What’s your panty-dropper?

Hopefully, I am away on vacation when this post goes up.

The title asks the question. I want your answers.

But first, let me deconstruct the question, in 3 parts:

  1. “Panty-dropper” is a paternal, hetero-normal phrase for something that gets a girl so excited she wants to have sex on the spot. I’m not talking about sex (or boys-girls) with this phrase. Rather, I am trying to evoke that sense of excitement that leads to immediate action. I’d love to have a neutral term, so tell me if you have one. The question is aimed at any and all genders and orientations 😉
  2. With “your,” I am asking about things (or smells or words or whatever)  that get you excited OR that you use to get others excited.
  3. I’m not really asking about sex, as that’s kinda boring (unless you’re a smooth P.U.A.). So it’s about exciting — emotional, intellectual, physical — which can refer to your mother’s praise, solving a crossword, or climbing a tree.

My one-handed reason for asking is that excitement is what makes our life worth living, what gets us out of bed in the morning.

Do tell!

Interesting stuff

  1. Listen: People talking about their relation to water
  2. Read: The case for “[educational] credential disarmament”
  3. Read: A reporter creates “IdiotCoin” to show how stupid cryptocurrencies are. It rises in price. (Don’t underestimate the weirdness of markets.)
  4. Read: Zillow and other firms are buying and flipping houses for profit. I see this as a good (for them) business model due to the high transaction costs of buying/selling as well as the poor state of many houses for sale (=lower price).
  5. Read: Rolex was not “first on top of Everest” but you wouldn’t know it from their advertising.
  6. Read: How international scam artists pulled off an epic theft of Covid benefits [over half?!?]
  7. Read: Who Wants To Return To The Office? (White men)
  8. Read: Why are so many knowledge workers quitting their jobs? (Commutes?). Related: Those left behind are burning out.
  9. Listen to this 2011 debate “the war on terror was an appropriate response to 9/11.” Quite an interesting set of perspectives.
  10. Read: The secret lives of mosquitos (interesting!)

Marshall’s legacy

After 18 months of reading and commenting on every single chapter (except the mathematical appendix) Alfred Marshall’s (AM’s) Principles of Economics (1920), I read some essays on what others thought about AM.

NB: My overall impression is that PoE was worth my time, but probably not worth the time of anyone except those interested in the history of economic thought. Yes, it’s interesting to read how AM explained and explored elasticity, the role of time, the representative firm, and so on, but I doubt that those benefits justify the time it takes to read 70+ chapters on topics that can be found in (over)simplified forms in modern textbooks. That said, I think that anyone looking into canonical concepts in economics should read what AM had to say about them. (NB: AM sometimes uses different terms so “control F” won’t help you!)

Here are my notes and some excerpts from five commentaries:

J.M. Keynes (1924). “Alfred Marshall, 1842-1924” [pdf].
  • This 60-page biography, published a few months after AM’s death, offers many insights into AM’s upbringing and thinking. He was planning to become a priest but turned to mathematics and then economics. His respect for history and the idiosyncratic details of “the everyday business of life” meant, in today’s jargon, that AM was more institutionalist than modeller.
  • Every summer, AM walked in the Alps, to clear his head and strengthen his body. His long life attests to those vacations.
  • The socialists assumed human nature would change with the ownership of capital. AM was skeptical. He studied actual business and workers.
  • AM published very slowly. Most of his ideas were known (via his lectures) well before PoE appeared. Jevons (according to JMK) was impatient and shallow compared to AM. Mixed speeds and energies meant that some people misattributed discovery.
  • AM was first to popularise mathematical diagrams for explaining economic ideas, but he hesitated to lean too much on mathematical descriptions of real life:
  • Page 333:

    Marshall… always felt a slight contempt from the intellectual or aesthetic point of view for the rather “potty ” scraps of elementary algebra, geometry, and differential calculus which make up mathematical economics.1 Unlike physics, for example, such parts of the bare bones of economic theory as are expressible in mathematical form are extremely easy compared with the economic interpretation of the complex and incompletely known facts of experience,2 and lead one but a very little way towards establishing useful results.
    Footnote 1: Mathematical economics often exercise an excessive fascination and influence over students who approach the subject without much previous training in technical mathematics. They are so easy as to be within the grasp of almost anyone, yet do introduce the student, on a small scale, to the delights of perceiving constructions of pure form, and place toy bricks in his hands that he can manipulate for himself, which gives a new thrill to those who have had no glimpse of the sky-scraping architecture and minutely embellished monuments of modern mathematics.
    Footnote 2: Professor Planck of Berlin, the famous originator of the Quantum Theory, once remarked to me that in early life he, had thought of studying economics, but had found it too difficult! Professor Planck could easily master the whole corpus of mathematical economics in a few days. He did not mean that! But the amalgam of logic and intuition and the wide knowledge of facts, most of which are not precise, which is required for economic interpretation in its highest form, is, quite truly, overwhelmingly difficult for those whose gift mainly consists in the power to imagine and pursue to their furthest points the implications and prior conditions of comparatively simple facts which are known with a high degree of precision.

