Debate the Usefulness of Election Models

Fivethirtyeight-0326-models1996-blog480There a debate on the issuse over at the NYT's FiveThirtyEight. First, Nate Silver:

…Lynn Vavreck’s excellent 2009 book, “The Message Matters,” for instance, made the following claim:

The economy is so powerful in determining the results of U.S. presidential elections that political scientists can predict winners and losers with amazing accuracy long before the campaigns start.

To be clear, that is the publisher’s copy and not Ms. Vavreck’s. However, statements like these have become fairly common, especially among a savvy group of bloggers and writers who sit at the intersection of political science and the mainstream media (a space that this blog, of course, occupies).

But is it true? Can political scientists “predict winners and losers with amazing accuracy long before the campaigns start”?

The answer to this question, at least since 1992, has been emphatically not. Some of their forecasts have been better than others, but their track record as a whole is very poor.

And the models that claim to be able to predict elections based solely on the fundamentals — that is, without looking to horse-race factors like polls or approval ratings — have done especially badly. Many of these models claim to explain as much as 90 percent of the variance in election outcomes without looking at a single poll. In practice, they have had almost literally no predictive power, whether looked at individually or averaged together.

John Sides responds:

I am less critical of the accuracy of these models than is Nate. For one, forecasters have different motives in constructing these models. Some are interested in the perfect forecast, a goal that may create incentives to make ad hoc adjustments to the model. Others are more interested in theory testing — that is, seeing how well election results conform to political science theories about the effects of the economy and other “fundamentals.” Models grounded in theory won’t be (or at least shouldn’t be) adjusted ad hoc. If so, then their out-of-sample predictions could prove less accurate, on average, but perfect prediction wasn’t the goal to begin with. I haven’t talked with each forecaster individually, so I do not know what each one’s goals are. I am just suggesting that, for scholars, the agenda is sometimes broader than simple forecasting.

Second, as Nate acknowledges but doesn’t fully explore (at least not in this post), the models vary in their accuracy. The average error in predicting the two-party vote is 4.6 points for Ray Fair’s model, but only 1.72 points for Alan Abramowitz’s model. In other words, some appear better than others — and we should be careful not to condemn the entire enterprise because some models are more inaccurate.

Third, if we look at the models in a different way, they arguably do a good enough job.

Arguing Science as Faith

Stanley fish professor bloggerFirst, Stanley Fish over at the NYT's Opionator:

… [Chris] Hayes…posed the following question [to Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker]: If you hold to the general skepticism that informs scientific inquiry — that is, if you refuse either to anoint a viewpoint in advance because it is widely held or to send viewpoints away because they are regarded as fanciful or preposterous — how do you respond to global-warming deniers or Holocaust deniers or creationists when they invoke the same principle of open inquiry to argue that they should be given a fair hearing and be represented in departments of history, biology and environmental science? What do you do, Hayes asked, when, in an act of jujitsu, the enemies of liberal, scientific skepticism wield it as a weapon against its adherents?

Dawkins and Pinker replied that you ask them to show you their evidence — the basis of their claim to be taken seriously — and then you show them yours, and you contrast the precious few facts they have with the enormous body of data collected and vetted by credentialed scholars and published in the discipline’s leading journals. Point, game, match.

Not quite. Pushed by Hayes, who had observed that when we accept the conclusions of scientific investigation we necessarily do so on trust (how many of us have done or could replicate the experiments?) and are thus not so different from religious believers, Dawkins and Pinker asserted that the trust we place in scientific researchers, as opposed to religious pronouncements, has been earned by their record of achievement and by the public rigor of their procedures. In short, our trust is justified, theirs is blind.

It was at this point that Dawkins said something amazing, although neither he nor anyone else picked up on it. He said: in the arena of science you can invoke Professor So-and-So’s study published in 2008, “you can actually cite chapter and verse.”

