Monday, August 27, 2012

I Am Mad At Economists (Part 1 of 2)

I am really mad at economists.  I guess it's not news that someone's mad at economists.  But maybe it will be interesting to sort out what, exactly, the issues are, and that's what this two part series is about.  Let me start by saying the obvious:  I'm not mad at all economists.  The targets will be evident.  It's worth saying, too, that I'm not mad at the study of economics.  I'm mad at economists. 

There's a whole bunch of things I'm not mad at economists about.  Let's start there.

Sometimes people get mad over the whole "economics, it isn't a science" thing, but I'm not mad about that.  Against economics being a real science it's sometimes said 1) that economists are bad at making predictions and 2) that you can't study people with scientific methods because their behavior is non-deterministic and unpredictable. 

But with respect to 1), it's not obvious to me whether lame prediction-making means not-a-science or whether it means a science still in its infancy encountering massively complex phenomena.  It's hard to predict the weather too, but that doesn't mean meteorology isn't a science.  It just studies something super-complicated.

With respect to 2), it's also not obvious what the significance is of people's behavior being "unpredictable," because things can be unpredictable in the literal sense while still being deterministic and describable by rules.  The brilliant eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume said that the world of human behavior was just as deterministic as the natural world, it's just that it was much more complicated.  Yes, it's true that there are exceptions to every rule about human behavior.  But that doesn't necessarily mean that behavior isn't described by rules.  It could just mean the rules are really really complicated. 

So that's not what's bothering me. 

Other times people get upset about the way mathematics and formal methods are used in economics, but even though I think they might be onto something, I'm not mad about that either.  Against the use of mathematics and formal methods, it's sometimes said 1) that we have no reason to think that obscure theorems in infinite mathematics would apply to real world phenomena, and 2) that formal reasoning in economics requires us to make obviously false simplifying assumptions, like that people are "rational" and have "perfect information" when they decide what transactions to engage in.

But with respect to 1), it's easy to say "obscure," but it's worth noting that economics seems to use standard mathematics from the well-established areas of real analysis and differential equations.  These are the same theorems that we use when we design bridges, make airplanes fly, and calculate how to send the Curiosity Rover over to Mars.  Even if there is something wrong with using the same mathematics in economics as one does everywhere else, it's hard for me to get mad about it.  The math is just sitting there.  It worked before.  Why not give it a shot?

And with respect to 2), lots of, maybe almost all of, applied mathematical reasoning requires the use of obviously false simplifying assumptions.  Natural scientists routinely assume things like frictionless planes, infinitely deep oceans and the like.  Some of these idealizations work well and some don't; that's why people talk about the difference between having a good model of a situation and having a crappy one.  In a way, the whole thing about math is that it's abstract and idealized.  To apply it, you almost always have to make obviously false simplifying assumptions.  As in 1), this methodology might be show, in the end, to be mistaken for the given domain, but its use doesn't make me angry.  Again, what could be more natural than trying what worked before?

So this isn't what's bothering me either.

But now we are getting close to the heart of the matter.  Because the first of two things that really makes me mad is the wildly overblown confidence with which the results are applied.

Look, if you know your science isn't so good at making predictions, and studies something very complicated, and if you know that you're using the tools that happened to be lying around the math and physics department and weren't really designed for the job, and if you know that you have to make obviously false simplifying assumptions to use those tools, wouldn't you proceed with caution?

Yet this is the opposite of what happens.  The IMF strong-arms countries into adopting specific policies.  Economists in the US, whatever they are recommending, pronounce their policy recommendations with total confidence.  Graphs are produced alongside massively complex equations to show that certain short- and long-term results will follow from certain ways of doing things. 

This would be like trying to send a manned mission to Mars before the effects of friction and so on were understood.  Sure, you can use Newton's laws to calculate basic stuff like where the planets will be, if you make certain simplifying assumptions -- such as assuming there is no friction.  And you could produce graphs alongside massively complex equations to show how your getting-to-Mars plan is based on the science of gravitation and planetary motion.

