Letter mainly to myself, post-Donald

I think I've probably finished the reading the internet now. Eyelids peeled back, unable to look away, scratching the wallpaper off to get at whatever thoughts or feelings might help shift this... matter through my digestive tract without rupturing something. It's ongoing. In the meantime, as for so many others, dream and reality are in some godawful state of twizzler. Panicked braincells scramble to hide behind each other, desperately straining to avoid the incoming signals.

Which is of course all angel delight to the right-wing maw. As a friend once said after they inflicted a vicious chess defeat that I'd poured everything into: "I wear your pain like a crown."

Well fuck them, obviously. (Not the friend - they're quite nice really.) Paul Ryan's vacant little Mona Lisa smile as he refuses to acknowledge that an appointed 'chief strategist' is clearly Voldemort - that's pretty much all we need to know about these people. "Evil overlord, you say? Hmm. Will this get me more power? Mmmmm."

I've been shocked into doing something. Pretty messed up that it should take this, but there's some comfort knowing exactly the same thing must be happening to thousands, millions of others.

There are a bunch of luxuries we no longer have. We don't have the luxury of much self-doubt. Or rather, it'll always be there - everyone has it - but you're not allowed to let it stop you. Them's the rules now. Do something. Anything from contacting people you haven't in a while, hugging a friend, donating, volunteering, painting, singing, plotting, inventing an entire utopia. Don't make a utopia in your spare room all alone though, and don't be silly and try and do it all on the internet. Come out and play. Bounce that stuff off other people - the one thing we need more now than ever is to connect with others in every way we can.

Sure, your mind may scowl: "you Walter Mitty peabrain, what the hell makes you think you can make any difference to anything? Remember all those things you fucked up? That's the real you. Drink your effing beer, stuff this Netflix into your eyeballs and SHUT UP." But... your mind can fuck off as well. And notice just how useful that bit of your mind is to those aforementioned power-mad eejuts. They want you to do nothing. Fuck them also. I said that already.

Because there are really very sound reasons why you should do the thing and not not do the thing. Jane Jacobs nailed it: anything good that ever happens or gets made is just accident fuelled by intention. It's a lot of people with ideas and bits of stuff they're making and trying, doing the thing - and usually finding out the thing doesn't turn out anything like how they thought. But then this other thing happens - Jacobs realised, in fact, that it happens without fail when we get together to do stuff. It's what humans do. Some magic mix of evolution and artistry: person A goes - hey, that thing you just did? What if I just bodge that in with this other thing? Oh sweet Christ, we've discovered a better way to organise the city! How did that happen?? Accident fuelled by intention, ladies and gentlemen.

But it needs the intention. You need to turn up, do the thing and - this bit is especially important - not not do the thing. Not doing the thing: that's self-doubt's job description. Spotting little green shoots of maybe doing the thing and yanking them up before you have a chance to get out the door.

And you do at least sometimes need to get out the door: do the thing where other people are doing things too, or take the thing out for a visit now and then.

So - for myself - I'm fucked if I'm gonna let some colossal tango-faced bullshit queen, centre of a venn diagram made from a blow-up sex doll and an obese geriatric ginger tomcat, mess with everyone else's amazing work on stabilising carbon output. It should probably have been obvious this couldn't be done without one or two countries going the full man-toddler on us. A puncture on the road is predictable enough - you've just got to roll your eyes, fix the damn thing and press on, even if you can see the little shits who threw the tacks laughing their asses off.

Put aside any eensy niggles about nuclear obliteration - as Nick Fury so wisely said, "until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on". The planet's future is somewhere on a distribution and, like these poor lushes trying to get to the pub across a bridge over a terrifying ravine of certain-ish doom, there is no point at which it's OK just to say: ah sod it, let's just stumble forward unconsciously and hope for the best. The odds are worsening with every year, but there are - for a good while yet - always odds worth taking. Here's Alex Steffan:

It’s a fight for every 1/10th of a degree. If we fail to hold to 2ºC, we have to fight for 2.1º; failing that, we battle on for 2.2º. With millennia of impacts at stake, we never get to give up, even if we end up in 4ºC. For future generations, 4º is still better than 4.1º. "Game over" is neither realistic nor responsible.

