As Melinda Cooper notes (recall here), one of the reasons Gary Becker – as opposed to other neoliberal theorists – was interesting to Foucault because of his emphasis on microeconomics, particularly the quotidian institutions through which micropower functions, such as the family. At the same time, Becker’s human capital theory has become increasingly important in neoliberal constructions of human nature. In a late essay, Becker applies himself to health economics. The result, I think, offers a very clear demonstration of neoliberal thinking and how it works nearly inexorably to distract from social problems, generally by constructing them as individual problems and ignoring the social determinants of an individual’s situation.
A while ago, Daniel Zamora’s (re)publication of a series of essays designed to say that Foucault ended up embracing neoliberalism caused quite a stir in the blogosphere. As one of those invited to contribute to a forum in An und für sich), I argued that Foucault saw both that neoliberalism realized the need to create markets (as opposed to liberalism’s assumption that they just happened), as well as the need to create homo economicus as a form of subjectification. As I put it then:
Cloud computing – where users keep their data (and often their applications) online - poses significant theoretical and regulatory problems. Many of these concern jurisdiction: it’s very hard to even know at a given moment where data is kept, and it’s often unclear (in the case of privacy, for example), which jurisdiction’s privacy and data protection rules should apply (the one for the data subject? the company that collected the data? the companies processing it? etc.). Not only that, U.S. and EU law are wildly inconsistent on the point, even though any large big data company has to serve multiple jurisdictions.
A recent piece by Paul M. Schwartz does some valuable work disentangling these issues; here, I want to focus on one moment. Schwartz notes that cloud computing will likely induce significant changes in how firms are structured, and how they structure their data handling. Back in 1937, Ronald Coase proposed that companies will decide between doing something in house and outsourcing it based on a comparison of the costs of each. If it’s more efficient to do something in-house, using the hierarchical control structure of the firm and avoiding the complexities of dealing with markets, that’s what we can expect. If, on the other hand, it turns out that it’s more efficient to hire somebody else to do the job, we can expect companies to do that. Companies have to balance the difficulties of managing a project in-house versus the costs of negotiating contracts with independent vendors.
After reading some discussion at the Daily Nous about the Ferguson situation (also addressed in this post by Leigh Johnson), it struck me that it might be helpful to open a forum dedicated to discussing steps for improvement and change. Some ideas for improvement and change may reasonably focus on specific issues at the intersection of race, law, and legal force. One article linked in the comments goes in a more general direction, targeting economic inequality and economic reparation:
But this story is neither old nor unfamiliar. Rather than asking “why,” let’s focus on the banal laws and policies needed to redirect the distribution of wealth — stolen from black Americans, such that whites can no longer summon police, law or politicians on their behalf to erase or suppress black Americans, and other minorities. That will require more than revealing the name of the police officer who shot Michael Brown; it will require asking who, in the next round of city council elections, state elections and, of course, presidential elections, is ready to compromise their political career in order to work toward redirecting wealth, jobs, opportunities toward black and Latino populations that constitute the majority of the United States. Only when wealth changes hands will black Americans have a fighting chance to resist police power and violence.
This is a powerful suggestion that leads me to wonder about how economic change might address the problems of racial injustice we have seen in Ferguson and elsewhere. Although racial injustice and economic inequality are no doubt related, the former is a distinct problem from the latter, as was noted during the Occupy Movement. In January of this year, the Pew Research Center presented data showing that not only has economic inequality worsened since 1967 but that "the black-white income gap in the U.S. has persisted" since that time. Thus, although it is possible that "narrowing the gap" of economic inequality may partially and indirectly improve the problem of racial injustice, we ought not forget the specific issue of racial inequality in seeking economic change. To improve economic inequality, Standard and Poor recommends investment in education. Here are some bullet points from the overview of a recent report:
I am increasingly convinced that any Foucauldian effort to understand neoliberalism needs to focus on it as a strategy of subjectification (more specifically, it’s the strategy of subjectification specific to contemporary biopower, and it says that the truth of the human being is as homo economicus). One reason I think this is that one finds repeated examples of where policy or governmental prescriptions specific to neoliberalism conflict with neoliberalism as a strategy of subjectification; in such cases, the strategy of subjectification generally seems to win. Let me explain with an example which will hopefully serve as proof of concept of the admittedly very big thesis I’ve just announced.
