers would’ve been the sexy job of the 1990s?’ That was Hal Varian last year in the McKinsey Quarterly.

It’s been hard to miss this kind of talk lately. A few weeks ago The Economist chimed in with a ‘special report’ on ‘the data-centred economy’.

Unfortunately, one prominent growth sector seems to involve hucksters selling meaningless information to anyone dumb, cynical or rich enough to buy. This can be done in several ways, but a few are especially common:

  • Claiming to detect an effect where the coefficient isn’t statistically significant: the observed result could have occurred by chance rather than genuine association (for example, evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa purporting to show that ‘beautiful parents have more daughters’ while tall people and engineers have more sons).
  • Failing to control for potential confounds, and thus finding spurious correlations. As previously discussed here, this one is beloved of blowhard journalists who, for example, tie crime figures to ethnicity (look how Sudanese offenders are over-represented! look how Indians are disproportionately victims!) without adjusting for relevant variables like age, gender, occupation and locality.
  • Selection bias, where the sample drawn is unrepresentative of the target population, with some people more likely to be included than others. If you see market research in the popular media, it’s almost guaranteed to have this flaw. Respondents to online surveys usually self-select. They may choose to participate because they have some axe to grind, while people without strong opinions – or older people who don’t use the web – may not bother taking part. 

It’s always been easy to sell equivocal results to a credulous media, which is eager to hype and sensationalise quantitative findings if they involve sex, gender or race. But, increasingly, public and private-sector managers seem willing to pay for noise presented as signal. Consider this week’s report in Melbourne newspaper The Age. Apparently ‘research done for the government’ shows residents of the inner-western suburbs are worried about a proposed freeway tunnel. The research referred to seems to be a local community survey hosted online at SurveyMonkey. Fill it out, if you like; it takes only 15 minutes of your time, and is almost completely worthless. And – hey! – your tax dollars, by way of Sweeney Research, have already paid for it.