And there isn't a shortage of other stuff to get stuck into. At the root of it all, connecting with others is the prime directive. For anyone who believes every person of any sex/gender/skin-colour/age/wealth/size/shape/geolocation/dress-sense deserves our deepest fucking respect and our care, that we all owe that to each other - that act of connection is the most fundamental and sacred thing we can do. Fucking cliché, I know, but you know that cliché about things being clichés for a reason? That.

To summarise:

1. Fuck them. (Obviously.)

2. Do the thing. Do not - and I really want to be clear on this point - not do the thing.

3. Be excellent to each other.

Now get on with it.

p.s. sorry I was rude about you Donald. I'm really cross with you right now.

Resilience, Yochai Benkler-stylee

A superb close to ouisharefest2016 by Yochai Benkler. This in particular:

It's not enough to build a decentralised technology if you do not make it resilient to re-concentration at the institutional, organisational or cultural level. You have to integrate for all of them.

His attack on what happens when all your institutions have homo economicus built into their DNA is sweet and to the point, putting all the words I waste chewing over this stuff in its place.

p.s. 7 out 17 target blog entries? Not gonna complain, that was the biggest sustained burst of non-academic-focused writing for a good while.


A random thought arising from the Panana papers release - I'll save ranting about the obvious stuff for another time. Looking at a map of 'where the money is hiding' I was reminded of money's mercurial nature. This has been buzzing round my brain for a number of years - not just that it's mercurial, but that it has its own internal logic that gifts it with something that, if you squint, could look like intention.

What the hell do I mean? First-up: my idea of the meaning of 'intention' comes directly from work I did on programming an evolving system of predator/prey 'boids' (this wayback machine link being the only remaining write-up). Both types of boid start out with completely random behaviour. As that article said:

"this means that to start with, some predators, on seeing a preyboid, will try and run away from their food. These poor sods, therefore, don't eat. If predators don't eat, they eventually die of hunger. (Prey only die if they're eaten.) Equally, prey can go for the Darwin award if their random rules send them happily into the jaws of a predator they see."

As they evolve, however, predators learn to chase and prey learn to fly away. And, for me, that's enough to ascribe intention - of the most elemental, blind form, but I think that label fits because, when broken down into its consituent parts, our own intention is nothing more than this.

Michael Pollan's take on corn (vid also) is another way of looking at it: humans are just 'pawns in corn's clever strategy game to rule the Earth'. It has 'domesticated' humans to its own ends and now rules unassailable across vast swathes of the Earth's landscape. Intention? Not the same as humans', but the same basic dynamic is at play - the corn that survives is the corn that carries its genes on. Growth and continuity is the only determinant of success.

See, nice little segue into money there. The idea that humans might be serving money and not vice versa is hardly new. I'm just wondering if thinking about it this way - and considering how something as apparently static as money that couldn't exist at all beyond human support (yet...) could be considered to be pursuing its own goals.

It's an idea that teeters alarmingly close to complete gibberish and madness, all getting a bit Ginsberg. "Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money!" (This is a fun piece looking at Moloch as an agent, among other things.) But I think it's still possible to flip the human/money intention view without being too stoned and see something interesting. It's visible in, say, the way that taxis move around a city and stop for people: money looking for ways to move, the driver co-evolved to pilot the machine that does it. As one gets closer to money's most obvious homelands, in the banking sectors, so the human-money symbiosis creates all sorts of bloated weirdness.

And maybe humans aren't really needed for that much these days. Most money movement has nothing to do with us any more, it's all machine-managed, feeding off nanosecond differences in the wires. That we still leave this system actually connected to the human economy may come to be seen as complete insanity - about as wise as trying to keep warm by setting a fire in your front room using all your furniture.