Jerry Coyne responds to Fish:

Fish’s big mistake: the reasons undergirding that belief are not that we can engage in a lot of philosophical pilpul to justify using reason and evidence to find out stuff about the universe. Rather, the reasons are that it works: we actually can understand the universe using reason and evidence, and we know that because that method has helped us build computers and airplanes, go to the moon, cure diseases, improve crops, and so on. All of us agree on these results. We simply don’t need a philosophical justification, and I scorn philosophers who equate religion and science because we don’t produce one. Religion doesn’t lead to any greater understanding of reality. Indeed, they can’t even demonstrate to everyone’s satisfaction that a deity exists at all! The unanimity around evidence that antibiotics curse infections, that the earth goes around the sun, and that water has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, is not matched by any unamity of the faithful about what kind of deity there is, what he/she/it is like, or how he/she/it operates. In what way has religion, which indeed aims to give us “understanding” has really produced any understanding? Fish goes on:

People like Dawkins and Pinker do not survey the world in a manner free of assumptions about what it is like and then, from that (impossible) disinterested position, pick out the set of reasons that will be adequate to its description. They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods unattached to any imputation of deity, and they then develop procedures (tests, experiments, the compilation of databases, etc.) that yield results, and they call those results reasons for concluding this or that. And they are reasons, but only within the assumptions that both generate them and give them point.

Yes, but we get results that all sane people agree on, and that actually help us get further results that help us solve problems and figure out why things are they way they are. Note how weaselly Fish is here by using the word “act of faith” to apply to both science and religion. Yes, it was originally an act of faith to assume that there was an external reality that could be comprehended by naturalistic processes, but it is no longer an act of faith: it is an act of confidence.

The Control Revolution And Its Discontents

Uncanny-Valley-Sweet-SpotAshwin Parameswaran over at Macroeconomic Resilience:

One of the key narratives on this blog is how the Great Moderation and the neo-liberal era has signified the death of truly disruptive innovation in much of the economy. When macroeconomic policy stabilises the macroeconomic system, every economic actor is incentivised to take on more macroeconomic systemic risks and shed idiosyncratic, microeconomic risks. Those that figured out this reality early on and/or had privileged access to the programs used to implement this macroeconomic stability, such as banks and financialised corporates, were the big winners – a process that is largely responsible for the rise in inequality during this period. In such an environment the pace of disruptive product innovation slows but the pace of low-risk process innovation aimed at cost-reduction and improving efficiency flourishes. therefore we get the worst of all worlds – the Great Stagnation combined with widespread technological unemployment.

This narrative naturally begs the question: when was the last time we had a truly disruptive Schumpeterian era of creative destruction. In a previous post looking at the evolution of the post-WW2 developed economic world, I argued that the so-called Golden Age was anything but Schumpeterian – As Alexander Field has argued, much of the economic growth till the 70s was built on the basis of disruptive innovation that occurred in the 1930s. So we may not have been truly Schumpeterian for at least 70 years. But what about the period from at least the mid 19th century till the Great Depression? Even a cursory reading of economic history gives us pause for thought – after all wasn’t a significant part of this period supposed to be the Gilded Age of cartels and monopolies which sounds anything but disruptive.

I am now of the opinion that we have never really had any long periods of constant disruptive innovation – this is not a sign of failure but simply a reality of how complex adaptive systems across domains manage the tension between efficiency,robustness, evolvability and diversity. What we have had is a subverted control revolution where repeated attempts to achieve and hold onto an efficient equilibrium fail. Creative destruction occurs despite our best efforts to stamp it out. In a sense, disruption is an outsider to the essence of the industrial and post-industrial period of the last two centuries, the overriding philosophy of which is automation and algorithmisation aimed at efficiency and control. And much of our current troubles are a function of the fact that we have almost perfected the control project.

A Smithsonian Q & A with E. O. Wilson

E.-O.-WilsonFrom Carl Zimmer's interview with E.O. Wilson, over at the Loom:

Q: Just to take one example that the critics raised, they talked about how inclusive fitness theory makes a prediction about sex allocation, about the investment in different sexes in the offspring. And they say this is something that inclusive fitness predicts and we’ve gone out and we’ve done a lot of tests to see if that’s true and they find these ratios in lots of animals as predicted by that theory. When they make that sort of argument, what’s your response?

