Tweedledumb and Tweedledangerous

by Daniel on January 4, 2010

In a really quite lovely essay, James Galbraith names some of the people who got it right (or at least, less drastically wrong), while pointing out that in many ways, the much-vaunted “freshwater/saltwater” divide is a dialogue between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. I don’t think that’s entirely fair, as with regard to stimulus policy there are clear differences between the New Classicals and the New Keynesians, and it’s clear that Tweedledee is right and Tweddledum is making obviously mathematically inconsistent statements. But the central point is exactly right that an important practical consequence of shutting out heterodoxy was that rather than having a few people to point to who predicted the crisis, the economic profession was left claiming that its true triumph was to be able to explain exactly why economists had been unable to predict it.

And of course, the old Peter Cook line has never been so relevant as it is to the economics profession now (“Sir Arthur, do you feel you have learned from your mistakes?” “Yes, and I’m confident that I could repeat them exactly”). All the people cited in James’ essay are exactly as far away from the mainstream of economics as they were three years ago, and field reports from the American Economic Association meetings suggest that it’s back to business as usual. I asked a while ago in comments to this post whether ” after this experience, can the Berkeley/Princeton/Obama economists ever really go back to a state of polite terms with the people who have done this to them?”, but apparently they can.

As I said in that linked post, the production of more or less mendacious intellectual smokescreens for policies which favour the interests of rich and powerful men isn’t a sort of industrial pollution from the modern economics profession – it’s the product. James finds a quotation from Keynes saying more or less the same thing much more eloquently and explains why it is that “zombie” economic ideas, in the sense of John’s book title, are so difficult to kill:

It must have been due to a complex of suitabilities in the doctrine to the environment into which it was projected. That it reached conclusions quite different from what the ordinary uninstructed person would expect added, I suppose, to its intellectual prestige. That its teaching, translated into practice, was austere and often unpalatable, lent it virtue. That it was adapted to carry a vast and logical superstructure, gave it beauty. That it could explain much social injustice and apparent cruelty as an inevitable incident in the scheme of progress, and the attempt to change such things as likely on the whole to do more harm than good, commended it to authority. That it afforded a measure of justification to the free activities of the individual capitalist, attracted to it the support of the dominant social force behind authority.

Anyway, read the whole thing. Happy New Year.

{ 153 comments }

1

JoB 01.04.10 at 12:33 pm

Daniel, your second Tweedledum is perfectly chiastically arranged but unfortunately reads the following way: “Tweddledum”. It would be a pity to leave such a scar on an otherwise extremely enjoyable post.

On a more minor note: Belgian economist Paul de Grauwe (one of those converted neoliberals) has made the following prediction – the more all economist’s projections for 2010 converge, the more the sense of false objectivity from that convergence will delay the realization that the thus converged projection is wholly wrong and unsubstantiated. Also something about hoarding and risk averseness on the part of economists – I guess he is taken aback by the fact his pessimism is not shared or a late realization that an optimistic outlook on the macro-economy does not at all fulfill his sense of fairness.

2

Ginger Yellow 01.04.10 at 1:42 pm

(“Sir Arthur, do you feel you have learned from your mistakes?” “Yes, and I’m confident that I could repeat them exactly”

“Sir Arthur, is it difficult to get ravens to fly under water?”
“Well, I think the word ‘difficult’ is an awfully good one here. Yes, it is – it’s well-nigh impossible.”

3

Nick 01.04.10 at 1:56 pm

Uhh… but what about all the other economists who predicted the crisis. Don’t they get some credit too: http://mises.org/story/3128 ?

4

Luis Enrique 01.04.10 at 2:13 pm

Life’s too short to try and refute this – you have a story you like, and you’re sticking to it, and here at CT, nothing goes down better than economist bashing. Despite all of the profession’s failings, I think Galbraith’s picture is odious bullshit. And of course an insult to the very many economists who are sincerely trying to understand the economy the best way they know how, and are just as interested in the “real economy”[1], just as worried about being wrong, as Mr Galbraith or anybody else. You are over-weighting the usefulness of ‘heterodox’ approaches [2] under-weighting the usefulness of ‘mainstream’ work, and attributing “policies which favour the interests of rich and powerful men” to the latter without any basis. (You just cannot pin excessive trust in financial markets, for example, on mainstream macroeconomics, and mainstream financial economics certainly wouldn’t suggest financial markets can be trusted).

[1] Christ, how I hate it when people like Galbraith sanctimoniously claim to be the only ones interested in the ‘real’ economy
[2] And I write this as a fan and would-be student of some ‘heterodox’ approaches, some of which aren’t as marginalised as you might think. For instance this chap.

5

Barry 01.04.10 at 2:29 pm

Luis Enrique 01.04.10 at 2:13 pm

“… nothing goes down better than economist bashing. “

Well, the economy went down better than that, as well as the housing market, the stock market…………………….

Perhaps you should stop being sanctimonious, and start listening.

6

Glen Tomkins 01.04.10 at 2:33 pm

A self-refuting argument

“That it afforded a measure of justification to the free activities of the individual capitalist, attracted to it the support of the dominant social force behind authority.”

While the general reader may be most interested in this article of Professor Galbraith’s for its review of some of the economic thinking that’s out there that has a better handle on our current economic crisis than the conventional thinking, the main thrust seems actually to be that these economists labor in undeserved obscurity, and that perhaps if that injustice were corrected, society might be guided by better economic thinking. This item seems to be part of a series about progressives in academia.

I can’t help but think that obscurity probably has considerable survival value for someone who holds these views, and also works at UT, especially, and really, any place in academia. The dominant social force behind authority, both public and the sort of private authority with enough money behind it to run a university, is indeed the individual capitalist. It goes without saying that an institution that funds itself off of an endowment will defend the investments that are its lifeblood. In this era of the 401K, that rubric would include just about everyone who bothers to vote, so even insofar as we actually are still a democracy, even the demos has tied its interests to the capitalists, to roll themselves into one grand and inglorious “investor class”. And that investor class funds public universities. Only obscurity, only the fact that obscurity keeps the folks in charge from noticing this trahison des clercs, is keeping the scholars Galbraith lists from, at the least, being ridden out of town on a rail, and at worst, being burned at the stake.

It’s all well and good to talk about sending banksters to jail where they belong, as Galbraith does towards the end. But for now, and until and unless there is a radical change in the dominant authority, the actual arrangment is that the jailers work for the banksters. And that arrangement holds not just for literal prisons, but also for the jailers of thought, the people who determine what thinking is let loose on society, and what gets held closely in some dungeon. The economists who have it right aren’t getting out of Siberia until after the revolution, they’re not going to cause the revolution.

7

dsquared 01.04.10 at 2:36 pm

the very many economists who are sincerely trying to understand the economy the best way they know how

nah. Not buying it. I think that the killer point here is the objection made by (I think) John Emerson in this comments section, which went:

If you were someone wanting to commission a piece of sloppy, fallacious, politically slanted research in history, biology, sociology or nearly any other subject, you would be picking it up from the dregs of academia – third or fourth tier universities on the margins of accreditation. If, on the other hand, you wanted a piece of research in economics that ignored obvious facts, made elementary logical and mathematical errors and clearly slanted itself in favour of a particular point of view, then you could commission it from the very best-regarded universities in the world, with Nobel Laureates and John Bates Clark medallists to choose from.

This is a sign that there is something terribly, horribly wrong with academic economics, and looking away from it isn’t going to make it go away. Even the “good” economists you’re referring to (who I very much doubt whether they form a majority) aren’t actually helping because they absolutely refuse to police their profession – DeLong and Krugman noted with alarm that Cochrane, Fama and Mankiw were spouting politically motivated crap a year ago, but now they’re all mates again. And then there are people like Martin Feldstein, who really does not seem to have any concern about being wrong on subjects like Social Security privatisation, which he was apparently pushing once more at the AEA meetings.

8

Ceri B. 01.04.10 at 2:42 pm

Luis: Okay, what did the economic mainstream do to support development unlikely to end in major collapse, to warn about impending collapse, or to respond usefully to it once it arrived, then? I mean, I don’t want to be bullying when there are important facts I’m missing. So please fill in the picture.

9

JoB 01.04.10 at 3:20 pm

How should they ‘police their’ profession? (Hopefully by other means than unfriendliness.)

10

krishna 01.04.10 at 3:21 pm

Luis: If most of us were as criminally incompetent, completely wrong and arrogant as some of the leading lights of the mainstream economics profession, we would be unemployed-instead some of these very same people are in powerful policymaking positions today. So, I think your sympathy is misplaced, and you should probably consider the very real consequences of such incompetence. There is far too much intellectual dishonesty among many of the leading lights of this profession, and a very unhealthy willingness to satisfy and enable the political and financial powers that be.

11

Barry 01.04.10 at 3:24 pm

Glen: “. It goes without saying that an institution that funds itself off of an endowment will defend the investments that are its lifeblood. In this era of the 401K, that rubric would include just about everyone who bothers to vote, so even insofar as we actually are still a democracy, even the demos has tied its interests to the capitalists, to roll themselves into one grand and inglorious “investor class”.

Incorrect. I don’t have the figures available, but last I heard, most Americans don’t have any direct or indirect investment in the stock market – remember, more Americans don’t have pensions, and most don’t have 401K’s. Of those that do, most have somewhere around ‘not enough to matter’; a few months of unemployment would drain those investements, even if the stock market wasn’t down at the time due to a recession. And in the current situation, of course, we have a combination of a reduced stock market + high unemployment + high long-term unemployment.

I recall seeing some figures from the late 90′s which put it at 50% of Americans having *any* money in the stock market, direct or indirect, and the median amount for those who did was ~$5,000.

In short, the stock market doesn’t affect most Americans except through the job market.

Now, one wouldn’t know that from hearing the US mass media, but that’s the point, isn’t it? The MSM tends to reflect the interests of the economic elites more than the rest of us.

12

Luis Enrique 01.04.10 at 3:47 pm

I’m not looking away from it, I’m disagreeing with you.

I do not share your remarkable ability to know when Cochrane, Fama and Mankiw are spouting politically motivated crap, as opposed to just getting things wrong and/or having political views that I do not share, and I believe some people have accused De Long and Krugman of spouting politically motivated crap from time to time too. And I do not think Cochrane, Fama and Mankiw are representative of the profession (why not pick Rajan, Deaton, Acemoglu, Tirole, Obstfeld, Heckman or some of this lot). I also do not share John Emerson’s remarkable ability to spot these elementary logical and mathematical errors which I gather permeate the thousands of economics journal articles published each year, although I am sure many such errors exist [1]. Sadly, I find economics difficult, and languish in a world where it is hard to identify the right approach to any given question, let alone the right answers. Sure, I have been horrified by some of the things I have read from economist Nobel winners, but I also am horrified by some of the things I read from eminent figures in other fields. I also do not share your ability to tell the difference between the research clearly slanted in favour of a particular point of view and that which merely reaches a particular conclusion. And I’m not sure what these mendacious “points of view” are – I really think I’d struggle to find many journal articles to fit your bill (perhaps you would like me to provide some papers and you could take a quick glance and point out all the errors and “smokescreens for policies which favour the interests of rich and powerful men”). I think that comment from Emerson is really rather silly – let’s actually look at research commissioned from top rank economists – say the Growth Commission – I think there’s some really good work there, but if anywhere is going to contain conclusions tailored to the interests of the rich and powerful, this will surely bit it. Show me.

In many respects I agree with you … there’s tons about economics which is unsatisfactory, which is another way of saying there’s still lots of work to do, and I agree that sometimes methodology is getting in the way. Not just to do with short-run macro, but all over the place. I just think your picture of mainstream economics and economists is so off beam as to suggest you just don’t know what you are talking about – we could argue about the merits of the actual economic research & theories but you are making assertions about actually existing individuals that could be refuted by meeting them. It’s strange to read such rubbish from somebody who is usually quick to respond sharply to ignorant attacks on say postmodernism or sociology.