In a post last month for Demos, Matt Bruenig argued that if one in fact cares about childhood poverty, a recent conservative position promoting marriage as a means of reducing childhood poverty rates is as cruel as it is misguided (http://www.demos.org/blog/4/14/14/single-mother-child-poverty-myth). In a nutshell, Bruenig notes that countries with low childhood poverty rates have not achieved this success via promoting marriage, nor are their rates of single-parenthood markedly different from those in the U.S.
One way to put this basic observation is that people promoting marriage are deliberately ignoring most of the variation that matters. Yes, it is true (ceteris paribus, of course!) that in the international sample Bruenig looks at, in every country, the children of single parents are more likely to be poor than the children of married parents living together.* But far more variation in childhood poverty rates is associated with different policies in the different countries, and not with the relationship status of the parents; indeed, even if the child poverty rate in the U.S. dropped to the level associated with children living with married parents living together in the U.S. today, it would still be substantially higher, indeed, quite grossly higher, than in the other countries Bruenig looks at.
Gary Becker, the Nobel laureate economist at the University of Chicago, has died.
Becker is perhaps best known for "human capital" theory, which talks about how one might, for example, come to think of education as an investment in one's future earnings. As the absolute normalcy of a statement like this would suggest, I think it's probably hard to overstate how influential Becker has been on the development of the neoliberal world we all inhabit. Foucault's analysis in Birth of Biopolitics is essential, as are the exchanges (here and here) between Becker, Bernard Harcourt (whose Illusion of Free Markets ought to be required reading), and the Foucauldian Francois Ewald.
As readers of this blog will know, I'm no fan of neoliberalism. But, as I tell my students, if you don't see neoliberalism at least as a temptation, you didn't get it.
My friend Alan Nelson recently posted a link on facebook to the following article: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/business/economic-view-when-the-scientist-is-also-a-philosopher.html with an appropriately snarky note that the author, N. Gregory Mankiw (the Chair of the econ department at Harvard, natch), seemed to be arguing that the only changes to the status quo permissible are those that are verifiably Perato efficient improvements. An obvious corollary is that, since every reasonably substantive and complex policy change will have winners and losers, we should never change policies at all.
In comment #9 at this post, Susan makes a kind of canonical case I've heard from lots of assessment people.
First, I should say that I agree with 95% of the intended answers to Susan's rhetorical questions. We should be much clearer about what we want our students to get out of their degrees, and we should put in the hard work of assessing the extent that we are successful.
But "assessment" in contemporary American bureaucracies almost always accomplishes exactly the opposite of the laudable goals that Susan and I share. And there are deep systematic reasons for this. Below, I will first explain three fallacies and then explain why everyone involved in assessment faces enormous pressure to go along with these fallacies. Along the way I hope to make it clear how this results in "assessment" making things demonstrably worse.**
In his critique of Posner’s economic analysis of law, the late Ed Baker offers some remarks that might help us to understand current developments in educational policy. Posner defends what we will now recognize as a number of the core commitments of neoliberal policy, in particular the fundamental efficiency of markets and the price mechanism for the optimal allocation of social goods. The more people want something, the more they are willing to pay, and so goods get bought and sold (as they move from those who value them less – sellers – to those who value them more – buyers) until everyone is as happy as they can be, given constraints on resources.
Full disclosure: I met Jeremy Gilbert at a Deleuze conference in Wales in the summer of 2008. He gave an interesting paper on Deleuze, Guattari, and Gramsci and I ended up talking to him at pub. The conversation was one of shared interests that went beyond Deleuze, it was a Deleuze conference after all, to include Simondon, transindividuality, and the broader problem of reimagining collectivity in individualistic (and individuated) times. As anyone in academia knows, the experience of meeting someone with shared interest is often ambivalent. There is the joy of finding someone to talk to, of feeling less alone in the wilds of academia, coupled with the sadness of feeling less original, less insightful. The latter feeling is of course intensified by a publishing culture that is predicated less on collective projects and more on developing a highly individuated name for oneself. In the years since then, as our projects progressed (his made it to print first) we joked about constituting a new school of thought, Transindividual Ontology and Politics (TOP)?