But you'd have almost no chance of success and every chance of disaster.  Even if the graphs are good and represent something real, you'll never make it work.  Because you just don't know enough about how your idealizing assumptions affect your outcome.  You don't know enough about whether you have a good model.  It's not enough to have a model.  You have to have reasons for believing your model is a good one, an apt one for the thing you are trying to do, one that takes into account the things that need to be taken into account in the given situation. 

We know roughly what it would be to proceed with caution in this domain, and policy makers don't do it.  If you were going to proceed with caution, you might start by identifying the things you want most to avoid, and by distinguishing those from the things you'd like that aren't totally necessary, and then you might aim directly at protecting the former while you tinker with the latter.  I take it that in modern economics, the things we'd most like to avoid are people's deaths from hunger and preventable diseases, closely followed by people's lives being completely ruined or rendered completely awful because they have to work 16 hours a day to make ends meet.  And then after that would be people having big houses and fun gadgets, doing molecular gastronomy, and sending rovers to Mars. 

I'm not saying these have to be the only considerations.  Just that these are among the things you'd consider if you knew there was a lot you didn't know and you were trying to proceed with caution with economic thinking.  You might also, contra the IMF, grant that other people might have different and equally good ideas about how to proceed, and that they have a prima facie right to put those ideas into practice.

Next week, part 2:  the other thing I am mad about, the ethics bait-and-switch. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

I Am So Over The "What I Learned" Narrative

Have you noticed the recent prevalence of the narrative of personal growth?  Everywhere you look these days someone wants to tell you a story about how some stuff happened to them and some of it was bad but in the end it was a journey and they learned a lot about life and it was really an occasion for personal growth.

I started obsessing about this when I listened to Ira Glass as the guest on Marc Maron's WTF podcast.  Regular readers know I'm a fan of WTF.  I'm not a fan of This American Life.  That  makes it sounds like I hate TAL, but the truth is I've never listened to it.  It bothers me that the show is neither journalism or story-telling but has elements of both.  I like the truth and I like fiction but you can't run them together like that.  It's annoying. 

Anyway, during the interview, the always irrepressible Marc Maron asked Ira Glass why none of his submissions were ever accepted for the show.  Evidently he, Marc, was rejected a number of times.  Ira Glass basically told Marc to tell him a story he'd submitted and they'd try to figure out why it hadn't been accepted.

Marc told a true story about how he had a fling with this woman who it turned out was already involved with someone, and who had lied about it, and about how the whole thing became a complicated mix of the funny, the horrible, the sad, and the surprising -- that mix which is so characteristic of real life for most people.  Well, for me anyway.  I liked the story a lot.

If I remember correctly, immediately Ira Glass started explaining about how to be a good TAL story, it should have a certain kind of narrative structure, which it lacked.  Ideally, that structure should involve some element of surprising personal development.  He restructured Marc's story so that it featured a pre-event Marc, who was a certain way, followed by the event itself, followed by a description of post-event Marc, who had clearly learned an important lesson from the whole experience. 

I hated the restructuring of the story.  It seemed to me to present a fake moral:  that when bad, weird, or confusing things happen to you, it's primarily an occasion for personal growth.  That in turn seemed to violate something I learned about literature from David Foster Wallace, who was described in The New Yorker years ago as having said that good literature had the function of making him feel "unalone—intellectually, emotionally, spiritually." Literature makes me feel that way too.  The real story made me feel that way.  Bad, weird, and confusing things happen to me, too.  The restructured story didn't make me feel that way.  I don't typically experience those bad weird and confusing things as opportunities for personal growth. 

The more I thought about the personal growth narrative, the more sinister it started to seem to me.  Because the one of the main things about a a narrative of what I learned is that it's not generally a narrative of I knew it all along and the world is an unjust and fucked up place.  But sometimes that narrative is the one you need.  Because the world is an unjust and fucked up place, and sometimes it's that way in the same stupid ways over and over and over again.    