A: It’s a little bit like Ptolemaic astronomy: epicycles will always give the exact results if you’re willing to add them. And in this case–I have pointed this out as well–there’s a flaw in the reasoning about the studies of investment, particularly in whether you invest more in males or females in the social insect societies.

If you have only one female who is queen in the colony, and if that queen has mated only once so that her offspring are that close, then you should see because of the implications of haploid/diploid, the way sex is determined in ants, bees, wasps. You should see a favoring of investment in new queens, over investment in males as measured by the amount of biomass. And that inequality does exist and it should be three to one investment in the weight. And that has been what is thought to be a very powerful argument.

However, this I believe has a major flaw in the reasoning. The colony wishes to make an investment in males versus females in numbers that would be most advantageous in having a female successfully mated, when they leave the nest to get mated, bees, ants, wasps. And therefore, the colony should be trying to get something closer to a one-to-one investment.

And since females are much bigger–they have to have all that fats and ovary and so on–and males are much smaller because in most of these social insects. All they have to do is find a female, deliver their sperm, and die. So the males are much smaller.

This means then that getting a one-to-one ratio in sex that is the same as you see throughout the rest of the animal kingdom, means that you will be having to invest much more in the females when you invest in males. And actually when you make that hypothesis, use that principle, which is the obvious one, then that comes closer to the actual figures we have in the biomass investment.

They [Wilson’s critics] may dispute that, but my point is that they did not by any means find a testing ground on which the old theory could stand or fall. It’s in my view a much simpler and more precise explanation to use the argument of one to one ratios of male and female.

How to become the engineers of our own evolution

From Smithsonian:

Futurism-You-Robot-631The reports regularly come in from around the world: U.S. engineers unveil a prototype bionic eye, Swedish surgeons replace a man’s cancerous trachea with a body part grown in a lab, and a British woman augments her sense of touch by implanting self-made magnetic sensors in her fingertips.

Adherents of “transhumanism”—a movement that seeks to transform Homo sapiens through tools like gene manipulation, “smart drugs” and nanomedicine—hail such developments as evidence that we are becoming the engineers of our own evolution. Enhanced humans might inject themselves with artificial, oxygen-carrying blood cells, enabling them to sprint for 15 minutes straight. They could live long enough to taste a slice of their own 250th birthday cake. Or they might abandon their bodies entirely, translating the neurons of their brains into a digital consciousness. Transhumanists say we are morally obligated to help the human race transcend its biological limits; those who disagree are sometimes called Bio-Luddites. “The human quest has always been to ward off death and do everything in our power to keep living,” says Natasha Vita-More, chairwoman of Humanity+, the world’s largest trans­humanist organization, with nearly 6,000 members.

More here.

Gene behind van Gogh’s sunflowers pinpointed

From Nature:

VanGogh_compA team of plant biologists has identified the gene responsible for the ‘double-flower’ mutation immortalized by Vincent van Gogh in his iconic Sunflowers series. Van Gogh’s 1888 series includes one painting, now at the National Gallery in London, in which many of the flowers depicted lack the broad dark centre characteristic of sunflowers and instead comprise mainly golden petals. This was not simply artistic licence on van Gogh’s part but a faithful reproduction of a mutant variety of sunflower. In a paper published this week in PLoS Genetics1, researchers at the University of Georgia in Athens report that they have pinned down the gene responsible for the mutation, which they say could shed light on the evolution of floral diversity.

A wild sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is not so much a single flower as a composite of tiny florets. The golden ray florets, located at the sunflower’s rim, resemble long petals, are bilaterally symmetrical and do not produce pollen. That job belongs to the disc florets, tiny radially symmetrical blossoms that occupy the sunflower's darker centre. In combination, the two types of florets create the impression of a single large flower, and presumably an attractive target for insect pollinators. The success of the family is determined by floral strategy,” says plant biologist John Burke, who led the study. Because changes in floral symmetry can affect how a plant interacts with pollinators — and therefore its reproductive fitness — the unusual sunflowers depicted by van Gogh piqued Burke’s curiosity.

