Sunday, January 8, 2017

On the Corruption of Economics - H.L. Mencken Edition

My thesis is that an enormous amount of the trouble in our world today stems from too-rapid population growth.  Furthermore I propose that this too-rapid population growth has been deliberately caused by the rich, in order to drive wages for the many down and profits for the few up.  Oh, I’m not saying that for the last century there has been a single secret society deliberately pushing this agenda, it’s more that people naturally think that anything that benefits themselves personally MUST be an absolute good.  So you have individual rich people pushing for their narrow selfish vested interests.  A farmer wants cheaper labor so he can live like a feudal lord: more people make him richer, he imports the desperate surplus from the overpopulated third world, and naturally pushes the meme that more people are better.  The CEO of a technology firm wants to hire highly talented engineers for less in real pay than truck drivers used to make: let’s encourage the overproduction of domestic engineers and import desperate foreign nationals.  And it naturally comes that these people will hold to the idea that more people are ALWAYS better outside their narrow realm.  So when the president of Syria criminalizes birth control and ignites a population explosion, when Chairman Mao demands that it is everyone’s patriotic duty to have six kids each (yes really:  one-family one-child came later, after even the communists realized what a disaster persuading people to breed like rodents is), well, the rich are either supportive or silent.

And so it is that in the profession of economics, starting around 1970 virtually any intelligent reference to demographics has been censored.  You just can’t talk about it.  Again, it’s not like all economists are personally threatened.  It’s just the long-term drift of pressure, as the wealthy patrons of universities and journals bestow their largesse and influence on those whose views support them, and deny their largess and influence to those whose views might just suggest that what the rich are doing is a very bad thing.  That might make the rich feel poorly about themselves, might even engender popular opposition to their pro-natalist cheap-labor policies, and that is unthinkable.

But this has been said better a long time ago.  I would therefore like to repost an essay by H.L. Mencken, where he brilliantly lays out how the profession of economics is corrupted.  I would further add, that while Mencken suggests the problem is that an economist is part of a University, I think it’s more a factor of labor market economics.  When the labor market is tight an honest economist (or journalist) can take a stand on principle, and if fired from one place, can easily find a job elsewhere.  When the labor market is flooded, then getting fired is effectively a lifetime sentence of permanent poverty, and we should not be surprised that as the job market becomes worse and worse, that sycophancy and corruption explode apace.


"The Dismal Science", 1922,  by H.L. Mencken

EVERY man, as the Psalmist says, to his own poison, or poisons, as the case may be. One of mine, following hard after theology, is political economy. What! Political economy, that dismal science? Well, why not? Its dismalness is largely a delusion, due to the fact that its chief ornaments, at least in our own day, are university professors. The professor must be an obscurantist or he is nothing; he has a special and unmatchable talent for dullness; his central aim is not to expose the truth clearly, but to exhibit his profundity, his esotericity—in brief, to stagger sophomores and other professors. The notion that German is a gnarled and unintelligible language arises out of the circumstance that it is so much written by professors. It took a rebel member of the clan, swinging to the antipodes in his unearthly treason, to prove its explicitness, its resiliency, it downright beauty. But Nietzsches are few, and so German remains soggy, and political economy continues to be swathed in dullness. As I say, however, that dullness is only superficial. There is no more engrossing book in the English language than Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations"; surely the eighteenth century produced nothing that can be read with greater ease to-day. Nor is there any inherent reason why even the most technical divisions of its subject should have gathered cobwebs with the passing of the years. Taxation, for example, is eternally lively; it concerns nine-tenths of us more directly than either smallpox or golf, and has just as much drama in it; moreover, it has been mellowed and made gay by as many gaudy, preposterous theories. As for foreign ex change, it is almost as romantic as young love, and quite as resistent to formulæ. Do the professors make an autopsy of it? Then read the occasional treatises of some professor of it who is not a professor, say, Garet Garrett or John Moody.

