Thursday, January 26, 2012

Out of Africa, and Back in the USA

Just arrived back home after 35 hours of travel (counting driving and layovers).  I am a good two weeks behind on the news (other than about an hour of al Jazeera English I caught while on a weekend trip to Botswana so I won't be doing much standard blogging until I've caught up.

However, I had decided on the plane trip over that I'd like to blog the Africa trip, while this isn't a blog of my personal experiences work on a mission in Africa is of sufficient general interest as well as being a subject loosely related to international aid that I felt it would be worth posting.  Unfortunately, once we arrived I discovered that we had no internet access where we were staying, to access the internet we had to use the clinic computer after hours.  All of us ended up sharing this connection which was an old dial up modem, it could take a half hour to an hour to check e-mail.  So I couldn't blog live.  Also the computer died less than a week into the trip.

But I will be working up my notes into a series of blog posts detailing what it's like to be a volunteer at a mission hospital.  I was with a group called International Vision Volunteers at an eye clinic associated with the Zimba Missionary Hospital in Zimba, Zambia.

I will try to get the next post up over the weekend.  Right now I am jet lagged and brain fried from traveling and am having more trouble than usual writing a coherent post.  Once I've readjusted to this time zone I'll work on something more substantial.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Brief Hiatus

This blog has been quite recently, and will be quite for a bit longer.  Tomorrow I am leaving for Zambia and won't be back until January 26th.  I will have little access to the internet, the place we are staying simply has a dial up modem and I am unsure how many we will be sharing it with.  I will hopefully have some observations to share that I can link to current political topics and perhaps health care when we get back, we are going there as volunteers at a rural hospital somewhere outside of Livingstone.  I will be doing screening and my girlfriend will be doing surgeries.

Assumptions and Reality

While I've not been not blogging, I've been catching up on my reading.  Part of that has been reviewing some basic texts in political theory as a bit of a refresher before starting my PhD next year as well as reading a bunch of history while I have time for it.  Reading these two subjects together made me reflect a bit on a basic truth, that far too  many people take their assumptions far too seriously.

Let me explain.  Assumptions, as well as theories and basically all the methods of scientific inquiry, are simply tools.  Assumptions and theories are never accurate reflections of reality.  Rather, they are crutches we use because human beings are incapable of dealing with the world as a whole, such levels of comprehension are left to God.

So, we use observation, theory, and assumptions in order to explore the world around us one piece at a time.  For most of history, the purpose of inquiry was to make our observations match with our theories about how the world worked, since we knew how the world worked the task of inquiry was to discover why our observations matched so poorly with our theory and assumptions.  This led to such achievements of human ingenuity and brilliance as the Ptolemaic geocentric model.  Brilliant, creative, and a stunning example of the powers of human inquiry.  But also dead wrong.

Modern scientific inquiry works a bit differently.  We take our observations as being relatively reliable (though only a fool trusts observation implicitly, it's better than forcing the world to fit preexisting conceptions, but it ain't perfect) and test our theories and assumptions against these.

One problem I notice rather frequently however, is that the success of a theory at explaining one piece of a puzzle inevitably leads some goofball to thinking that they've struck upon the whole thing.  This is nonsense.  The specific area I want to look at is the relation of the individual and society.

Politics vs. the Academy

To take up another older issue, I had some brief thoughts on the back and forth between Tyler Cowen and Krugman regarding, well, I guess, whether it's more effective to convince people by being nice or by taking the gloves off and slugging it out.  Cowen describes the most convincing case as being one that seeks to make the best argument from the opposing side as well as one's own.  He goes on to say, "uch an essay would stand a far greater chance of influencing me, or other serious readers, or for that matter President Obama."

Such an argument is convincing up until he mentions President Obama.  This debate reminds me a great deal of a quote often attributed to Roosevelt,  "you've convinced me, now make me do it."

This is the crux of the problem.  Cowen is undoubtedly right that his method is the best way to convince a well informed, serious readership.  This stance is widely held in academia, I'd say this is the ideal.

However, this stance is also why outlets of questionable veracity, such as Heritage, dominate the headlines, House Budget Committee reports, and most policy debates.  Very few people, even people in decision making positions, can really be classified as serious readers.  When I first decided to start studying politics, I asked some people I knew who were in government in Washington what to read.  The books recommended to me were generally fairly basic, the ones that weren't were notable for how detail oriented they were, not for the depth of their arguments.

In short, I am very sceptical that the Humean approach has any impact on policy whatsoever.  It is certainly the ideal type for discussion in the Academy and is the best way to convince people there.  However, if there ever was a transmission belt for ideas from the Academy to policy making circles it largely broke down decades ago.  Nonsense like the culture of dependency arguments I rail against dominates over good research.  In this environment, it is necessary to pay attention to how politicians and the think tanks they listen to frame their arguments, not what works in elite academic circles.

