Archive for June, 2012

“This is my boomstick.”

I’ve never been particularly covetous of Saiga shotguns, but I have to confess, this video may have changed my mind:

Video by the great Oleg Volk. Shotty and shooting by Linoge of Walls of the City.

Mencken on Governments and Revolutions

“The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are.

There is seldom, if ever, any evidence that the new government proposed would be any better than the old one. On the contrary, all the historical testimony runs the other way. Political revolutions do not often accomplish anything of genuine value; their one undoubted effect is simply to throw out one gang of thieves and put in another. After a revolution, of course, the successful revolutionists always try to convince doubters that they have achieved great things, and usually they hang any man who denies it.” – HLM, A Mencken Chrestomathy, Vintage Books (1982), pg. 145

Back After This Important Barrage of Glitchy Noise

Sorry for the recent radio silence. I spent the past three days mostly laid out on a dock on Loon Lake reading and permitting myself to be struck by an irresponsibly large amount of sunlight.

In recompense, here’s something groovy from Scooter Oyama, one of my favorite new finds on SoundCloud:

Daniel Hannan on the Folly of the Euro

I think Daniel Hannan is one of the most gifted rhetoricians alive today. He’s a Conservative MEP for South East England and he’s committed, principled Conservative and one of the most effective critics of many EU policies and of the Euro. While I disagree with him on several topics, his arguments against the euro are pretty convincing and, at the least, can’t be ignored. I’m inclined to think (with admitted ignorance) that the euro isn’t an inherently flawed idea, but rather it is currently controlled by corrupt institutions in the service of deeply misguided goals.

This is a note that Hannan strikes well in this comment from the European Parliament:

Here he is giving a more absolutist argument against the common currency.

I think Hannan’s point that the EU might be asking the wrong questions in the face of the Euro Crisis is spot on. Anyone who ignores the problems with the continued existence of the euro in its present form misses the single biggest question raised by the slow-motion collapse of the European economy.

Deirdre McCloskey Against Hedonomics

One of the most interesting classes I took in grad school was a class on the Philosophy of Happiness. It was taught by a brilliant professor, Dr. Erik Schmidt. In it, we covered both the history of happiness and surveyed much of the modern work being done to quantify happiness. This latter analysis of happiness is referred to as “Hedonics” for the psychological variant and “Hedonomics” if they attach numbers to their theories have their offices in the Economics building.

The results of modern examinations of happiness may yield some pretty interesting results in time, but for the moment, the majority of the work being done in the field is deeply flawed. From the arbitrary and insufficient modes of measurement to the often-biased sampling, there are a huge number of structural impediments that prevent hedonomics from being a rigorous or intellectually useful field.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped people like Cass Sunstein from proposing that it should guide regulatory and legislative decisions.

In addition to methodological critiques, there are very compelling criticisms of some of the assumptions and findings of these new hedonic sciences. One of the critiques is hinted at in the structure of the class I mentioned; happiness hasn’t always meant what we understand it to mean today. And so if you study people’s self-assessed “happiness” through a variety of experiences and across demographics, you’re not really learning about Happiness-as-objective-phenomenon, rather you’re learning about what people understand the word “happiness” to mean. You’re learning “what we talk about when we talk about happiness”.

Which is an important thing to know, but it’s definitely not what the hedonomicists claim they’re measuring.

Another, more abstract, but equally damning family of objections are the philosophical and humanistic objections. Measuring and studying “happiness” as such assumes a lot of things about human nature, many of which are profoundly reductionist. If you assert that “happiness”, however defined, is the summum bonum of human existence, then the results of hedonomics studies tell you nothing less than the statistically significant path to the One True Good Life. This is perhaps best seen in the implicit value judgments made by people like Sunstein et. al. when they argue that people should be “nudged” or even forced to undertake certain actions that will make them “happier”.

In other words, many hedonomicists make the staggeringly vain assumption that the thing they are studying is the pure stuff of desirable outcomes. That the “happiness” they are getting people to self report is the marker of the best way to live and the only such marker.

I find this notion equal parts absurd and terrifying.

Another way to see these assumed value judgments is when researchers take as obvious the actionable implications of their findings. The “hedonic treadmill” is a fantastic example. One of the best established results of hedonomics is that beyond a certain level, increased wealth doesn’t cause people to self-report higher levels of “happiness”. Hedonomics responds to this by saying something like: “well clearly, people should stop trying to make more money once they reach that threshold.” What they don’t take into account is that increased income may very well improve people’s lives in other ways not accounted for by self-reported “happiness”. People who have more money can, for instance, devote themselves to higher intellectual and artistic pursuits. They can better secure themselves against personal, social, or economic disaster. They can invest to further or change their careers in order to succeed in personally satisfying ways that may not be appreciably evident in a self-reported assessment of “how happy I feel today.”

By asserting that there’s no reason to increase one’s income above a certain threshold just because it doesn’t increase arbitrary self-reported values is to smuggle the researcher’s value judgments in by the back door.