Unluckily, Garretts and Moodys are almost as rare as Nietzsches, and so the amateur of such things must be content to wrestle with the professors, seeking the violet of human interest beneath the avalanche of their graceless parts of speech. A hard business, I daresay, to one not practiced, and to its hardness there is added the disquiet of a doubt. That doubt does not concern itself with the doctrine preached, at least not directly. There may be in it nothing intrinsically dubious; on the contrary, it may appear as sound as the binomial theorem, as well supported as the dogma of infant damnation. But all the time a troubling question keeps afloat in the air, and that is briefly this: What would happen to the learned professors if they took the other side? In other words, to what extent is political economy, as professors expound and practice it, a free science, in the sense that mathematics and physiology are free sciences? At what place, if any, is speculation pulled up by a rule that beyond lies treason, anarchy and disaster? These questions, I hope I need not add, are not inspired by any heterodoxy in my own black heart. I am, in many fields, a flouter of the accepted revelation and hence immoral, but the field of economics is not one of them. Here, indeed, I know of no man who is more orthodox than I am. I believe that the present organization of society, as bad as it is, is better than any other that has ever been proposed. I reject all the sure cures in current agitation, from government ownership to the single tax. I am in favor of free competition in all human enterprises, and to the utmost limit. I admire successful scoundrels, and shrink from Socialists as I shrink from Methodists. But all the same, the afore said doubt pursues me when I plow through the solemn disproofs and expositions of the learned professors of economics, and that doubt will not down. It is not logical or evidential, but purely psycho logical. And what it is grounded on is an unshakable belief that no man's opinion is worth a hoot, however well supported and maintained, so long as he is not absolutely free, if the spirit moves him, to support and maintain the exactly contrary opinion. In brief, human reason is a weak and paltry thing so long as it is not wholly free reason. The fact lies in its very nature, and is revealed by its entire history. A man may be perfectly honest in a contention, and he may be astute and persuasive in maintaining it, but the moment the slightest compulsion to maintain it is laid upon him, the moment the slightest external re ward goes with his partisanship or the slightest penalty with its abandonment, then' there appears a defect in his ratiocination that is more deep-seated than any error in fact and more destructive than any conscious and deliberate bias. He may seek the truth and the truth only, and bring up his highest talents and diligence to the business, but always there is a specter behind his chair, a warning in his ear. Always it is safer and more hygienic for him to think one way than to think another way, and in that bald fact there is excuse enough to hold his whole chain of syllogisms in suspicion. He may be earnest, he may be honest, but he is not free, and if he is not free, he is not anything.
Well, are the reverend professors of economics free? With the highest respect, I presume to question it. Their colleagues of archeology may be reasonably called free, and their colleagues of bacteriology, and those of Latin grammar and sidereal astronomy, and those of many another science and mystery, but when one comes to the faculty of political economy one finds that freedom as plainly conditioned, though perhaps not as openly, as in the faculty of theology. And for a plain reason. Political economy, so to speak, hits the employers of the professors where they live. It deals, not with ideas that affect those employers only occasionally or only indirectly or only as ideas, but with ideas that have an imminent and continuous influence upon their personal welfare and security, and that affect profoundly the very foundations of that social and economic structure upon which their whole existence is based. It is, in brief, the science of the ways and means whereby they have come to such estate, and maintain themselves in such estate, that they are able to hire and boss professors. It is the boat in which they sail down perilous waters—and they must needs yell, or be more or less than human, when it is rocked. Now and then that yell duly resounds in the groves of learning. One remembers, for example, the trial, condemnation and execution of Prof. Dr. Scott Nearing at the University of Pennsylvania, a seminary that is highly typical, both in its staff and in its control. Nearing, I have no doubt, was wrong in his notions—honestly, perhaps, but still wrong. In so far as I heard them stated at the time, they seemed to me to be hollow and of no validity. He has since discharged them from the chautauquan stump, and at the usual hinds. They have been chiefly accepted and celebrated by men I regard as asses. But Nearing was not thrown out of the University of Pennsylvania, angrily and ignominiously, because he was honestly wrong, or because his errors made him incompetent to prepare sophomores for their examinations; he was thrown out because his efforts to get at the truth disturbed the security and equanimity of the rich ignoranti who happened to control the university, and because the academic slaves and satellites of these shopmen were restive under his competition for the attention of the student-body. In three words, he was thrown out because he was not safe and sane and orthodox. Had his aberration gone in the other direction, had he defended child labor as ardently as he denounced it and denounced the minimum wage as ardently as he defended it, then he would have been quite as secure in his post, for all his cavorting in the newspapers, as Chancellor Day was at Syracuse.

