Saturday, May 30, 2020

Capital and Ideology I

For a number of reasons, I'm out of my winter reading mode and will probably proceed through this book, by Thomas Piketty, very slowly. Like Capital in the Twenty-First Century, it isn't technical and is easy to understand. I am reminded of Charles Darwin, who similarly wrote accessible books, and thereby laid claim to the title of one of the greatest scientific minds in history. Like Darwin, Piketty is already rich and acclaimed from his popular first book.

I've only read the long introduction, which describes the main plan of the book. As with his last book, Piketty loves historical narratives in which he compares conditions in different countries at different periods. In this case, rather than focusing primarily on the economic aspects of wealth inequality in rich countries, he looks broadly at ideology and politics in all kinds of countries. I am already finding myself disagreeing with him when he says "Inequality is neither economic nor technological; it is ideological and political." It looks as if the main premise of the book is that inequality can only be addressed through political processes, and in this sense it seems that his ideas are similar to those of Jared Diamond in Upheaval: each nation must work to define its situation and find solutions through a democratic political process. In most respects, that is a conventional view today. However, as I've mentioned on previous posts, I have a very low confidence level in political processes and usually find prevailing ideologies stunningly simplistic if not simply incorrect. Piketty seems to abhor technical language when it comes to collective human thinking about how societies should be organized. I agree with him that natural language is our primary resource for resolving political and ideological disputes, but think that he has too much faith in the idea that humans can collectively solve their major problems simply by identifying and discussing them at all levels of society. I find myself frequently disagreeing with progressive intellectuals, who often seem to base their ideas on a faulty understanding of human nature.

Piketty's form of argument, while refreshing in some ways, is disappointing in others. It is indeed pleasant to read about social issues in narrative form, probably because our brains have evolved to work that way. Strictly scientific language seems cold and inaccessible, so it makes sense that people, including Piketty, prefer stories for digesting information. Most people, for example, would prefer reading a novel to reading a scientific treatise. The problem is that ideologies and political memes lack real substance if they're not measured against more objective standards. Several of the books that I've read since reading Piketty's last book show that human cognition is highly erratic in its performance, which results in irrational behavior on the part of practically everyone. Thus, the idea that the citizens of a country can simply buckle down, put their heads together and reinvent themselves through a process that is both orderly and rational seems naïve to me. That, unfortunately, seems to be the view of most progressive intellectuals these days. I am more inclined to let policy experts or AI make these decisions, because most people are simply incapable of understanding complex policy options. It looks as if Piketty is going to completely ignore behavioral economics, which, besides being a useful branch of economics, is probably one of the most important ones to develop over the last fifty years.

Although, as I've said, politics and ideology don't interest me much, I can use the current political situation in the U.S. as an example. People generally agree about what comprise liberal or conservative ideas, but perhaps the one interesting thing that Donald Trump has done is demonstrate that Republican conservatives now have no core beliefs. Because Trump has no real ideology other than narcissism, the Republican Party, for the first time since the early twentieth century, no longer represents fiscal conservatism or free trade. Notably, there has been no effort made by Republicans to reframe their ideological beliefs, and it seems that, almost overnight, the conceptual identity of the party was gutted, and the party itself became a tool for conceptually incoherent opportunists. To be sure, some of the previous practices, such as the removal of restrictions on corporations, are still in place, but, with Trump at the helm, there can be no intelligible ideological or political goals. I think Piketty will be commenting on the Trump situation later in the book, but this situation may contradict some of his ideas.

Saturday, May 23, 2020


I had been hoping to start commenting on another book by now, but the one I was reading wasn't worth it. It was on algorithms and turned out to be too basic and, therefore, though it did cover the general history of algorithms, did not go as far as I thought it ought to have on how they should to be deployed in the future. It is already evident that algorithms control many aspects of human life, and that, well short of AGI (artificial general intelligence), it will be possible to use them to make collective decisions for large populations in a manner that benefits the majority and doesn't hinge on the intractable irrational impulses that often dominate human behavior. This is a rather obvious need at the moment, with poorly-informed populist leaders taking the stage and facilitating preventable deaths while ignoring established science. It is embarrassing to have to think about the ludicrous statements made by Donald Trump, when it is now common knowledge that, besides remaining uninformed on COVID-19, his only motivation is to be reelected in November regardless of the human costs. The cognitive weaknesses embodied by Trump become more dangerous when they are magnified by unrealistic expectations about the efficacy of democratic political processes. One need only look at Trump's political career to see that from the start he has been self-centered, dishonest and unprepared to act in the best interest of voters. Recently he has demonstrated that he is perfectly willing to have thousands of them die unnecessarily if he thinks that it will facilitate his reelection. Even as responsible news outlets expose him on a daily basis as the dangerous charlatan that he is, there remains a foolish belief that the usual political process is the only suitable recourse, regardless of the growing costs of his incumbency.