[1] I do hope you are not referring to ‘errors’ of the sort that would only have merit if you were meant to take the model as a simulacrum of reality.

13

dsquared 01.04.10 at 3:52 pm

#8 – basically in the same way in which the profession actually has policed out people whose work doesn’t fit into the shared Tweedle paradigm (as ably described by Paul Krugman). Not hiring them for prestigious jobs, not publishing articles unless they can justify themselves on the basis of hard facts to people who don’t agree with their conclusions, not building prestigious research institutes in honour of Milton Friedman if they’re going to be staffed by people like Cochrane and Fama, etc etc. The fact that this is more or less sociologically impossible for the economics profession is the “big, horrible problem” I was talking about in #6.

14

dsquared 01.04.10 at 3:53 pm

I do not share your remarkable ability to know when Cochrane, Fama and Mankiw are spouting politically motivated crap

Of course you do Luis – you know what an accounting identity is and you can do arithmetic.

15

Kevin Donoghue 01.04.10 at 3:58 pm

“… DeLong and Krugman noted with alarm that Cochrane, Fama and Mankiw were spouting politically motivated crap a year ago, but now they’re all mates again.”

Are you sure? I read DeLong and Krugman most days and I missed this reconciliation. And I don’t think it’s quite fair to associate Mankiw with the other two. Yes, his crap often seems to be politically motivated but he knows his Keynesian economics, in sharp contrast to Fama and Cochrane, who take pride in their ignorance.

16

Marc 01.04.10 at 4:05 pm

Sorry Luis – you will find precious little support from other members of the academy here, including those who are normally sympathetic to claims of expertise and hostile to anti-intellectualism. I only have to go to the television, or editorials, or to many other outlets to hear right-wing economists – prominent ones – spouting, yes, completely counter-factual claims.

I assume that you’re fully aware of the very public disputes between Cochrane and Krugman/Delong, for example. As a scientist, Cochrane’s reply to Krugmans attack looked like pure hackwork, basically confirming the charges leveled against him completely. Scientists do know that equations are only as good as the assumptions used to create them. Cochrane belongs to a type that we know all too well, and in our profession we exile them to the margins or treat them as cranks. Economics appears to totally lack quality control, and instead showers awards on people whose theories are falsified and who still refuse to adjust their theories in the light of contrary evidence.

17

JoB 01.04.10 at 4:09 pm

12- so it’s not an issue of good economists then but it’s a question of success in economics being determined by sociological factors and not so much by being right economically. Are maybe it’s just a matter of a pervasive lack of humility; maybe modern economists think they are the heirs of Diderot and Einstein combined; maybe they think they can make The Grand Unified Theory, and so lead mankind across the dangerous oceans …

18

dsquared 01.04.10 at 4:10 pm

Yes, his crap often seems to be politically motivated but he knows his Keynesian economics

So does Feldstein, but he was saying arithmetically inconsistent things in the context of Social Security privatisation before this whole thing was brought to a head by the crisis.

19

dsquared 01.04.10 at 4:12 pm

maybe modern economists think they are the heirs of Diderot and Einstein combined; maybe they think they can make The Grand Unified Theory, and so lead mankind across the dangerous oceans

No I don’t think so – I think most of them are, like Luis, doing the best they can with a totally broken toolkit, and in a sociological environment that rewards certain kinds of conformity.

20

Luis Enrique 01.04.10 at 4:16 pm

Marc,

“As a scientist”. So you have found evidence that economics is intellectually bankrupt, and your sample selection procedure was …?

Cochrane made a fool of himself, sure.

21

Glen Tomkins 01.04.10 at 4:17 pm

Barry,

Most Americans don’t vote. If they did, we’ld be governed by at least Social Democrats, if not plain Socialists, if not Marxists. The Democrats and Republicans, unless they retooled their positions drastically, would be left squabbling over the far right of the electorate, and the far upscale of the electorate. The effect of 95%+ of those eligible to vote actually registering, and then actually voting, would be even more dramatic in key states. Texas would move from being one of the most radically conservative states in the Union, to probably the most radically Socialist. One of the results of such shifts in the composition of the electorate would be that eligibility to vote would be widened, as the folks who would, under this 99%+ turnout regime, would dominate politics, sought to further strengthen that dominance.

Among those who do vote, holders of 401Ks or some other of the alphabet soup of completely irresponsible govt inducements to pour money into a secondary market, for retirement, or for their children’s education, or folks who are keenly aware that their employer-administered pension fund is stock-market based, make up a clear majority. Nor would I take as indicative of importance to them a median size of “investment” that is low only because it is pulled down by the large numbers of people just starting their college or retirement funds, and who therefore have only small amounts “invested” so far. These people think, and then act, in terms of what they plan to have in the NYSE when they’re age 65, or their kids age 18, not by what’s there now.

Social Security and Medicare are sometimes referred to as the “third rails” of American politics. While there’s some truth to that idea, the very fact that politicians can refer to these programs that way is an indicator that they are not considered so sacred by so many that this blasphemy is fatal to their political careers. NYSE prices have become the real third rail of American politics. It would be simply unimaginable for a politician to propose any regulatory course of action that would require, encourage, even allow, the DJIA to tumble very far for very long as part of its workings. Concern for the DJIA is one of the factors that makes an institution too big to fail, too big to be allowed to fail without endangering electability. Sure, unemployment isn’t good for electability either, but despite that, our political system seems much readier to let a big employer go under than to let a big pillar of the DOW go under.

22

The Raven 01.04.10 at 4:26 pm

“I think most of them are, like Luis, doing the best they can with a totally broken toolkit, and in a sociological environment that rewards certain kinds of conformity.”

And–plucking at my bone harp again, which is hard to do with a beak–an education which failed to inculcate basic scientific ethics. To quote my own blog, “Without basic honesty, without the ability to admit error, without the tools of criticism and review, there is no way to arrive at scientific truth.” (I’ve been writing about this forever, seems like, though not that long under this name.) But read Galbraith. He knows more than me & he sure says it purdy.

23

The Raven 01.04.10 at 4:27 pm

“So you have found evidence that economics is intellectually bankrupt, and your sample selection procedure was …?”

Look out the window. Or is your ivory tower too high for you to see the crowd of people in in the street?

24

mpowell 01.04.10 at 4:30 pm

It’s an interesting question as to how to ‘fix’ a profession that has gone awry. Clearly, the internal quality controls that dsquared wishes to see in the field of academic economics are not going to suddenly spring into existence. After all, many of the people who need policing are the ones actually doing the job. Is it more reasonable to hope that the economics field will reform itself or to aspire to persuade university presidents that they should direct funding towards alternative departments trying to pick up the research that the economics departments ignore and devalue? If you think the latter approach is better, mocking economics as a profession on a regular basis is probably a good idea. Even if it offends Luis Enrique.

25

JoB 01.04.10 at 4:38 pm

18- that’s fair enough at a certain level but I do think that economy has the arrogant dominance that physics once had and encyclopedic knowledge before it; the sociological environment that you decry is perhaps non-coincidentally collocated with a certain sense of ‘world saviour status’ and economy as the ultimate knowledge now we’re well rid of God, metaphysics and the GUT. I believe there’s something in this, I wouldn’t see why economists or sociologically different from sociologists (to pick somebody) except for the fact that they get all of the attention and are not self-critical enough to tell at least themselves that they’re not worth it.

26

JoB 01.04.10 at 4:40 pm

In the sense of 23 Krugman most definitely is part of the problem, by the way, albeit in a rather likeable and less incorrect way than the majority of freshwater fish.

27

Luis Enrique 01.04.10 at 4:47 pm

#21 that’s too stupid and offensive to respond to. #22 beg the question, why not #23 see how arrogant I am! I’m like some kind of God.

28

peter ramus 01.04.10 at 4:48 pm

The reason is not that there has been no recent work into the nature and causes of financial collapse. Such work exists. But the lines of discourse that take up these questions have been marginalized, shunted to the sidelines within academic economics. Articles that discuss these problems are relegated to secondary journals, even to newsletters and blog posts. The scholars who betray their skepticism by taking an interest in them are discouraged from academic life—or if they remain, they are sent out into the vast diaspora of lesser state universities and liberal arts colleges. There, they can be safely ignored.

This is pure Emerson.

29

marcel 01.04.10 at 5:06 pm

#23 Mpowell: Is it more reasonable … to aspire to persuade university presidents that they should direct funding towards alternative departments trying to pick up the research that the economics departments ignore and devalue?

Something like this happened recently at Notre Dame (see here, here and here), IIRC.

30

bob mcmanus 01.04.10 at 5:25 pm

Galbraith is still trying to reform the profession and push sane policy. He is still at ther table, still welcome in the halls of Congress. Sorry, not useful, he is talking to the wrong people.

Mosley Mosler is out speaking to labor groups,telling them the Fed can give them jobs.

The likes of Cochrane and Prescott have as much importance as Louis to Robespierre, and anyone attacking freshwater economics is giving it life support, trying to brake the Overton.

There is no New New Deal 2.0 coming from this elite. The economists have totally blown it, mis-educated two generations, and made revolution a necessity. They have insured there is no “Brain Trust” available up to the challenge, so the economists have pretty much guaranteed fascism.

31

Barry 01.04.10 at 5:38 pm

Luis Enrique 01.04.10 at 4:16 pm

“Marc,

“As a scientist”. So you have found evidence that economics is intellectually bankrupt, and your sample selection procedure was …?”

To notice that one can fill one’s basket with deliberately fraudulent statements/statements which could be honest but fail Econ 101, and do it all from the top schools and the top people.

32

geo 01.04.10 at 5:47 pm

the production of more or less mendacious intellectual smokescreens for policies which favour the interests of rich and powerful men isn’t a sort of industrial pollution from the modern economics profession – it’s the product

Exactly right, and a compelling argument against the glass ceiling. Why shouldn’t rich and powerful women benefit equally from the superbly effective apologetics of contemporary academic economists?

33

mpowell 01.04.10 at 5:55 pm

25: I’m not begging the question, I’m taking the corruption of the economics professions as a settled point in the debate. I may agree that there are economists trying to do good work, but if the rot is so deep that reform must come from the adaption of an entirely separate academy, worrying about the feelings of the ‘good’ economists is not sensible.

34

Billikin 01.04.10 at 6:04 pm

“And of course, the old Peter Cook line has never been so relevant as it is to the economics profession now (“Sir Arthur, do you feel you have learned from your mistakes?” “Yes, and I’m confident that I could repeat them exactly”).”

To be fair, if you cannot reproduce the mistakes, you may well not understand them. Or have the ability to control them.

35

roger 01.04.10 at 6:12 pm

Actually, the only fact Luis throws out in is comments is about the 401k. Which is interesting. This is a system that, it is estimated, takes in 50 million people – not by any means close to the whole of the American workforce – and includes, in that number, those who have nominal sums invested. Now, why would Luis mention the 401k? Because it was the centerpiece of one of the great projects of the “great moderation’ – to extrude social insurance from the public sphere to the private sphere – privatizing social security, for instance. The design of the 401k was the proto-type of that project.

Now, Luis seems to think that project was a remarkable success.

There is an economist – one of Galbraith’s ignored – who would beg to differ, Theresa Ghilarducci. Her work has shown that the tax exempt encouragement of 401ks is not only strongly regressive, but encourages what a stream of bad investment – in fact, the kind of misallocation of capital that is the hallmark of the Great Moderation era. Furthermore, the motive for the turn to 401ks was, ultimately, to save firms money on pensions – and on that dimension, it has been an outstanding success. In 2002, Ghilarducci did a study of 827 firms and found that “that 401(k)s allowed employers to reduce pension costs by almost one third. And, if a firm adopted a DC or 401(k) plan between 1981 and 1995 lowered their pension costs per person by about 20%.”.