This is obviously nonsense on some levels. Money's own intention looks suspiciously human. If money only wanted to grow, why would it slink off into the rivulets of global tax havens? Tax is still money flowing, after all, and states are plenty good at spending. So yes: there's either (a) something here worth thinking about more or (b) I might as well be stoned.

Still, carrying on with the stonedness... that Moloch article has this goddess/human dialogue:

Everyone is hurting each other, the planet is rampant with injustices, whole societies plunder groups of their own people, mothers imprison sons, children perish while brothers war.

What is the matter with that, if it’s what you want to do?

But nobody wants it! Everybody hates it!

Oh. Well, then stop.

This notion that emergence or corn or money might have its own agenda helps explain why 'just stopping' might be beyond us. We're wedded to various different kinds of symbiotic partners who squeeze those parts of us that they know will keep us doing what we do. We are not sovereign.

New year's earnestness 7/17. Ten more by the end April? Err. Well, let's see about hitting double figures...

Humans: nought but shipping containers that need to sleep at night

On the theme of economic reductionism / turning flesh and blood human beings into cold robot calculators: the central theme running through the PhD and the last project was the effect of distance on economic choices: what people buy, where they buy it from, what/where organisations buy, how they change buying/selling and location together as a single choice set. Which is more-or-less a definition of spatial economics.

One of the ideas that turned out to be very useful for thinking about it is value density. As I use the concept, this is just the ratio of an object's value over 'cost to shift it a unit of distance'. So if it's selling for five pounds and you need to ship it ten miles at fifty pence a mile, its full cost is going to £10 and its value density is ten.

In the usual use of value density, the focus is on weight and bulk. Weight hasn't really been a part of recent spatial economics, even if it's obviously continued to be essential for actual logistics planning. Weber's is the classic work that looks at optimal siting giving inputs, weights and distances - but it's past a hundred years old now and 'proper' spatial economists dismiss it as mere geometry. ('That literature plays no role in our discussion' is all it gets from Fujita/Krugman/Venables.)

But shifting the idea of value density to 'how much it costs to ship per unit of distance' alters this: weight/bulk are important only for how they change that cost. Value density as I'm defining it can also change if, for example, fuel costs go up - which is why the idea ended up being superbly useful. It gets more complex if one starts to factor in time issues (the main reason containerisation transformed the planet was due to its impact on time, not distance) - something that, up to now, I've studiously avoided - so in true quant style, since it's difficult, let's just pretend it doesn't matter for now...)

Value density is a concept that, as far as I can tell, only gets used in the logistics literature - a very applied setting where analysts support decisions about actual production networks. I first heard it mentioned by Steve Sorrell and thought, "wossat then?" Because of this, it doesn't seem to have been used as a 'how do spatial economies work' tool.

It's the 'value' part that makes value density interesting. Because the value of something is determined mostly by its economics, only very minimally by its physical weight/bulk/distance-cost, it can be changed by anything that can add or decrease that value. From a non-spatial point of view, that's trivially obvious: something's real cost drops if, for example, wages rise. But when these two are combined, value density means that changing something's real value also changes how far it can economically be moved. That puts it right at the centre of how spatial economies wire themselves.

So where Weber cited the weight of certain primary inputs as the reason they don't move very far, logistics folks know that's not it. This can be seen along whole production chains: primary inputs will often need to be close to the first stage of production. At each following stage, more labour is added - and hence more value. Extra value can be added anywhere that extra economies of scale can be squeezed out. This is possibly what determines the dropoff of UK domestic trade (see pics) I dug out of the transport data: low value-density cement, sand, gravel, clay at one end, manufactures at the other (though there are likely plenty of other factors at play, since it's just domestic movement).

This leads to what, for me, seems like a rather startling conclusion: it's the ratio of value to per-unit distance cost, not either alone, that determines the spatial reach of economic networks. This was a very useful idea for the last project as it meant I only needed to determine one number, not two. Again, if we're talking about value versus weight - not a shock, huh? It's when fuel costs or other per-unit distance costs change that it gets interesting. You can increase the spatial reach of your economy by decreasing fuel or time costs - or by increasing value. That can happen through, for example, a more educated workforce with higher wages, through new production methods, through Jacobs-style diversity externalities caused by diversifying clusters - whatever pushes value up.