Speaking of algorithms, I think it would be fairly easy to construct ones that would predict the likely outcomes of political figures in office by studying the backgrounds of politicians and comparing them to their subsequent political careers. For example, although Obama was somewhat successful and was respected as president, it might be shown that his lack of leadership experience, conformity and a desire to please offset his ability to empathize, which had helped him get elected. In the end, his weaknesses rendered him ineffectual as president. The case is more obvious with Donald Trump. Politicians who promote flagrant lies prior to election, such as birtherism, are more likely to lie in office. Similarly, those who conceal their financial records are more likely to have engaged in illicit transactions. With Trump, there remains the possibility that he has bungled most of his business initiatives and is now heavily dependent on money funneled to him through Deutsche Bank from Russian oligarchs. A subtle analysis might reveal some of the more elusive Trump characteristics. He has been using a grifter strategy for his entire adult life and lacks the flexibility to learn or adapt in office. This has only become apparent gradually, because Trump is in the habit of believing his own lies. It didn't emerge until recently that although Trump clearly pressured the government of Ukraine to provide negative information on Joe Biden in return for military aid, he couldn't see anything ethically wrong with it, because he is accustomed to thinking that his transactions are all for his personal benefit, and that he has no responsibility for anyone else. Another Trump habit that has become more obvious over time is his use of new distractions to escape close scrutiny on other questionable actions that he's taken; this particular strategy isn't very sophisticated and is commonly used by con men, but Trump has used it effectively since he was elected, because it keeps his critics off balance. Thus, the Trump presidency has played out as an emerging pathology that, despite being spotted by psychologists at the start, never found its way to public consciousness until it was too late. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Trump has increasingly demonstrated that, not only does he disregard facts that conflict with his narrative, but that he also doesn't understand basic science and remains indifferent to the thousands of lives that have been lost due to his incompetence. I think that research along these lines, working from data on many politicians in many countries over many years, could reveal the predicted outcome for individual politicians in the environments where they work. If that information were publicly available, it would be much easier to avoid future Trump-like debacles. In the end, I think that AGI will be better at governing than humans, but this could be an intermediate step.

One bright spot at the moment is the emergence of Bill Gates as a potential new pundit. It seems that to a large extent competent people have been steering clear of political careers in the U.S. for some time now, because they recognize that they can make more money, do more interesting work, provide greater public service, etc., by pursuing other fields. Although I have been less than enthusiastic about Gates in the past, in this situation he is a breath of fresh air, and with any luck he will attract additional competent people to the realm of public policy. From my readings, the field of public policy, which has improved in recent years, is still in a state of disarray, partly because it doesn't all fall under one academic aegis and is splintered, and partly because much of it is subverted by the influence of commercial interests. For example, private companies have become adept at privatizing institutions such as prisons and schools, only to gut whatever was there and monopolize profits without providing any measurable social benefits. The active involvement of people like Bill Gates in public policy could improve the likelihood of wider implementation of science-based policies. The political process in the U.S. is severely antiquated and could benefit significantly from the help of technocrats.

I haven't had much luck finding any book that I really desire to read, and have settled on Capital and Ideology, by Thomas Piketty, even though it is very long and had mixed reviews. I appreciate the fact that Piketty emphasizes equality far more than most American economists and think it should be the focus of the field. I am also hoping that he will include various cultural and literary anecdotes, which I thought spiced up Capital in the Twenty-First Century and made up for often dull reading.