More here.

A Response to Justin Clarke-Doane’s “Morality and Mathematics: The Evolutionary Challenge”

CoverMatthew Braddock, Andreas Mogensen, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong over at Pea Soup:

In “Morality and Mathematics: The Evolutionary Challenge” (Ethics 2012), Justin Clarke-Doane raises fascinating and important issues about evolutionary debunking arguments. He argues that insofar as our knowledge of the evolutionary origins of morality poses a challenge for moral realism, exactly similar difficulties will arise for mathematical realism. Clarke-Doane concentrates on the claim that we were not selected to have true moral beliefs, which he interprets to mean that we would have evolved the very same moral beliefs even if the moral facts were radically different from what we take them to be. He argues that an analogous claim holds with respect to our mathematical beliefs: we would have evolved the same mathematical beliefs even if the mathematical facts were radically different from what mathematical realists take them to be. However, even if Clarke-Doane is correct in this, we suspect that his points miss two other kinds of evolutionary debunking arguments, which look to pose a special problem for moral realism.

First, Clarke-Doane twice quotes this claim by Sharon Street: “to explain why human beings tend to make the normative judgments that we do, we do not need to suppose that these judgments are true” (Street, “Reply to Copp”, 208). We take Street’s point to be that one can give a complete explanation of why humans tend to make certain moral judgments rather than others without ever saying anything that implies that any moral beliefs are true. This claim is only about what needs to be said in a complete explanation. It does not assume that moral truths or facts could be different than they are now. Moreover, this claim has no parallel regarding mathematics, because arguably a complete explanation of why humans tend to make certain mathematical judgments (e.g. 1+1=2) rather than others (e.g. 1+1=0) would need to say or imply that 1+1=2 and 1+1≠0. Hence, an evolutionary debunking argument based on this claim by Street understood in this way is not affected by Clarke-Doane’s points.

Towards a New Manifesto

Towards-a-New-ManMartin Jay reviews Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's Towards a New Manifesto, in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

Gretel Adorno was a remarkable woman about whom far too little is known.[1] Although the recent publication of her correspondence with Walter Benjamin has confirmed the impression that she was a formidable intellect in her own right, she remains largely a mystery.[2] What we do know for certain is that she was deeply devoted to her husband Theodor, whom she married in September, l937. Abandoning a career as a chemist to support his work unreservedly, she seems to have been resigned to his extra-marital affairs, and was so despondent after his death in August, l969 that she made a botched suicide attempt. Among the many services she rendered was the dutiful taking of minutes from the intellectual discussions he thought worth recording. Beginning in March of l938, shortly after his emigration to America and full integration into the life of the Institut für Sozialforschung (then resettled in New York), she wrote down a number of conversations he had with the director of the Institute, Max Horkheimer.[3] She continued to play this role well after they all returned to Frankfurt in the early l950s to reestablish the Institute.

One such conversation took place over several days in March and April, l956, when Horkheimer and Adorno sat down to discuss a variety of pressing issues, political, sociological, and philosophical, and Gretel Adorno was there to record the results for posterity, or at least as an aide memoire for later more formal considerations of the same issues. Never intended for publication, the protocols nonetheless appeared in l989 alongside many other drafts and notes as an appendix to the thirteenth volume of Horkheimer's collected works. They were blandly entitled “Diskussion über Theorie und Praxis.” Last year, they were translated into English by the venerable Rodney Livingstone for the New Left Review, and shortly thereafter repackaged as a little book with the much more provocative title Towards a New Manifesto.[4]

It is worth remembering Gretel Adorno's role in their preparation, and not only because it reminds us of the asymmetrical gender relations that prevailed at the Institute (which never had a major female presence in its ranks). Without a tape recorder, she was responsible for faithfully putting down a highly abstract conversation developing at breakneck speed — the editorial foreword rightly calls it “a careening flux of arguments, aphorisms, and asides, in which the trenchant alternates with the reckless, the playful with the ingenuous” — and it has to be accounted a minor miracle that anything coherent survived at all. If we add the tendentious title introduced by the publishers, which turn a relatively minor moment in the dialogue into its telos, it is clear that we have a text that cannot be understood as the polished reflections of authors who wanted these formulations to represent their considered opinions for public consumption. This is, in other words, a far cry from the finely wrought aphorisms of Horkheimer's Dämmerung or Adorno's Minima Moralia.