It seemed appropriate to begin a review of Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism with such a story, one that illustrates the way in which commonality of interests and ideas intersects with an institution geared towards individuation and competition. That we live in an “age of individualism” perhaps goes without saying. However, such a judgment raises as many questions as it answers. At what level are we to locate the individual? Is it, to borrow, words from Foucault, an “illusion,” an “ideological effect,” or a real functioning element of society? In short, are people deluded into seeing themselves as individuals, or is individuation a real material effect?
The University of Florida has been given permission to hire "100 faculty members to fill new positions it will create as part of a push to join the nation’s top 10 public research institutions," The Chronicle reports. [HT Pete Boettke] According to the university, the main fields targeted for expansion "are life sciences, massive data, cybersecurity, Latin American development." Given demographics and geography, the first and last of these priorities make eminent sense, of course. (I ignore here the non-trivial issue to what degree Florida should be investing in higher education rather than, say, in K1-12.)
Now, earlier in the year this very same university made national headlines by acknowledging that it is basically terminating its PhD program in economics. Given that "massive" data-mining is increasingly taking over economics, there is some logic in this decision (recall and here, here). But before any philosopher has misplaced schadenfreude over the demise of the once-imperial human science in the face of market-forces, it is worth noting that the economics department was "offered the opportunity to move to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences but opted to remain within the business college and become smaller." One wonders what is known about the investment priorities of the Gator's college of LAS. For more on the internal political economy at UF called "responsibility-centered management", see here.
Every advance in research that adds a new complication to our understanding of what happened on the Nazi side, or on the victims’, can potentially threaten our moral clarity about why it happened, obscuring the reality and fundamental inexplicability of anti-Semitic eliminationism.--Mark Lilla, NYRB, 21 November.
In a two-part article, which is a review of two films and some books, Mark Lilla presents us two competing approaches to the Holocaust: one -- represented by the author Hannah Arendt -- attempts "to find a schema that would render the horror comprehensible and make judgment possible;" the other -- represented by the film-maker Claude Lanzmann prior to the film (The Last of the Unjust) under review -- embraces a "refusal to understand." Without wishing to obscure the differences between Arendt and Lanzmann as presented by Lilla, the point of aiming and obtaining understanding, or not, is in some sense moral on their views. (I return to this below.)
As the passage above reveals, Lilla's position also embraces the "fundamental inexplicability," of "anti-Semitic eliminationism" by which he appears to mean the Holocaust of the Jews.* But in Lilla's approach the inexplicable has no stated moral purpose. In fact, in the passage above, Lilla offers us an asymmetry in the possible consequences of obtaining new facts, insights, even "understanding" of a historical event: (i) in the moral sphere they can undermine (or fortify) "moral" judgment; (ii) in the epistemic sphere, they leave untouched what is fundamentally inexplicable. To be sure, in the moral realm certain forms of historical explanation are presupposed; in particular, one needs a functional or teleological account why something happened before one can obtain "moral clarity" or not. But Lilla's position also involves the further claim that even with some such "understanding," an event can remain fundamentally inexplicable. We are not told much about what remains elusive such that a functionally or schematically understood event is still not just a mystery, but at bottom a mystery.
Sympathy is derived from the classical Greek συμπάθεια, or fellow (συμ)-feeling (πάθεια). A solid Latin translation would be compassio. Unfortunately, whatever is exactly meant by "sympathy," to English ears "compassion," that is, "a feeling of wanting to help someone" would seem to denote merely a sub-set of sympathy.* While "sympathy" does appear (with related concepts like harmony, natural friendship, etc.) in Plato and Aristotle, it tends to be originally identified with Stoic thought; it was also taken up and developed in non-trivial ways by Plotinus, Pliny, Vetrivius, and Galen (amongst others). Use for the concept was re-discovered in the Renaissance and -- as I learned from the distinguished scholar, Ann Moyer, -- promoted not so much by Ficino, but by Erasmus and Fracastoro. Even though in Fracastoro sympathy itself had a properly atomistic explanation, the concept was banished by Descartes and lumped with the to-be-discarded occult (see Principles of Philosophy 4.187).
