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.
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.
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
Uber-branded taxis are now ubiquitous* in Leeds, having launched last November. I'm back in Leeds for a month - it was immediately striking that pretty much every taxi now has the large white Uber label, at least in the city centre. That's a pretty impressive transformation in just over six months.
It's a classic disruptive firm; one can imagine CEO Travis Kalanick has personal targets for how many local government authorities to annoy. It can certainly be spun as a nimble tech firm zipping around the tree-trunk legs of a geriatric industry. Predictably, there's been trouble. As well as various protests, some Uber drivers are getting organised to fight for a bigger slice of the profits. (If, as that article says, Uber are taking 20-25% per ride, there isn't a lot of head-room for wages to increase - Uber's dirt cheap fares would have to rise.)
Uber have placed themselves between drivers and customers in a way that reminds me of the weirdness of Apple's app store. In a world where anyone can dump code on their blog and anyone can downoad it, Apple have thrived by creating a portal and sitting as gatekeeper. They take around 30% of every single app sale - and, for developers, this has actually worked out great. They get access to a huge market while getting to code on a single, predictable platform. Small niggles about the political implications of that control might buzz about irritatingly but cause no serious discomfort.
Equally, existing tech could - in theory - link customers and taxi drivers without the need for such a powerful intermediary. The possibility of open-standards platforms transitioning us to the next level of transport has excited many people. Harvey Miller's work, for instance (and this great presentation) sees hope for a "transportation polyculture" where smart-city tech opens up a world of collaborative/co-operative transport. In this world, the kind of fluid, efficient city roads that Uber talk about, where ride-sharing is easy and prevalent, come about via open source principles entirely at odds with Uber's - though such a world would perhaps be just as disruptive to existing taxi firms.
Two radically different internet myths are at the heart of this difference. In one founding myth (as the Economist says) the Net is "the spontaneous result of co-operation by growing numbers of people acting outside the control of the governments and big companies" - a "libertarian paradise" promising a level of openness, connectedness and democracy never before possible. That story is still being told.
But then this other story appears.
This is a nifty example of how reality works on the interweb. I saw the poster on facebook and, like many others, for a moment thought, 'well, that's the sun all over, innit?' However, I've been gotcha'd too often by the Guardian's April 1st stories. They generally aim for a core of plausible, while tweaking the average Guardianista's sandal-wearing liberal nipples in just the right way. More than once, April 1st has seen me having a foaming rant, before eventually realisation hits, followed closely by acute embarrassment and sitting in a corner sulking at my own stupidity. (Chris Martin openly supporting David Cameron seemed particularly likely, I recall.)
It occurs to me, though, there's a parallel to how `markets' are talked about. To paraphrase Obi Wan, `market forces are are an energy field created by all living things. They surround us and penetrate us. They bind the galaxy together.' Which is to say, they're a mystical nonsense prayed to daily by people who believe in the confidence fairy. It's cargo cult gibberish. It's like turning up to some vital, knife-edge diplomatic negotiation teetering on the edge of war, cracking open a beer and saying, `chill - language will save us.'
Similar claims are made of the interwebs, and they're wrong for the same reason. There's nothing intrinsic to its structure that will produce truthiness or optimal outcomes. It can be used as a platform for doing that - but only if you actually develop tools to achieve specific aims. A trivial but suggestive example: guitar tab. The net's full of the stuff, and there are many sites with tabs for specific songs. But the vast majority of the time, they turn out to be precisely the same. That's not because they're correct, it's because the first person to dump it on the web got copied and recopied. No effective mechanism exists for improving the accuracy of particular songs. An echo-chamber is the unsurprising result, despite the fact that the net should be the perfect vehicle for some form of guitartab wikipedia. The machinery for that hasn't been built, though.
There are projects attempting to get meta on the net's inability to manage `peer review' effectively, like hypothes.is. That's got to be on the right track if there's no magic force that can do it for us. And the same applies to markets: effective ones are quite specific structures. Often cobbled together haphazardly, they can nevertheless be tweaked and developed for specific purposes, even though - just as with good code development - you'd best stay away from attempting all-encompassing gargantuan rebuild projects (compare the approach of NHS hack day to CSC's work on NHS records).
There's so much more to write about truthiness in the wake of current Republican goings-on, all the Assange gubbins and the ongoing mismatch between the physical and political reality of climate change... another time.
Via Planet3.org, the Climate Action Tracker group take a look at where emissions are going given current policy. Note, it's emissions per year. P3 even comes up with a new word for it: a tragictory. Mmm, mellifluous.
We were looking at some of the basic sums elsewhere. It's starting to seem inescapable: short of some miracle, we're going to run the experiment.
It's occurred to me recently that skeptics and deniers can't be blamed for this. I know: there's a powerful, moneyed lobby that's out to spread FUD into everyone's hair. But actually, as many are often keen to point out, there is plenty of money being spent on the 'other side'. I wonder whether (a bit like taketheflourback's contribution, but at a different scale), they've done everyone a favour. Like a global immune response: we should be forced to defend what we think is true, and doing so is the only way to make the body politic's response robust. (Climate scientists already have such a system, mind: I'm talking about the rest of us.)
Climate skepticism and outright denial might just be a convenient scapegoat. If it hadn't existed, I suspect Climate Action Tracker's graph would look exactly the same. As yet - politically, governance-wise - we don't know how to deal with this. At heart, many of us don't want to.