But there's an exception. There's one input into the production process, one feedstock into the great grinding millstone of the economy, that doesn't quite work in the same way. Human beings. Superb quote:

Humans remain the containers for shipping complex uncodifiable information. The time costs of shipping these containers is on the rise because of congestion on the roads and in the airports while the financial costs of so doing are also rising due to increases in real wages of knowledge workers who are the human containers. (Leamer/Storper, the Economic Geography of the Internet Age, Journal of Intl Business Studies, 2001 p.648).

So humans can be value dense, just like anything else you shift on a truck and back into a factory. But, as production inputs, they have some idiosyncracies that set them apart from coal or crankshafts or hard drives. At the top of the list: with some exceptions (i.e. people who don't stay in one place) they all need to be within a few hours' radius of the place they input their labour. They also have a range of other functions - some of them not even economic! - that determine their spatial patterning. A whole range of essential inputs, for instance, are required to guarantee creation of the next generation of shipping containers for complex uncodifiable information.

Putting aside my flippancy, this is sort of car-crash fascinating to me. It is actually possible to see a quite generalisable theory of value density that just includes some of these tweaks to humans. After all, there's nothing novel about the approach: humans are one side of the most commonly-used production economics idea, the Cobb-Douglas, with capital on one side and labour the other. And we've mostly become blithe to the presence of 'human resource' teams in all large workplaces. But this is a little more specifically economising, isn't it? Not only labour, but an input with certain ratio of value to per-unit distance cost, just with the addition of some tweaks.

I think it works though. That's the marvelous thing. It's this fundamental difference - something explored in detail by Glaeser, for example - that is determining the shape of modern cities. Decreasing distance costs, either relatively through increasing value or otherwise, increases the value density of us lot.

What I'm still not clear on, and why I'm writing all this down: we know that theories change reality. I go on about that all the time. They also change how we see the world individually - obiously, really. Even if there was some clean way of separating out my analysis of how society's structured from my daily world-view, how would that make sense? Don't we try and learn about the world specifically to change how we see it, both as people and collectively?

So I find myself asking the Dr Malcolm question ('Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should'). Not because, of course, it'll actually make me turn off the computer and walk away. At least not yet. But I do wonder - the kind of reductionism I've just laid out might produce genuine insights, but at what cost? I've been wibbling recently about the inseparable link between language networks/production, and this stuff is just another version of that. The cosmology of economics creates some kind of productive landscape - but is it one we want? Should I be comfortable in promoting the use of that language, justifying it with claims that simplifying produces useful views of reality?
New year's earnestness 6/17. If Eddie Izzard's having to do two marathons on his last day, I should be able to catch up on the blog target in eight weeks, right? Hmm.

The modeller's Hippocratic oath

Via this excellent Slate piece on the ethics of big data and machine learning (at the top of my mind after watching a DWP presentation on their forays into the field), there's this article by an ex-finance-worker-now-professor. Three lovely bits. First, their modeller's Hippocratic oath:

  • I will remember that I didn’t make the world, and it doesn’t satisfy my equations.
  • Though I will use models boldly to estimate value, I will not be overly impressed by mathematics.
  • I will never sacrifice reality for elegance without explaining why I have done so.
  • Nor will I give the people who use my model false comfort about its accuracy. Instead, I will make explicit its assumptions and oversights

This seems especially relevant at the moment as I'm finishing off something I know only tells a partial story, but I also know may be used by some people with an axe to grind. I'm not quite sure what's going to happen yet. Hopefully nothing.

Derman also says:

Unfortunately, no matter what academics, economists, or banks tell you, there is no truly reliable financial science beneath financial engineering. By using variables such as volatility and liquidity that are crude but quantitative proxies for complex human behaviors, financial models attempt to describe the ripples on a vast and ill-understood sea of ephemeral human passions. Such models are roughly reliable only as long as the sea stays calm. When it does not, when crowds panic, anything can happen.