Atheists As “Other”: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society

Ephesians_2,12_-_Greek_atheosPenny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann in American Sociological Review:

[T]he atheist emerges as a culturally powerful “other” in part because the category is multivalent (Turner 1974), loaded with multiple meanings. For all these respondents, atheists represent a general lack of morality, but for some, this lack was associated with criminality and its dangers to safety and public order, while for others the absence of morality was that of people whose resources or positions place them above the common standards of mainstream American life. To put it somewhat differently, atheists can be symbolically placed at either end of the American status hierarchy. What holds these seemingly contradictory views together is that the problem of the atheist was perceived to be a problem of self-interest, an excessive individualism that undermines trust and the public good. In this, our respondents draw the same link between religion and the taming of self-interest that Tocqueville wrote about over a century ago (Tocqueville [1992] 2000, see especially volume 2, parts I and II). It is important to note that our respondents did not refer to particular atheists whom they had encountered. Rather they used the atheist as a symbolic figure to represent their fears about those trends in American life—increasing criminality, rampant self-interest, an unaccountable elite—that they believe undermine trust and a common sense of purpose.

In recent public discourse, atheists take on a similar symbolic role. We found that the figure of the atheist is invoked rhetorically to discuss the links—or tensions—among religion, morality, civic responsibility, and patriotism. In particular, the association of the atheist with a kind of unaccountable elitism has surfaced in recent public debates. The civically engaged atheists’ awareness of the negative stereotypes of atheists has led to the coining of a new term, “Brights,” around which to identify and organize and thus, according to one prominent Bright, to challenge the association between atheism, immorality, and lack of civic commitment.

The Mighty Mathematician You’ve Never Heard Of

27ANGI-articleInlineNatalie Angier in the NYT:

Albert Einstein called her the most “significant” and “creative” female mathematician of all time, and others of her contemporaries were inclined to drop the modification by sex. She invented a theorem that united with magisterial concision two conceptual pillars of physics: symmetry in nature and the universal laws of conservation. Some consider Noether’s theorem, as it is now called, as important as Einstein’s theory of relativity; it undergirds much of today’s vanguard research in physics, including the hunt for the almighty Higgs boson. Yet Noether herself remains utterly unknown, not only to the general public, but to many members of the scientific community as well.

When Dave Goldberg, a physicist at Drexel University who has written about her work, recently took a little “Noether poll” of several dozen colleagues, students and online followers, he was taken aback by the results. “Surprisingly few could say exactly who she was or why she was important,” he said. “A few others knew her name but couldn’t recall what she’d done, and the majority had never heard of her.”

Noether (pronounced NER-ter) was born in Erlangen, Germany, 130 years ago this month. So it’s a fine time to counter the chronic neglect and celebrate the life and work of a brilliant theorist whose unshakable number love and irrationally robust sense of humor helped her overcome severe handicaps — first, being female in Germany at a time when most German universities didn’t accept female students or hire female professors, and then being a Jewish pacifist in the midst of the Nazis’ rise to power.

Adrienne Rich dies at 82

From The Guardian:

American-Poet-008The award-winning poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, who was one of America's most powerful writers, has died aged 82. Her daughter-in-law Diana Horowitz said Rich died at home in Santa Cruz, California, following complications from the rheumatoid arthritis from which she had suffered for many years. Described as “one of America's foremost public intellectuals” by the Poetry Foundation, and as “a poet of towering reputation and towering rage [who] brought the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse and kept it there for nearly a half-century” by the New York Times, Rich's career spanned seven decades, numerous prizes and more than 20 collections of poetry as well as acclaimed essays, articles and lectures.

