Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Published in 2014: A new twist for King
Stephen King has a way of writing about the mundane and the extraordinary, juxtaposing the two in a way that defies easy comparisons. In Mr. Mercedes, published in 2014, King enters the field of the hard-boiled detective novel, while both bowing to the past and updating the genre. In this book, King pits a retired, bored (almost to death) detective and a psychopathic young man, which America seems to produce far too often in recent times. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt the crazy cause that we allow almost unlimited armaments to anyone who wants to buy some.)

It’s a cliché, but I can’t help saying that King is a master storyteller. He draws in the reader by alternating between the twisted mind and world of a killer and more normal folks. I don’t know how accurate his portrait of a warped, young American male is compared to actual deviants of this type, but it sure seems real. And he creates ordinary, mostly good people who work to stop these evil deeds and restore some justice to the world. The main character, Bill Hodges, the retired cop, is a good, if flawed guy, who, like many of us, displays his best when engaged in doing what he knows best. And as in many a good detective story, the persons helping the detective provide contrast and aids to the hero-detective, in this case a bright young black man, a slightly crazy forty-something woman, and an attractive divorcee. King brings all of them to life, as persons you might meet in the course of day. Not extraordinary, but capable, sometimes in surprising ways when called upon to rise to a challenge.

King also provides a clean, well-connected plot and brisk pacing that gains tension and moves to thriller status as the story progresses. No wonder this guy sells millions and millions of books (not to mention the screen versions that they spawn). In this novel King has created an outstanding addition to the American version of the detective story, one that will certainly support more appearances of Mr. Hodges and his friends. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Is It Okay to Hate Derp?

A pair of columns in the NYT yesterday provides a jumping off point for a discussion of political civility and argument. I first read this piece by Arthur Brooks entitled “The Thrill of Political Hating” that decries political hatred. Brooks intends to make his argument even-handed, implying that both those on the right and on the left can get into political hating. This is true, but only in a limited sense. In the U.S. today, to claim an equal weight of political invective and hatred between right and left doesn’t match reality. At one time, perhaps, in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, but today, with few exceptions, vitriol on the left is largely missing. In fact, much of popular conservatism, I’m talking ordinary Joe and Jane Doe (well, I’d wager John much more than Jane) who might post anonymously and those who feed upon their fears (Fox “News”) and its offspring, hatred. (I’m not referring to most intellectual conservatives, like Arthur or David Brooks, Ross Douthat, David Frum, etc.) The most frightful and disturbing phenomena in much of popular politics today is the fear-driven, angry aspect of so much of popular conservatism. (I think that the phenomenon is much better described as “reactionary” than “conservative”, but I’ll defer to the popular nomenclature for the moment.) I understand those who favor lower-taxes (always), less government (always), and favor the use of violence as a first resort. I don’t agree with these lock-step approaches to running a government, but I understand self-interest. But the frightening and difficult thing about much of popular conservatism stems from its irrational nature, the “what’s the matter with Kansas?” phenomenon. We’re talking about mostly white, blue-collar, marginally employed workers. Their understandable frustration and anger sends them careening into the arms of those who will most likely harm their collective interests. The Koch Brothers and the Koch Brother’s U.S. Congress® aren’t the friends of Americans on the economic margins. 

While I agree that hate is not the answer, what do we do with those who cynically exploit those driven by fear? To borrow a stock but relevant example, should we have hated a Hitler? What of those who cynically exploit the less sophisticated to augment their own power and desires? At some point, the messenger is the message. I’m not talking about garden-variety ambition that is the mark of any high-ranking politician. (I was recently shocked that someone like Russ Roberts could object to Hillary Clinton because of her ambition? Really? And what about every person who’s ever held the office of president or wanted to do so?) I’m talking about those for whom all moorings to the public good as an independent goal have loosened, and only private gain, power, and glory drive the office-holder. 