Hedonomics may some day give us valuable insights into the pursuit of human achievement, satisfaction, and personal accomplishment, but for now it is, with few notable exceptions, mostly bogged down in developing an elaborate, self-reported definition of the term “happiness”.

For a much better and more thorough argument in favor of a philosophic and humanist understanding of human satisfaction, I strongly encourage you to read this National Review essay, by the historian and economist Deirdre McCloskey. It is one of the most cohesive and damning humanist critiques of hedonomics I’ve seen yet and I think you’ll find it well worth your time and attention.

An excerpt:

“Before Bentham and Immanuel Kant, it was taken as obvious that the good life was multiple: involving the Principal Seven Virtues, for example, the primary colors of a virtuous and therefore happy life—prudence, temperance, courage, justice, faith, hope, and love. Humans do after all experience the tragedy of choice, which is the conflict of such virtues. Love for your father conflicts with your hope to go to Smith College, as Jane Addams found in her own life. Antigone’s faithfulness to her king conflicts with her love for her brother. Happinesses are not fungible. Happinesses are multiple, dappled things, and couple-colored. W.C. Fields was asked, off the record, for his views on sex. “On or off the record,” said he, “there may be some things better than sex, and some things worse. But there’s nothing exactly like it.”

The knock-down argument against the 1-2-3 studies of happiness comes from the philosopher’s (and the physicist’s) toolbox: a thought experiment. “Happiness” viewed as a self-reported mood is surely not the purpose of a fully human life, because, if you were given, in some brave new world, a drug like Aldous Huxley’s imagined “soma,” you would report a happiness of 3.0 to the researcher every time. Dopamine, an aptly named neurotransmitter in the brain, makes one “happy.” Get more of it, right? Something is deeply awry.

Decades ago, I was in Paris alone and decided to indulge myself with a good meal, which, you know, is rather easy to do in Paris. The dessert was something resembling crème brulée, but much, much better. I thought, “I shall give up my professorships at the University of Iowa in economics and history, retire to this neighborhood on whatever scraps of income I can assemble, and devote every waking moment to eating this dessert.” It seemed like a good idea at the time. It deserved a 3.0.”

I again strong encourage you to read the whole essay. I also strongly recommend McCloskey’s writings on the bourgeois, especially her books Bourgeois Virtue and Bourgeois Dignity.

“I love Paris in the rain”

I’ve been listening to the latest Regina Spektor album, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, and I think it’s her strongest yet. By far my favorite track off of it is “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)”. I’ve only just recently, however, discovered the amazing video for it:

Kevin D. Williamson on Regulation

Kevin D. Williamson, writing in The National Review, has a fantastic article on the many follies of regulators who believe they have the power to structure society for the common good. One of the main points of his piece is that economic regulators are always more ignorant than the people working in regulated industries:

“Populist rhetoric aside, you and your colleagues are not buffoons or villains. But I don’t think you know as much about running a burger joint as McDonald’s does, and McDonald’s doesn’t even know all that much … You sincerely well-meaning and unquestionably smart guys in Washington, crafting regulations with love and care and deep regard for the common good: You know even less about almost everything you deal with than the least smart guy at Jack in the Box knows about Jack in the Box.” (Emphasis in the original.)

This is a pretty damning critique of government’s ability to regulate markets effectively (it’s not the most damning, but ’tis enough,’twill serve). Any regulator who would try to impose order on chaotic markets for what he or she sees as the “common good” faces a huge number of hurdles. This information gap, to me, is one of the highest, and I think Williamson articulates it well. The fundamental informational deficit faced by regulators often leads to regulation that ranges from staggeringly bad to just merely wasteful.

Williamson also does a good job in pointing out that attempts to close the informational gap often don’t result in better regulation, but rather in simple regulatory capture. Ask Jack in the Box to advise you on fast food regulation, and you’re probably going to end up writing regulation that preferences Jack in the Box over its competitors. It’s possible your regulation might be better informed, but it’s definite that it will favor the “industry partners” that helped you write it.

In other words, when attempting to regulate a market, regulators basically have a choice between ignorance and chronyism.

Recruiter Level: Epic

One of my fellow Amazonians apparently has on his LinkedIn profile a line to the effect that if you really want to get his attention, you could contact him via Carrier Pigeon.

Some awesome recruiter somewhere stepped up to the challenge.

“Yoo hooo! Wakey wakey!”

In the wake of the new Die Antwoord single, I’ve been checking out some of Waddy Jones’ older projects. I’ve been particularly interested in The Constructus Corporation and their one album, a sci-fi theme album about a giant flying city/shopping mall called The Ziggurat. It’s delightfully bizarre, and well-crafted enough to sound artfully sloppy.

Here’s a fairly representative track to give you a sense of the strangeness:

Gary Johnson: “Be Libertarian With Me”

Return top

Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.