Now consider the case of the professors of economics, near and far, who have not been thrown out. Who will say that the lesson of the Nearing débêcle has been lost upon them? Who will say that the potency of the wealthy men who command our universities—or most of them—has not stuck in their minds? And who will say that, with this sticking remembered, their arguments against Nearing's so-called ideas are as worthy of confidence and respect as they would be if they were quite free to go over to Nearing's side without damage? Who, indeed, will give them full credit, even when they are right, so long as they are hamstrung, nose-ringed and tied up in gilded pens? It seems to me that these considerations are enough to cast a glow of suspicion over the whole of American political economy, at least in so far as it comes from college economists. And, in the main, it has that source, for, barring a few brilliant journalists, all our economists of any repute are professors. Many of them are able men, and most of them are undoubtedly honest men, as honesty goes in the world, but over practically every one of them there stands a board of trustees with its legs in the stock-market and its eyes on the established order, and that board is ever alert for heresy in the science of its being, and has ready means of punishing it, and a hearty enthusiasm for the business. Not every professor, perhaps, may be sent straight to the block, as Nearing was, but there are plenty of pillories and guardhouses on the way, and every last pedagogue must be well aware of it.

Political economy, in so far as it is a science at all, was not pumped up and embellished by any such academic clients and ticket-of-leave men. It was put on its legs by inquirers who were not only safe from all dousing in the campus pump, but who were also free from the mental timorousness and conformity which go inevitably with school-teaching—in brief, by men of the world, accustomed to its free air, its hospitality to originality and plain speaking. Adam Smith, true enough, was once a professor, but he threw up his chair to go to Paris, and there he met, not more professors, but all the current enemies of professors—the Nearings and Henry Georges and Karl Marxes of the time. And the book that he wrote was not orthodox, but revolutionary. Consider the others of that bulk and beam: Bentham, Ricardo, Mill and their like. Bentham held no post at the mercy of bankers and tripesellers; he was a man of independent means, a lawyer and politician, and a heretic in general practice. It is impossible to imagine such a man occupying a chair at Harvard or Princeton. He had a hand in too many pies: he was too rebellious and contumacious: he had too little respect for authority, either academic or worldly. Moreover, his mind was too wide for a professor; he could never remain safely in a groove; the whole field of social organization invited his inquiries and experiments. Ricardo? Another man of easy means and great worldly experience—by academic standards, not even educated. To-day, I daresay, such meager diplomas as he could show would not suffice to get him an instructor's berth in a freshwater seminary in Iowa. As for Mill, he was so well grounded by his father that he knew more, at eighteen, than any of the universities could teach him, and his life thereafter was the exact antithesis of that of a cloistered pedagogue. Moreover, he was a heretic in religion and probably violated the Mann act of those days—an offense almost as heinous, in a college professor of economics, as giving three cheers for Prince Kropotkin.  [Editor's note: John Maynard Keynes was not trained as an economist, but as a mathematician, and became quite wealthy through his investments]