  • AM: “Economics is not a body of concrete truth, but an engine for the discovery of concrete truth.” But his desire to do good meant that (according to JMK) “he had an inclination to undervalue those intellectual parts of the subject which were not directly connected with human well-being or the condition of the working classes…” and thus slow intellectual progress [pp 344-5].
  • AM’s inclusion of time and (dis)economies of scale really fleshed out the reality of production in economics.
  • AM’s understated writing style reduced his wow-factor with some but also helped his ideas spread among non-academics and skeptics.
  • AM’s lecturing style was far less refined or formal than his writing style. AM  wanted students to “think with him” (page 359) rather than copy complete thoughts. This style challenged under-prepared students but spurred the curious to explore the material. (I try to teach in this way, but now it’s called “co-creation.”)
  • AM wrote in favor of allowing women to work and contribute to society but opposed giving them degrees (!). He also wrote in favor of economics as a separate study from politics, i.e., splitting departments of political economy. It’s easy to see the error in his perspective on women (or eugenics), but I am still in the minority in calling for more political economy.
  • AM was lucky to have a best-selling book in his final years, as he had not saved enough money to retire. (Pensions were not a thing in the early 20th century!)
J.A. Schumpeter (1940). “Alfred Marshall’s Principles: A Semi-Centennial Appraisal.
  • AM was one of the first economists to realize that economics is an evolutionary science” [p 237]. This observation or claim is important when it comes to understanding the differences between economists who focus on equilibrium [the destination] and those (like AM) who focus on the processes affecting movements (in any direction) and/or goals [the journey].
  • AM’s focus on the engine of analysis rather than the truth of the destination meant that his ideas could be used by anyone, at any time, to understand more about an economic topic.
  • AM, playing the role of guide, suggested ideas or paths worth pursuing. Those who followed him could fruitfully spend years tying up the loose ends he uncovered.
  • AM’s ideas on returns to scale, substitution, competition and time (evolution!) have endured. His focus on facts, quantification and results helped make economics useful.
G.F. Shove (1942). “The Place of Marshall’s Principles in the Development of Economic Theory.
  • AM wrote “an apologia for economics… a kind of Counter-Reformation” to demonstrate the underlying value of economics, which had been buried in obscure theories. AM wanted economics to “deal with man as he is, seen in the round” [p 310].
  • AM discussed long-term supply and demand, but he put little weight on equilibrium, since underlying tastes and technologies changed too fast for stability to endure.
  • AM established a third era of economic thought that built on earlier Classical (Smith) and Ricardian (Ricardo).
  • AM developed the idea of bidding for monopoly rights that is — in the case of water utilities — one way that markets can discipline monopolistic industries.
  • AM understood and discussed problems with imperfect markets, although later economists contributed more to this topic.
  • AM argued, from a biological-evolutionary perspective, that it was “better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong,” but later economists (see 1944 and 1946 links in the footnote at the end of this post) would revert to the security of precise (and wrong) mathematical equilibria.
  • That said, others have embraced AM’s manner of using statistics and data to check theory — methods that have exploded in popularity with econometrics and (better, IMO) experimental economics.
  • AM’s caution in regard to equilibrium would have been helpful in dealing with the Great Depression and WWII. Keynes escaped the suffocating assurance of supply=demand, but many other economists could not.
  • Post-AM economists brought much-needed attention to the dynamics inherent to negotiations among players with major market power and the role(s) of money and finance in the real economy. AM built the foundations they needed.
  • Plenty of other challenges (e.g., group-action, heterogeneous agents, collective control and mass bargaining) still need attention. It got attention from Samuelson (public goods, 1954), Vernon Smith (experimental markets, 1955/1964), Olson (collective action, 1965), and the Ostroms (common-pooled goods, 1977).
C.W. Guillebaud (1952) “Marshall’s Principles of Economics in the Light of Contemporary Economic Thought”.
    • AM’s PoE was “still a standard textbook” in 1952, but CWG advised students to skip most of AM’s (now outdated) moralising about behavior and society. This advice might have made reading less boring, but it seems to have been costly, if we look at the contemporary amorality of many economists. (I didn’t find AM’s writing too boorish, but the 1950s were go-go years…)
    • AM focussed on partial-equilibrium analysis because general-equilibrium was far too unstable to ever arrive:

      The Marshallian world is a more complex matter. It is not in the least static – it is in fact a world of ceaseless movement and change. Population is increasing (or it might be diminishing), capital is growing, tastes are changing, technique is altering. Some industries are expanding, while others are contracting, and the same is true of the individual firms within each industry. Not only is there seasonal and frictional unemployment of labour (the ins and outs) but there is also structural unemployment due to changes in tastes and demand on the one side, and in technique and inventions on the other. But the aggregate volume of unemployment is not so large as to indicate an overall shortag of effective demand. [p 115]

    • CWG gives (p 123) a nice summary of the short vs long run:

      In the case of the market we are dealing with a stock of goods that are already in existence and which are the fruits of past production.
      In the case of the short period we are dealing with a flow of output from a substantially fixed stock of specialised instruments of production.
      In the case of the long period we are dealing with a flow of output from a flow of all the factors of production that are required to produce that output.