This reminded me of Scott's forest parable: in this case, if the sea doesn't stay calm, perhaps there are ways of calming the sea rather than admitting the model might not be up to scratch. When does the model make the world?

Lastly, Derman quotes Edward Lucas:

If you believe that capitalism is a system in which money matters more than freedom, you are doomed when people who don’t believe in freedom attack using money.

Trump's Nevada win made this seem prescient. A man whose only real distinction is to be very, very wealthy (perhaps despite, rather than because of, his own efforts) ... well, we'll see. This year could end up pretty terrifying.
New year's earnestness 5/17. Nearing the end Feb?? Uh oh!

What would happen if new age ideas were left alone to evolve? And other language-related wibble.

We think of language as a tool for understanding the world - the instruction set used to construct a rational world view. Language and logic have come to be intimately tangled.

But language didn't evolve as a tool for understanding the world - at least, not in the way I've just described - any more than ant pheromone trails did. So there's actually no a priori reason to expect a venn diagram of language and logic to have any overlap. There is a sense in which highly evolved systems can be said to represent an 'understanding' of the environment they're embedded in, but that's not what I mean.

The common thread in the adaptive landscape examples is a mix of adaptation and 'magic' - a web of concepts and speech acts that tie people, place and worldview into a coherent, functioning whole. Lansing in particular does a superb job documenting how an imposed, abstract set of modern ideas about rice-growing were unable to 'see' the Balinese reality because it placed it all the 'superstitious gibberish of no possible value' category.

Those systems make perfect sense if language is seen as a social phenotype like ant pheromones. Yes, there is now a strong bond between language and logic that has gifted us with a collective ability to build a coherent, systematic view of the universe, and one that we can accept as real. There really are billions of stars in the milky way, billions up billions of galaxies in the visible universe. None of that is accessible to us without that bond.

But this social ability of ours should have the power to shock us - as should, say, our ability to read. What on earth prepared the brain for that astounding leap? Converting marks on paper, in neat rows, into comprehensible language? HOW? What else could we do collectively with our language tools?

What I'm trying to get at: there was nothing inevitable about these language features we now take for granted that got built on top of our evolved abilities. And the ones we now have perhaps blind us to the possibility of others emerging. More than that, they may rip them from their mulch just as they're producing the first fresh leaves of growth.

It always amuses me to imagine this happening to New Age ideas - perhaps left alone for long enough, some of them could develop into a genuinely functional social technology, a 'living, breathing, evolving thing: a creature whose sinews were made up of people, story and land'. All the rational snottiness directed at the logical ridiculousness of the ideas involved would be completely missing the point.

Not quite sure I really buy that argument! But that example does highlight why that maybe can't happen. How much scope for organic growth can there be in a world dominated by other, much more powerful social phenotypes that would lay on it like a thick blanket blocking out the sun? On a planet encased in a twenty-four hour clock and so many of us marching so precisely to its pattern? (And anyway, so many New Age ideas are entirely with the grain of that system: commoditised, accessorised, usually appropriated from long-dead cultures in which they may have had actual life.)

There's a cosmic implication too! It's a super-exciting time to be looking at the skies as we're discovering possibly habitable worlds. (That one may be tidally locked - someone's bound to have written some sci-fi about a world with a permanent dark side, right?) And it's fascinating to see how much our search is directed at discovering any other form of life - bacteria, whatever. We don't want to be alone. We want to be part of a much larger story.

To get back to the theme: the Fermi paradox tells us we should, by all rights, be part of a teaming galactic neighbourhood of civilisations. A possible reason I think we're not - perhaps a cross between 'humans are not listening properly' and 'no other intelligent life has arisen' - is due to our misunderstanding this unique, ever-so narrow path language has taken us on.

We see a parochial sliver of the universe, abstracted to the level of our symbolic understanding. This leads us to naturally assume logic and reason must necessarily emerge, as rivers flow to the sea (hence the content of the Arecibo message). But other worlds' views of the cosmos could have taken such radically different paths that, say, the double-slit experiment could be quotidian experience not worth noticing and no form of systematic logic may be part of them.