When she was just 21, WH Auden chose her as winner of the Yale Younger Poets Competition. Auden went on to write a preface for her first collection, A Change of World. “The typical danger for poets in our age is, perhaps, the desire to be 'original',” he wrote. “Miss Rich, who is, I understand, 21 years old, displays a modesty not so common with that age, which disclaims any extraordinary vision, and a love for her medium, a determination to ensure that whatever she writes shall, at least, not be shoddily made.” By the 60s and early 70s, however, with collections such as Diving into the Wreck and Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, Rich was writing radical free verse full of her feminist ideals and leftwing convictions, exploring sexuality and identity, motherhood and politics. Her transformation, said the critic Ruth Whitman in 2002, has been “astonishing to watch … In one woman the history of women in the 20th century, from careful traditional obedience to cosmic awareness, defying the mode of our time.”

More here.

How War Came Home to Stay

Janet Maslin in The New York Times:

BOOK-JP-popupA squabble is a noisy quarrel over a trivial matter. A polemic is an aggressive attack on the opinions and principles of others. A screaming match is a contest in which contradictory points are stubbornly reiterated, with no regard for whatever else has been said. A political talk show is a gladiatorial contest in which squabbles, polemics and screaming matches are exploited for their entertainment value. A book by the host of a political talk show is often an ancillary product or marketing tool. But “Drift,” by Rachel Maddow, whose show is on MSNBC, is much more. It is an argument — a sustained, lucid case in which points are made logically and backed by evidence and reason. What’s more, it follows one main idea through nearly a half-century. The subtitle, “The Unmooring of American Military Power,” explains exactly what “Drift” is about. Ms. Maddow’s point is that the way we go to war has changed: that there has been an expansion of presidential power, a corresponding collapse of Congressional backbone and a diminution of public attention. She does not see this in conspiratorial terms, but she has an explanation for the step-by-step way it evolved. She thinks the transformation began with a question asked by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 as he prepared to more than double the ground forces in Vietnam: “You don’t think I oughta have a joint session, do you?” Did he need authorization from Congress, he asked the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to make a troop deployment like that?

That very question indicates that Johnson understood the importance of Congressional authority. But it is Ms. Maddow’s contention that subsequent presidents have even more deliberately sought to avoid dragging Congress into the conversation, because Congressional debates and military allocations upset the public. So does the calling up of troops. As the waging of war has grown increasingly secretive and privatized, presidents have built on precedent. They have seen less and less advantage in letting Congress weigh in on these decisions. “Drift” says this slide was not inevitable. “And it wasn’t inexorable either,” Ms. Maddow writes. “You can trace it to specific decisions, made for specific, logical reasons.”

More here.

Should Chimpanzees Have Moral Standing? An Interview with Frans de Waal

Liza Gross in PLoS Blogs:

Gross: What are some of the seminal experiments that revealed similarities in cognitive or behavioral traits between apes and humans, suggesting we’re not in fact unique, as many like to think?

ScreenHunter_01 Mar. 30 14.00De Waal: There are many. For example, tool use used to be considered uniquely human. And then when it was found in captivity by Köhler, this is in the 1920s, people would say, “Well, but at least in the wild they never do it.” And then it was found in the wild, and then they would say, “Well, at least they don’t make tools.” And then it was found that they actually also make tools.

So tool use was one of those dividing lines. Mirror self-recognition is a key experiment that was first conducted on the apes. The language experiments, even though we now doubt what the apes do is actually what we would call “language,” they certainly put a dent in that whole claim that symbolic communication is uniquely human.

My own studies on, let’s call it “politics,” and reconciliation behavior and pro-social behavior have put a dent in things. And so I think over the years every postulate of difference between humans and apes has been at least questioned, if not knocked over. As a result, we are now in a situation that most of the differences are considered gradual rather than qualitative.

And the same is true, let’s say, between a chimp and a monkey. There are many differences between chimps and monkeys in cognitive capacities, but we consider them mostly gradual differences.