Let me hasten to point out that this essay is not entitled “In Defense of Hatred”. In fact, I yearn for the (sort of) good ol’ days when there was dialogue across the aisle. Ronald Reagan provides an example of one who could speak radically (right) and act (relatively) pragmatically. (Reagan, like Clinton, wanted to be liked.) I don’t find personal vitriol useful. Even those with whom I disagree, I hope I can reason with and establish some common ground. For instance, I’ve voted against Charles Grassley every opportunity that I’ve had (100% unsuccessfully) since 1974, but I’m sure I could enjoy a chat with the Senator. I’ve seen him at the airport and at girls' volleyball tournaments by himself, no entourage, and he appears to be modest, unassuming, and pleasant. On the other hand, his attitudes have moved from H.R. Gross conservatism to Tea Party nuttiness. While he’s probably a swell guy, his politics are antediluvian. (The fact that Iowa could elect him and Tom Harkin all of those years shows how “swell guy” counts for more than any particular political stance.)

And what should we make of Brooks’s comments about mockery, citing the work of psychologist John Gottman? I assume that he’s aiming at Jon Stewart and (the late) Stephen Colbert. Sometimes they’ve walked the edge with their mockery, but most of the time their satire and parody have seemed the only appropriate response to some of the inanity that attempts to pass for legitimate political and cultural discourse. A medieval court fool was probably more likely to lose his head than to influence the king’s policy, but in a democratic society, we should cherish the “fools” who mock the pretenses of the powerful. It can edge toward cynicism, but only for the truly cynical at heart. I believe that Jon Stewart and (the late) Stephen Colbert, for all of their mocking and satirical humor, probably are better citizens and persons than many of those whom they mocked. 

And for those who post anonymously? Almost always an act of unjustified cowardice and often indicative of the traits that Brooks lists: “sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism”. (N.B. “Machiavellianism” is not representative of Machiavelli’s project as a whole.) 

Paul Krugman’s column, “Fighting the Derp”, provides a fitting bookend to the Brooks piece. In it, Krugman defines “derp” (courtesy of “South Park”) as “people who keep saying the same thing no matter how much evidence accumulates that it’s completely wrong”. (Query: is “derp” the people who keep promoting the same disproven contentions or the disproven contentions themselves?) In any event, Krugman’s piece raises a couple of important points: How can we distinguish derp from honest policy disagreements based on limited knowledge? And how should we fight derp? As to the first point, Krugman suggests the policy prescriptions and descriptions of reality that don’t vary with changing evidence and circumstances is a strong sign of derp. And we must be on guard within ourselves to avoid derp, primarily by remaining vary cautious about ideas, reports, and recommendations that fit with our preconceptions (the confirmation bias, in Kahneman terms). By the way, Krugman filed a follow-up piece entitled "I Do Not Think That Derp Means What You Think It Means", further defining and distinguishing the issues.

Thus I think that I’m resolved to hate derp (the phenomena) and love (as best I can can) the derper (my word of the person conveying the derp), a variant on the Christian injunction to hate the sin but to love the sinner. But I must say, I reserve a sense of caution about a serial derper, about this person’s intelligence and, more importantly, about this person’s ethics. I’m loath the trust a serial derper. 

And as to public debate and intellectual battle—let it fly! Let me end with this quote from C.S. Lewis, no stranger to intellectual combat: 

Do not misunderstand. I am not in the least deprecating your insults; I have enjoyed these twenty years l’honneur d’etre une cible and am now pachydermatous. I am not even rebuking your bad manners; I am not Mr. Turveydrop and “gentlemanly deportment” is not a subject I am paid to teach. What shocks me is that students, academics, men of letters, should display what I had thought was an essentially uneducated inability to differentiate between a disputation and a quarrel. The real objection to this sort of thing is that it is all a distraction from the issue. You waste on calling me liar and hypocrite time you ought to have spent on refuting my position.

Zaleski, Philip; Zaleski, Carol (2015-06-02). The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (p. 472). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

To this I say, "Amen".