I'm going a bit 'life Jim but not as we know it' now, but... yeah, that. A famous sci-fi horror story I won't spoil by naming is about a space-faring species who were fiercely technologically advanced but essentially animals. They'd found a particular survival route that built on none of the things we assume must be its predicates.

Plenty of species have independently evolved distributed phenotypes. But as Terrence Deacon says right at the start of the Symbolic Species, when a child asks him why no animals have rudimentary versions of language, humans' particular social phenotype turned out to have some thoroughly unique properties. Life may emerge in many places in the universe - but perhaps this particular ability is phenomenally rare. And even then, there appears to be no reason to expect a smooth slope from language-as-adaptive-landscape to a social lens for seeing the entire cosmos.
New year's earnestness 4/17. We'll see if I can catch up on the missed week!

Killing the idea that communal action can solve social problems

A famous Orwell quote that crossed my facebook feed:

Whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time, and at certain moments a very important question.

This 'wicked or stupid' question has been on my mind a lot recently, so it was striking to see exactly the same thought from eighty or so years back. It's the Tories I'm referring to, of course. Caveat: there are many, many decent tory voters out there - good people all. And many decent Tories in politics even. But the bunch actually doing the ruling? Well.

There are plenty of examples to choose from to characterise our current rulers, but let's start with the recent secretive push to scrap what remains of grants for the poorest university students.

If you google 'lifetime earnings university degree', the first thing that comes up is a report from 2013, funded by the Government's own Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. (Copy here if the official link goes AWOL).

It makes clear the massive benefit of a university education for the person getting it - but also how much benefit is gained by government. I mean, the principle's obvious, right? Someone who earns more over their lifetime will pay more tax. If they end up paying more tax than it cost to educate them, there's a net benefit to the country. The word often used for this, I believe, is 'investment'. I've included the key table - this study has a breakdown by type of student, too, so we can see the gain for individual students who'd be getting the bursaries ('e', at the bottom), as well as the gain to government. The study finds a net government gain of 246 thousand from men and 300 thousand from women.

Even if those numbers were a quarter of this or less, there'd be a net gain for government. For every single student lost who decides they can't afford university any more, government coffers lose out too. Osborne claims these grants are unaffordable - that clearly makes zero sense. Ditto his point about "a basic unfairness in asking taxpayers to fund grants for people who are likely to earn a lot more than them". Taxpayers will gain, not lose out.

And that's before all the gains for the individuals themselves - in earnings and life satisfaction - as well as the increase in education levels for the country as a whole, where there's basic economics telling us the spillover gains over time for everyone.

But this is missing the point, I think - and this is why I think they're cruel, not stupid. It appears stupid only if one assumes they have the same frame of reference. They don't, not at all. No amount of logical argument on the costs and benefits will affect this government's aims. Yes, they use this language of unfairness to taxpayers, but this is little more than effective PR (which is Cameron's background, let's not forget). Flak to cover them in pursuit of the main prize.

The sell-off of housing association properties paid for by selling-off council houses shows the same aim. Housing associations are some of the last living examples of solving social problems communally. The fact that they're actually privately owned makes no difference to that.

So it's not simply a matter of shrinking the state. They actually want to kill the idea that communal action can solve social problems. A smaller state is a consequence of that belief, not a cause - which is why framing student support as an investment would make absolutely no moral or logical sense to this government. They don't see there's anything to invest in.

The NHS will go last, unless something changes. It's their biggest political goal and one that will require all of their PR know-how. They can't quite let the wolves out of the door yet - they know the political ground isn't prepared. But they're very good at this game and blithely content to use whatever bullshit argument will get them to their atomised oligarch utopia.

Hmm. That's interesting. Turns out I'm a bit cross about this.
New year's earnestness 3/17 , just.

