Monday, August 21, 2017

Bureaucrats

This Guardian essay on neoliberalism is frustrating in some ways (too cloudy at key points, and too prone to ad hominem insults), but it's interesting, and brings out the importance of Friedrich von Hayek, whose work probably ought to be engaged with more just because it has been so influential. With that in mind I started reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on him. It contains this gem:
Bureaucrats experience mistakes not as events from which they need to learn but rather as events that they need to cover up. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Charlottesville


Moving to this country was the the first time I ever flew in a plane. I landed in Charlottesville, where I lived for five years. I still live just over an hour's drive from there, and go there quite often to eat a meal, do some shopping, or just get out of the small town I live in for a few hours. It's weird to see the city's name synonymous with racist extremism and violence. 

The pressing question is what to do about these racists. Some people argue that neo-Nazis should be denied the oxygen of attention, while others argue that they must be resisted with force. The fact is, I suppose, we cannot really know what will be most effective. Perhaps we can know what it is right to do, though, even if we cannot know what will do the most good. It seems right to protest, and to be ready to defend anyone who gets attacked by neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates. Not that I did so this weekend, but I think I should have.

I once counted the reasons why I don't do more. I think there were nine of them. Laziness and cowardice were no doubt two, but I don't remember all the others. One of them, though, is that I am put off by other people on my side, including some leading figures in the local movement against racism. Or, I should say, some of the things said by these people. The people themselves don't repel me. There's an example of the kind of thing that puts me off above, featuring people whose identities I have tried to cover. The comments are made by people I'll call A, B, and C. The order of speakers is: A, B, A, B, A, C. A is a white woman, B is an African-American man, and C is a white man (I wish this were irrelevant, but it isn't). They are talking, initially, about neo-Nazis rallying in Charlottesville.

What A says seems right to me. B is also right to point out that these people, "frightened white boys" though they may be, also pose a very real threat and do real harm. A then accepts this point, and adds that they are irrational. I agree. It is not good to honor Nazis, etc. with the label 'rational'. If we find ourselves concluding that such people are rational, we should probably reconsider our conception of rationality. (See here for more on this sort of thing.) It also seems simply accurate to call right-wing extremists irrational. Their ends make little sense ('racial purity' is a stupid thing to want) and their means are unlikely to get them what they want (joining a racist group might get you some 'friends', but it is likely to lose you others and hurt your career, while the chance of achieving your political goals (which, if achieved, I suspect would be unsatisfying) are very slim). 

B then responds in a way that seems somewhat uncharitable, albeit with a good point or two as well. The good points are that identifying them as irrational should not lead us to be complacent, and that their irrationality is not sheer irrationality. It can be seen as an understandable, albeit deplorable, reaction to certain historical and political trends. A, who sounds frustrated, in effect accepts these points, while clarifying that she had not meant to say anything contrary to them. At this point C steps in and tells A to apologize to B and "sit down", which at least sounds as though it means shut up.   

Despite some misunderstandings, which up to this point all seemed to be quickly cleared up, A and B, as A says, seem very much to be on the same side. Indeed, they seem to be making complementary points. Yet A is accused of "explaining how white supremacy works to a black man" and told to apologize to him "for the misunderstanding." And then to shut up. 

I imagine that C's behavior here strikes you as being as patronizing, as unproductive, and as based on misunderstanding as it does me. But, as you can see, C gets more likes than A. And B, who seems better than C but also to misunderstand A, gets even more. The conversation has continued and neither side has backed down or changed its mind (last time I checked at any rate). C has not, for instance, apologized to A. 

If anyone sees the matter differently I am genuinely curious what there is to be said for C's take. I don't know how common this kind of thing is--apologies if this is a matter of only very local interest--but from my perspective it looms large.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

New online Wittgenstein book by Kristóf Nyíri

This looks interesting, in terms of both content and the decision to publish free and online. The title is Pictorial Truth: Essays on Wittgenstein, Realism, and Conservatism, and it's by Kristóf Nyíri. He writes:
I am really curious how the scholarly world will react e.g. to my view formulated in the Preface, that peer-reviewed publications by now might have become obsolete. 
Me too.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Beyond bullshit?