Given the diversity of usages of 'sympathy' within the context of very different philosophical aims, one might doubt that there is a single, underlying concept rather than a host of family resemblances. Even so, while editing a forthcoming volume on the history of the concept, I came to think that one can identify the four following features that are incorporated in most usages of the term, 'sympathy.'
Sympathy is used to explain apparent action at a distance.
The very possibility of sympathy presupposes that it takes place among things that are in one sense or another alike (sometimes within a single being/unity/organism) to be contrasted with the antipathy (ἀντιπάθεια) of un-alikes. I call this condition of the possibility of sympathy, "The Likeness Principle" (or TLP; recall).**
The cause(s) of sympathy is invisible to the naked eye.
The effect(s) of sympathy can be (nearly) instantaneous.
"An economic theorist who offers a model prepares the ground for a practitioner who should employ her judgment in using this model; but the theorist's contribution falls short of a testable prediction." (Gilboa, et. al. 11)
"Cases can never be refuted, and case-based reasoning is thus an attractive alternative to rule-based reasoning, allowing economists to work with models simple enough to be useful without worrying about refutations." (Gilboa, et. al. 27) [HT: Jong Jae Lee]
The two passages above are quoted from a paper "Economic Models as Analogies" forthcoming in the Economic Journal by a group of leading economists.* It represents part of a wider trend among economists re-interpreting their own activity (recall last week's post); in doing so, they are also making more sensible claims on behalf of economics, while trying to keep most of the economist's tool-kit intact (recall this post). Both passages reveal how thoughtful economists' are trying to come to grip not just with the charge that their models are not realistic (as noted throughout the opening sections of the paper), but with the widespread perception that their models have been refuted in the events of the last decade. While a cynic might interpret the two passages above as a belated admission that something was refuted in 2008, the significance of these passages is to be found in the renewed focus on judgment.
One problem with economics is that it is necessarily focused on policy,
rather than discovery of fundamentals. Nobody really cares much about economic
data except as a guide to policy: economic phenomena do not have the same
intrinsic fascination for us as the internal resonances of the atom or the
functioning of the vesicles and other organelles of a living cell. We judge
economics by what it can produce. As such, economics is rather more like
engineering than physics, more practical than spiritual.--Robert J. Shiller [HT Jeff Bell]
Is the younger generation of economists like Raj skipping some of the
big questions of economics because some smaller questions are easier to
answer? If so, is that optimal from the standpoint of society as a
The character of cutting-edge, academic economics has changed during the last few decades. It is not entirely easy to characterize these changes in part because economics is a very large, fast-moving field (and, of course, I pay more attention to philosophers than economists). Even so there can be merit in this simplification: (i) between 1947 and 1970, there was a formal revolution in economics (associated with names like Samuelson, Arrow, Debreu, etc.); this revolution occurred more or less simultaneously with (ii) the development of econometrics (associated with names like Tinbergen, Koopmans, etc.)--many of the people involved interacted with each other at the Cowles Commission. Of these two developments, the first had a more theoretical ethos and the second a more policy oriented focus. (Of course, lots of fields in economics -- development, labor, forestry, agriculture, etc. -- have always been very focused on policy.) With the break-down of the Keynesian consensus in the mid-1970s, policy,
"big questions of economics" returned to the center of the discipline's attention.* In the quoted passage above, Shiller's "necessarily" takes the centrality of policy for granted...so much so that most of what is published as "theory" by theoreticians in economics these days has some such policy orientation.**
One day is equal to every day [Unus dies par omni est.]--Heraclitus, the obscure.
Almost nothing so boring as old people speaking to young people about old age and general decay. Yet, this is the 'hook' of Seneca's twelfth Letter, in which he goes out of his way to present himself as an angry old man who sees decay and death everywhere--nothing like the image of Stoic, apathetic wisdom one might expect. More important, he shows the persona 'Seneca' failing at enjoying the available life's variety of pleasures (marked by different Latin words, e.g, delectavit, voluptatis, iucundissima, etc). It might be the case that the old cannot really avoid looking death in the face, but it is not obvious that we all must fundamentally do so, especially because Seneca himself seems to make a hash of it. While the letter is nominally addressed to the young Lucilus, it is really an admonition to himself to embrace and love [complectamur...et amemus] old age. In recounting his foibles (and other aged men), he wishes to become a true friend of himself such that he is capable of moderated love (sans madness) (recall Letter 9).