Migration entropy

For NYE 2/17, I'd like to point you over to the other blog for a combination of a ramble about migration (a part of my new job) and an attempt at some silly R modelling to look at some of the basic stochastics. With some Akala thrown in for good measure. All utterly fascinating, I'm sure you'll agree.
New year's earnestness 2/17

How to avoid comparing rich and poor

Reading Mark Blaug on Pareto efficiency was a lightbulb moment. As he says, Pareto's idea was a 'watershed moment' in arguments about utility. From a distance, the outcome can seem pretty meaningless but it's an important political fork in the road - and one that shines a light on how the abstractions of economic theory get tangled with power politics. There's a story about Pareto himself to be told, too - I'm not going into that. This is about where his idea went after that.

Benthamite utilitarianism hadn't been going badly. But it was premised on the idea that different people's well-being could be compared - after all, there's no other way of knowing if you're increasing or decreasing the general welfare.

This seemed intuitively straightforward at the time. But, perhaps as the study of utility as an economic concept developed, that began to change. Attempts to actually track down a scientific measurement of people's utility got underway. Folks got upset about the obvious problems in trying to define what utility really was.

Pareto offered a way out of this. I'd known the concept before but not understood its significance until reading Blaug. Pareto efficiency: you've reached an optimal state when it's not possible to make anyone better off without making someone else worse off. Sounds innocuous enough. But notice that it sidesteps comparability. As Blaug says:

"The beauty of Pareto’s definition of a welfare maximum was precisely that it defined the optimum as one which meets with unanimous approval because it does not involve conflicting welfare changes."

It rules out the possibility that one could -

" - evaluate changes in welfare that do make some people better off but also make other people worse off" (Blaug / economic theory in retrospect/ 1997 p.573-4).

So it can say absolutely nothing about inequality. Or rather, it implicitly says that it doesn't matter: you cannot, for example, assess whether taking money from one person and giving it to someone else will improve welfare overall. Bentham schmentham.

Pareto optimality, unsurprisingly, became very popular and is essential to most general equilibrium models. I don't understand those - I'm only familiar with Krugman's spatial GE stuff, which is not the same (they're driven by explicit utility differences across space). But I'm not surprised models that, by default, exclude inter-personal comparisons should form the inner sanctum of modern economics. A model that can, by design, exclude any discussion of redistribution was always going to thrive.

Which is not to say there aren't plenty of approaches that do analyse the differences between rich and poor. But... and I'm not on solid ground with this point at all... the kind of economics that sits in rooms with ruling elites don't generally use those.

I want to make two little points about this. The first comes from having actually used utility as a concept in my modelling work and found it extremely valuable. I spent far too long listening to the siren-calls of agent modellers telling me to go towards 'realism', then in the process of slowly solving my problems, realising I had ended up back at basic micro-economics.

So first: if you're going to use utility at all, you'd better accept it's a silly idea that lets you do useful things. People are not actually utility maximisers, but the concept is a superbly effective way of thinking about how people react to cost changes in certain situations. (This is all very Friedman [pdf].)

So all that pursuit of the actual foundations of utility in our meat-brains is, somewhat, beside the point. Given that, we should use the idea in ways that are useful. Ruling out utility comparisons is just a little bit too convenient a result, politically. There isn't really any reason to, and the angst about utility's epistemological status makes about as much sense as rejecting traffic models because they don't use gravity equations. (Er, at least I think they don't...)

Second, one of the most powerful ideas that utility gives us is diminishing returns. It's easy to forget how much of a puzzle this was - the whole water/diamond problem thing. It should be blatantly obvious to anyone who thinks for a few seconds that money itself has diminishing returns. Say a 7% drop in income forces your family to eat less well and you to have to skip meals sometimes. It shouldn't be beyond our economic theory to see this as more severe than having to compromise on the Land Rover you had your eye on by buying a Mondeo.

This is kind of paragraph that sets the flying monkeys off, though. Particularly since the 2008 crash, particularly in the UK - the story that's been slowly pushed through all media channels is solidifying into political reality: such talk is the politics of envy, rather than - as it actually is - a perfectly sensible way to think about wealth.