This is from Ghildarducci’s testimony before the House last year:
http://www.workforce.com/section/00/article/25/94/89.php

Ghilarducci testified that “the shift toward 401(k) plans increases tax expenditures, does little to expand retirement savings and favors workers who need the help least.”

The “shocking results” of the 401(k) design, she said in her testimony, are that “6 percent of taxpayers with incomes over $100,000 per year get 50 percent of the tax subsidies.”

The promotion of such plans is exactly what James Galbraith is talking about – economists who refuse to recognize that they are advocating agendas that produce negative social benefit for the majority of the people, but benefit, to an extraordinary extent, the wealthiest.

36

P O'Neill 01.04.10 at 6:26 pm

Take Galbraith’s section 3, his discussion of Wynne Godley’s work. This is sloppy — it’s the classic conversion of an accounting identity (the savings definition) into a theory, at least insofar he’s claiming to describe what Godley does in such terms. Does Godley’s approach differ from Dean Baker’s in being “embedded explicitly in a framework of accounts”? The people looking at balance sheets and financial flows, including Godley, were making interesting and prescient points. But similar warning signs were flashing from entirely neoclassical products, such as the numerous financial stability reports put out by Central Banks and the IMF. That this content was being buried in qualifications and technicalities says more about the people at the top (CB governors and finance ministers and the sherpas) than about the training or thinking of the people who did the actual work. Now it’s a fair point that the people at the top were themselves products of the neoclassical economics culture. But that’s not a case for throwing out the methodology with the Brown water.

37

Jim Harrison 01.04.10 at 6:43 pm

Looking at this debate from the side, it seems to me that two separate issues are involved: the shaky foundations of neoclassical economics and the persistent misuse of neoclassical economics to promote the financial and ideological interests of elites. Mainstream economics may turn out to have been more astrology than astronomy all along, but it must be admitted that plenty of orthodox economists oppose the dominant neoliberal political economy without questioning the basic assumptions of their discipline. It may be that all economists are charlatans, but not all charlatans are whores.

38

JoB 01.04.10 at 6:53 pm

Luis, I think it was conceded by most here that the economists are not individually the issue but the group dynamics in economics (see also 35) & going all drama queen on us isn’t quite contributing. Personally, I am quite convinced that you are right in a ‘micro kind of way’. Why not convert that in macro and be done with your peers that claim to know the way to ‘La-la’-land, even if we temporarily have to collectively die for a little while to get there.

39

Joaquin Tamiroff 01.04.10 at 6:59 pm

A realistic economics is the study of human frailty not human progress, but economics is defined first as the optimistic study of the stupidity of others, then rationalized into a moral celebration of greed. A disinterested celebration of interested reason?
But there is no necessary logical relation of technical and moral progress. Increased complexity is just that.

Realism implies a certain cynicism about others, so I was raised to understand greed, but also not to be greedy. That duality is lost on both most economists and most liberals. A history of the modern academy would show that the fixation on money began in the 70′s first with the astronomical rise in salaries of administrators and the concomitant shrinking of the salaries of faculty. It became a scandal decades ago. Then the faculty caught on. The culture of contemporary academia, of professional intellectuals, is one of a neoliberal individualism. That some are paid $150,000 or more to preach against neoliberalism is irrelevant.
The choice should not be between vulgar determinism and the vulgar denial of what is at the very least a tendency. It’s annoying that all those so fond of the terminology of “memes” aren’t capable of imagining their own fixations as a prime example. A case of determinism for thee but not for me: and subtext is for other people. The “science” of history has been shown to be bunk, unless its the history of the present.

40

liberal 01.04.10 at 7:13 pm

“…the production of more or less mendacious intellectual smokescreens for policies which favour the interests of rich and powerful men isn’t a sort of industrial pollution from the modern economics profession – it’s the product…”

But this should almost obviously be so.

As economists say, incentives matter. Economists whose scientific claims benefit the pocketbooks of the rich and powerful will obviously do better than those whose don’t.

41

liberal 01.04.10 at 7:23 pm

#11 “Sure, I have been horrified by some of the things I have read from economist Nobel winners, but I also am horrified by some of the things I read from eminent figures in other fields.”

IMHO the difference is that Nobelists in other fields might utter garbage on occasion, but the work for which they were awarded the Nobel isn’t. That’s in stark contrast to economics.

42

liberal 01.04.10 at 7:27 pm

#11 “I also do not share your ability to tell the difference between the research clearly slanted in favour of a particular point of view …”

Here’s an example: real business cycle theory and similar theories had no sincere empirical motivation, but rather were primarily motivated by ideology.

43

Bloix 01.04.10 at 7:38 pm

#39 – it’s not a Nobel prize! The Nobel Prize in economics is to the real science Nobel prizes as economics is to the real sciences.

44

Map Maker 01.04.10 at 7:48 pm

“IMHO the difference is that Nobelists in other fields might utter garbage on occasion, but the work for which they were awarded the Nobel isn’t. That’s in stark contrast to economics.”

Cough, cough, Nobel Prize for War calling …

Feldstein didn’t get a Nobel Prize for his work in social security reform …

As for # 33 – “tax expenditures” ah, life in the 1970s … Isn’t every dime that any individual or corporation “allowed” to keep not a tax expenditure?

45

Alex 01.04.10 at 7:49 pm

Well, there are two rough patterns for professional recovery from intellectual catastrophe – internal and external. Internal is the history of medicine post-Lister – the Listerians, who had both a coherent theory of why the patients were dying (germs), an effective experimental method to demonstrate this (microscopy and bacteriology) and a set of effective technical solutions (antiseptics, surgical anaesthesia, and eventually antibiotics), took over and retroactively altered history as taught to look like the heretics were not only right, but accepted, all along and the great classics foreshadowed them intellectually. See also computing after the Software Crisis and the Garmisch conference.

External is astronomy vs. astrology. The astronomers seceded from astrology, and thrashed the corpse until they cut it up small enough to move it out of the way.

Of course, you can’t hope for total sterilisation – apparently there were still Galenic medical practitioners in Iraq in the 1970s, and of course a lot of people still believe in astrology. But if James K. Glassman is reduced to being the National Enquirer’s stock tipster in 20 years…ah, good point. Economics is more like medicine than astronomy in that it’s quite common for it to be safety critical. Glassman’s financial advice could still seriously harm members of the public.

Better aim for the coup option then.

46

Sperry 01.04.10 at 7:58 pm

@39 the work for which they were awarded the Nobel isn’t [garbage]

Ignoring of course Shockley’s transistors, Kissinger’s peaceful interventions in Cambodia, lobotomies, etc…

Or perhaps judging an entire field on the basis of who gets what silly prize at the end of the year is absurd (Naipaul won the Nobel! Literature is dead and/or intellectually suspect!).

47

SamChevre 01.04.10 at 8:11 pm

If you were someone wanting to commission a piece of sloppy, fallacious, politically slanted research in history, biology, sociology or nearly any other subject, you would be picking it up from the dregs of academia – third or fourth tier universities on the margins of accreditation.

Huh? Bellesiles was a tenured professor at Emory. (History)
And Pinker and Herrnstein were both tenured at Harvard in psychology.

And sociology? It’s not corrupt, so far as I can tell, because it’s of no use or interest to anyone other than sociologists.

48

Popeye 01.04.10 at 8:15 pm

Yes, who would want to judge the economics profession by Paul Samuelson, Simon Kuznets, John Hicks, Kenneth Arrow, Milton Friedman, Robert Solow, Gary Becker, Paul Krugman, Ronald Coase, etc.? After all, “Titanic” won Best Picture and Kissinger won a Peace Prize.

One common cause of economics slipping into “fact-free ideology” is that many economists have tried to create a physics of human social/economic/political behavior, so that parsimonious mathematical principles are purported to explain vast chunks of reality. I’m not sure that this is entirely reducible to serving the interests of the rich… although I imagine that believers in a “natural social order” are quite often supporters of the status quo.

49

Sperry 01.04.10 at 8:26 pm

@44

Continuing with this bizarre ‘holier than economics’ mentality, the hard sciences are burdened with physicists whose swamplands are no more palatable the sweetwaters, and it wasn’t too long ago that this blog in no uncertain terms expressed its disappointment with Prof. West’s corpus without having to call into question the validity of top-tier AfAm programs.

50

Sperry 01.04.10 at 8:27 pm

*palatable than sweetwaters

51

Barry 01.04.10 at 8:30 pm

#11 “Sure, I have been horrified by some of the things I have read from economist Nobel winners, but I also am horrified by some of the things I read from eminent figures in other fields.”

It’s not uttering garbage, but uttering garbage about things in their field. When Joe Nobel Blow in field X starts blowing hot air about field Y, it’s somebody spouting off about something that they don’t know anything about, which is the human condition.

Whaen Joe Nobel Blow in field X starts blowing hot air about field X, it’s something else entirely.

52

Sperry 01.04.10 at 8:42 pm

@47

Again, is economics like that time Joe Nobel Blow (in field X) started blowing hot air about lobotomies (also in field X) and tens of thousands of people lost their prefontal lobes [thereby establishing that the entire field of medicine is "sloppy & fallacious" , or is more like that time the claims of water memory/homeopathy got published in Nature, [there by demonstrating that the whole of biochemistry was "criminally incompetent"]?

53

Sperry 01.04.10 at 8:44 pm

That last one could’ve used an edit or two.

54

Steve LaBonne 01.04.10 at 8:59 pm

Sperry, is that really the best you can do, a 1932 Nobel prize for a therapy (not a scientific discovery) that actually was not altogether in defensible as such before the discovery of neuroleptic drugs a decade and a half after the award, and one Nature editor’s dumb decision on one manuscript? Because if so, with friends like you the economists don’t need enemies.

55

gmoke 01.04.10 at 9:12 pm

Anybody read or watched Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize speech? Any thoughts?

She is one economist who has done real fieldwork and laboratory experimentation to see exactly how people manage common pool resources. She has a lot to teach us all about how real economies, not theoretical ones, actually work.

Of course, her work is not very well known and she gets no respect by the important people just like Brooksley Born and Elizabeth Warren, troublesome women all.

56

ejh 01.04.10 at 9:15 pm

Economics is more like medicine than astronomy

Yeah but it’s more like astrology than either.

57

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.04.10 at 9:32 pm

It’s not like medicine or astronomy or astrology. It’s like a state religion.

58

Sperry 01.04.10 at 9:44 pm

@54

I’m no friend of economists, and the examples weren’t the best, just the most colorful. A more apt comparison would be that half of the physics community (including myself) thinking that so-called “string theory” (a rough grouping that includes any number positions) is a non-starter, unscientific, incapable of modeling reality, or whatever. In any case, these sorts of disagreements don’t lead to the dismissal of physics in toto, just like a few controversial Nobels/Riksbanks (I assume Friedman’s is the award you are upset about) hardly warrant such treatment.

Henri may be right in comparing economics to a state religion, it’s not because it suffers from less controversy than the hard sciences though, and entirely because public policy is more obviously influenced by Chicago’s Economic Department than its participation in CERN’s collision research.

59

Steve LaBonne 01.04.10 at 9:55 pm

String theory is probably a pretty good analogue of economics. Fortunately almost nothing else in natural science is like that, as your remarkably lame examples illustrate in a negative way.