My friend Chris Gavaler has co-written a piece with Nathaniel Goldberg on Trump and bullshit for Philosophy Now. If you're interested in this subject then, obviously, you might want to read it. Their conclusion is that a sample of Trump's speech is "beyond bullshit."

Here's the sample:
“He said something to the effect, ‘No we’re not leaving, because Donald Trump promised us that we’re not leaving.” Trump added, “I actually said I didn’t make [the promise]. When they played [my statement back], I said, ‘I did make it [to Carrier], but I didn’t mean it quite that way’.” As he explained: “I never thought I made that promise – not with Carrier. I made it for everybody else. I didn’t make it really for Carrier.” The promise was, he said: “A euphemism. I was talking about Carrier like all other companies from here on in, because they made the decision a year and a half ago”
After quoting this they talk a bit about what Trump might have meant and about Grice on implicature, before drawing their conclusion. But they've already quoted Frankfurt saying that the bullshitter "is not trying to deceive anyone concerning [the particular subject he happens to be talking about]. What he cares about is what people think of him." And that seems very much like what Trump is up to, and not something that Trump somehow goes beyond.

In this case. actually, Trump seems to be trying to tell the truth, more or less. At least, he seems to be acknowledging that Carrier made their decision before he did anything about keeping them in the US, although he's also adding a claim that other companies will keep jobs in the US now because of him (which is doubtful). He just isn't very good at speaking precisely. It does seem true, though, that what he cares about above all else is what people think of him. Trump is thus not beyond bullshit but the ultimate example of the kind of person Frankfurt was talking about. (As, I believe, Frankfurt himself has said.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mulhall's magic

I talked a bit about Stephen Mulhall's The Great Riddle here and here. This is the last post I intend to write about it, and it's about the part of the book I like the most. Near the end, Mulhall refers to "the sheer wild particularity [...] of each individual thing harbouring a refusal to conform to or be exhausted by any of our orderings of things." He quotes Chesterton saying that, "A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree"

(Cf. Tolstoy:
When an apple has ripened and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stalk withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing below wants to eat it? 
Nothing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions in which all vital organic and elemental events occur. And the botanist who finds that the apple falls because the cellular tissue decays and so forth is equally right with the child who stands under the tree and says the apple fell because he wanted to eat it and prayed for it.") More respectably, Chesterton writes that, "The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, 'charm,' 'spell,' 'enchantment.' They express the arbitrariness of the fact, and its mystery.")  
Mulhall connects this with Wittgenstein on the two different kinds of plant whose seeds look identical but which reliably produce plants of the type from which each came. In such a case, Wittgenstein remarks, to insist that there must be a difference in the seeds, even though we cannot detect one, "only shows what a powerful urge we have to see everything in terms of cause and effect." The beauty of Wittgenstein's story is that it never goes beyond the observable (imaginary) facts, which makes it undeniable, and yet it is hugely discomfiting to the mindset it takes aim at. It's like Kant without the metaphysics (Kant aimed, as I see it, to show the Dawkinses of his day that science can never show religion to be false), or attacking positivism by being more positivist than the positivists. Basically, by actually sticking to the undisputed facts it reveals how much metaphysics there is in the view of many people who proudly think of themselves as sticking to the facts. 

And when we do stick to the facts in this way (cf. also Tractatus 6.53) we are freed from unjustified assumptions about the laws of nature and cause and effect. Focusing on the thing itself means bracketing the principle of sufficient reason, which means seeing things how Schopenhauer says we should see things if we are to perceive objectively and achieve peace.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Seeing the world aright

[What follows is little more than a bunch of quotes strung together. But they are good quotes.]

The desirability of seeing what is under our noses and thereby becoming free is a bit of a theme in 19th century European thought.