The more we look at it, even if you take the difference between, let’s say, a human and a snake or a fish, yes, between those species the differences are very radical and huge, but even these species rely on some of the learning processes and reactions that we also know of in humans.

More here.

Friday Poem

“Here where there was law there is now
extrajudicial rendition and other conveniences.”

What Kind of Times Are These

There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.

by Adrienne Rich
from The Fact of a Doorframe
– Selected Poems 1950-2001
publisher W.W. Norton

Captured Europe

7e9d803175adea1bb6bbc6dc248a0290.portraitDaron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson in Project Syndicate:

There is a simple way to deal with a debt overhang: reduce payments by restructuring the debt. Many firms are able to renegotiate financing terms with their creditors – typically extending the maturity of their liabilities, which enables them to borrow more to finance new, better projects. If such negotiation cannot be achieved voluntarily, US firms can use Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code, under which a court supervises and approves the reorganization of liabilities. So you would think the same would be true for US households and embattled European governments. But the restructuring of debt has been too little and has come too late. Why?

In both cases, the main argument for not removing the debt overhang came from bankers, who claimed that it would create havoc in financial markets for two reasons. First, banks were the primary creditors, and the large losses that they would face in any restructuring was bound to trigger a domino effect, with waves of pessimism driving up interest rates and ruining other borrowers’ prospects. Second, banks would also suffer because they had sold insurance against default – in the form of credit-default swaps. When these swaps were activated, the banks would incur potentially further crippling losses.

In the case of Greece, international bankers argued long and hard that debt restructuring would generate contagion far and wide within the eurozone – and perhaps more broadly. And yet, in the end, Greece had little choice but to restructure its debt, cutting the value of private claims by about 75% relative to their face value (although even this is probably not enough to make the country’s debt burden sustainable). This was deemed a “credit event,” so credit-default swaps were exercised: anyone who insured against default had to pay out.

Did all hell break loose? No. Banks have not failed, and there is no sign of tumbling dominoes. But that is not because banks prepared themselves by raising more capital. On the contrary, compared to their likely future losses, European banks have raised relatively little capital recently – and much of this has been creative accounting, rather than truly loss-absorbing shareholder equity.

Perhaps the risk that a Greek debt restructuring would cause a financial meltdown was always minimal, and quiescent markets were to be expected. But, in that case, why all the fuss?

The answer should be clear by now: interest-group politics and policy elites’ worldview.

Critiques of Utopia and Apocalypse

51OR9ZgscAL._SL160_John Gray in Five Books:

Let’s talk about Freud then. Tell us what he says about human nature and society in Civilisation and Its Discontents.

Freud is a very relevant figure to this discussion. The limits of progress are in the flaws and divisions of human nature, which are integral to being human. The way Freud represents this in a number of his works, including Civilisation and Its Discontents, is to say that there are a variety of instincts – a very unpopular term now which may not be scientifically valid – from benevolence and love on the one hand to violence and aggression on the other, which are equally part of the human animal.

Civilisation, as Freud understands it, begins with the restraint of violence – although of course it doesn’t end there. A civilised state is one which controls violence. Freud’s key point is that because humans are self-divided in the way I’ve described, civilisation always carries with it a degree of repression of instinctual satisfaction, which in turn means that the civilisational condition will always be one of discontent. In other words, it’s not possible to imagine – and dangerous to experiment with – any conception of a civilisation emptied of its discontent, in which all desires are satisfied and society doesn’t exact a price for the repression of violent impulses.

Freud thought that civilisation is inestimably valuable – unlike some other writers in central Europe, he was never tempted by barbarism. But he also recognised that civilisation is inherently flawed, not because of political repression and corruption or economic inequality, but because of the nature of the human animal. That is why civilisation can never be rid of its faults, can never be entirely benign. I think that is true. In the language of religion, it might be called original sin. In other religions such as Buddhism, it is called original ignorance. However one wants to put it, it is a truth that humans are ineradicably flawed, and that is a commonplace in pretty much any religious tradition. It’s only recently, in the last 150 years, that the idea which Freud presented in a secular form is considered to be shocking.