Now, even given this distinction, I think there is a good argument to be made that Krugman doesn't play this game all that well either.  While he likely helped inform some of the arguments made by the Occupy Wall Street protests, I don't see much evidence that Krugman has had a large influence on actual US policy.  While this may or may not be due to his skill at this game, it may be that the system is not easily moved by arguments made by individuals no matter how well they play it, Cowen's approach seems to me one that would reduce Krugman's influence from negligible to nonexistent.  Presenting both sides as strongly as possible simply isn't how you convince people, it works only with people that have been highly educated to respect this particular form of argumentation.  It certainly isn't how you win an argument in a meeting, around the dinner table, or in a bar.  But if you want to influence policy, you need to be able to change the grounds for argument in those very places, not in polite company. 

The critical thing is about making policy makers do something, and to do this you need to win the argument in a bar, not in the faculty club.

(Looking at Cowen's list of influential intellectuals, I am also struck by how his list doesn't exactly match with people noted for their polite use of the Humean method.  Milton Friedman was pretty forceful about his views.  Charles Murray is also an interesting example, he influenced policy despite being pretty much universally regarded as wrong by the academic community.  His interpretations just don't stand up to scrutiny.  He was also quite vicious to the opposing viewpoint, though unlike Krugman his dismissal of other views was presented politely, if not accurately.  He didn't give them a fair shake however, he misrepresented them in ways that are similar to what Ryan does by presenting a choice between opportunity and equal outcomes.  False choices, not real choices, that don't actually communicate what anyone is saying.  As any grade school kid knows, lying by omission is just as bad as lying by commission.  But it's tempting, because it seems to work in practice.  Well enough to get the author of The Bell Curve onto a respected economist's most influential list anyway.  With real policy alterations to back up his place on it.)

Conservatism's Other Pole

I've been procrastinating quite a bit lately, but would like to briefly cover some old news.

David Brooks had a column back on December 30th which touched on an important issue.  That is the style of Conservatism that is rooted in family and community rather than the market.

This is the form of Conservatism that is written about by Russel Kirk, who wrote a book I commented on in the early days of this blog.  I can't say I agree on many points with this philosophy but I have a great deal of respect for it.  It poses a number of difficult questions and makes explicit a number of costs of the development of the modern market and society.  Even where I disagree with it, I have to admit that something is being lost with my preferred choice.

I'd contrast this form of Conservatism with the more Friedman/Hayekian viewpoint.  I don't have much respect for this tradition.  That is for the simple reason that I think this view uses an overly simplified notion of humanity, it lacks humility about its conclusions and frequently fails to see how its assumptions rest upon simply ignoring a large number of well established observations.

I see the Friedman/Hayekian road that Conservatism has gone down as being so popular because it took the hard choices and sacrifices that I respected so much in Kirk's view and simply said none of these things are really problems.  Where Kirk thought human nature was such that human choices in the market and in rationalized political systems could never lead to optimal outcomes and that instead we had to respect history, tradition, and community in order to not destroy what we have, the newer viewpoint seems to simply hand wave these problems away and say that rational, optimizing human nature will supply these things through individual competition.  Unlike Kirk, it never seems to stop and reflect if we actually observe this.  It's a vision that has appeal for the same reason as philosophies like Marxism do, they promise that there is some kind of natural law that leads inexorably towards an optimal outcome, provided those laws are allowed to work.  It's simple, there are no real sacrifices, only an ending of privileges that hurt the people that receive those privileges.

As you can tell, I think this is bullshit.  I respect Kirk's philosophy, I may not agree with him on what tradeoffs to make, but I agree the tradeoffs are there.  I disagree with the other Conservative pole that seems to hold there are no tradeoffs, they may mention a tradeoff between security and growth, but obviously, growth provides security so there's really no tradeoff.  Only the optimal viewpoint, mine, and the stupid and shortsighted viewpoint, yours.  Bullshit.  I don't buy this strand of Conservatism's philosophy or outlook, real life is about hard choices between things where there is no clear long run optimum.  Obviously correct long run optimums are the product of dropping considerable parts of the human experience out of the analysis, if you ignore the realities of power, the draw of community, and the actual performance of spontaneous civic associations, such as guilds (or simply redefine ones that perform poorly as government, which I've seen done rather often when the institution is clearly not part of the formal state but its non-state status is inconvenient), only then can you have a clearly optimal solution. 

Sorry, I started ranting.  The main thing I wanted to point out is that I'm glad to see Kirk being brought up again, him, and thinkers like him, don't receive enough attention today.  I think this is one of the big things missing from American politics, we need more discussion grounded in this stuff and the tradeoffs inherent in using the market and rationalized political systems to govern our societies.  There are big advantages to this, but we need someone to focus on what is potentially being lost so that we don't get so caught up in what we may gain that we end up looking back and discovering our world has gotten worse, not better.  Neither party seems to be doing this in America today, instead we have a party of radical change through the market and a party of gradual change through the market and rationalized politics.  We have no one that is mounting a real defense of what we stand to lose if we're not careful.  Conservatism would be better and more effective if people started reading more Kirk and less Hayek and Friedman.