Here's Father Zossima, a favorite of Wittgenstein's, in The Brothers Karamazov (emphasis added):
Brothers, have no fear of men's sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love. Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble it, don't harass them, don't deprive them of their happiness, don't work against God's intent. Man, do not pride yourself on superiority to the animals; they are without sin, and you, with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it, and leave the traces of your foulness after you—alas, it is true of almost every one of us! Love children especially, for they too are sinless like the angels; they live to soften and purify our hearts and as it were to guide us. Woe to him who offends a child! Father Anfim taught me to love children. The kind, silent man used often on our wanderings to spend the farthings given us on sweets and cakes for the children. He could not pass by a child without emotion. That's the nature of the man.
This advice (there is more in the surrounding pages) is given as an alternative to the (allegedly) false wisdom of the day, which sounds very similar to today's dominant ideology:
The world has proclaimed the reign of freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs? Nothing but slavery and self-destruction! For the world says:
“You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don't be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.” That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants. They maintain that the world is getting more and more united, more and more bound together in brotherly community, as it overcomes distance and sets thoughts flying through the air.
Alas, put no faith in such a bond of union. Interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires, men distort their own nature, for many senseless and foolish desires and habits and ridiculous fancies are fostered in them. They live only for mutual envy, for luxury and ostentation. 
Plato might have agreed with this, too, so perhaps the 19th century has nothing to do with it, although the emphasis on perception seems very post-Kantian. Speaking of Plato, here's Schopenhauer:
Plato often says that men live only in a dream; the philosopher alone strives to awake himself.
And here is Schopenhauer again, sounding a bit Zossima-ish:
[W]hen some external cause or inward disposition lifts us suddenly out of the endless stream of willing, delivers knowledge from the slavery of the will, the attention is no longer directed to the motives of willing, but comprehends things free from their relation to the will, and thus observes them without personal interest, without subjectivity, purely objectively, gives itself entirely up to them so far as they are ideas, but not in so far as they are motives. Then all at once the peace which we were always seeking, but which always fled from us on the former path of the desires, comes to us of its own accord, and it is well with us. It is the painless state which Epicurus prized as the highest good and as the state of the gods; for we are for the moment set free from the miserable striving of the will; we keep the Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still.
But this is just the state which I described above as necessary for the knowledge of the Idea, as pure contemplation, as sinking oneself in perception, losing oneself in the object, forgetting all individuality, surrendering that kind of knowledge which follows the principle of sufficient reason, and comprehends only relations; the state by means of which at once and inseparably the perceived particular thing is raised to the Idea of its whole species, and the knowing individual to the pure subject of will-less knowledge, and as such they are both taken out of the stream of time and all other relations. It is then all one whether we see the sun set from the prison or from the palace. 
Forgetting all individuality also sounds a bit like Zossima, who says:
My brother asked the birds to forgive him; that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth. It may be senseless to beg forgiveness of the birds, but birds would be happier at your side—a little happier, anyway—and children and 
all animals, if you were nobler than you are now. It's all like an ocean, I tell you. Then you would pray to the birds too, consumed by an all-embracing love, in a sort of transport, and pray that they too will forgive you your sin. Treasure this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to men.
Nietzsche, too, believed in something like objective perception of reality, although he seems to deny the possibility of any such thing. Nevertheless, he opposed the "narcotics" of alcohol and Christianity. Marx wanted to replace false consciousness with (true) consciousness. But that's all fairly familiar. Less familiar to me until recently is Tolstoy on a similar theme, talking about causes in history. The whole chapter (Book Nine: 1812, Chapter 1) is worth reading (along with the first chapters of the next two books, not to mention the whole novel), but here is one highlight:
To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolénsk and Moscow and were killed by them.
To us, their descendants, who are not historians and are not carried away by the process of research and can therefore regard the event with unclouded common sense, an incalculable number of causes present themselves. The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence—apart from the cooperation of all the other coincident causes—to occasion the event. To us, the wish or objection of this or that French corporal to serve a second term appears as much a cause as Napoleon’s refusal to withdraw his troops beyond the Vistula and to restore the duchy of Oldenburg; for had he not wished to serve, and had a second, a third, and a thousandth corporal and private also refused, there would have been so many less men in Napoleon’s army and the war could not have occurred.
Tolstoy suggests that there is no one right way to understand what caused what, but he also raises the possibility of seemingly inevitable (and bad) events being prevented by ordinary people's refusing to go along with them. If we just realized this, and acted accordingly, how much better the world might be.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Minimum wage

Perhaps this isn't worth a blog post, but it's not as if I've been posting much otherwise. Sometimes it's better to have low standards. So here goes.