It is, after all, not shameful [inprobe] to hope for another day, every day, in old and young alike. (In recounting his foibles, Seneca does not name his more shameful desires.) One might think such lack of shame, which is constituted by the recognition of a binding norm one fails to live up to,* is an instance of living without necessity. But that can't be quite right because in context Seneca treats the denial of necessity as equal to the possibility of ending one's life rather than the hope for another day.
Ingrid Robeyns has a very nice post at Crookedtimber with an excellent discussion on why "economics should become much more aware of the values it (implicitly or
explicitly) endorses. Those values are embedded in some of the basis
concepts used but also in some of the assumptions in the
theory-building." Her post includes a lovely, brief and clear treatment of the abuse of the Pareto-improvement criterion; it's worth your time to check it out.
However, I worry a bit about the meme that focuses on the lack of clarity about values by economists. For, it reinforces the convenient economist's (and philosopher's) distinction between positive and normative questions, embraced since Sidgwick encouraged the split between the two fields (recall and here). To put the worry more constructively and subtly reinterpret my two earlier posts (here and here) on Raj Chetty's widely discussed NYT op-ed piece: economists are not transparent about their status-quo bias that is embedded in their empirical methodology, which (recall (and here and here), takes important institutions and norms as given).[+] From the point of view of the political economy of economics this (relative) status-quo bias of policy oriented economics is to be expected because the demand for economists is fuelled by existing institutions.
A few weeks ago, Kevin Vallier wrote a thoughtful, agonized blog-post (at BHL) on to what degree 'non-ideological' political theory is possible. Before I could pen a response, David Sobel created a robust discussion at Pea-Soup on the related question if it is "inappropriate to hold moral principles in a way that is immune to empirical
falsification." Now, both Kevin and David flirt with treating 'ideology' and 'empirical' as contraries; admittedly, both introduce a great deal of sensible qualification and hesitate endorsing the conceptual opposition. Even so, David channels the ghost of Popper and treats the empirically 'falsifiable' as the opposite to the 'ideological.'[+]
Shortly thereafter, the influential economist, Raj Chetty, published a widely discussed op-ed piece in which he tacitly assumes that in virtue of being properly empirical his favored approach to economics is scientic and, therefore, cannot be ideological. In my response, I point out that even if one fully accepts that the new trend in data-mining economics, which exploits so-called 'natural experiments,' is based firmly in fact, it could still be ideological. For it presupposes background stability in one's
institutions and norms. Much of the very best of contemporary economics is 'empirical' in this
sense; it relentlessly explores the impact of policy within a given framework. (The idea that
current, mainstream economics is somehow very formal and far removed
from empirical reality is seriously outdated.) This status-quo bias of Chetty's mainstream approach remarkably friendly to existing background institutions and norms (recall also this post on Gul and Pesendorfer).
But was I correct in using 'ideology' in describing economics?
A "sardonic" tweet by a "Duke sociologist"* about this year's Nobels in economics generates an op-ed response in the New York Times by a MacArthur ('genius') fellow and Harvard economist, Raj Chetty. [HT Matt Zwolinski] It's been a few decades since an elite economist felt the need to notice a sociologist. Chetty reveals what is at stake:
the headline-grabbing differences between the findings of these Nobel laureates are less significant than the profound agreement in their scientific approach to economic questions, which is characterized by formulating and testing precise hypotheses. I’m troubled by the sense among skeptics that disagreements about the answers to certain questions suggest that economics is a confused discipline, a fake science whose findings cannot be a useful basis for making policy decisions.
If economics is not "a useful basis for making policy decisions," its seventy year, lucrative (jobs, funding, prestige, etc.) reign as the the privileged discipline in the policy sciences ends. (The only time I have discussed Chetty's views on the blog, I provided historical context for that claim.) Before I turn to Chetty's argument for why economics is "useful" in the relevant fashion, it is worth noting that he accepts the idea that consensus in methods ("formulating and testing precise hypotheses") and answers ("simple, unassailable finding") is an adequate proxy to a discipline not being a "fake science." Such consensus, need not prevent it being "ideology," too.