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be

The Master: John Maynard Keynes

Niall Ferguson, a Scot @ Harvard
Robert "Baron" Skidelsky

A short while ago I wrote about Jeff Sachs’s criticisms of Paul Krugman on fiscal stimulus. Since then, in an intellectual volley worthy of a Wimbledon final (all Brit, no less) pits Niall Ferguson on behalf of Cameron-Osborne austerity against Robert Skidelsky representing proponents of Keynesian stimulus. The two have squired off at in order: Ferguson 1, Skidelsky May 19, Ferguson May 19, Skidelsky May 28,  Ferguson June 1 ). As I set forth in my Sachs-Krugman post, I’m more persuaded by the Keynesian position. Following Ferguson, I agree that Keynes indeed was an austerian when austerity was appropriate (around the wars). But a Keynes quote cited by Ferguson—hoping to hoist Keynes biographer Skidelsky on his own petard—captured my attention. Ferguson writes, quoting Keynes: 

Responding to some early critics of his General Theory, Keynes showed that he recognized the importance of uncertainty in economic life, and consequently the difficulty of making predictions. “The whole object of the accumulation of wealth,” he wrote, “is to produce results, or potential results, at a comparatively distant, and sometimes at an indefinitely distant, date.” 

But, Keynes continued, “our knowledge of the future is fluctuating, vague, and uncertain.” There are simply too many things – from the “prospect of a European war” to the “price of copper and the interest rate 20 years hence” – about which “there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever.” 

Ferguson doesn’t mention it, but Keynes wrote about probability and uncertainty in his A Treatise on Probability. Keynes was a complex and deep thinker, perhaps muddled? Did he contradict himself by writing the above about uncertainty while (at times) recommending active government intervention in the economy by way of fiscal stimulus? I think not. And this brings us to the crux of my concern. 

While Keynes at times recommended stimulus and at other times austerity, there is no reason to believe that his appreciation of the uncertainty about the future and the consequences of any current course of action upon the future changed with his policy recommendations. Yet even in the face of acknowledged uncertainty, he acted. He chose (or recommended) courses actions that he believed would most likely bring about a desired result. Was he certain of either cause or effect? No, but as any decision-maker, he was confronted with choices to spend or not to spend, to provide only one example. He or any policymaker could, of course, chose to do nothing, but barring ignorance or negligent indifference, that too is a choice. So with any economic decision. We don’t very often have the luxury of knowing for certain that our choices will bring about the results that we intend. That’s been the downfall of many an economic prediction. Thus, when we make economic decisions, we have (but do not necessarily know) a range of probabilities that our choice will bring about a desired effect, much like a weather forecast (“a 50% chance of rain today”). If we cut the price of our widgets, we’ll probably sell more. Probably. If we invest in Acme Corporation, we may make money, or we may find out that the market for widgets has collapsed, and with it our investment. Only rarely can we act with a sense of certainty, especially in a complex system like the economy.

I think that wise decision-makers put faith—and money—on the soundness of the decision-making process and not on theories about results. Repeated experience is the best guide, but it’s often only available by analogy. History can provide many lessons, but it’s easy to apply the wrong lesson to a problem. And history never—exactly—repeats itself. (“History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme”—attributed to Mark Twain.) We judge by analogies. Humans, societies, governments, and economies: all are complex organisms that defy consistent mechanical interpretation and manipulation. Human culture mutates too quickly to pin too much certainty on a mechanical prediction of action. We can gain some insight into behavior demonstrated by large numbers, but even that method is subject to change. 

So when Ferguson says to Skidelsky and Krugman that you can’t prove  that the British economy would have performed better with a fiscal stimulus instead of austerity, he’s correct in a limited but inconsequential sense. Ferguson is talking about an alternate course of history, a counter-factual, as Ferguson has used and practiced the concept. (See his Virtual History, a book of counter-factual essays that he edited and contributed to.) The only path we know with (some) certainty is the path taken—and even then the contours of that path are hard to discern, as the Ferguson-Skidelsky war of stats shows. 