I might lengthen the list, but humanely refrain. The point is that these early English economists were all perfectly free men, with complete liberty to tell the truth as they saw it, regardless of its orthodoxy or lack of orthodoxy. I do not say that the typical American economist of to-day is not as honest, nor even that he is not as diligent and competent, but I do say that he is not as free—that penalties would come upon him for stating ideas that Smith or Ricard or Bentham or Mill, had he so desired, would have been free to state without damage. And in that menace there is an ineradicable criticism of the ideas that he does state, and it lingers even when they are plausible and are accepted. In France and Germany, where the universities and colleges are controlled by the state, the practical effect of such pressure has been frequently demonstrated. In the former country the violent debate over social and economic problems during the quarter century before the war produced a long list of professors cashiered for heterodoxy, headed by the names of Jean Jaures and Gustave Herve. In Germany it needed no Nietzsche to point out the deadening produced by this state control. Germany, in fact, got out of it an entirely new species of economist—the state Socialist who flirted with radicalism with one eye and kept the other upon his chair, his salary and his pension.

The Nearing case and the rebellions of various pedagogues elsewhere show that we in America stand within the shadow of a somewhat similar danger. In economics, as in the other sciences, we are probably producing men who are as good as those on view in any other country. They are not to be surpassed for learning and originality, and there is no reason to believe that they lack honesty and courage. But honesty and courage, as men go in the world, are after all merely relative values. There comes a point at which even the most honest man considers consequences, and even the most courageous looks before he leaps. The difficulty lies in establishing the position of that point. So long as it is in doubt, there will remain, too, the other doubt that I have described. I rise in meeting, I repeat, not as a radical, but as one of the most hunkerous of the orthodox. I can imagine nothing more dubious in fact and wobbly in logic than some of the doctrines that amateur economists, chiefly Socialists, have set afloat in this country during the past dozen years. I have even gone to the trouble of writing a book against them; my convictions and instincts are all on the other side. But I should be a great deal more comfortable in those convictions and instincts if I were convinced that the learned professors were really in full and absolute possession of academic freedom—if I could imagine them taking the other tack now and then without damnation to their jobs, their lecture dates, their book sales and their hides.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

There are no simple solutions to complex problems. Except when there are.

I have been harping along for some time that the single greatest problem facing humanity today is the deliberate engineering of a population explosion by the rich, in order to drive wages down for the many and profits up for the few (although deliberate, it is also largely unconscious: the rich have mostly rationalized that what is good for them must be good for everyone and they are just advancing their own short-term interests.  They are also using their power and influence to stifle unwanted attention of their pro-natalist policy, again, largely unthinkingly as the rich naturally bestow their largess and connections to those who make them feel good about themselves.  But functionally, the same thing.  The population explosion has been deliberately created by the rich). 

Now I am open to rational counter-arguments, but these are sadly in short supply.  A typical counter-argument is ‘there you go again.’  Anyone who stoops to this argument has admitted that they have no intellectual ammunition.  Consider:

‘There you go again, always harping that 2 + 2 = 4.’

‘There you go again, always harping that water flows downhill.’

‘There you go again, always harping that the sun rises in the East.’

Continued repetition in the face of willful ignorance is not proof of error.

And of course there are the classic ripostes that I am ‘scapegoating immigrants’ or am ‘racist’ or ‘fascist’ or ‘islamophobic’ – the hollowness of using such unsupported slander instead of rational argument, I leave to the reader to judge.

Let us consider yet another mindless jingoism: “There are no simple solutions to complicated problems.”   The claim would be that the world is so complicated that there is nothing to be done but wring our hands over the injustice of the world, mouth empty platitudes about wanting ‘social justice,’ and maybe – maybe – from time to time we can come up with a few pennies and put a bandaid on one of the more visible problems.  Anything else is utopian and impractical.

Maybe.  Or maybe not.