William has resumed his serial killer habits. This morning there was a dead chipmunk in the basement, and the other day he brought in a dead hummingbird and left it by the sofa while we were watching TV. Most mornings there are new mouse parts on the porch, but at least he hasn't been climbing the screens.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020


I'm glad to be finished reading about Charles Darwin, because he isn't the best subject for a biography. However, he fits the pattern that I see in most biographies, in which the person gradually becomes demythologized. That is not the case in hagiographic biographies, which I have attempted to avoid. With Darwin, it becomes clear that he inextricably belonged to a specific time and place, and that his strengths and weaknesses played out as they did only because his environment dictated what was possible for him. If he had been born a few years earlier, he probably wouldn't have thought of natural selection, and if he had been born a few years later, his ideas would have been considered passé among scientists. From my reading, there is no evidence that he was a towering genius who gazed over the millennia as no one else could. Even so, he still deserves a lot of credit for advancing substantive ideas that remain over the heads of many people in the world to this day. The problem occurs when readers attempt to emulate their biographical heroes, which is usually impossible, because all contexts are ephemeral and the same conditions will never arise again.

This spring has turned out to be very cold. Last Friday I mowed the lawn for the first time, and that night it snowed. Usually it is much warmer by now, and the hummingbirds have returned – they haven't. We are still burning wood in the stove to stay warm. Normally we would have run out by now, but a few months ago half of a large sugar maple blew over, and I cut and split it, a job that took several days. I bought a new chainsaw, because the maple had a larger diameter than what I usually cut. We also have some apple wood, which burns well because it is extremely dry. The very old Enos Severance apple tree was hollow in the middle, and the dead half of it recently blew over and was leaning on a telephone pole. I cut that too. The remaining half of the tree is more robust and should live for a few more years. According to the weather forecast, we should have a significant warm-up by Thursday. The coronavirus pandemic is having effects here, as everywhere, but is more subdued due to the low population density. As of today, Addison County has a total of 62 cases and 2 deaths. I would be at low risk of exposure, because I don't do the shopping, but I have been traveling to Chittenden County, to the north, quite often for treatment of a medical condition, and that is the hot spot in the state, with 432 cases and 37 deaths. It remains to be seen what the total effects of the pandemic will be. So far it hasn't had much effect on my family and friends. Everyone who isn't retired is still working or was already stay-at-home.

I am hoping that all the bad news will finally catch up with Donald Trump, who by now has unequivocally demonstrated that he is the worst president in American history. He sailed into a robust economy that was unrelated to anything that he did with the assistance of uneducated voters who had been taken in by right-wing propaganda, only to completely mishandle the first major crisis that came his way. Although he is now getting more long-deserved criticism in the press, he is still supported by the brainwashed true believers. In the long run, he will be seen as having mismanaged the economy and negligently permitted thousands of preventable deaths. When his legal protections are removed, he may well end up in jail, which is where he belongs. Future historians will be scratching their heads about how he was ever elected in the first place.

In other news, after giving up on Netflix and other streaming services, I recently subscribed to The Criterion Channel, which includes many good films that I haven't seen. They used to include Criterion films on Netflix, but it has steadily gone down-market over the years. Nearly all of the latest films and series are abysmal in my opinion. Some of the very old films on The Criterion Channel aren't that great, but I think that their overall catalog is far superior to any other of which I'm aware.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place V

During his final years, Darwin seems to have scaled back on his work a little. He continued with plants, writing on insectivorous ones, and then switched to plant growth. His last book, on worms, turned out to be the best selling of all his books. His son, Francis, completed medical school but, like Darwin's brother, Erasmus, had decided not to pursue a medical career, and instead he worked with his father on his scientific projects. Another son, George, who taught mathematics, helped him with his math. Francis married and provided him with his first grandchild, Bernard, who was raised in Darwin's house when Francis's wife died shortly after childbirth. Although Darwin was modestly wealthy and his books had sold well for scientific works, as with comparable families in his social class, he had a large staff of about twelve people, which makes his household seem bizarre if you compare it to contemporary ones. He was thrifty in his expenditures, and by the 1870's this had put him at a disadvantage in his experimentation, since biological research had expanded considerably and he did not possess suitable laboratory equipment.

He wrote an autobiography, which was intended primarily as a family document, with no thought of publication. According to Browne, it offers a straightforward account of his life without referencing his emotional state or inner life. At Cambridge, "My time was wasted, as far as academical studies were concerned....we sometimes drank too much, with jolly singing and playing at cards afterwards." He said that in his later years he couldn't stand reading poetry or Shakespeare. According to Browne:

Looking back, he reckoned that he learned nothing at school; nothing from his father, who considered him "a very ordinary boy"; nothing from two universities except that which he performed under his own steam. Everything accomplished on the voyage was from his own hard work.