The whole thing made me feel this weird complicity between the political disenfranchisement of regular people and our cultural narratives of positive thinking and learning stuff and all that.  I know it's not the same people -- I mean, the people who want the rich white guys to make all the decisions while the proles are left in the dark are not the same people who want every narrative turned into a narrative of personal growth.  Probably these groups want as little to do with each others as possible. 

But the personal growth narrative, at least when it becomes common, has the effect of muting the narrative of rage, of justified anger, of ordinary opinion, of complaining, and even just of I-Have-No-Idea-What-Is-Going-On-With-That.  Sometimes those are the narratives you really need.  Like, now maybe.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Life On Earth Interim Report: Earth In Trouble. Please Send Mothers.

Yesterday on Naked Capitalism (the blog everyone should read), the great Yves Smith mentioned a funny comment she'd seen on a YouTube video about flying robots:  in the future, there will only be two workers, a human and a dog.  The human's job will be feeding the dog.  The dog's job will be making sure the human doesn't touch the computers. 

As was explained to me later, the mental picture this is supposed to conjure up is that the computers, having taken charge, use the dog to make sure the humans don't screw around with their hardware.  That's why it's funny, and that's why it makes a point, a warning, about the future. 

But what had come into my mind was different.  I pictured the human being kept away from the computers for his own good, like the way a dog might keep an alcoholic away from booze.  My interpretation makes no sense.  Who would be paying the workers? How would the human's job be a job at all?  I think what happened is I heard "dog's job will be making sure the human doesn't touch the computers" and I thought "huh, yeah, I could use a helpmate that makes sure I don't touch the computers -- or that makes sure I touch them less, anyway.  And I pictured having a dog to help me out, and that seemed kind of charming and nice so I went with it.

When things like this happen I often feel like an extraterrestrial, sent to visit earth, who didn't quite get transmorgrified correctly.  I mean, I got made into a human, but there were a few glitches.  I was left with a few qualities more suited to the home planet. 

There's definitely a "loud noises" glitch.  I don't think my handlers realized life on earth was going to be so noisy.  Maybe they had dated information?  But seriously, I can't even visit a modern restroom, with those new hand dryers, without prepping myself with special insertable earphones that block the sound.  If I don't have them in I'm like "FUCK that's so FUCKING LOUD, what the FUCK is that noise get me the FUCK out of here now" and I put my fingers in my ears and scurry out.  Then I look around at the other patrons and they're all "ho-hum just drying my hands ... [dawdle dawdle]" acting all nonchalant and looking at me like I'm a freak.  And I'm like "Who are you people?" 

Then, too, I frequently feel like I am too good at reading and experiencing the thoughts and moods of other people.  I wrote about this before, where I called it alloism.  Sometimes I'm hanging out in a group and I'm thinking OMG did you see how X dissed Y by saying something that was nice on the surface but undermining underneath and how Y got all mad, and I'll describe all this to Z who was there with me, all of us together, and Z will be all "Wait, what? What happened?  Did somebody get mad?"

Anyway, I think I was given quite a bit of information about life on earth before I came, because I've always been one of those people that does pretty well at predicting how other people are going to behave and feel, at taking the long view, and all that sort of thing.  I have almost the same beliefs about people I had when I was around five.

But a few things have really surprised me.  And I would say that the thing that has surprised me most is how susceptible most people are to other people.  They are so much more influenced by other people than they ever are by things like rules, punishments, and incentives.

When I was a kid I had a really naive view that people had things they really wanted to do, and they were going to do those things, unless it became too costly for them to do them.  Like, if they wanted to blow off school, steal lipstick, be mean to another kid, or whatever, they would, unless they didn't want the punishment or the loss of some privilege. 

It turns out that that is almost completely wrong.  People don't have the clarity of desire I attributed to them, like "Now, I want to steal lipstick."  Often they don't even know why they're doing what they're doing.  They do one thing aiming to achieve another, or they do stuff just to get some attention, or they're bored, or who even knows? 