In the end, that’s the real danger we are now facing. Not just the
shutdown, but the rise of the shutdown strategy. By unraveling the
threads of our joint commitment to shared governance, it raises the
chances those threads will be rewoven into something else: something
deeply, and tragically, undemocratic.--Michael Lynch, Opinionator, New York Times, 10/15/2013
Plato's most important observation in political philosophy is that no constitutional system lasts forever. As Michael Lynch discerns in the important piece that I quote above (it's the concluding paragraph), there are dynamics internal to the democratic process that may lead to its own unraveling. Lynch mentions three distinct ones: (i) if "legislative gridlock" becomes "a fixture of American
political life, it will be more tempting, more reasonable, to think that
someone should “step in” to make the decisions. The chorus
calling for action — for the president, for example, to go around the
Congress — will only increase." (ii) When politics stops being perceived to be about (Madisonian) give-and-take, then the sense of shared identity will unravel. (iii) A permanent albeit powerful minority systematically makes normal state functioning impossible--the so-called regular "shut-down strategy." [In (iii) I blend Lynch and Schliesser.]
In response to (i) the Cato's Institute's Roger Pilon, remarks: "Well, that’s already happening – witness the many lawless changes to the
Obamacare law that have been unilaterally imposed by the president,
without so much as a notice to Congress. But it’s not because of any
shutdown threat. It’s because (iv) respect for constitutional limits is today
so atrophied." [HT Jason Stanley on Facebook] From context, it is clear that Pilon is thinking of the growth of the welfare state ("special interest juggernaut poured through with one redistributive
program after another, leading to the unsustainable war of all against
all we see today.") Given his focus on limitations, it is surprising that Pilon does not express concern about the limitless growth of executive power that leads to permanent foreign wars and the surveillance state. Either way, we can recognize in (iv) Hayek's old road to serfdom thesis. But with this particular twist that, rather than edging our way toward totalitarianism, we have already returned to the state of nature ("war of all against
all.") Obviously, if we are in the state of nature then the need for a Hobbesian sovereign to get us out of it will be embraced by all minimally rational agents.
Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.--Kant Quaere quid est virtus, et posce exemplar honesti.--Lucan (quoted by David Hume as epigraph to Treatise 3.)
Our bodies can betray us. The main ploy of Seneca’s eleventh Letter is to use the all-too-human-phenomenon
of blushing to talk about the limits that nature and our natures put on any
philosophical wisdom. Seneca relies on the idea that blushing cannot be controlled
even if one has completed an training in philosophical emendation of the mind.One aim of such a course is a kind of
self-mastery, that is, to be composed. Seneca uses blushing as a metaphor for all the
ways in which there are limits to our abilities to control nature more generally.
Ever since Bacon and Descartes this outlook has been on the defensive, but if
we are really heading toward an era of Environmental disasters, recognizing
limits may well return to favor before long even if there might be over-the-counter
pills against blushing.
Above, I use the plural “our natures,” not just because in
an earlier letter Seneca had already implied there are a variety of kinds of
souls (recall), but also because in the eleventh letter Seneca insists that our
characters are, in part, the product of varying natural endowments. This sheds
some light on the point of the little mystery at the start the eleventh Letter. For, Seneca introduces a third
party, Lucilus’s “friend,” but does not reveal his identity. Presumably this is
the same “friend” that had acted as (postal) messenger between Lucilus and
Senecabefore (recall the third letter).
This time Seneca reports a conversation he had with the unnamed friend, and it
reveals something about the qualities desired in a philosophical apprentice. It
seems the friend has also started a course in philosophical improvement in
which Seneca judges that he has progressed.)
A naturall foole that could never learn by heart the
order of numerall words, as One, Two, and Three, may observe every stroak
of the Clock, and nod to it, or say one, one, one; but can never know what
houre it strikes...Nor is
it possible without Letters for any man to become either excellently wise,
or (unless his memory be hurt by disease, or ill constitution of organs)
excellently foolish. For words are wise mens counters, they do but reckon
by them: but they are the mony of fooles...one man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth Feare; and one Cruelty,
what another Justice; one Prodigality, what another Magnanimity...such names can
never be true grounds of any ratiocination. No more can Metaphors, and
Tropes of speech: but these are less dangerous, because they profess their
inconstancy; which the other do not.--Leviathan, 1.4
Night nursed not him in whose dark mind
The clambering wings of birds of black revolved,
Making harsh torment of the solitude.