Consider what happens when a person is starving to death.  They become lethargic.  They become prone to infection.  They may have poor skin and thin hair.  They may have kidney problems, and multiple imbalances in electrolytes and blood chemistry.  They become sensitive to the cold.  They don't heal as well in the face of injury.  In short, the process of starvation is complicated and exhibits multiple manifestations.  So if I told you that the solution to someone starving to death, is to give them some food, would you just throw up your hands and say ‘there you go again, always proposing simple solutions for complex problems’?  That would be ridiculous.

Now I claim that many of the problem in the world are due to forced population growth.  Sustained high fertility rates can and do wipe out all progress (this is beyond economics: this is basic physics), leading to mass poverty, social unrest, a weakening of the central state, endemic corruption and nepotism, environmental despoliation, the spread of diseases, refugee crises…  You may disagree with me.  But you can’t rationally just chant ‘oh there are no simple solutions to complex problems,’ because many times a simple problem has multiple ramifications. But you really can fix it with one thing.

In the practice of medicine, there is no guarantee that a sick patient will have only one underlying problem (‘a patient can have as many diseases as he or she pleases.’)  And yet the standard practice of medicine is to first see if there is, perhaps, a single underlying pathology that is giving rise to all of the various symptoms.

This is the basic approach of science: to first look for simple underlying principles.

But there is no guarantee that a simple underlying principle will always exist.  Consider now old age.  That also presents as a complex set of symptom clusters, but as far as we know so far, there is not a single thing that causes the progressive failing of human health with age.  A thousand different chemical byproducts build up in a hundred different tissues, non-replaceable cells die, collagen cross-links and stiffens…  Perhaps someday someone really will find a single simple treatment that, even if it does not cure old age completely, will ameliorate a large fraction of the problems.  Just because we have not found such a thing, does not mean that it does not exist, or that we should stop looking.  But right now, old age really does look like a complex problem that doesn’t have a simple solution.

And here is the problem: determining whether or not a given complex-seeming problem does or does not have a single (or at least primary) underlying cause requires thought.  Which is hard.

Nevertheless, one thing should be clear.  When someone tries to attack an argument by non-specifically claiming that there are no simple solutions to complex problems, they are engaging in intellectual dishonesty.

A similar trick is when a politician tries to push a given change in policy by claiming that ‘we must embrace change’ or ‘we must not be afraid of change.’  This is a transparent attempt to deflect criticism of the specific attributes of a change in policy by claiming that those opposed are irrationally opposed to change per se.  Any politician making such an unsupported statement should immediately be assumed to be acting with bad intent.

So far, so good.  We need to think clearly.  There is one little problem with that.

There are today so many people flooding the internet and the airwaves and bookstores etc. with so many crackpot theories, but we can’t critically evaluate them all.  We need the cognitive armor of routinely dismissing as ‘ridiculous’ or ‘crackpot’ all non-mainstream theories, or we would be overwhelmed.  The problem is Zionists, the problem is too tight a monetary policy, the problem is too loose a monetary problem, or too much free trade, or too little free trade, or too much democracy, or racism, or blacks are stupid, or the CIA is controlling our thoughts with radio waves… 

And so we have a simple and obvious explanation for much of what ails the world, but it is invisible.  It suffers the double-hit of being directly targeted for burial by the people with money and power, and also being relegated to the vast forest of (mostly) absurd utopian political and economic theories that we have made a (necessary) habit of denigrating without thought…

And no, I have no idea how to solve this issue either.  Only to do my best, and argue my case. 

I do point out that a stable or slowly growing population by itself will not create utopia, nor even paradise.  Too-rapid population growth will create poverty: but allowing populations to stabilize at a moderate level will not create wealth.  A stable or very slowly growing population creates nothing, but only means that people will have the chance to slowly accumulate per-capita real physical wealth.  And creating significant per-capita wealth, even if it’s not being wiped out by massive population growth, is indeed hard, and requires effort and persistence and intelligence.  That, at least, is complicated.

Nevertheless, the record is clear: when people have abundant resources and tools, and modest progress is not wiped out by ever more mouths to feed, they generally do pretty well.