      R.H. Coase (1975). “Marshall on Method
    • As promised, Coase uses most of this (short) article to discuss AM’s methods, which were mostly NON-methods, i.e., AM “would have nothing to do with controversies between deductive schools, inductive schools, historical schools and so on. There was work for all, and he welcomed all. Constructive work was what he wanted” [p 27].
    • What about inductive vs deductive? AM states his ideas in a letter (~1903) to Keynes’s father [pp 26-7]:

      … You make all your contrasts rather too sharply for me. You talk of the inductive & the deductive methods: where as I contend that each involves the other, & that historians are always deducing, & that even the most deductive writers are always implicitly at least basing themselves on observed facts… It is a mere question of arrangement: but I think it is a very important one practically. I think the right order is first to emphasize the mutual dependence of induction & deduction, & afterwards to show in what kinds of inquiry the economist has to spend the greater part of his time in collecting arranging & narrating facts, & in what kinds he is chiefly occupied in reasoning about them & trying to evolve general processes of analysis & general theories which shall show the Many in the One & The One in the Many.

      My second point is that you continually use the word theory where I shd use analysis. This seems to me in itself to cause confusion wh is increased by the fact that later on you exclude modern facts from history; & yet you do not boldly say that theyare part of theory. If they are then I agree with you that a study of theory shd come before a study of history. But I do not myself like to put the case in this way.

      My own notion is [and here Marshall is I take it describing how economics should be presented to students]

      i. Begin with analysis, which is an essential introduction to all study of facts whether of past or present time, with perhaps a very short historical introduction.
      ii. Go on to call to mind the students knowledge of the economic conditions wh he lives. Show the relations in wh they severally stand to one another & carry analysis further, making it more real & concrete.
      iii. Build up a general theory or process of reasoning applicable to Value Money Foreign Trade etc, with special reference to the conditions in wh the student lives, & pointing out how far & in what ways, it can be made to bear on other conditions.
      iv. Give a general course of economic history.
      vi. Consider economical conditions in relation to other aspects of social life.
      vii. Treat of the economic aspects of practical of practical questions in general & social reform in particular.

    • As Coase observes, AM was primarily concerned with understanding and explaining the real economic system that people live, not the abstract, theoretical system beloved by academics. Indeed: “Though a skilled mathematician, he used mathematics sparingly. He saw that excessive reliance on this instrument might lead us astray in pursuit of intellectual toys, imaginary problems not conforming to the conditions of real life: and, further, might distort our sense of proportion by causing us to neglect factors that could not easily be worked up in the mathematical machine” [p 30].
    • Thus, Coase arrives [p 30] at my favorite advice from AM (1906):
        1. Use mathematics as a shorthand language, rather than as an engine of inquiry.
        2. Keep to them till you have done.
        3. Translate into English.
        4. Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life.
        5. Burn the mathematics.
        6. If you can’t succeed in (4), burn (3). This last, I did often.

…and that ends my summary of commentary by five major economists on Alfred Marshall.

My one-handed conclusion, after 18 months of reading Marshall, is that he was one of the truly great thinkers, practitioners and expositors of economics.

This post is the last in a series for the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics from institutional induction to mathematical deduction.

Interesting stuff

  1. Listen: This podcast (“stop pretending we can save the planet”) didn’t change my mind as much as reflect what I have been thinking: (1) We humans are not going to be able to collaborate to “save the climate” from the top down and (2) We can do quite a bit to protect and strengthen our local environments (as I said in 2008).
  2. Read: A Facebook employee who tried to reduce manipulation was fired … because the company doesn’t care. Related (listen): Facebook blocks researchers who are uncovering their incompetence indifference towards blocking manipulative political advertising.
  3. Read: “Republicans [in ND] Are Starting to Worry About Big Oil” as it destroys their water, air and farms.
  4. Watch: I saw a few clips from this documentary on Elinor and Vincent Ostrom in 2019. Now you can watch it on the web. It gives a really nice overview of two very significant careers — and one loving relationship!
  5. Read: Fuel-powered cars fixed the “horseshoe problem.” Electronic-cars promise to fix the “carbon problem,” but what problems will they bring? Related: Debate: To stop climate chaos, we must end capitalism (I’m against)
  6. Read: The devastating new UN report on climate change, explained
  7. Listen: This Is Your Brain on Pollution
  8. Read: A Tale of Two [California] Vineyards, one drying out and the other “not yet”
  9. Read: The COVID pandemic is becoming endemic as limited acceptance of vaccination allows it to spread (the Delta variant has an R0 of 5-9!)
  10. Listen: One of the best episodes on fraud in the crypto world I’ve heard

The troublesome twenties

NB: I started a draft of this post in early 2020. Then COVID happened. I still think there are some interesting ideas in here, but it’s still a bit speculative in terms of identifying, and then connecting, dots. I’d appreciate any comments on this topic, whether or not I’ve addressed them.

This new decade arrived sooner than I expected. I don’t remember the arrival of 2010, but 2000 got a lot of attention. At a risk of over-simplifying, I think people were ready to party in 2000, whereas 2010 arrived in the middle of the Great Recession and 2020 dropped in the middle of a dozen crises, whether fuelled by Trump, other “leaders” (France, India, Iran, Iraq, and Hong Kong) or Nature (climate-fuelled fires, floods, you-name-it).