Plus, they're often much more influenced by other people's words and expressions of anger and praise than they are by punishments and incentives.  I first came to see this vividly when I started teaching.  I teach university students.  I thought, "They're adults.  They don't need me mothering and nagging them.  I'll just set up an appropriate and fair system of punishments and rewards for doing things like homework and reading and so on, and they can decide what they want to do.  If the incentive isn't worth it to them, that's their business.  If they don't do the work, I'm not going to take it personally, for heavens sake."

Turns out that taking it personally -- well, at least, somehow getting kind of emotionally in people's faces -- is way more effective at getting them to do things than abstract rewards and punishments at the end of the term.  This doesn't always come naturally to me -- I mean, how could I take it personally whether somebody does the reading?  But I do care about my students becoming literate and smart instead of ignorant and stupid, and I try to show them this, and it has more of an effect than simple incentives.

In this great New Yorker article from 2011, Atul Gawande describes a health program that tries to cut costs by taking extra, better care of very ill and very costly patients.  These patients often have conditions like diabetes, that respond well to constant vigilance and good habits, but can kill you if you don't take care of yourself.  In some cases, sickness and the possibility of death failed to motivate people to develop healthier habits, but visits from a kind and interested person, who basically nagged and encouraged them, worked. 

The guy who set up the program, Jeffrey Brenner, is quoted in the article as saying "People are people, and they get into situations they don’t necessarily plan on. My philosophy about primary care is that the only person who has changed anyone's life is their mother. The reason is that she cares about them, and she says the same simple thing over and over and over."

I've said it before:  the mom virtues:  not just for women anymore.  The philosophical locus classicus for the need for mothering is good old Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (Ms. Interesting).  If you've read that book recently, you know that that even though the whole "science and technology" and "playing god" and "monster" themes were very important, it's made clear throughout the book that what really changes the creature from a kindly awkward person into a violent monster is that his creator hates him.  He has no mother.  This ruins the lives of everyone in the story.

So here in the 21st century, where we all have a lot of bad health habits and ecological habits and violence habits and intellectual laziness habits, we could all use a little more mothering.  Needless to say, mothering need not be done by your actual mother, who may be busy working and doing stuff.  If you're a grown-up, you don't need an actual mother, you just need a lot of people in your life who'll care and who'll tell you the same simple thing over and over.  Eat your vegetables.  Play nice.  Tell the truth.  Go to the gym. 

I don't know when my visit here on earth will end or how my information is getting transmitted back.  But hey -- home planet, if you're listening, I have an interim report:

"Earth in trouble.  Please send mothers."

Monday, August 6, 2012

The "Tyranny" Of Choice: It's Not Because There Are Too Many Choices

It's old news that having too many choices is annoying the hell out of the modern western consumer.  A few years ago some social scientists set up a jam tasting operation in a supermarket.  When they offered 24 kinds of jam, only 3 percent of tasters bought some jam.  When they offered 6 kinds of jam, it shot up to 30 percent.  Fewer choices meant more satisfied consumers.

When I first heard this I was a little bit like "Oh, thank god we've moved on from stupid things like "under what conditions are people willing to follow an authority figure" and onto the important stuff about how we poor denizens of the first world are dealing with the oppression of having 48,750 items in the average supermarket.  The Economist even goes so far as to say we're living under a "Tyranny of Choice."

Whatever.  I'm sure having a lot of options does exhaust people.  But as so often happens, the frame of this problem focuses on something relatively trivial and sets aside the difficult and important question, which is how having more choices affects people socially.  Because sometimes having more options doesn't just mean you have to choose.  It means you have to explain and justify your choice in different ways.  Your "no" now rejects more things, and takes on a different significance.

A tiny example.  When I was a little kid I got hit on the head with a swing, and I have a small scar in the middle of my eyebrow.  My feeling is basically like "who cares?"  It is not a big deal.  Then as an adult I broke my nose falling off my bike, and I had a plastic surgeon putting it back together, and he was all "I can fix this eyebrow! Cheap! I'll give you a discount!" and I was like "No, thanks, I'm fine the way I am" and he was all "WTF is wrong with you?  You want your eyebrow to be all fucked up?" 