We are probably doomed, but must only do our best.  Regardless, if there is one take-home message from this, it’s the following: do not accept any unsupported claims that XYZ is untenable because ‘there are no simple solutions to complex problems.’  Because yes Virginia, sometimes, there really are.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Hillary Clinton’s Health is Irrelevant

As all too often, we continue to obsess over things that just don’t matter, while ignoring things that do.

Hillary Clinton’s health problems are much in the news lately.  Is she really sick, or just having a bad week?  Who cares.  Forget what you read in the Tom Clancy novels: the next US president is not going to fight Vladimir Putin in single combat, or challenge the Chinese premier in a contest on the TV trivia game-show Jeopardy. 

Presidents set broad policy.  They don’t need to be healthy.  They don’t need to know the middle name of the under-secretary of defense of Uzbekistan.  They have staff for that.

If Hillary Clinton dies in office, her hand-picked corporate lickspittle Tim Kaine will continue the same pro-donorist, pro-war, pro-Wall Street, anti-worker policy that she would have.  If Hillary Clinton becomes demented, her staff will similarly ensure that the policies of her wealthy donors are dutifully enacted, the national interest be damned.  So it doesn’t matter.

Oh, you say, but what about her lying about her health?  OK, maybe that is of some relevance, but when you consider Hillary’s lies on not supporting TPP, and not being joined at the hip to Wall Street, etc.etc., who cares.  Frankly, if a public official tries to tough out an illness and act like they are healthier than they are, well, that could almost be considered admirable (or it would be if she was not in every other way a supremely disgusting person).

Similarly, the upcoming presidential debate is irrelevant.  Hillary supporters will claim she won, Trump supporters will claim he won, and it won’t matter either way.  As well have a swimsuit competition.  I don’t care if Hillary comes off on TV as assured or as a bitch, I don’t care if Trump gets off a zinger or looks befuddled.  That’s TV. It doesn’t matter.

Let’s go back to the record.  Just consider Libya.  Libya was the most prosperous nation in Africa, it wasn’t paradise but it was mostly peaceful, people had jobs and money and health care, and the government was an ally in war on terror (maybe reluctantly, but an ally nonetheless) and maintaining stability in the region.  As Secretary of State Hillary pushed to have the United States ally with Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups (yes you heard me right we are now allied with Al Qaeda.  You know, the nutjobs that blew up the twin towers on 9/11?  And people still say that Hillary Clinton is ‘qualified’ to be president??), and then we attacked a nation that didn’t threaten us, and killed God only knows how many people, and immiserated and uprooted God only knows how many more, and turned Libya into a post-apocalyptic wasteland like in “Mad Max Fury Road” (great movie but I wouldn’t want to live there), and now there are refugees going everywhere and ISIS and related fanatics are doing unspeakable things etc.etc.  And Hillary is apparently proud of this, and is certain, if elected, to do even more of it!!!

For this real, actual, substantial, and relevant actions, Hillary Clinton is scum.  And the Libya thing is just one of many (using her office as Secretary of State as a personal ATM selling out the national interest for cash, supporting a TPP trade policy that gives foreign corporate lawyers meeting in secret supreme legislative power over our nation, etc).  I don’t care about her style in pantsuits, or if she has fainting spells, or is mean to her staff, or throws heavy objects at her husband (confession: I do find this last prospect cheering), or can maintain her composure on national TV in the face of Donald Trump’s needling.  Focus on what matters, people.

As far as Trump, he is a wildcard.  He says a lot of sane and responsible things, like, we shouldn’t blow up countries that don’t threaten us, we shouldn’t pick a fight with nuclear-armed Russia, etc.  Talk is however cheap, and what he would do as president remains to be seen.  But Hillary’s track record is crystal clear: the Queen of Chaos, the candidate of Wall Street and War, she’s a bona-fide monster.

And this would be true even if tomorrow she set the world record for fastest time running the marathon.