A Poet of Unswerving Vision at the Forefront of Feminism

SubRICH-articleLargeThe NYT's Adrienne Rich obituary, by Margalit Fox:

Triply marginalized — as a woman, a lesbian and a Jew — Ms. Rich was concerned in her poetry, and in her many essays, with identity politics long before the term was coined.

She accomplished in verse what Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” did in prose. In describing the stifling minutiae that had defined women’s lives for generations, both argued persuasively that women’s disenfranchisement at the hands of men must end.

For Ms. Rich, the personal, the political and the poetical were indissolubly linked; her body of work can be read as a series of urgent dispatches from the front. While some critics called her poetry polemical, she remained celebrated for the unflagging intensity of her vision, and for the constant formal reinvention that kept her verse — often jagged and colloquial, sometimes purposefully shocking, always controlled in tone, diction and pacing — sounding like that of few other poets.

All this helped ensure Ms. Rich’s continued relevance long after she burst genteelly onto the scene as a Radcliffe senior in the early 1950s.

Her constellation of honors includes a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1994 and a National Book Award for poetry in 1974 for “Diving Into the Wreck.” That volume, published in 1973, is considered her masterwork.

In the title poem, Ms. Rich uses the metaphor of a dive into dark, unfathomable waters to plumb the depths of women’s experience:

I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
We circle silently about the wreck
we dive into the hold. …
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to the scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Ms. Rich was far too seasoned a campaigner to think that verse alone could change entrenched social institutions. “Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy,” she said in an acceptance speech to the National Book Foundation in 2006, on receiving its medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. “Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard.”

But at the same time, as she made resoundingly clear in interviews, in public lectures and in her work, Ms. Rich saw poetry as a keen-edged beacon by which women’s lives — and women’s consciousness — could be illuminated.

She was never supposed to have turned out as she did.

Morality and Mathematics: Can You Be A Moral Antirealist and a Mathematical Realist?

716px-EuclidJustin Clarke-Doane in Ethics (via the NYT):

It is commonly suggested that evolutionary considerations generate an epistemological challenge for moral realism. At first approximation, the challenge for the moral realist is to explain our having many true moral beliefs, given that those beliefs are the products of evolutionary forces that would be indifferent to the moral truth. An important question surrounding this challenge is the extent to which it generalizes. In particular, it is of interest whether the Evolutionary Challenge for moral realism is equally a challenge for mathematical realism. It is widely thought not to be. For example, Richard Joyce, one of the most prominent advocates of the Evolutionary Challenge, goes so far as to write, “the dialectic within which I am working here assumes that if an argument that moral beliefs are unjustified or false would by the same logic show that believing that 1 + 1 = 2 is unjustified or false, this would count as a reductio ad absurdum.”1 He assures the reader, “There is … evidence that the distinct genealogy of [mathematical] beliefs can be pushed right back into evolutionary history. Would the fact that we have such a genealogical explanation of … ‘1 + 1 = 2’ serve to demonstrate that we are unjustified in holding it? Surely not, for we have no grasp of how this belief might have enhanced reproductive fitness independent of assuming its truth.”2 Similarly, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong writes, “The evolutionary explanations [of our having the moral beliefs that we have] work even if there are no moral facts at all. The same point could not be made about mathematical beliefs. People evolved to believe that 2 + 3 = 5, because they would not have survived if they had believed that 2 + 3 = 4, but the reason why they would not have survived then is that it is true that 2 + 3 = 5.”3 Finally, Roger Crisp writes, “In the case of mathematics, what is central is the contrast between practices or beliefs which develop because that is the way things are, and those that do not. The calculating rules developed as they did because [they] reflect mathematical truth. The functions of … morality, however, are to be understood in terms of well-being, and there seems no reason to think that had human nature involved, say, different motivations then different practices would not have emerged.”4

In this article, I argue that such sentiments are mistaken. I argue that the Evolutionary Challenge for moral realism is equally a challenge for mathematical realism.