The NYT recently published a feature on Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb that predicted social and economic collapse with rising population within a decade or so of its publication. It didn’t happen. Ehrlich was wrong—but how wrong? Is Ehrlich wrong because there are no limits to the carrying capacity of Earth to support any human population? I don’t suspect many knowledgeable people will support this conclusion. If so, at some point, over-population could trigger a catastrophic decline in human well-being. (If you don’t believe that an over-stressed environment could lead to civilizational collapse, then you should brush up on your Diamond (here under Social Science and here via Stephen Walt), Tainter, Homer-Dixon (here and here), Ophuls, Mark Buchanan,  and Ferguson*, for starters.) We can conclude that Ehrlich’s initial predictions were inaccurate, but we can’t conclude that his basic premise (limits to human population) is unfounded. 

This leads us to territory explored by Nassim N. Taleb, who has argued along lines I believe appropriate. Because we don’t know the magnitude or probability of some risks, we should not take the risks. That is to say, we are in a territory marked by uncertainty, no probability. We should not run some experiments where, if the experiment turns out badly, N=1 because we are no longer able to repeat the experiment. For instance, how much do we want to experiment with nuclear war? How many times could humanity run a nuclear war experiment?  Taleb argues that genetically modified foods and human-caused global warming should be addressed with the acknowledgement that we don’t know with any real certainty the potential consequences or the likelihood of a catastrophic (or slow motion) event. Without referring to it directly, Taleb seems to follow a negligence theory that judges behavior by the magnitude of the risk of harm (perhaps measurable, probably not) times the likelihood of the occurrence of the risk (perhaps measurable, probably not) to decide whether a particular course of action should be undertaken. (Taleb would add “skin the game” as well: consequences if the wrong choice is made. But in some of our examples, we’d all suffer the consequences.) The difference of course from a court of law (one of many) is that this formula can be applied to judge what action to take (or not) prospectively to avoid loss instead of using it to apportion loss retroactively. (I’ve written more on this general topic in this earlier blog post, “Thinking Like a Lawyer and Antifragility”.)

In both economics and population predictions, the other wild card variable is human action, which is responsive and strategic. Did Paul Ehrlich’s cry of wolf affect the wolf and not just the villagers? (And this assumes that population is not a problem; based on personal observation from living almost three years in India and China, I’m not willing to concede that population density doesn’t remain a crucial challenge.) Does the possibility of stimulus or austerity change the calculations of innumerable economic decisions? Certainly, and you can observe that most easily in markets. But what you see may surprise you and upset your expectations, for instance, some—like Ferguson—have not seen the high interest rates and inflation that they predicted with lose monetary policy from the Fed and a bit of fiscal stimulus. Even the common benchmarks can fail. Krugman, on the other hand, has called it right on the inflation issue.

So what are we left with? Educated guesses, uncertainty, caution, and a need for resilience when things don’t turn out as we hoped. The public dialogue can at its peril ignore risks and probabilities, but we do so to our detriment. We should specify our judgments about likelihoods of benefits and harms and our standards of proof. Voters, unlike jurors, get a second bite at the apple, and we should keep a track record of those who seek to guide and lead the public. And decision-makers and those who advise them would do well to become more sophisticated in this perspective. Our future depends upon it.

*This article by Ferguson displays a lot about Ferguson. The first part draws upon a deep ground of historical knowledge and sheds light on  the phenomena of collapse by applying current thinking about complexity. Thus, as Ferguson argues, “declines” are less dangerous than precipitous “falls”. In a complex system, including financial systems, a system can collapse very quickly, or as Ferguson’s felicitous prose describes it, there can be a “sudden shift from a good equilibrium to a bad mess”. Financial collapses and regime changes, such as the French Revolution, Ming China, the fall of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, happened quickly and to widespread surprise. Although Ferguson doesn’t make the point, such examples should provide some measure of humility in making predictions. However, he goes on to suggest that the Obama Administration and the Fed in spending and printing money might trigger a financial collapse (this was published in 2010). His forecast is vague but ominous. Once again, Ferguson the historian gets sidetracked by Ferguson the political hack. But I must say overall, the article is well argued and perceptive when it sticks to history and avoids forecasting.