The walker in the moonlight walked alone,
And in his heart his disbelief lay cold.--Wallace Stevens.
Despite the helpful reminder of 3AM Magazine, we at NewAPPS failed to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Wallace Stevens' Harmonium. Seneca's mysterious, terse (under 325 words) tenth Letter, brought me back to Stevens' early poetry. Stevens talks of the (nightly) "torment of solitude," faced by the poetic mind (who happens to be a religious skeptic). Yet, Seneca seems to suggest that some of the very best people should seek solitude; in particular they should living
with their conscience [conscientia] (recall eight letter). But presumably Stevens's poetic disbeliever is expressing his conscience faitfully.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced its 2013 price in economics, and gave it to Eugene Fama, Lars Peter Hansen, and Robert Shiller. One suspects [as Ross Emmett pointed out on facebook] that Fama and Hansen had been pencilled in for 2008; sadly the world did not cooperate with the original plans, and that Shiller has been added to give the whole thing credibility. (Fama and Shiller have not agreed on much.)
In its press release the Academy claims that "it is quite possible to foresee the broad course of these [stocks and bonds"] prices over longer periods, such as the next three
to five years." Of course it is possible, but it is best to bet other people's money on it. More subtly: the Academy's press release imposes a narrative on the empirical work that makes it seem (misleadingly) that there is an established consensus ("the current understanding of asset prices") that itself allows one to predict three to five years out.
"I have no great faith in political
arithmetick, and I mean not to warrant the exactness of either of these
computations." Adam Smith (1776) Wealth of Nations.
While Ancient writers (Pliny) certainly noted the existence of
fossils, the meaning of the existence fossils was explosive during the eighteenth
century. In posthumously published work on Discourse on Earthquakes (1705), the secretary
of the Royal Society, Robert Hooke, had while surveying fossil evidence suggested that "There
have been many other Species of Creatures in former Ages, of which we can find
none at present; and that 'tis not unlikely also but that there may be divers
new kinds now, which have not been from the beginning." (here)
As it happens, Adam Smith's two best friends in old age, James Hutton and Joseph Black, the editors of his posthumous (1795) work, Essays on Philosophical Subjects (EPS), understood what was at stake. For, in 1785 Hutton gave
a public lecture, “Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Duration, and
Stability,” at University of Edinburgh. Due to Hutton's illness, Black gave
the lecture on Hutton’s behalf. In the lecture Hutton used geological and
fossil evidence to argue that the Earth was almost certainly older than 6000
years. We do not know for sure if Smith attended the lecture,
although he was in town.The argument was elaborated in far greater detail in Hutton's (1788) Theory of the Earth, which made him an international celebrity. The significance of this episode to the history of geology and Darwinism is much studied.
But what does this have to do with the history of economics?
Smith's closeness to Hutton may provide additional clues for one of the enduring mysteries of the history of economics: why did Adam Smith forsake the deployment of a mathematical model in the Wealth of Nations (1776)?
Childhood is abundant in fruits, but infancy is sweeter [Fructuosior est adulescentia liberorum, sed infantia dulcior].--Seneca, Letter 9.
I am very bad at being powerless when I really want to help another that I care for who is self-undermining. I find it vexing, and because of the intensity of the passion, I am perfectly capable of making a situation worse--thus, not helping the person in need and frustrating my aims. Recognizing the pattern and even the fact that I re-enact childhood experience, has helped to some degree. But nobody that knows me will call me "unflappable" in such circumstances. (By contrast, I have remained unperturbed when I have been amidst gunfire and scary aircraft failures.) This particular incapacity has a work-place consequence: it makes me a less than ideal PhD supervisor for people that are self-undermining and it influences how we can do philosophy together.