60

Marc 01.04.10 at 10:14 pm

There is a core difference Sperry: string theorists would lose whatever respect they have within the profession if they refused to acknowledge data contrary to theory. Granted, it is an, um, advantage for string theory that it makes few if any testable predictions. It’s that feature which leads to sentiments like yours. Personally I view string theory as clever math and not physics per se, and therefore think it’s worth having some folks thinking about it.

By contrast, we can see prominent economists – leaders in the field by any measure – who say things which are not so, and who continue to promote their theories despite copious evidence that they were terribly wrong. There is simply no equivalent in the physical or biological sciences, nor are they apparently rethinking their models or assumptions in reaction to what has occurred.

61

Joaquin Tamiroff 01.04.10 at 10:44 pm

I think the parallels are to literary or political theory and philosophy that refuse to respond to actual data [product of empiricism] that undermine their formalisms. You can develop formal truths that will not represent the world outside themselves, or you can settle for imperfects description of the world. Some people choose the former and try to claim them as a model of representation. To go back to an earlier thread, I call that a good description of “Modernism,” of a specific response to the problem of modernity.
String theory may be beautiful math. I dunno.

62

Barry 01.04.10 at 11:00 pm

Glen Tomkins 01.04.10 at 4:17 pm

Barry,

“Most Americans don’t vote. If they did, we’ld be governed by at least Social Democrats, if not plain Socialists, if not Marxists. The Democrats and Republicans, unless they retooled their positions drastically, would be left squabbling over the far right of the electorate, and the far upscale of the electorate. The effect of 95%+ of those eligible to vote actually registering, and then actually voting, would be even more dramatic in key states. Texas would move from being one of the most radically conservative states in the Union, to probably the most radically Socialist. One of the results of such shifts in the composition of the electorate would be that eligibility to vote would be widened, as the folks who would, under this 99%+ turnout regime, would dominate politics, sought to further strengthen that dominance.”

Agreed. Andrew Gelman (Author of ‘Rich State Poor State, Red State Blue State’) once posted a map showing the electoral vote breakdown by the thirdtiles (?) of the income distruction. For the bottom third, the map is almos pure blue. For the middle third, mostly blue – for the top third, mostly red.

“Among those who do vote, holders of 401Ks or some other of the alphabet soup of completely irresponsible govt inducements to pour money into a secondary market, for retirement, or for their children’s education, or folks who are keenly aware that their employer-administered pension fund is stock-market based, make up a clear majority. “

Now this I’ll disagree with. And (anticipating what comes later), I’ll strongly disagree that the majority of voters have (or rather had) a 401(k) balance worth more than 2-3 months’ income. Which meant that a layoff would be infinitely more punishing than a total loss of their 401(k).

“Nor would I take as indicative of importance to them a median size of “investment” that is low only because it is pulled down by the large numbers of people just starting their college or retirement funds, and who therefore have only small amounts “invested” so far. These people think, and then act, in terms of what they plan to have in the NYSE when they’re age 65, or their kids age 18, not by what’s there now.”

I agree that most Americans vote as if they had a better chance to be rich than they do, but I disagree with this. Particularly as voting is positively correlated with age, which means that there is a high percentage of voters who are middle-aged or older, and should have few illusions about their late-life wealth than a 20-something just out of college.

“Social Security and Medicare are sometimes referred to as the “third rails” of American politics. While there’s some truth to that idea, the very fact that politicians can refer to these programs that way is an indicator that they are not considered so sacred by so many that this blasphemy is fatal to their political careers. “

Nah, it says ‘touch and die’. And US politics fits this reasonably well – SS is being looted, but very indirectly.

“NYSE prices have become the real third rail of American politics. It would be simply unimaginable for a politician to propose any regulatory course of action that would require, encourage, even allow, the DJIA to tumble very far for very long as part of its workings. Concern for the DJIA is one of the factors that makes an institution too big to fail, too big to be allowed to fail without endangering electability. Sure, unemployment isn’t good for electability either, but despite that, our political system seems much readier to let a big employer go under than to let a big pillar of the DOW go under.”

63

Tim Wilkinson 01.04.10 at 11:07 pm

Well said!

Of course Sperry & Luis etc are missing a trick, because this post can easily be described as a ‘conspiracy theory’ – and thus to be discounted without the need for any investigation or consideration at all. (Sperry seems to think the same applies to odd scientific hypotheses like ‘water memory’ – though that’s a bad example because as a non-scientist I’d presume it false – and if I thought it worth bothering to look into, I imagine I would find it had been pretty conclusively discredited – by the orthodox experts in the field.)

As with other true (or highly credible) quasi-conspiracy theories, a big task is explaining to those who are implicated but not themselves actually self-consciously bent, and to those who know them or respect them, or just assume a general low incidence of corruption, how such a thing can happen without involving weekly meetings of thousands of psychopaths in a vast (smoke-filled, preferably underground) auditorium.

One mechanism which has effect only once the corruption of the field has been achieved is a ‘self-selection filter’. [Autobiographical illustration: I myself chose to get out of economics (no great loss given my subsequent wastrel life, but it could have been - I was, fwiw described by my economics tutor at a minor Oxford college as the most able student he'd had for years) because I thought there was just too much too radically wrong with what I was being taught. Having drunkenly told a much more junior tutor that it was 'the son of Satan's arse and [hyperbole] a subject fit only for imbeciles’ I ended up doing philosophy at London instead, which was easy – apart from the history bits – because I didn’t have to learn and regurgitate stuff I believed to be false and utterly misguided.]

Also relevant – Jim Harrison @35: Looking at this debate from the side, it seems to me that two separate issues are involved: the shaky foundations of neoclassical economics and the persistent misuse of neoclassical economics to promote the financial and ideological interests of elites.
Kind-of, but not really separate in sociological terms – nor enirely separable in theoretical terms. Plenty of feedback from the needs of ideologues to the framing of research projects. And a kind of ‘divide and conquer’ strategy (metaphorical perhaps – I’m describing the phenomena, not leaping to intentional explanations) operates, whereby honest specialists in particular areas of theory can well see that their particular pixel is not the colour it’s (vulgarly) supposed to be, but still the overall picture (i.e. everyone else’s pixels) is assumed to be more or less as advertised.
Mainstream economics may turn out to have been more astrology than astronomy all along, but it must be admitted that plenty of orthodox economists oppose the dominant neoliberal political economy without questioning the basic assumptions of their discipline. It may be that all economists are charlatans, but not all charlatans are whores.
Surely sex workers are rarely if ever charlatans, but that bit of prissiness aside, I’d say it’s as above – to get to be an orthodox economist you have to learn – and probably to some degree internalise – the orthodoxy, then you specialise and go off into your Chinese room. To some extent the results you pass back out have to mesh with the generalised body of theory or no-one knows what to do with them.

Of course, plenty of self-aware corruption in pursuit of the usual same-old-same-old money prestige fame etc too, especially clearly among journos etc that are obviously ideologues and obviously paid to be. But that’s not usually the whole story in any quasi-conspiracy. There are plenty of unware participants, cowardly non-blowers of whistles, useful idiots, instinctive self-protectors, ostrich-heads and someone-else’s-problem merchants, as well as the marginalised honest brokers.

[Q: even if one believed straightforward conscious corruption to be the dominant driver behind an observed 'quasi-conspiracy', would face-saving, figleafing and other rhetorical considerations make it (a) politic, (b) justifiable to construct just-so stories about (another JKGism) 'innocent fraud'?]

I don’t think many quasi-conspiracies can be reduced to the classic smoky room scenario, and I think (social) psychology, game theory, history and social sciences, among other disciplines, are all relevant to getting a better understanding of how these phenomena work.

Anyway that’s just my own take – and without projecting any of it on Daniel, I’d still like to say how pleasing it is to hear such forthright sentiment from someone with web-credibility.

64

Tim Wilkinson 01.04.10 at 11:15 pm

Relevant to the above (currently in moderation as a spam-suspect), C.S. Lewis’s The Inner Ring, which I happened to be revisiting only yesterday:

To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colors. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still-just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naif, or a prig-the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which is not quite in accordance with the technical rules of fair play: something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”-and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure-something “we always do.” And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face-that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face-turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude: it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

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djw 01.04.10 at 11:16 pm

She is one economist who has done real fieldwork and laboratory experimentation to see exactly how people manage common pool resources. She has a lot to teach us all about how real economies, not theoretical ones, actually work.

Very true. She’s also, perhaps not coincidentally, not an actually an economist.

66

Ted 01.05.10 at 12:18 am

I think it is unfair to write off the whole discipline of economics. Anybody who has studied any graduate level economics, knows that Macro is a complete con; nothing short of bullshit and twaddle. Macro’s main problem is hubris. The conceit of thinking they can sit in their air-conditioned university offices, occasionally descending to deliver lectures, (which look like low-rent physics) on how to plug and play the whole of civilization, controlling history in the process is surely sign of psychological disturbance, rather than “science”.

The discipline of economics needs to boot macro out. The proper place for macro thinking, research, and policy implications is departments of Government, Sociology, and Public Administration. For us non-economists to watch people like Krugman (and his self-anointment as leader of the ‘saltwater’ free-world) screeching all over the MSM how it is they who are the saints and messiahs – who will deliver us from the U.Chicago desert of the pharoes of “freshwater economics” – is not only hubristic, and bizarre, but extremely irritating. He and his ilk are just as much the problem.

The first step we need to take is to stop the Nobel Prize in Economics; then boot the macroeconomists out.

67

Ted 01.05.10 at 12:32 am

The history of the GFC, and the nature of the issues it amplifies, are not issues for macroeconomics. Real learning from that experience is coming from Micro in work on mechanism design, contract theory, and so on. And for god sake, can we just bury Keynes as well!

68

Joaquin Tamiroff 01.05.10 at 1:13 am

It’s not a conspiracy theory. I’ll make my argument one more time and be done with it.

Chomsky’s attack on Skinner: Not because he was wrong but because he had to be: because the results were morally offensive. Chomsky attacked not only Skinner but empiricism and has been forced back again and again by the results of experiment and observation and the data that have come from it. His theories are toast: mythologies that he holds onto because for whatever reason he thinks he must. He’s considered the world’s most important intellectual only on account of his empiricism of his reportage. His moral philosophy begins in a Jewish intellectual idealism not unlike the Chicago economists of the same generation.

Donald Davidson: On “Conceptual Schemes”: empirically provable as false. You cannot “translate” Pushkin. Full stop.

The Trolley Problem: In the search for context-free truths evidence in the history of responses to this problem in actually existing society are ignored. The military is run on utilitarianism to the point where it is the job of some men to decide the fate of others. They are not allowed to even eat at the same table. Friendships, in the strict sense of the term, are forbidden. Common sense morality can be defined as morality among equals. Utilitarianism puts a strain on the community, that can be resolved through use of formal structures. An anthropologist will recognize these roles immediately, but philosophy can not, for reasons that are ideological. There is not “right” answer to the trolley problem.

Rawls: Begins with a speculative fiction, the study of which has at the very least slowed us down in our understanding of ourselves. Raymond Geuss seems to have figured that out.

None of this is first and foremost a conspiracy. But it does become absurd

69

bianca steele 01.05.10 at 1:52 am

krishna: Which is it? Are they incompetent, or are they all too competent at defending the interests of the wealthy? (People who are incompetent at almost anything they put their minds to, and who also are bound and determined to defend the interests of the wealthy, are too depressing to contemplate.)

Alex: Any insight as to why the Software Crisis of 1968 is relevant, given the almost non-existent historiography of the history of computing? That’s one of the sketchiest Wikipedia articles I’ve ever seen.

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Glen Tomkins 01.05.10 at 2:07 am

#35

But how do you end the hayride? How are we going to stop the 401K program, and Roths and IRAs and the TSP, etc., etc., now that we have lured millions of people into markets that might deflate significantly if we cut off the supply of new suckers, of new cash flowing into the market out of the pockets of people who have no business being there, who wouldn’t put their money there without the inducement of these programs?