These days I generally end up thinking "it's all about the middle way". The same applies here - effective economic comparability could imply deep intrusion in people's lives, the state charged with measuring and judging what forms of spending were more worthy than others, creating a kind of state-sanctioned Maslow hierarchy. But it doesn't need to - if one is capable of accepting the basic premise that severe poverty makes people's valuation of money much higher than for richer folk, it just implies the need for policies that reduce inequality.

And there isn't necessarily anything wrong with Pareto efficiency. The problem here is what happens when powerful abstract ideas interact with powerful political forces. Things get warped to Wizard of Oz proportions. Other perfectly sensible ideas can't get their shoe in the door. But it's foolish to use Pareto efficiency to exclude distribution thinking, just as it would be idiotic to ban its use because it was too right-wing.

I wouldn't want to live in a world where political schools had their own paid-for economic theorists. I do still believe in the pursuit of actual social-scientific truths. But Pareto efficiency is one of those ideas that hammers home just how hard it is to pull economics and politics apart.

The point: as far as possible, your economic/mathematical models shouldn't rule out one particular political way of thinking. The choice of how we balance wealth in society - that's a political issue. There's no easy way to keep an unbreachable line between positive and normative - modelling methods will always interact with our political assumptions and power structures in sometimes very-hard-to-see ways. And I also believe in the power of quant modelling to help us understand which things may not work if pursuing certain political aims. But modelling distribution issues - and using utility to do this - no more makes you a communist than using Pareto efficiency makes you a fascist.

(p.s. googling Pareto inequality reminds me there's a mountain of stuff on this subject I don't know. But if I think like that all the time, I won't get a single blog entry written, let alone seventeen...!)

New year's earnestness 1/17

New year's earnestness

Because everyone calls them resolutions and I enjoy being pointlessly antipodal. Anyway, here's one of mine: write a blog entry a week for at least the next four months. Doesn't matter where, though I'd like them to mostly be here on good ol' CiB.

All previous efforts to set myself writing aims - beyond those things that external reality forces me to complete - have not been glorious. But I'm not going to let that stop me from publicly declaring a goal knowing there's a risk of public failure. I like to think I've grown immune to the shame of public failure, so there's nothing to lose in trying again...

The plan: I'll click the publish button every Friday. On the off-chance I've managed to bank some writing, I'll hold off until then. I'm currently in possession of many scraps and ideas so there's plenty to get going with - for a start, there's 38 evernote items tagged 'blog', some of which aren't all that far off publishable.

Navel-gazing moment: writing has become an odd thing of late. I used to love it, and I used to be relaxed. It's the 'relaxed' part I want to get back - having to click 'publish' every week may perhaps help me let go the incredible tension my writing sphincter's been under these past few years.

There's so much happening out there in reality one can bounce words off. Part of the problem has been how I've changed in the face of that. Symptoms of a really, really boringly classic mid-life crisis, possibly: realising that the world is likely to carry on churning its way along much as it always has. The mental construct I used to have about some future point of radical change: a carrot tied to a stick tied to my neck. It's not so much that I don't know what I think any more - it's that I used to imagine I'd know by now, or I'd have lessened the ignorance, or the world might have taken some steps towards me. But I might as well have been bailing the Atlantic into the Pacific. And the world? Who knows - perhaps they're doing OK out there on those planets we've been finding thousands of light years away.

I don't want the up-coming writing to be (just) navel-gazing though. So do come back! It'll be OK! I'd rather kick up some dust from all this ground that's settled in the quiet and see what happens. Poke reality with a stick, step back, observe, poke again... There'll even be some groovy stuff to write about the new job, I suspect. It's turning out to be rather awesome.

Well. I could have just not posted this and kept the earnestness to myself. But then, I wouldn't be able to write a self-congratulatory entry on the first Friday in May. As it is, I might not anyway, but... I might.

This mopey entry doesn't count as my one-a-week. First one this Friday!

Update: there are seventeen Fridays up to / including 29th April. So I can look back and count 'em, I'll mark each entry with its index. So tomorrow's is 1/17. Come May, there'll be no hiding from the gaps!

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