In this post, I begin with the zeitgeist on a troubled decade, reflect on the forces pushing us back, and end with some ideas for thriving (or self-defense) in the 2020s.

Zeitgeist of the 2010s
  • “In the 2010s, it has often felt as if everything is up for grabs – from the future of capitalism to the future of the planet – and yet nothing has been decided. Between the decade’s sense of stasis and sense of possibility, an enormous tension has built up. It is still awaiting release.” — The Guardian (“The age of perpetual crisis: how the 2010s disrupted everything but resolved nothing“)
  • “Since 2017, the United States has not only abdicated its role as a stabilizing leader on the global stage, but is also sowing unpredictability and chaos abroad.” — The New York Times (The 2010s Were the End of Normal“)
  • “The public only really unifies around what it rejects. This has profound political consequences. People can’t organize around a common idea or worldview, but they all seem to agree that they’re pissed off and they’re against … the system.” — VOX (“A decade of revolt“)
The pushing-falling-tipping-backwards Counterreformation

We’ve gone into reverse politically (hysterics from Trump, BoJo, Bolsinaro, et al.), socially (as Zuckbot et al. convert friendships into cashflow*), economically (Bezos/Amazon being only one example of crushing monopolies), and environmentally (from climate chaos to over-fishing and logging forests).
* Read this interesting explanation/defense of FB by the guy running its advertising program in the 2016 election. He correctly says that most of the election was won/lost on people’s tribal beliefs, but also calls on FB to be more transparent. [Since I read this article, I’ve read others that are much more critical of FB’s conduct, this one, for example.]

While on holiday in Italy (Jan 2020), we ate dinner with some Americans. One was serving in the Army (base police in Spain, not in combat). “How’s  it’s going with Trump?” I asked. “Good for me, I got a raise.” This response really annoyed me, as the raise probably had nothing to do with Trump while Trump’s crazy rhetoric and violent acts are making the US weaker and conflict more likely.

Young people are reading less and “feeling” more, meaning that rationality is replaced by passion, leaders are replaced by populists, and real, hard choices are replaced by fantastic lies. The use of “cancel culture” by both Republicans and Democrats has turned politics into a test of tribal loyalty towards memes and hashtags rather than a process in which the best policies emerge from contested debates. (This entire process can be traced back to Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “take no prisoners” strategy. Leave it to a professor to go for the radical, blow-up-the-country, strategy.)

‘In her comparative study of fallen empires, Jacobs identifies common early indicators of decline: “cultural xenophobia,” “self-imposed isolation,” and “a shift from faith in logos, reason, with its future-oriented spirit … to mythos, meaning conservatism that looks backwards to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview.” She warns of the profligate use of plausible denial in American politics, the idea that “a presentable image makes substance immaterial,” allowing political campaigns “to construct new reality.” She finds further evidence of our hardening cultural sclerosis in the rise of the prison-industrial complex, the prioritization of credentials over critical thinking in the educational system, low voter turnout, and the reluctance to develop renewable forms of energy in the face of global ecological collapse.’The Atlantic (2016) on her 2004 book, Dark Age Ahead (my 2016 review)

The Four Horsemen of the [Biblical] Apocalypse were pestilence, war, famine and death. Civilization and technology have pushed those horsemen away, but social-media-fueled ignorance and lying populists have brought them back.

  • Pestilence: Climate and political chaos are spreading viruses (e.g., Ebola), super-charging bacteria (e.g., antibiotic-resistent TB), reviving old diseases (smallpox from melting permafrost) and increasing the range of pests (mosquitoes) previously held back by winter cold.
  • War is more likely on several dimensions. Technology makes it easier to attack via drones, cyberattacks or small-scale militias. Politicians blame outsiders for their failures, inviting responses that can escalate. Weakening economic ties and progress mean that citizens have less to lose by supporting political aggression.
  • Famine has been predicted since Malthus (1798) explored the problem of exponential population growth outrunning linear growth in food supplies. Although population growth is slowing (still on track for 11 billion), our demand for food is driven more by wealth than headcount, which means that food demand (e.g., meat) is rising fast at the same time as water scarcity, topsoil loss, and trade disputes are limiting supplies and increasing the risks of disruptions to essential food trade.
  • Death is not negotiable but we’re managed to push back the date of death by decades over the past century, mostly due to improved public health (clean water, vaccinations), but also due to reductions in violence and increases in economic prosperity. All of these forces are weaker or reversing at the moment, under the influences of social media (ignorant anti-vaxxers**), falling spending on infrastructure and public health, and politicians who solve problems with “blood and iron” instead of thoughtful negotiation.
    ** I wrote this before Covid was a thing. Now we know just how dangerous — to themselves and society — these anti-vaxxers are.

The Guardian thinks the 2010s were a rerun of the 1970s, in the sense of building up an anxiety that fed the radical changes of the 1980s (Thatcher/Reagan revolutions). What kind of revolution will we get this time around? Although “socialist” might seem the answer, I worry that it might start off sounding good but quickly turn into a populist “socialism” that destroys everything around it in an unsustainable quest for purity in the service of the masses, an echo of the Reign of Terror or Red Terror that overthrew “civilisation” (respect for others, rule of law) in Revolutionary France and Russia, respectively.