Two things strike me as not just true but obviously true about any increase in the legal minimum wage (including an increase from nothing to something):
  1. it will increase the wages paid to those earning the lowest legal wage
  2. it will be a disincentive to employing such people
What's interesting is how rare it is to see both points acknowledged. Proponents of an increase tend to focus exclusively on point #1, either not mentioning point #2 at all or else dismissing it very lightly (for instance, Colin Gordon's generally excellent Growing Apart says little more than that, "a raft of recent research has put to rest the old saw that a higher minimum wage kills jobs or repels investment," which is not true). Opponents of the minimum wage, or at least of increases to it, tend simply to trot out the old saw that Gordon mentions (which is clearly not yet at rest, partly because it has at least this kind of currency and, more importantly, because of this recent evidence). And I'm not talking only about ordinary people. I mean professional experts, including economists.   

So what's my point? Partly I'm just expressing frustration, so my point is: Aaagh!! Partly also I can see why some people are tempted to reject what experts have to say about policy matters. And partly I continue to be interested in economics, what it can and cannot do, and what (if anything) it has to teach us. 

In addition to the two obvious truths listed above I might add these:

     3. what really matters is whether the good of point #1 outweighs the bad of point #2
     4. the way to find out is to see what happens when the minimum wage is increased  

Point #3 involves ethics, but the usual economists' preference for utilitarianism is probably more or less fine here. (Not everyone sees it that way, which is one reason why some people ignore point #2. If #1 is a question of fundamental justice then consequentialist considerations such as #2 might be irrelevant. I don't see it that way, but some do.) Still, this does mean that the relevant question is not about unemployment (or wages) so much as it is about utility. And no one that I know of measures this.

That means that we basically never get to point #4. That is, people do look at what happens, but a) this is really difficult because human interactions are very complicated, and b) the 'what happens' that even the best people look at is not the relevant what happens, i.e. what happens to utility.

Hence the following are the kinds of things the best economists (as far as I know) say on the subject. First, the authors of the recent Seattle-based study that made the headlines:
The second Seattle minimum wage increase, to as much as $13/hour on January 1, 2016, resulted in [...] a reduction of over $100 million per year in total payroll for low-wage jobs, measured as total sum of increased wages received less wages lost due to employment reductions. 
In other words, roughly speaking, people got paid more per hour but were employed for fewer hours, with a resultant net loss of earnings overall. But with the following qualifications:
These analyses are designed to reveal the impact on the entire Seattle low-wage labor market and do not necessarily reveal the full effect of the minimum wage increases on individual workers. Most importantly, our data do not capture employment or earnings in contract or “gig” jobs, work paid “off the books,” self-employment, or work done outside the City of Seattle.
We may not find the same things we found in this study in other cities, states, or at the national level. There are multiple factors that make Seattle and this minimum wage law unique, including high housing costs and relatively large increases in the minimum wage beginning at what had been the nation’s highest state minimum wage. 
So this study is far from being the "proof that increasing the minimum wage doesn't work" that is is presented by some people as being.

Secondly, and finally, here are Isabel Sawhill and Quentin Karpilow speaking sensibly about what economists knew about increasing the minimum wage in 2014:
While a higher minimum wage will help to boost earnings, critics worry about its effects on hiring, arguing that employers will create fewer jobs if they have to pay higher wages. Although past increases do not appear to have adversely affected employment, there is no denying the risk that much larger increases might pose to the least skilled workers. Raising the minimum from its current $7.25 to $15.00 per hour, as some have advocated, would more than double the cost to an employer and likely have some impact on hiring.
The Seattle study does not contradict this. While it does show an adverse effect on employment, the increase that showed this was not the increase to $11 per hour made in April 2015 but the increase to $13 an hour made in January 2016. The Seattle study, in other words, confirms Sawhill's and Karpilow's view (which I think is pretty orthodox) that a modest increase to the minimum wage is likely to be helpful (or at least harmless), but that anything too dramatic could be harmful. They advocate increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, and redesigning the Earned Income Tax Credit.

This kind of work strikes me as being very useful. Its informed skepticism and moderate recommendations are hardly likely to get many people fired up (although I doubt I'm alone in finding thoughtfulness refreshing), but that shouldn't be the measure of value.