That isn't any reason to stop trying, of course. Anything that can be done, long-term, is going to help - and could make the difference between extreme social cost and utter calamity. Though we would probably be looking at the former, even if carbon emissions were magically halted tomorrow: the climate system's a huge, fast-moving tanker with plenty of inertia in it. But - and I imagine military planners are way ahead of me on this - realistic planning for severe impacts is likely needed. We're upping the risk every year we continue to fumble with this, and risk is very expensive. Eventually, risk turns into out and out destruction.
As if my own mental attitude could make any difference to all this: I still rather naively believe that nihilism is the biggest danger we face. It's a lazy response, more than anything: a pretence that we don't give a shit, used to mask the fact we're desperate for someone else to solve the problem - that Someone In Charge must have a handle on this, surely? We can just relax and live our lives.
Message to future self: how did that work out for you?
There's a simple lesson from taketheflourback's protest: no part of the political spectrum has a monopoly on scientific befuddlement. It seems almost a trivial point, but it's actually quite slippery. This thought first occurred to me because some people wondered, why so much climate skepticism on the right?
I argued: a lack of similar skepticism on the left didn't imply a greater grasp of climate science. It's just that climate change happens not to clash with most left-of-centre worldviews (except some very far left positions, though unfortunately I'm having trouble finding an example in the 'global warming = global marxist conspiracy' internet swamps). It can also mesh nicely into anti-corporate / capitalist / colonialist stories, as this rather jaunty take on resource wars from Age of Stupid nicely shows.
There's an anti-GM mirror-image of that too: pretty much all climate skeptics are also pro-plant-tech (quite often, even things like pro-DDT).
This is why all the recent US stuff about 'the Republican Brain' was so dismaying. Whatever evidence lay behind it, it's making the same basic error: ignoring scientific illiteracy where it happens to fit our already pre-conceived notions. The natural conclusion - that all right-wingers are scientific dunces - is just plain nonsense. It's also dangerously alienating.
The last episode of blood, sweat and luxuries aired on BBC3 last night. In this series, a bunch of UK consumers have been made to work on products that end up on British shelves. They stay with other workers for the duration. I've only caught two of them, but it was powerful stuff, if occasionally cringeworthy watching some of the Brits deal with it. A 'part time male model' in particular seemed to wear his outrage in front of the camera as an accessory, and mostly flounced off the jobs after an hour or so.
Last night's saw them working in a relatively small Phillipino components factory in Manila - called EMS - making small changes to a hard-drive wire for mp3 players in a cleanroom, looking out through a tiny slit in their blemish-free gowns. The factory is in Laguna, the 'Silicon Valley of the Philippines.' (Google found that in a copy of the Philippine Daily Inquirer from 2000. How did it do that??)
To begin with, they clown about; when the supervisor points out the workers are trained not to look up from their work regardless of what they hear, a couple of them take to banging on the windows - and indeed, no worker moves from their task. "Every unit takes 3 seconds, a single glance takes 3 seconds," points out the supervisor, "so you will fail to meet your output."
I believe that climate change is happening and that humans are mainly responsible because of greenhouse gases (GHGs) we're putting into the atmosphere. But the number of people who believe this has been going down, it seems - in the US, 20% less think the planet's warming than did so two years ago. (And that's before you've asked them whether they think it's natural variation.) Concern about climate change has, unsurprisingly, been affected by the economy, as the HSBC climate confidence monitor shows. (Opens PDF.) In this survey, people in the UK are the least concerned citizens anywhere in the world; we're second only to the US in thinking there are higher priorities for public spending - odd when you consider the level of state welfare we already have compared to other countries surveyed. There may be high scientific consensus - not so in public opinion.
Dear Mr. President: we are writing you because we are convinced that current American policy toward Iraq is not succeeding, and that we may soon face a threat in the Middle East more serious than any we have known since the end of the Cold War. In your upcoming State of the Union Address, you have an opportunity to chart a clear and determined course for meeting this threat. We urge you to seize that opportunity, and to enunciate a new strategy that would secure the interests of the U.S. and our friends and allies around the world. That strategy should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Husseinâ€™s regime from power.
So begins a letter from Project for a New American Century to Bill Clinton, dated January 1998. It's worth going back to this now we're into year six of the Iraq war. The one lesson I learned from the whole saga was this: there's no need for conspiracies. You can publish your intentions on a website, say the opposite in public, and no-one will care. Truth won't out.
In the run-up to the war, Blair and Bush repeatedly claimed that regime change was not the aim, and that - even right up until the last moment - Hussein had it within his power to stop the war. That's what I found most terrifying - listening to Blair parrot Bush, when I could go to a public website and read, plain as day, the neocons' policy for regime change and the reasons for it. Written by the neocons themselves. They haven't even got the shame to take it down.
This story marks 20 years of change in New York city:
Wolfe chose New York because it said something about America. Now many are wondering if the safer, cleaner, richer city has not also lost its role as the heartbeat of American culture. Wolfe thinks so: his latest book tackling the modern American zeitgeist is set in Miami. 'New York, while it is flourishing, has become a less interesting place. It is not where America is changing any more,' said Brian Abel Regan, author of Tom Wolfe: A Critical Companion.