The Roaring or Whinging 20s?
  • Parts of the rich world are now emerging from over a year of COVID-restrictions. Some are “revenge shopping”, others are still paranoid. Few are “back to normal” — whatever that is — due to the ongoing toll of COVID in poor — and poorly governed — countries.
  • Climate chaos is also a lot more in our faces, as Why we’re failing to stop climate chaos.
  • Trade wars, disrupted supply chains, and geo-political struggles between an assertive China and reactionary America are not making International cooperation and mutually-beneficial economic development any easier.

From where I sit today (a few days after my 52nd birthday), I am more inclined to pick “whinge” (blaming others) over “roar” (we’re all amazing!), mostly because populists and social media are feeding paranoia via “othering”, because the rich and powerful are grabbing more for themselves,  and because climate chaos is destroying our assets (forcing us to spend more of our income on “staying in place,” which makes us think we’re relatively poorer).

In a world of a “shrinking pie,” it’s hard to be generous towards others, and it’s doubly hard when those others are from a tribe that’s “out to get you.”

My one-handed advice
  • Don’t feed the trolls. Most influencers are attention whores. Ignore them. Spend your time on better people. Evgeny Morozov has some good ideas for escaping bad social media dynamics.
  • Do take care of family and friends. You will need them if you’re going to have a foot in the world of sanity — and especially as climate chaos tears our world apart. Have dinners, drinks, and phone calls with 10 (close) or 140 (at best) friends. Don’t doom scroll thru the delusions of your 1,236 “friends” on social media.
  • Do make good (moral) choices. You need to live with yourself, and it’s quite common for devious choices to backfire. Live as if karma mattered.
  • Do keep your powder dry. Climate and political chaos will make life more expensive, by destroying and reducing your choices, respectively. Save money. Build assets (financial, physical and social). Live simply so you’re not too upset at losses.
  • Do count your blessings. We’re richer than any generation of human history. We can drink the water (mostly). We can eat good food. We have abundant ways of spending time without spending money. Get off the hedonic treadmill and breathe.
What about me?

I have a good job teaching, a great relationship, and lots of (scattered friends). I can engage my mind with my students, my peers, and anyone on the internet who listens to my podcast, or reads my writing (blog, books, papers). I put more time into fun “concrete” activities such as my boats (!) and wood-working. I like picking up garbage on the streets (while I do my Dutch lessons 🙂

Critical thinking isn’t easy to begin with, but you can start by opening the other door, cancelling that repeating event, or taking to strangers. Such exercises help you grow, connect with others, and strengthen yourself financially, mentally, physically,  and socially.

Good luck! (We’ll all need it.)

Interesting stuff

  1. Read: The damage from T**** continues: A Brain Drain Among Government Scientists Bogs Down Biden’s Climate Ambition
  2. Listen (Amazing!): When A British Rapper Freestyles in New York…
  3. Listen (to the whole series): The U.S. Is Just Different — So Let’s Stop Pretending We’re Not
  4. Read: “Trolls need kind words the most
  5. Read: The time tax: Why is so much American bureaucracy left to average citizens? Related (to read): The Great American Eye-Exam Scam
  6. Read: The democrats have the right idea: Levying massive tax penalties ($500 billion) on companies making their money from GHG emissions
  7. Read: China’s crackdown on tech is bad for big companies (and their investors), but is it bad for the industry (innovation) or customers (market power)?
  8. Read: The Surprising Benefits of Talking to Strangers
  9. Watch: James Hoffman looks at a Nespresso machine in great detail
  10. Watch: A Vox video “do I want kids” that is also quite interesting

Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft

H/T to TM for recommendung this 2009 book (subtitle an inquiry into the value of work) by Matthew B. Crawford, as it’s so good that I have been recommending to many people — whether they have rough or soft hands.

The hook: Crawford got a PhD in political philosophy (U Chicago). After getting a job at a think tank, he decided that work was neither tangible nor useful. So he bought a motorcycle repair shop.

So this book is about two things: debunking the myth that manual labor doesn’t require brains, skill & judgement, and focussing readers on the existential question of “why am I doing this?”

It came to me at an opportune time, as I have been putting more of my time into hobbies like woodworking, boats (1 part maintenance for each part boating), and renovating (e.g., painting ceilings, demolishing a chimney, or installing a new floor).

Top line: The book is short (160 pp), well written and thoughtful. I’m including many quotes because Crawford brings so much concise wisdom to the page. They are merely the appetiser for the main course: reading this book!