71

Cranky Observer 01.05.10 at 2:44 am

> [1] Christ, how I hate it when people like Galbraith sanctimoniously
> claim to be the only ones interested in the ‘real’ economy

The problem is that it takes 5-10 years at a manufacturing company, as well as some extraordinary hard work and/or clout and/or luck, to work yourself into a position where you start to see how decisions such as capital allocation, personnel management, and pricing are actually made. And in many organizations if you aren’t a member of the “ruling” social class (e.g. white male midwesterner from working class background with engineering degree from one of 20 universities) then you aren’t ever going to get to that point [1]. Whereas getting a PhD in Economics (in the US at least) means going directly from undergraduate to graduate studies and not spending that 5-10 years in an actual living, breathing, messy, theory-ignoring

Which leads to, e.g. Brad DeLong pontificating about how “firms” make “pricing decisions” without ever having sat in an actual pricing meeting where he would have learned that essentially none of the theoretical models that economists use to discuss pricing are even close to being used, and that those decisions are often made on utterly irrational factors (e.g. dislike of the VP of Sales for the VP of Manufacturing).

Cranky

[1] A respected and famous sociologist spent 10 years doing an in-depth study of one firm where I worked. Having read some of the outcomes of that study it is pretty clear to me that in 10 years not a single employee told him or his graduate assistants the truth about anything important. Not one.

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Tim Wilkinson 01.05.10 at 2:46 am

Joaquin Tamiroff @68: It’s not a conspiracy theory.

First, I was talking about the OP – on economics – and said it can easily be described as one, not that it is one. In any case, usage of that term is heavily loaded and highly problematic.

I’m not sure what putative phenomenon you are describing exactly, but I agree it doesn’t seem to be on all fours with what I’ve called ‘quasi-conspiracy’ – a superset of ordinary conspiracy – which (as a rough first try) has the elements of (a) undesirable and (b) coordinated/confluent activity on the part of (c) high-status/trusted persons, which (d) has every appearance of subserving an unacknowledged goal.

Just to expand slightly on what I’m getting at (and not addressing JT in particular now): Chomsky is coincidentally relevant – his rather basic ‘propaganda model’ would be one kind of explanation for a quasi-conspiracy. But he plays down actually conspiratorial elements – to the point that he once said ‘who cares’ whether any 9/11 ‘conspiracy theories’ are true (here I am required to add the tiresome and irrelevant disavowal of belief in ‘smoky room’ 9/11 theories). Marxian and other ruling class theories are another, and ‘invisible hand’-type explanations another.

It’s a rather obviously silly and unnecessary step in such modes of explanation to insist that they are incompatible with explanations in terms of ordinary conspiratorial behaviour: institutional (say) explanations may incorporate conspiratorial elements, e.g. the intentional exercise of proprietorial control over editorial content, which Chomskty treats as a simple mechanism too obvious to analyse: ‘How do corporations control the media? They don’t have to [sic] – they own them’. By not addressing the mixed conspiratorial and merely quasi-conpiratorial mechanisms involed, he ironically enough leaves pure ‘smoky room’ theories as the default interpretation. And in doing that, he tends to alienate anyone who doesn’t think all journalists are craven, corrupt or dishonest enough routinely to go along with being directly ordered to falsify the news.

Further, conspiracy explanations can be nested inside systems-based ones, and vice versa: e.g. a conspiracy to institute a particular invisible-hand system (it could be a conspiracy of Rawlsians, or of so-called free-market economists: ‘laisser-faire le fait accompli’). Or conversely, an impersonal institutional structure which tends to produce conspiratorial behaviour might be posited. Smith himself, with his ‘conspiracy against the public’ remark, kind-of implied that the invisible hand of capitalism/’laisser-faire’ had an evil (sinister?) twin. And any Marxian scheme which is in the slightest bit fact-sensitive would have to allow that, trapped by historical forces or not, ruling classes do their ruling in conspiratorial ways.

But instead of such a any mention of the C word elicits howls of ourage or at least disavowal from all quarters however radical, and false dichotomies pop up as numerous and unwonted as Grays in Midwestern bedrooms. (You have to do utterly tedious and unfunny jokes like that too, so everyone knows you are not a Paranoid Cultic Pseudohistorian.) The strange behaviour that tends to be exhibited (and enforced) by most people – more so the more Serious they take themselves to be or are taken to be or want to be taken to be – itself has many of the features of quasi-conspiracy.

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Tim Wilkinson 01.05.10 at 2:50 am

For anyone who makes it to the last para, that should be ‘But instead of such an approach being routine, any mention of…’

74

Jerry Vinokurov 01.05.10 at 3:06 am

I hate to derail this discussion, but I was wondering if I could ask Joaquin to elaborate on this:

Donald Davidson: On “Conceptual Schemes”: empirically provable as false. You cannot “translate” Pushkin. Full stop.

I’m genuinely confused and I’m trying to understand what you mean here. Since I read both Russian and English fluently, I’ve read Pushkin (and Shakespeare too) in both languages, so I’m not sure what your statement is referring to. I’m assuming you’re not using translation in the common sense in which it is understood but rather in some technical sense and I’d appreciate it if you could enlighten me.

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AlanDownunder 01.05.10 at 3:30 am

Tim @63,

A just accolade and a useful addition.

Motivation to persist in becoming a Tweeconomist is rarely the search for truth and clearly not the allure of beauty (Minskian maths being decidedly non-Tweedle, not to mention being beyond pretty much all Tweedles).

More commonly, the motivation is psychological disposition to join a Henri’s priesthood, if not a simple commonsense desire to at all costs avoid being a loser.

76

Sandwichman 01.05.10 at 4:55 am

dsquared @7: “they absolutely refuse to police their profession…”

Not exactly. A lot of policing goes on. It just isn’t in the interests of scientific integrity or truth. The policing that happens is policing against rocking the boat.

77

tcatch 01.05.10 at 6:13 am

@ 71-
Cranky- I’d love to know which sociologist you are talking about. If it’s Robert Jackall, I’ll have to rethink my whole business ethics class.

78

dsquared 01.05.10 at 7:59 am

Which leads to, e.g. Brad DeLong pontificating about how “firms” make “pricing decisions” without ever having sat in an actual pricing meeting where he would have learned that essentially none of the theoretical models that economists use to discuss pricing are even close to being used

This is a generalisation and not always true. In firms where there is something reasonably similar to a marginal cost, pricing is typically set very close to marginal cost (also, the point about economics is that it isn’t a theory about what happens in pricing meetings, it’s a theory of what the conditions are going to be that the pricing meeting has to react to). In firms where marginal cost has no obvious interpretation (there isn’t really such a thing as a “marginal” airliner), you’re right. Simon Ward, who I used to occasionally go out drinking with nearly twenty years(!) ago did a load of really good work on this for the Bank of England.

79

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.05.10 at 8:21 am

@72 By not addressing the mixed conspiratorial and merely quasi-conpiratorial mechanisms involved, he ironically enough leaves pure ‘smoky room’ theories as the default interpretation.

It doesn’t sound like you’ve actually read (or watched) Manufacturing Consent, Tim.

80

JoB 01.05.10 at 8:57 am

What a wonderful harvest over one continental night!

61-” Some people choose the former and try to claim them as a model of representation. To go back to an earlier thread, I call that a good description of “Modernism” – of a specific response to the problem of modernity.”

Way to go Joaquin!, I thought at that time before it got absurd. Economist are indeed the last of the modernists, believing as the most popular do in the final analysis.

63- “and without projecting any of it on Daniel, I’d still like to say how pleasing it is to hear such forthright sentiment from someone with web-credibility.”

Ouch!

66- “The proper place for macro thinking, research, and policy implications is departments of Government, Sociology, and Public Administration.”

& Why is that not the solution? Why not split economics in the way metaphysics was once split – give the honorific older titles to the modernist prophets of macro-tuning (allowing sociologists, anthroplogists etc. in to keep it a little bit sober) – and give the scientists the new field: quantum economics or something.

71- LOL but in a saddish kind of way, it really would be necessary for the science of behaviour in and of organizations to recruit people who have been part of organizations; it maybe is kind of a new anthropological dilemma (soimebody must surely have published on this though?)

74- Jerry, right on! I guess Joaquin means it in the same way one could try to mean that it’s near impossible to translate Shakespeare into English. But that is Davidson’s point – there are neither many nor a single one conceptual scheme.

Are you, by the way, related to the cyclist? To write the story of his life is something that needs to be done.

81

Chris A. Williams 01.05.10 at 9:04 am

The 1968 software crisis was when programmers (some of whom were wanting to call themselves ‘software engineers’) collectively realised that they’d reached the limit of what rule-of-thumb, making-it-up-as-you-go-along coding could do, and to go any further they’d had to re-visist their first principles. The 1968 Garmisch conference, sponsored by NATO, was an attempt to make programming an engineering science akin to civil engineering.

Did it succeed? Ceruzzi, whose ‘History of Modern Computing’ I happened to be reading last night, which is why I know any of this*, appears to think that it didn’t: unlike (say) in civil engineering where there is wide agreement on methods and standards, software engineering is still a chaotic field. What I think that Alex was getting at was that after 1968, the profession became, and remains, reflexive; in that it’s aware that its claims to total knowledge and ability are limited, and there are big structural problems with their project which need to be tackled, but can perhaps never be solved entirely. Unlike, say, economists.

*Although I already knew, partly through O Level Computer Studies, and partly through hanging out with Alex, that GOTOs are considered harmful.

82

bad Jim 01.05.10 at 9:35 am

On my last visit to Tokyo, eleven or twelve years ago, I met a young woman named Goto who was actually rather charming.

83

Ted 01.05.10 at 9:39 am

The macroeconomics “profession” is less a conspiracy than a confederacy of dunces.

84

Chris A. Williams 01.05.10 at 10:30 am

She might have _been_ charming, Jim, but that doesn’t stop others from _considering_ her harmful.

85

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.05.10 at 11:09 am

It’s been a long time, but wasn’t there some sort of controversy, in which considering it harmful was considered harmful?

86

Ginger Yellow 01.05.10 at 11:18 am

I’d argue that Pushkin is considerably more amenable to translation (into English, anyway) than most “foreign” poets. In fact, that’s exactly what I did argue in my Russian A-level oral. Having said that, you do lose the felicitous naming of Germann the German when translating Pikovaya Dama.

87

Chris A. Williams 01.05.10 at 12:23 pm

Dunno Henri, I haven’t got to that chapter yet. In 1983-84, ISTR that Cambridge University Examinations Syndicate considered GOTOs suitable for teenagers, but there was a proviso that once we grew up, we’d have to put them aside in favour of GOSUBs. Or something.

88

Gareth Rees 01.05.10 at 12:30 pm

Henri: Wikipedia’s article considered harmful has a brief account of the controversy. But note the dates: Rubin’s criticisms were published 20 years later, long after almost everyone had agreed that Dijkstra was right. The most that one might concede to Rubin is that the usual set of structured programming constructs is incomplete: in particular, it needs a better way to handle exceptional exits from nested loops.

89

wjd123 01.05.10 at 12:53 pm

Wow, the guys who had the right idea were writing about the criminalization of institutions, ponzi schemes, and irresponsibility. I’m feeling a bit alienated about the system.