In her best-selling and philosophically subtle book on Spinoza, Door Spinoza's Lens [full disclosure: I wrote a brief "afterword" to it, but that is obviously not why it is selling!] the Flemish scholar-public intellectual, Tinneke Beeckman, emphasizes the significance of equanimity. When one first encounters it in the Ethics, it seems to council resignation: "we should await and endure fortune's face with equanimity" [utramque fortunae
faciem aequo animo exspectare et ferre]. E2p49S It is easy to mistake this for passivity in the face of harms done by others to us (as E4Appendix, ch. 14 suggests).* But in chapter 32 of the appendix to Ethics 4, Spinoza makes clear that equanimity is consequent to being conscious of having done one's duty [si conscii simus nos functos nostro officio fuisse]. Given that Spinoza uses here the Ciceronian "officio," he means this in terms of meeting the obligations of one's public station or social role. Spinoza's version of equanimity is a public virtue, one that emphasizes a notion of duty that we can capture by way of 'public spiritedness.' As we know from Hutcheson this entails all of us can be heroes in modern times.
Yesterday I had one of those thank God for tenure moments.
At a meeting of the"Assessment Officers" of over 100 LSU programs as well as most of the relevant deans, I blurted out, "Well, that's perfectly silly," after a dean announced that she would send back for substantial rewriting annual report that did not interpret the assessment "data sets" to entail problems that would be rectified in the "action plan."**[Please read notes ** and **** below to get some idea of just how much make-work this is.]
Then, when the hundred plus group of otherwise intelligent people looked at me, I didn't do a very good job articulating why this kind of thing was stupid during the cultural revolution in China and just as stupid today. I just said that if a unit is doing well there's no reason to find problems and that you can't expect units to get better to infinity.
This precipitated another long speech by the poor man in charge of LSU's compliance with SAAC's accreditation mandates involving assessment.*** This speech reiterated how there's always room for improvement and how this process should be helpful.**** I wanted to explain to him that he had John Calvin's doctrine on the depravity of man dreadfully wrong, but didn't say anything. Besides, everyone present needed guidance on the constantly changing computer interface that makes us enter data in all sorts of new ways and also at six months intervals recursively assess how well we are assessing.
Our very own Ed Kazarian writes in Inside Higher Edhere. (Congrats Ed!) He nicely summarizes our earlier discussion here at NewAPPS (here, here, here), and shows with patience how the NBER economists used very misleading rhetoric in their piece. Kazarian calls attention to why their bogus rhetoric (tenure vs non-tenure) matters. I quote his concluding remarks:
[T]here is nothing about teaching-intensive faculty that is incompatible
with their being eligible for tenure — especially if one fully intends
to build long-term relationships with them and keep them around.
Why, one is led to ask, can we not have "efficiency" and tenure? The
answer, if there is one, must have to do with other ways in which
non-tenured faculty differ from those with tenure. The authors mention
academic freedom — an important consideration.
But they otherwise ignore the degree to which non-tenured faculty lack a
secure position from which to question, criticize, or oppose the
actions of university administrators.
And here, indeed, is another sense of "efficiency" that administrators
at many institutions might well wish to cultivate, allowing them to
enjoy a pedagogically effective, but largely vulnerable, and therefore
easily controlled faculty.
Three illustrations of why scientists need to know history:
 Biologists often appeal to founders in the field such as Darwin or
Haeckel, either as a point of contrast or as intellectual ancestor - but
are their depictions accurate?
 Scientists need to know the nature of the scientific practice, e.g.,
the refutations of well accepted theories, the failures, the dead ends.
 Terms like "fitness" may be loaded with historical baggage that scientists are not aware of, but which affects their reception.--Roberta Millstein. [Numbers added to facilitate discussion.--ES]
The image(s) of science that philosophers of (the) science(s) describe and promote often has an afterlife in (the) science(s).
Ever since Kuhn projected his experiences within and about physics onto a persuasive and widely discussed image of science, philosophers of science and the scientists that embrace Kuhn and his image [see here], have thought that progressive science requires certain features (paradigmatic consensus, mythic history, puzzle-solving, etc.)* In the exchange over her post, Millstein offered three reasons for thinking that praticing scientists need to know an accurate history. Let's grant a critic that  is not very persuasive. For those kind of appeals are primarily rhetorical techniques; there is a sense in which the truth does not matter in such appeals. Let's grant a critic that  can be achieved without knowledge of history (which now is conceived as a repository of error). So,  is not intrinsic to scientific practice, but it does not mean that history does not have this useful, therapeutic role.