Many Quotes & some notes [emph added]

  1. “We want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it. This seems to require that the provenance of our things be brought closer to home. Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy.” — p 12
  2. “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.” — p 17
  3. “Since the standards of craftsmanship issue from the logic of things rather than the art of persuasion, practiced submission to them perhaps gives the craftsman some psychic ground to stand on against fantastic hopes aroused by demagogues, whether commercial or political. Plato makes a distinction between technical skill and rhetoric on the grounds that rhetoric “has no account to give of the real nature of things, and so cannot tell the cause of any of them.” The craftsman’s habitual deference is not toward the New, but toward the objective standards of his craft. ” — p 19
  4. “Parents don’t want their children to become plumbers. Yet that filthy plumber under the sink might be charging somebody eighty dollars an hour. This fact ought, at least, to induce an experience of cognitive dissonance in the parent who regards his child as smart and wants him to become a knowledge worker. If he accepts the basic premise of a knowledge economy that someone being paid a lot of money must know something, he may begin to wonder what is really going on under that sink, and entertain a suspicion against the widely accepted dichotomy of knowledge work versus manual work.” — p 21
  5. “The invention of modern shop class… was recognized as a necessity for the broader working-class population, precisely because the institutions that had previously served this socializing function [also see The Secret of Our Success], apprenticeship and guild traditions, had been destroyed by new modes of labor.” — pp27-8
  6. “The result is downward pressure on wages for jobs based on rules… The intrusion of computers, and distant foreigners whose work is conceived in a computer-like, rule-bound way…  compels us to consider afresh the human dimension of work. …”creativity is knowing what to do when the rules run out or there are no rules in the first place.” — p 31
  7. Scientific management meant converting autonomous skilled labor into scheduled repeated tasks that left workers unfulfilled. The rise of consumer culture (and debt), combined with the regular wages available to those who fit into the system, made it harder to live by the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin: “be frugal and free” [p 38]. These trends also choke most of the creativity and passion that we should be seeing in schools and white collar trades. Instead, we’re seeing more bullshit jobs.
  8. And managers are trying to hide that fact among empty slogans: “The simulacrum of independent thought and action that goes by the name of “creativity” trips easily off the tongues of spokespeople for the corporate counterculture… The term invokes our powerful tendency to narcissism, and in doing so greases the skids into work that is not what we had hoped” [p 43].
  9. “So what advice should one give to a young person? If you have a natural bent for scholarship; if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. But if this is not the case; if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don’t have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level “creative.” — p 44
  10. “…one is urged to consider the “opportunity costs” of fixing one’s own car… Spiritedness is an assertion of one’s own dignity, and to fix one’s own car is not merely to use up time, it is to have a different experience of time, of one’s car, and of oneself.” — pp 45-46
  11. We must be wary of consumerism cloaked in “choice and freedom” as an alternative to autonomy (self-direction) and active engagement with challenges that force us to understand and collaborate. There’s a big difference between “have it your way” (the Burger King slogan) and making your own burger.
  12. “The mechanic and the doctor deal with failure every day, even if they are expert, whereas the builder does not. This is because the things they fix are not of their own making, and are therefore never known in a comprehensive or absolute way. This experience of failure tempers the conceit of mastery; the doctor and the mechanic have daily intercourse with the world as something independent, and a vivid awareness of the difference between self and nonself. Fixing things may be a cure for narcissism.” […many pages later…] But by the mere fact that they [mechanics] stand ready to fix things, as a class they are an affront to the throwaway society. Just as important, the kind of thinking they do, if they are good, offers a counterweight to the culture of narcissism.” — pp 65, 81
  13. Sometimes it’s better to accept 90 percent working than struggle with 100 percent frustration. This wording is mine, but the advice borrows from Crawford, as well as the famous dictum: “do not let perfect be the enemy of good.”
  14. “Further, though the demands made on workers are invariably justified in terms of their contribution to the bottom line, in fact such calculations are difficult to make; the chain of means-ends reasoning becomes opaque, and this opens the way for work to become a rather moralistic place… Throughout this literature one finds an imperative for the manager to care, and to sincerely hold forth to his subordinates the possibility of personal transformation. He is not so much a boss as a life coach.” — p 100
  15. “In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter wrote that the expansion of higher education beyond labor market demand creates for white-collar workers “employment in substandard work or at wages below those of the better-paid manual workers.” What’s more, “it may create unemployability of a particularly disconcerting type. The man who has gone through college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work.” — p 101
  16. “One’s career depends entirely on these personal relationships, in part because the criteria of evaluation are ambiguous. As a result, managers have to spend a good part of the day “managing what other people think of them.” … This gives rise to the art of talking in circles.” — p 108
  17. “Maybe we can say, after all, that higher education is indispensable to prepare students for the jobs of the information economy. Not for the usual reason given, namely, that there is ever-increasing demand for workers with more powerful minds, but in this perverse sense: college habituates young people to accept as the normal course of things a mismatch between form and content, official representations and reality. This cannot be called cynicism if it is indispensable to survival in the contemporary office, as it was in the old Soviet Union.” — p 114
  18. “Not surprisingly, it is the office rather than the job site that has seen the advent of speech codes, diversity workshops, and other forms of higher regulation. Some might attribute this to the greater mixing of the sexes in the office, but I believe a more basic reason is that when there is no concrete task that rules the job—an autonomous good that is visible to all—then there is no secure basis for social relations. Maintaining consensus and preempting conflict become the focus of management, and as a result everyone feels they have to walk on eggshells. Where no appeal to a carpenter’s level is possible, sensitivity training becomes necessary.” — p 121
  19. “The more children are praised, the more they have a stake in maintaining the resulting image they have of themselves; children who are praised for being smart choose the easier alternative when given a new task. They become risk-averse and dependent on others. The credential loving of college students is a natural response to such an education, and prepares them well for the absence of objective standards in the job markets they will enter; the validity of your self-assessment is known to you by the fact it has been dispensed by gatekeeping institutions. Prestigious fellowships, internships, and degrees become the standard of self-esteem. This is hardly an education for independence, intellectual adventurousness, or strong character.” — p 122
  20. “An apprentice may aspire to be a journeyman so he can enter that circle, quite apart from considerations of pay. This is the basis on which his submission to the judgments of a master feel ennobling rather than debasing. There is a sort of friendship or solidarity that becomes possible at work when people are open about differences of rank, and there are clear standards.” — p123
  21. “The worker’s product is “torn away” from him, and Marx suggests that it becomes an alien thing, hateful to him, because it is used by another. But why should this be? I find Marx unconvincing on this point. If I am a furniture builder, for example, what am I going to do with a hundred chairs? After all, I want to see them in use; this completes my activity of making them, and gives it social reality. It makes me feel I have contributed to the common good.” — p 143
  22. “It is harder to take pride in one’s work as “a Rolls-Royce man,” for example, if the car is assembled from parts made who knows where.
    One remedy is to find work in the cracks; work the market rationale of which is fully contained within a human scale of face-to-face interactions. This is what the speed shop offers; it is a community of making and fixing that is embedded within a community of use. Such enterprises are not “scalable” in the way that whets the appetite of remote investors, much as they might like to explode the happy scene and “take it global.” — p 145
  23. Crawford makes several good points about how abstract work (e.g., repackaging and selling mortgages) can encourage immoral decisions that may benefit the worker but harm society (more on economists’ role in the financial crisis).
  24. This is way grades (and salaries) are so dangerous to our happiness: “The hypothesis is that the child begins to attribute his interest, which previously needed no justification, to the external reward, and this has the effect of reducing his intrinsic interest in it.” [much later] “…the experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the educational process, at least for gifted students. Those who struggle academically experience failure all the time, and probably write off attempts to sugar-coat it with “self-esteem” as another example of how deranged adults can be. But the praising of gifted students for being smart, by parents and teachers, has a far more pernicious effect, especially when such praise is combined with the grade inflation and soft curriculum that are notorious at elite schools. A student can avoid hard sciences and foreign languages and get a degree without ever having the unambiguous experience of being wrong.”– pp 149, 156
  25. “The special appeal of the trades lies in the fact that they resist this tendency toward remote control, because they are inherently situated in a particular context. In the best cases, the building and fixing that they do are embedded in a community of using. Face-to-face interactions are still the norm, you are responsible for your own work, and clear standards provide the basis for the solidarity of the crew, as opposed to the manipulative social relations of the office “team.” — p 152