90

krishna 01.05.10 at 1:53 pm

bianca steele@69,

I really don’t know the answer to that. I think it is a mixture of belief in
a certain set of ideas which have little to do with empirical observations
and reality, combined with an identification with a certain set
of interest groups/people. I think a lot of the identification that many
economists have is probably subconscious-as in the economists who
are at the upper echelons of their profession are likely to slant their
views and opinions so as not to upset people who could potentially
offer them jobs and privilege; or they work for hedge funds (“consult”)
and such like which would predispose them to be sympathetic to
the interests of such industry. I have spent a fair amount of time trying to
understand just why they are so good at ignoring economic realities in
favor of their theories and economic ideas, and I still have been unable
to reach any firm conclusion.

I also agree with John Emerson that there are economists and others like
them who try to address many of these questions realistically, but I’ve
found that they are typically ignored and not in the “mainstream”, and
one certainly does not usually see them in positions of policymaking
importance.

91

JoB 01.05.10 at 1:57 pm

To some extent ‘not being mainstream’ and ‘being ignored’ are synonymous. If we’d do all what is proposed outside of the mainstream we’d be in a societal rollercoaster: not a type of kick that many would want to experience constantly.

92

ajay 01.05.10 at 2:15 pm

Having said that, you do lose the felicitous naming of Germann the German when translating Pikovaya Dama.

??
But “German” in Russian isn’t “German” or anything like it, it’s “nyemyets”.

93

Jerry Vinokurov 01.05.10 at 2:29 pm

74- Jerry, right on! I guess Joaquin means it in the same way one could try to mean that it’s near impossible to translate Shakespeare into English. But that is Davidson’s point – there are neither many nor a single one conceptual scheme.

Well, I was vaguely familiar with Davidson’s ideas on conceptual schemes (bear with me, I’m an amateur philosopher in time spent away from physics) but I just went back to read “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,” and while I saw some things in there that made me raise my eyebrows, the notion that something can be translated between languages doesn’t seem all that controversial to me. More than that, it doesn’t seem to me that Davidson is using the word “translate” in any different sense than one would be using it if one were, you know, actually translating something. I can understand the argument that the poetic sense of Pushkin is untranslatable into English (although I would disagree; Pushkin certainly thought that the poetic sense of Byron was translatable into Russian and I find myself convinced by his efforts) but that isn’t the argument Davidson is making.

Are you, by the way, related to the cyclist? To write the story of his life is something that needs to be done.

Heh, you and the Czech railway conductors both want to know (I was asked this question when traveling in Europe a few years ago). The answer is: not that I know of. I don’t think my last name is all that common so I was kind of surprised to find a somewhat-famous person with it. However, when I asked my dad, he said that he was not aware of any Kazakh-based relations. I suspect it’s not impossible that we have a common ancestor in our recent past, but there’s no immediate relation.

94

Andrew N 01.05.10 at 2:37 pm

I believe the problem stems from the fact that economics has the method of scientific inquiry exactly backwards. Economic epistemology doesn’t follow from real life, as it should if it were a genuine form of scientific inquiry, but follows from some abstract theory to which reality is expected to conform. When the complexities of society fail to conform to the perfection of a model, it is the society which is at fault. That is absurd.

In the same way that we know certain methods of agriculture, surgery, astronomy, or chemistry are better than others, “it does not follow that the better methods are ideally perfect. Nor are they regulative or normative because of conformity to some absolute form .” -Dewey

95

Chris Bertram 01.05.10 at 2:48 pm

Joaquin Tamiroff = Seth Edenbaum = Dr Oblivious = banned commenter =
bored observer. Edenbaum is currently subject to a lifetime sitewide ban.

Please go away Seth and don’t come back.

96

Jerry Vinokurov 01.05.10 at 3:08 pm

Joaquin Tamiroff = Seth Edenbaum = Dr Oblivious = banned commenter =
bored observer. Edenbaum is currently subject to a lifetime sitewide ban.

Sorry, didn’t mean to feed any trolls!

97

Ginger Yellow 01.05.10 at 3:12 pm

But “German” in Russian isn’t “German” or anything like it, it’s “nyemyets”.

Indeed, but Hermann, the character’s name in English and his native German, is transliterated into Russian as Germann. Hence Germann the German.

98

Ginger Yellow 01.05.10 at 3:13 pm

OK, technically it’s transliterated as Германн.

99

Tim Wilkinson 01.05.10 at 4:02 pm

JoB @79: someone with web-credibility. Ouch!

Is the perceived slight one to your web-cred, or to your own comparable forthrightness on this topic? I haven’t come across examples of the latter. A lack of the former, as I was thinking of it but (sorry) didn’t devote any of my limited allocation of attention-space to making entirely clear, doesn’t necessarily reflect on the individual: it’s a matter of status, web reputation, citability, etc. Cet. par., I’d say non-anonymity helps, too. It’s somewhat vague and not very fair (not to say Daniel doesn’t have credibility in the general sense of course) – more to do with not being easy for opponents to dismiss than anything else. I was ‘just saying’ it’s nice to see such reputational capital being made use of.

100

Tim Wilkinson 01.05.10 at 4:21 pm

Henri @78: It doesn’t sound like you’ve actually read (or watched) Manufacturing Consent, Tim.

Oh really? What prompts you to offer that slight, then, Henri, if you’ll excuse the patronising use of forename?

Oh, all right then. I just can’t muster the false pride and bloody-minded intransigence required to leave it at that (nor – JoB may note – the web cred to expect to come out of a stand-off particularly well) so I’ll take up the onus that your flip one-liner has dumped all over my contribution.

Proportionate response seems to be to walk over to my bookcases, locate my dog-eared copy of MC, and skim the ‘propaganda model’ section to confirm that it does indeed give little or no attention to the interpersonal dynamics involved in journalistic ‘professionals’ being made to falsify the news, in particular to mechanisms other than direct, openly corrupt, command-and-control…

tum te tum, flank-pat, flank-pat, leaf, leaf…

Yes, confirmed. If you can provide references to another part of the book (or indeed any other book) which does deal with it in any depth, please do. And I mean that sincerely – my pleasure at discovering them will easily compensate for any sheepishness associated with having said a wrong thing.

101

Tim Wilkinson 01.05.10 at 4:26 pm

I’d add that I’m an admirer of Chomsky’s political work in general; this is a minor niggle in the scheme of things. One may well think it’s not his job to provide such explanations, or that there is no need for them except as just-so-stories to persuade the naive and undercut the disingenuous, and one may be right. But I do think Chomsky does, understandably, err on the side of knee-jerk anti-conspiratorialism. His co-author addresses some quasi-conspiratorial aspects here, but those themes aren’t really addressed in MC.

Chomsky does deal with this kind of thing occasionally, e.g. in the 2nd excerpt here. Problem is I think this kind of stuff is much more important in rhetorical terms than Chomsky acknowledges. The introduction of new terms and catchphrases would be one way for the concepts involved to gain currency in popular discourse: imagine if a term as successful as ‘passive-aggressive’, say, were developed to illustrate and encapsulate the phenomena involved…

Not that I’m blaming Chomsky for not doing that. But I do think that he unfairly derides those he regards as chasing irrelevant ‘conspiracy theories’ – a constituency he should be courting and moderating. He thinks that ‘conspiracy theories’ are a distraction. That’s hardly surprising since he defines conspiracy as something abnormal:

all decisions involve people. So the real question is, are there groupings well outside the structures of the major institutions of society which go around them, hijack them, undermine them, pursue other courses without an institutional base, and so on and so forth? And that’s a question of fact[NB not merely of mood music]: do significant things happen because groups or subgroups are acting in secret outside the main structures of institutional power? (Understanding Power, p. 348)

Now given Chomsky’s positive analysis of power institutions, that means ‘conspiracy theories’ are almost automatically of no more than marginal interest, because they are anomalous. So far, so definitional, but it’s not as simple as that because in this area, (re)definitions have a way of being transmuted into substantive theses. Chomsky goes on to say that, insofar as the CIA is just an agency of the White House (and he says it pretty straightforwardly is), whatever it gets up to is not a ‘conspiracy’. Then he goes into full anti-conspiratorial smear mode as he dismisses the “Kennedy-assassination cult”.

102

ajay 01.05.10 at 4:45 pm

Indeed, but Hermann, the character’s name in English and his native German, is transliterated into Russian as Germann. Hence Germann the German.

Oh, I see. Sorry, misread the original sentence – I thought you were saying that “Gherman the German” was something you lost in translation from Russian, rather than something you gained. (“Gherman” is a perfectly legit Russian name. Gherman Titov was the second Russian in space.)

103

JoB 01.05.10 at 4:49 pm

91- the controversy begins not with Davidson but with Quine and the essay you read won’t give the original sense of intranslatability. Quine (short and inexact): philosophical Sapir-Whorf (in the assumption the latter is better known) i.e. relativism, i.e. some things cannot cross cultures. Davidson: there is no such thing as a culture and hence whatever else Quine got right, there’s no such drama as the one implied in de facto segregation of cultures (neither multiple – nor a single cultural point of view, strictly speaking). I don’t know whether this helps.

As to your cycling namesake: he deserves a physicist Pushkin fan writing his life’s story.

Tim, 97- whatever I meant I didn’t mean offense but there is some irony in your reference on a thread discussing how wayward economics has gone based on the credibility of economists.

104

ajay 01.05.10 at 4:53 pm

So the real question is, are there groupings well outside the structures of the major institutions of society which go around them, hijack them, undermine them, pursue other courses without an institutional base, and so on and so forth?…Chomsky goes on to say that, insofar as the CIA is just an agency of the White House (and he says it pretty straightforwardly is), whatever it gets up to is not a ‘conspiracy’.

That’s a rather neat bit of footwork which elides the difference between “things that people in the CIA do, with due authorisation, as legitimate parts of their jobs” and “all the things that people in the CIA do”.

105

Ginger Yellow 01.05.10 at 5:10 pm

Oh, I see. Sorry, misread the original sentence – I thought you were saying that “Gherman the German” was something you lost in translation from Russian, rather than something you gained.

Very much the latter. The character is even introduced with the line: “Германн немец”.

106

Tim Wilkinson 01.05.10 at 5:20 pm

JoB @101 – no offence taken (at what?). But – who better to resist being perfunctorily dismissed as anti-economist (a major component of the relevant species of credibility) than another economist? I don’t think the profession have yet developed concepts of the ‘self-hating’ or ‘inauthentic’ economist.

107

Donald Johnson 01.05.10 at 5:36 pm

“That’s a rather neat bit of footwork which elides the difference between “things that people in the CIA do, with due authorisation, as legitimate parts of their jobs” and “all the things that people in the CIA do”.”

No it isn’t. For one thing, Chomsky would never define what the CIA does with due authorization as “legitimate”–just because the White House says “go engage in covert activity X” and just because this might possibly be a legal thing to do under US law doesn’t make it a moral thing to do. He’s making a claim, which may or may not be true, that the CIA is an agency of the White House and does what it is told.

108

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.05.10 at 5:49 pm

Tim, I guess I’m still not clear on what you think is missing from his analysis.
Is this quote from your link

Then comes the question of the individual journalist, you know, the young kid who decides to become an honest journalist. Well, you try. Pretty soon you are informed by your editor that you’re a little off base, you’re a little too emotional, you’re too involved in the story, you’ve got to be more objective. There’s a whole pile of code words for this, and what those code words mean is “Get in line, buddy, or you’re out.”

something you would like to see more of? The mechanics, methods that institutions employ? Well, he’s an intellectual, not agitator.

Also, what Donald Johnson said in 105.

109

geo 01.05.10 at 6:38 pm

Tim @72: institutional (say) explanations may incorporate conspiratorial elements, e.g. the intentional exercise of proprietorial control over editorial content

Why is the intentional exercise of proprietorial control over editorial content “conspiratorial”? Proprietors are (alas) legally entitled to control the editorial content of their media properties. If a left-wing essay or documentary (or, more likely, a critical threshhold of them) outrages the propietor’s sensibilities, or if he thinks it would outrage major investors’ sensibilities, he will call in the editor for a little chat about “balance” and “objectivity.” The editor will go over the piece and soften it here, trim it there, ask for a “balancing” quote from a government or industry flack in another place, and in passing communicate to the reporter(s) that he (or the brass) think the piece was a little overzealous. The message could not be more clear. (I suspect that, mutatis mutandis, similar messages are communicated in similar ways to aspiring left-wing economists.)