Having a new option definitely made it more difficult to choose what I wanted to choose in the first place.  In the end I told him that I didn't want too many changes in my face all at once, which was pretty close to the truth.  But now whenever I encounter the Beauty Industrial Complex there's this constant discussion about eyebrow pencils and how I can just be filling that in and why don't I do that and it's exhausting saying over and over that, small as it seems, I don't want to deal with the hassle of an eyebrow pencil everyday.   These conversations are so annoying, I can't even deal with the situation.  I mostly stay home and do the amateur pluck.

The eyebrow is a tiny thing.  But what if it was your job?  Suppose you had a family, and a job you really liked that didn't pay very well, and no other employment options.  Then one day you're offered a much less pleasant job that pays much better.  Suddenly you are in a very difficult situation.  It's not at all clear that your situation hasn't been made worse by having this new option.  If you choose the new job you'll hate it.  If you choose to keep your old one, your relations with your family will be forever affected by the way you chose to put your own needs first. 

In this way having more options can be worse, not for the relatively small reason that you have to make an exhausting choice from lots of options -- there are only two! -- but for the more complex and difficult reason that your choice now has a different significance for you and the people close to you.

In the Economist article, the "tyranny" of choice is attributed to the fact that the more options you have the less confident you can be that you've made a good choice.  They conclude that the more choices you have, the more you try to control what happens, when in fact you'd be better off just choosing something and sticking to it.  Applying this interpretation to the availability of procreation choices, they say:
"Fifty years after the contraceptive pill was first licensed in America and 37 years after the Supreme Court legalised abortion, women seem to agonise more than ever about breeding. “We've grown up with a lot more choice than our mothers or grandmothers; for them, being child-free wasn't a choice, it was pitied,” says Beth Follini, an American life coach who specialises in the “maybe baby” dilemma. “The anxiety comes from worrying about making the wrong choice.” Having options seems to make people think they can have control over outcomes too. Sometimes, says Ms Follini, choosing is about learning to live without control."
Sure, people are anxious about making the wrong choice.  But this passage treats the question as if it's just a woman in a room alone thinking about babies.  That's nuts.  For one thing, obviously a person's reproductive choices are shaped by a million social factors:  will I be able to finish school, what if I can't make enough money? and, for Americans, what if I lose my health insurance?  The "anxiety" a person feels about making the wrong choice has as much to do with the social conditions that shape the results of that choice than with how well one looks into one's inner heart.      

Furthermore, as I've been arguing here, the increase of options affects the way your choice is embedded in your own social world.  There can hardly be a choice that impacts more on the people close to you than a reproductive choice.  Because of increased options, whatever you do now, you have to be able to explain and justify your reproductive choices in terms that make sense to a lot of people.

And of course the more the options, the more questions arise about why this or why that.  When people ask me if if I'm planning to have kids and if not why not, I sometimes try to avoid a long discussion by saying "I'm too old now to have kids," which I am.  But people often respond by pointing out that this is not, in fact, literally, true:  with the new reproductive technologies, I could have kids at almost any age!  The simplest part of the answer becomes the most complicated. 

I'm not prone to anxiety about things like this, but for someone who was, it'd be a minefield.  Not, I'll say again, because choosing from among a lot of options is difficult or exhausting, and not because of fear of making the "wrong" choice for me personally, but because what could be the simplest "no" in the world is now a powerful, public statement about values, desires, and what matters in life.  If people are fearful and anxious about choices, it's more over the constant need to make these statements, and not so much a 24-kinds-of-jam-sort-of-thing.   

Notice how the "tyranny of choice" problem, in the "too many choices" interpretation, has been framed as a problem about individual human psychology, a problem we humans confront from within our individualistic consumer culture -- a culture that is simply taken for granted.  "Oh, look, those humans, they have trouble deciding from too many kinds of jam, poor things." 

The natural corollary to this "too many choices" interpretation is obvious:  we'd be better off with fewer choices.  That may be so when it comes to jam:  I'm not a 24-kinds-of-jam-person myself.  But I hope it's clear how sinister it is when applied to reproductive choices.  Oh, poor people, they have choice anxiety, they have too many choices!  Let's take some away.