My one-handed conclusion is that everyone should work on difficult projects (as a hobby if that’s not your job), as a means of learning humility from failure and appreciation of a job well done (or poorly done). FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Interesting stuff

  1. Read: The Washington Consensus has withstood the test of time quite well
  2. Read: The story behind a massive online Ponzi scheme that collapsed in Turkey
  3. Watch: More amazing freestyling from Harry Mack
  4. Read: The California dream is dying
  5. Read: What makes a graduate program predatory?
  6. Listen: Michael Pollan on plants, drugs and humans
  7. Listen: The good side of meritocracy
  8. Listen: Simone Biles said “no” — and that’s a good sign of athletes getting rights and taking care of themselves (over the goals of coaches, nations, etc)
  9. Read: How Stephen Colbert Survived the Pandemic, Trump and the Loss of Laughter
  10. Listen: How to Get Anyone to Do Anything

Review: The Ministry for the Future

This book by Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) came out in late 2020. It’s a CliFi story about The Ministry FOR the Future, a (fictional) UN agency based in Switzerland with a mission to protect future generations from our current (climate-changing) selves.

The book is long (577 pages; my page numbers are from the digital version), with interwoven stories that sometimes peter out and sometimes take up more space than you’d expect. It’s a bit operatic.

KSR has a deep understanding of the political and economic forces driving climate chaos (CC), various mitigation and adaptation options, and the science of what will is happening to ecosystems and humans as the chaos intensifies.

The book begins with an (entirely believable) heat wave in India that kills millions. NB: The difference between India and the Pacific Northwest (recently hit by a heat wave that killed hundreds) is the same in the book as now: wealth. CC will kill far more poor than rich, on a per-capita basis.

The undercurrent in the book is a struggle with adapting to worsening CC and attempts by the MftF, as well as many other actors, violent and diplomatic alike, to mitigate worse damages. I found the adaptation struggles and CC damages to be entirely believable. [SPOILER ALERT] I found the mitigation success to be a bit too fast and easy, although KSR at least builds a reasonable excuse (a carbon coin) for 200 or so nations to cooperate in reforming their economies, cities, transportation and infrastructure.

The central stories in the book involve Mary, who leads the MftF, and they focus on her work in the Ministry, building solutions with outsiders, and her relation with Frank, a near victim of the heat wave who travels to Switzerland to shock Mary and others into taking action. It’s difficult to combine fiction with science, but I think KSR does a good job (not that I could even get within miles of his writing!), putting this book firmly into my CliFi canon. (You know that I edited two books of short CliFi stories, right? Go download them; they’re free.)