The point is: in a business society, whoever pays the piper calls the tune. There’s nothing conspiratorial about this, at least in the mindless sense that reflexive, NY Times-editorialist-type centrists use the word.

110

elm 01.05.10 at 6:59 pm

Gareth@87

Dijkstra’s devastating response to Rubin is well worth reading.

Knuth’s Structured Programing with go to Statements is interesting but, in spite of the title, doesn’t contradict Dijkstra in substance.

111

Tim Wilkinson 01.05.10 at 8:25 pm

Donald Johnson @105: no, ajay is right. Chomsky seems to say that if the CIA have authorisation from the White House, then whatever they are doing is no longer to be counted as conspiratorial, including cases in which ‘plausible deniability’ is sought. In what interesting sense of ‘conspiratorial’ is that the case? You are putting a lot of weight on ajay’s use of the word ‘legitimate’ in ‘legitimate parts of their jobs’.

Here’s the passage:

If you look at the place where investigation of “conspiracies” has absolutely flourished, modern American history, [not ancient or renaissance Rome or Florence, etc etc etc etc: plots from long ago or far way aren't "conspiracies", see] I think what’s notable is the absence of such cases- at least as I read the record, they almost never happen. I mean, occasionally you’ll find something like the Reaganites, with their off-the-shelf subversive and terrorist activities, but that was sort of a fringe operation – and in fact, part of the reason why a lot of it got exposed so quickly is because the institutions are simply too powerful to tolerate much of that stuff. As far as the Pentagon goes, sure the Services will push their interests-but typically they do it in pretty transparent ways.

Or take the CIA, which is considered the source of a lot of these conspiracies; we have a ton of information about it, and as I read the information, the C.I.A. is basically just an obedient branch of the White House. I mean sure, the C.I.A. has done things around the world- but as far as we know, it hasn’t done anything on its own. There’s very little evidence-in fact, I don’t know of any-that the C.I.A. is some kind of rogue elephant, you know, off on its own doing things. What the record shows is that the C.I.A. is just an agency of the White House, which sometimes carries out operations for which the Executive branch wants what’s called “plausible deniability”; in other words, if something goes wrong, we don’t want it to look like we did, those guys in the C.I.A. did it, and we can throw some of them to the wolves if we need to. That’s basically the role of the C.I.A., along with mostly just collection of information.

It’s the same with the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, all these other things the people are racing around searching for conspiracy theories about-they’re “nothing” organizations. Of course they’re there, obviously rich people get together and talk to each other, and play golf with one another, and plan together-that’s not a big surprise. But these conspiracy theories people are putting their energies into have virtually nothing to do with the way the institutions actually function.

It doesn’t happen; not as far as I know; hardly ever; not typically; not without being blown wide open; only as a ‘fringe’ activity; not without proper authorisation; it’s not a big surprise. Note the Reaganites are mentioned as examples of conspiratorial activity. Chomsky is, uniquely on this topic, floundering a bit and even inconsistent, and it’s because he wants to insist on a dichotomy between his own systems analysis and vulgar ones that consider individual motives and behaviour, a dichotomy that isn’t really sustainable.

112

Tim Wilkinson 01.05.10 at 8:28 pm

Henri @106: Yes, that’s an example. But it could be done in a much more systematic – intellectual – way. And I don’t see how that differs in kind from the other aspects of the ‘propaganda model’. Again, I’m not particularly concerned to knock Chomsky – the points were (1) even he is a bit shaky on anything labelled ‘conspiracy’, (2) not even he deals in detail with the mechanisms involved in quasi-conspiracy, which I think are the real sticking points for public acceptance of the model as a whole, especially given the kind of criticisms he attracts, which paint him precisely as a ‘conspiracy theorist’ of the most vulgar kind.

You may say he needn’t do so. True – and what the fuck sort of arrogant little worm am I, one might reasonably wonder, to say that he should be doing more, or doing it differently? I just think that such topics are generally important and interesting, and specifically relevant to the topic of the post. The ‘Inner Ring’ quote @64 for example is I think really nicely done and illuminating.

113

Tim Wilkinson 01.05.10 at 8:30 pm

geo @107 – ‘editorial content’ was needlessly ambiguous – I meant reportage, as you realised but I may as well point out. And I agree, the intentional exercise of proprietorial control over content may not be “conspiratorial” in a mindless sense that reflexive, NY Times-editorialist-type centrists use the word.

But it is conspiratorial in the sense that people are colluding in corrupt activity, I mean the reporters involved would deny they are falsifying the news, wouldn’t they. The concept of what is ‘conspiratorial’ is a Protean one and the NYT types are expert at manipulating it – so they might acknowledge proprietorial control but deny it’s conspiratorial (so that’s OK then), or claim that a particular accusation of such control is a ‘conspiracy theory’, and thus (one is supposed to conclude), ridiculous. You can see the same kind of two-step in the case of, say, the Israel Lobby.

114

Jerry Vinokurov 01.05.10 at 8:33 pm

It seems more like Chomsky is trying to distinguish between conspiracies as things that just kind of happen because similar people in similar positions of power have similar interests and Conspiracies as in totalizing “Bush did 9/11″ theories. Maybe that’s just my generous reading of it, but I’m not sure I see such glaring inconsistency.

115

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.05.10 at 9:16 pm

Indeed the whole point is that they are not (usually) falsifying anything. They have a doctrine, they are a part of what he calls “doctrinal system”. They operate within this system, they don’t need to falsify. Same is the case with economists, as Luis (4) properly noted: “And of course an insult to the very many economists who are sincerely trying to understand the economy the best way they know how“. This is very common; indeed, this is the rule not the exception.

116

Tim Wilkinson 01.05.10 at 10:41 pm

Jerry Vinokurov @111: I don’t think 9/11 conspiracy theories, or the ones I have come across, are ‘totalising’ in any sense I can formulate. The appropriate grounds for criticising them are the same as for any other, less extreme, allegation of covert action. I don’t think there is a difference in kind, only degree, however concvenient it might be to have an overarching generalised refutation. As to the reading in terms of confluence v contrivance, I don’t see that in what Chomsky wrote. I certainly don’t think that as a matter of fact actual quasi-conspiracies can usually be reduced without remainder to one or the other category.

Likewise to Henri @112 – I quite agree. I’m using ‘falsify’ in an objective sense – consistent with either aware or unaware corruption (or, as in most cases, a mixture of varying proportions and degrees of each). I’ve perhaps been a bit imprecise once or twice in using ‘conspiratorial’ when I should have said ‘quasi-conspiratorial’ but I think this was clear enough overall:

institutional (say) explanations may incorporate conspiratorial [this is the one which perhaps s/b 'quasi-conspiratorial'] elements, e.g. the intentional exercise of proprietorial control over editorial content, which Chomsky treats as a simple mechanism too obvious to analyse: ‘How do corporations control the media? They don’t have to [sic] – they own them’. By not addressing the mixed conspiratorial and merely quasi-conspiratorial mechanisms involved, he ironically enough leaves pure ‘smoky room’ theories as the default interpretation.[but that last bit makes it pretty clear]

The same applies to my response to geo @110. Perhaps those could be seen as climbdowns (more the latter than the former, and I think because the earlier imprecision got me somewhere I hadn’t planned to be and didn’t properly stop to reconsider) in which case, and to which extent, thanks for talking me down while I had only one knee-jerkingly defensive foot on the bottom rung. On the other hand, perhaps I’m being overmodest there: insofar as the control is intentional (and Chomsky’s model does regard it as such), then at least the proprietor is acting ‘conspiratorially’ – after all, it’s perhapsnot really germane that there might be only one person involved – the main point of interest is the secret corrupt behaviour, not the numbers. In any case, I shall certainly continue to mull this stuff over.

Couple of last thoughts – In some cases it’s probably not even possible to disentangle deliberate from subconscious or self-deceiving corruption in – at least not without peering into peoples’ heads – and on some views, there may in those cases not even be a determinate fact of the matter. But as Henri acknowledges, sometimes direct and explicit pressure is brought to bear in such a way that co-operation couldn’t possibly be seen as innocent. One is not likely to find out about those unless one happens to be interested enough to look into it and come across the rare case in which such pressure has been resisted, and the resistance made ‘public’. (Incidentally, ‘adversarial’ or ‘opposed’ epistemology, involving situations in which there is reason to think one’s attempts to find things out are being or will be frustrated, would be an interesting field…I’m sure everyone can agree that there are such situations.)

I do think Chomsky is rightly concerned that people may be distracted by personalities to the exclusion of considering the overall system in which they operate – and I agree they might, and do. But I also think that if that’s his concern, he overcompensates for it. And again, I didn’t especially want to focus on Chomsky and certainly not to exaggerate the degree to which he goes off-course.

Anyway, I hadn’t intended to monopolise the thread. Thanks for responses to my somewhat underdeveloped musings.

117

bianca steele 01.05.10 at 11:36 pm

Chris Williams: When you’re done with Ceruzzi’s book, check out I.B. Cohen’s brief biography of Howard Aiken, which is very good. He slants towards the Harvard side on the Harvard/Navy/IBM narrative re. the development of the Mark I during the war, but he doesn’t overinterpret his sources for the other perspectives.

No question software engineering and s/e management are a challenge, but we know a lot more about it now than we did in the early 1960s. I’d estimate everybody has their own concept of what “Software Crisis” refers to, but that there are discontinuities too (points at which there was a shift from a more or less cohesive set of ideas to a new more or less cohesive set).

118

ajay 01.06.10 at 10:32 am

I mean, occasionally you’ll find something like the Reaganites, with their off-the-shelf subversive and terrorist activities, but that was sort of a fringe operation

Oh, yes, I mean it only involved the Secretary of Defense, the Director of the CIA, two National Security Advisors and the Secretary of State. And they’re all pretty much on the fringe.

He’s got you both ways, hasn’t he? If it involves important people he can say “it wasn’t a real conspiracy because it was an officially approved action” and if it doesn’t he can say “it was just a fringe activity”.

He also misses the point that the law regarding the CIA does not say simply “if the White House approves, it’s OK” – there are supposed to be oversight committees, not to mention the fact that it’s supposed to obey the law!

119

Tim Wilkinson 01.06.10 at 1:05 pm

Envoi
(Can’t resist)

The funny thing is that when the C word isn’t lurking around casting its malign influence over proceedings, Chomsky is entirely reasonable on such topics. Conspiracy theories are bad, m’kay, so Chommers populates the category with bad and silly things: irrelevances, rogue units, one-offs.

At the other extreme, though Chomsky doesn’t tend to mention it much, is the classic strawman of the eternal, all-powerful, omniscient, centralised, single-minded, inhumanly evil controlling force. (‘There is no all-powerful conspiracy!’ that is the cry of the running dogs of ponero-plutocracy.)

The idea of reasonably cohesive money interests having the power to tightly constrain and even direct what the politicians do, which in turn involves all sorts of secretive and illegal activity up to and including domestic assassinations, isn’t a conspiracy theory, because it’s not silly. (And if the White House doesn’t want to know – or need to know – about some particular project, then I’m sure that isn’t enough to tip such activity into the ‘conspiracy’ bucket either.)