His depiction of himself as entirely self-made can hardly be accurate. If, for example, Henslow hadn't set him up for the Beagle voyage and he hadn't befriended Lyell, it would be hard to imagine him attaining either the necessary inspiration or the subsequent success of his scientific career. He also expressed harsher views on Christianity than he generally did among his friends and family.

In 1880, Wallace, who, besides becoming a spiritualist, was bad at handling his finances and was going broke. Darwin generously assisted him by going through channels to arrange for a government pension for him. Darwin's brother, Erasmus, died in 1881. Finally, Darwin himself died on April 19, 1882, probably from heart failure, at the age of seventy-three. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Summing up Browne's two volumes, I would say that while they are extremely thorough, they focus more on the details of Darwin's daily life than on the role of his ideas in the history of science. I don't think that she emphasizes enough how much change has occurred in the last 150 years of scientific research, and how viewing Darwin close up fails to highlight his strengths and weaknesses as a scientific thinker. From my point of view, as a dabbler in scientific readings, the ideas of Darwin and his peers seem primitive, though they were radical at the time. For example, Lyell, who is considered the founder of modern geology, had no knowledge of plate tectonics and little idea of the age of the planet. The fossil record in 1870 was minute compared to what we have today, and the evolution of the plant and animal kingdoms is vastly better-understood. Both Lyell and Darwin seem to have been wrong about gradualism, though Browne hardly explores this fact. For example, Darwin would be astounded to read Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution, by Jonathan Losos, which I discussed earlier. In that book, Losos demonstrates how evolution can occur in only a few years, rather than thousands or millions of years. There is also a tendentiousness in Darwin's thinking, which seems to include the idea that evolution gradually leads to perfect organisms. In his mind, contraception was a bad idea, because it prevented the development of superior humans. More fundamentally, he didn't understand that sexual reproduction works well mainly because random mutations produce fitter organisms over time. He thought that, in advanced societies, males usually select their mates, and that their choices ultimately determine the fitness of their descendants. The actual situation is far more complex than that, and it sounds as if Darwin was simply repeating orthodox views of the social hierarchy in his milieu. So, although Darwin seems to have been a clearer thinker than most, he understandably lacked the superhuman ability to transcend various Victorian ideas, such as that of progress, which I don't think holds up well under scientific scrutiny.

I was also a little disappointed that even though Browne's discussion is sometimes sociological, she doesn't fully contextualize Darwin as a beneficiary of class privilege. It is easy to imagine someone like Darwin, who was a poor student and avoided confrontations, not flourishing at all under different circumstances. Today, someone like him probably wouldn't be admitted to Cambridge, and without family and college connections it would have been difficult for him to befriend Lyell and others and become part of the inner circle of scientists who called all the shots in Victorian England from behind the scenes. Browne describes how Darwin was quite talented at pulling strings in order to achieve the outcomes that he desired. He was also good at recruiting surrogates, Huxley in particular, to defend him, and therefore was able to avoid nearly all public contact. I don't think that if you placed him in a modern research environment, where he would be forced to adopt a narrow specialty and follow specific procedures, he would have done well at all. Browne does touch on this, but I don't think enough, because Darwin's success hinged on certain aspects of his environment that do not exist today.

One other point I thought I'd mention is that Darwin's opposition to religion was not something that he dreamed up by himself. Both his father and his grandfather were similarly skeptical, as was his brother, and Darwin probably absorbed it from his family.
In the broadest historical sense, it seems possible that the Reformation, led by Martin Luther, Henry VIII and John Calvin, sufficiently reduced Catholicism in the U.K. and Germany to free up scientific inquiry that might otherwise have been suppressed because of theological dogma. It may be no coincidence that the Industrial Revolution began in the U.K., whereas Catholic countries such as France, Spain and Italy significantly lagged. Even today it is notable that the countries most resistant to Darwinism tend to be the most religious. I might add that Darwin seemed to believe that morality had its origins in evolution rather than in religion, which I think makes him a precursor of E.O. Wilson, who popularized the idea of eusociality.

On the whole I found these books rewarding, though I could have done without the excessive detail. That tended to make the reading a bit too much like a BBC miniseries when I think it would have been more interesting to get to the heart of Darwin's ideas with briefer excursions into social history.