So let me get to my usual set of bullet-point highlights and comments:

  1. Mary reminds me of Mary Robinson, another Irish leader, but I don’t know much about MR.
  2. KSR is absolutely right that fossil fuel reserves are mostly owned by national (not private) companies, that they must stay in the ground, that evolution will refill the Earth (after it recovers from the Anthropocene) in two million years (or more), that CC will break insurance markets, and that our overconsumption (not basics) is driving CC:

    “To be clear, concluding in brief: there is enough for all. So there should be no more people living in poverty. And there should be no more billionaires. Enough should be a human right, a floor below which no one can fall; also a ceiling above which no one can rise. Enough is a good as a feast— or better.
    Arranging this situation is left as an exercise for the reader.” P 75

  3. There are several instances of “eco-terrorism,” all aimed at the rich middle classes, with their flying, shopping, overfishing, etc. The MftF may — or may not — be supporting these attacks, which are (in the book) effective at changing behavior.
  4. Geoengineering plays a big role, as it must if we’re going to have “negative emissions,” and it takes both coordinated and go-it-alone forms.
  5. The Half Earth [for Nature] and 2000kWh [per year, per person] Society are existing ideas that deserve attention for their potential benefits.
  6. There are many vignettes in poor countries and poor communities in rich countries. Those people suffer but they also cooperate in mutual defence.
  7. Scientists are super excited to finally make progress against CC, using ideas and techniques that mostly (in 2021) exist.
  8. As I’ve advocated, the tide turns when money (bribes) are used to persuade incumbents.
  9. KSR’s scenario of converting all currency into crypto that can be tracked on the blockchain is not that believable, but central banks are trying!
  10. The recovery of ecosystems and species that comes with their protection doesn’t surprise me. It’s the protection that surprises me. KSR does not consider most of the difficulties of protecting commons. That said, consider this reality:

    “In a fight between sociopathic sick wounded angry fucked-up wicked people, and all the rest of them, not just the good and the brave but the ordinary and weak, the sheep who just wanted to get by, the fuckers always won.” — p510

  11. KSR  blames the Washington Consensus for many things it’s not about. Maybe the WC is a handy reference point but I would have preferred he attack crony capitalism (corruption) rather than the WC’s helpful macroeconomic policy suggestions.
  12. KSR highlights the many contradictions and hypocrisies within CC-discussions as well as everyday politics. He’s a good tutor.
  13. I was happy to see user data privatised away from social media leeches (e.g,  Facebook, YouTube) and back to users. This system links in with (9) above.
  14. Co-operatives, UBI and many other progressive-popular ideas get implemented. They work. As with (10), it’s the implementation more than the function that surprises me, but what’s the point of CliFi, if not to work through the implications of “what if” thought experiments.
  15. LA gets hit by an atmospheric river that drops so much water on the land that the weight causes faults to slip… and earthquakes. I’ve long thought that earthquakes would be ONE disaster not correlated with CC, but I now have reason to doubt 🙁
  16. A good summary:

    “A tax on burning fossil carbon, which could be called not a tax but rather paying the true cost, could be set progressively, or offset by feebates, to avoid harming the poorest who burn less carbon but also need to burn what they burn to live. A fossil carbon tax set high enough would create a strong incentive to quit burning it. It could be set quite high, and on a schedule to go even higher over time, which would increase the incentive to quit burning it. Tax rates on the largest uses could be made prohibitive, in the sense of blocking all chance of profits being made from any derivative effects of these burns” — p386

  17. Psychology (also see my “7 reasons we’re failing to stop CC“):

    “This was yet another manifestation of racism and contempt for the South, yes, but also of a universal cognitive disability, in that people had a very hard time imagining that catastrophe could happen to them, until it did. So until the climate was actually killing them, people had a tendency to deny it could happen. To others, yes; to them, no. This was a cognitive error that, like most cognitive errors, kept happening even when you knew of its existence and prevalence. It was some kind of evolutionary survival mechanism, some speculated, a way to help people carry on even when it was pointless to carry on.” — p405

  18. Think about it:

    “Europe is just punishing the victims. Sudan takes care of more refugees than all of Europe, and Sudan is a wreck. People come to Europe and they get called economic migrants, as if that wasn’t just what their own citizens are supposed to do, try to make a better life, show some initiative. But if you come to Europe to do it you’re criminalized. You’ve got to change that” — p458

  19. The Chinese, Russians, and Americans also suffer so much, they decide to address CC. (The already suffering young and poor area already favor action).
  20. Farms, roads, cities need to go if “Half for Earth” is going to work.
  21. Migration also needs to be more flexible. KSR proposes “world passports” (with settlement rights in proportion to national capacities), which matches my 2012 idea.
  22. Hong Kong wins in this telling. Interesting that it was already dead (in the name of “national security”) before this book came out.
  23. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is finally returned to Nature (and taken away from rapacious farmers), much as I recommended in 2008.
  24. KSR ends with “we will keep going, because there is no such thing as fate. Because we never really come to the end.” — p639. True.

My one-handed conclusion is that anyone interested in their future, the science and political-economy of climate chaos, and good writing should read this book. It’s long, but always interesting. FIVE STARS.

Addendum (29 Jan 2022): A nice interview with KSR

Here are all my reviews.