And that’s not just a matter of ‘mood music’. Chomsky’s understandably unwilling to be associated with various strange ideas about aliens etc – which get called ‘CTs’ becuase they involve government coverups, even though such rudimentarily conspiratorial aspects are, shall we say, not the most arresting features of such beliefs. So he repudiates ‘conspiracy theories’ by applying that term in an idiosyncratic way. But having done so, he contributes to the taboo, intellectually ghettoised status of anything so-labelled whether or not it falls under Chomsky’s odd and unclear conception.

On Watergate, for example, he says that Nixon was taken down by the powers that be, and this is unremarkable, part of the normal operation of power institutions – not conspiracy theory material. Meanwhile he points out that the real story was Cointelpro, which involved burglaries, intimidation, organising riots, ‘gestapo-style assassination’, etc, and had been going on under successive changes of administration. That is exactly the kind of thing that (the less outré) ‘conspiracy theory’ websites are mainly interested in, and so they bloody well should be. But I suppose to Chomsky they don’t count as ‘conspiracies’.

Anyone who thinks they do, however sane, reasonable, scrupulous and thoughtful, is outside the pale with the logo-analysers, the Freudian-slip watchers, the occultists, anti-semites, alien-spotters that are among the predictably superstitious manifestations of a lack of control and knowledge among a baffled and buffeted populace. And that phenomenon has the features of quasi-conspiracy, too.

But anyway: economists, quasi-conspiracy and information cascades

120

Donald Johnson 01.06.10 at 3:46 pm

I’m going to quote myself–

“He’s making a claim, which may or may not be true, that the CIA is an agency of the White House and does what it is told.”

That is what Chomsky is saying in the passage you cite, Tim. He makes the claim that the CIA does what the President tells it to do. That’s the substance of his claim and to refute it you’d have to show that the CIA engages in government-toppling and assassinations without Presidential approval.

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Donald Johnson 01.06.10 at 3:48 pm

If, for instance, JFK was killed by the CIA as some conspiracists claim, that’d be an example refuting Chomsky. Complaints that “he’s trying to have it both ways” are false–he’s trying to have it one way.

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geo 01.06.10 at 6:29 pm

Tim @119: Interesting usage question here re “conspiracy.” The dictionary (mine, anyway) is useless here: successive meanings of “conspire” are watered down from “join secretly to do a wrongful act” to “join secretly to accomplish any end” to “act in harmony towards a common end.” By the last definition, a football (English or American) team is a conspiracy.

Cointelpro is a useful example. I would have said, offhand, that it wasn’t a conspiracy, since the FBI’s legal superiors in the Justice Dept. weren’t, as far as I recall, actually denied knowledge of the program. (Or were they?) Watergate and Contragate, on the other hand, I would have said were conspiracies, because people and resources were deployed outside the normal institutional channels. Does the notion of “outside normal institutional channels” offer any help in defining “conspiracy”?

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Tim Wilkinson 01.06.10 at 7:28 pm

#120: It’s an irrelevant claim to fixate on. He is having it both ways; he’s also flagging which way he prefers in the case of ‘rogue CIA’ scenarios (MKULTRA – going by what we can tell from such records as weren’t destroyed – seems not to have been authorised. But then that involved the army, too, and no doubt a ‘plausible deniability’ hypothesis, or unsubversiveness relative to Executive aims, or failure to be sufficently spectacular, or – cheekily – insufficiently hermetic secrecy, or something, can be invoked to save the hypothesis.)

But I’m not going to follow your example and repeat myself, Donald, if I may reciprocally patronise a second time. (This really is heavy patronisation territory isn’t it.)

#121: Let’s say, incredibly, that evidence were now unearthed that the CIA killed JFK (and – yawn – I’m not saying they did). I don’t think Chomsky would take it to refute his position.

Such an event might be like the case of Nixon in the Watergate link above (also featured in slightly different form in the same book, Understanding Power, pp117 ff): Watergate is a very clear example of what happens to servants when they forget their role and go after the people who own the place: they are very quickly put back into their box, and somebody else takes over.

Alternatively, and still sticking to what Chomsky says in the same section of Understanding Power, it might be a ‘blip on the screen’ (i.e. we’re not going to learn anything about the world from it, at least nothing that generalises to the next case), as he described – with some justice given the, er, extraordinary circumstances – the generals’ conspiracy to kill Hitler. This is similar to his “even if it were true, who cares? It doesn’t have any significance” remark about of 9/11 ‘inside job’ theories (see previous disclaimers). Note also that on his prveiously examined view – and undercutting the ‘blip’ rationale for not caring – a “Bush done it” theory wouldn’t be a conspiracy theory at all (though it would be particularly ridiculous, of course, simply on the basis that Bush couldn’t organise a cutlery drawer.)

Or it could be like the MLK assassination, of which in the same section he says:

that’s the one case where you can imagine pretty plausible reasons why people would have wanted to kill him*, and I would not be in the least surprised if there in fact was a real conspiracy behind that one, probably a high-level conspiracy. I mea the mechanisms were there,[?] maybe they would have hired the Mafia or something to do it – but that conspiracy theory is perfectly plausible, I think.
[*note the top-down approach, often characterised as 'conspiratorial' (except here it's nemini bono).]

It’s not clear if he thinks this is another blip on the screen, or a normal operation of power institutions, or what, but either way, it is a conspiracy theory and it is one he endorses, and endorses as a conspiracy theory. Now you can if you like try and two-step between that and the stuff on the previous page rubbishing ‘conspiracy theories’, but I think it would be better to accept that there is something wrong with what C is saying on the topic somewhere along the line.

Nice use of the ‘conspiracist’ label by the way. Given Chomsky’s MLK views, you had now better decide whether he is a conspiracist too, or whether you are applying that label on the basis of a substantive generalisation about everyone who gives substantial credence to the possibility of CIA involvement in the murder of JFK.

(Anyway, back to explanations of the uncoordinated emergence of ideologically-orientated economic theory, anyone?)

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Tim Wilkinson 01.06.10 at 8:00 pm

geo: yes, v interesting.

I’d say the element of some kind of wrongdoing is pretty fixed, and usually – but not necessarily (for example when theories are conjured up about ‘imputation of agency’ etc) – co-operation of multiple actors. But in the context of ‘conspiracy theory’, it must be one of the most heavily loaded and widely abused words around.

For example, ‘conspiracy theory’ may not apply to plot theses in (distant) history, or it may only apply to PTs involving the govt of one’s own country, or by extension those in other authority roles, or by a different extension those whom one -can- should be able to trust, or it may be taken to imply that since it’s a ‘theory’ it must be unconfirmed, unconfirmable, or just false, or it may only be used to indicate views which are surprising, implausible, ‘paranoid’ or silly or in some other way – often easily diagnosable or characterisable – defective, or perhaps most insidiously it may be applied to beliefs not themselves conspiratorial but which would if accepted tend to suggest a conspiracy (‘that man has three knives in his back’).

Or as with Chomsky – it may only apply to conspiracies against – or less restrictively but more arbitrarily, bypassing – the government.

And the application conditions and the inferential role of the term commonly, and conveniently – if that isn’t too stylistically paranoid a term – come apart, adverting to disparate conceptions of the core concept (if it is even unitary enough to be called that). So, for example: X is a theory about a conspiracy (in a fairly straightforward compositional sense of fairly straightforward senses of ‘conspiracy’ + ‘theory’), therefore it is a conspiracy theory, therefore it is a certain kind of confabulation. Obviously not as explicit as that, but often not far off. Google News is full of it.

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Tim Wilkinson 01.06.10 at 8:28 pm

Sorry, geo, went off on one and didn’t directly address your/Chomsky’s suggestion re: bypassing or subverting institutional channels. I (currently) don’t think that really works, I mean for one thing it becomes progressively more restrictive a definition (to the point of being implausibly so) as you expand your idea of the institutional channels involved, for example if institutional channels include leaving the CIA to get on with ridding Chosmky’s plutocrats of various turbulent priests, or less dramatically, if they include Blair’s unminuted, mendacious and cliquishly autocratic ‘sofa government’.

And common or garden non-weird (though – yawn – still quite possibly very wrong, silly etc) -conspiracy theorists- mooters of conspiratorial hypotheses tend to tink in terms of conspiracies against the public, whether or not carried out through more-or-less official (or ‘institutional’) channels.

Not yet settled views, though.

126

bianca steele 01.06.10 at 8:46 pm

Also, krisha@90, if by “incompetent” you meant trained in an inappropriate discipline (rather than not apparently trained at all), fair enough. I would assume there are more than that one possibility even if incompetent is the word I’d use.

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Tim Wilkinson 01.06.10 at 8:55 pm

me @124: I’d say the element of some kind of wrongdoing is pretty fixed

actually, the Night of the Generals would be a counterexample to that on the face of it – perhaps a disjunctive conception: either formal (e.g. in terms of positive law or similar norms) ‘wrongdoing’ or substantive (by the speaker’s lights) wrongdoing, or something like that. I think that’s more useful than just ‘wrong in some conceivable context or frame’.

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Cranky Observer 01.07.10 at 1:51 am

> It doesn’t happen; not as far as I know; hardly ever; not typically; not without
> being blown wide open; only as a ‘fringe’ activity; not without proper
> authorisation; it’s not a big surprise.

It has kicked around Washington, and the political blogsphere, for eight years that Richard Cheney had approximately 40 people on his staff of the Office of the Vice-President. We know who two of them were, Libby and Addington, because they were forced to testify before a public court on actions involving the OVP. Who, pray tell, were the other 37? Did the composition of the OVP change over time? What were their titles, their payrates, their responsibilities, roles, and accomplishments (for good or ill)?

Cheney managed to build a secret office, create a “4th branch of [US] government”, and presumably use that office to take actions the to this day have Republicans, the press, and most Democrats cowering in fear and refusing to criticize or even discuss Cheney. And he kept it secret for 8 years in Washington DC, the most gossip-riven town in the world.

But it is “not possible” to keep a deliberate concerted effort of powerful people secret for any length of time. Not possible.

Cranky

So, who exactly were the members of that 2001 Cheney oil task force? Hmmm… another secret kept for 9 years.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 01.07.10 at 8:43 am

125 And common or garden non-weird (though – yawn – still quite possibly very wrong, silly etc) conspiracy theorists mooters of conspiratorial hypotheses tend to think in terms of conspiracies against the public, whether or not carried out through more-or-less official (or ‘institutional’) channels.

Remember, he’s an anarchist analyzing power structures. I imagine, from his prescriptive, everything and anything they do is a conspiracy against the public. The only non-conspiratorial act would be to relinquish the power, to self-destruct. So, this model completely misses the point.

MLK may or may not have been assassinated by the FBI, but Fred Hampton and a whole bunch of others certainly were, so the MLK story doesn’t add anything (except uncertainty) to the analysis.

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Tim Wilkinson 01.07.10 at 3:16 pm

Henri @129: Yes, I think that is the best sense that can be made of Chomsky’s position. As mentioned, I tend to share his view in general, but the only non-conspiratorial act would be to relinquish the power, to self-destruct doesn’t seem to me to be adequate.

After all, he says that certain kinds of hypotheses are distinguishable as ‘conspiracy theories’, and memberhip of that category seems really to depend on standard incidents such as murderousness, lower than normal visibility, ad-hoc outsourcing, etc. Far from being indispensable, those are considered ‘optional extras’, even when they don’t run counter to the dominant plutocratic power structures, or even are an informal or White-House-bypassing manifestation of it.

He also singles out certain specific views which he happens to disagree with for no very good reason – such as that of the unitary ‘JFK conspiracy cult’ – which would appear to include anyone who gives balance-of-probabilities credence to any possibility other than the ‘lone nut’ thesis – which would include the House Committee on Assassinations, and various other non-cultic types, including some ‘web-credible’ commentators I could mention.

Insofar as what is known as conspiratorial or ‘deep’ politics (or as ‘parapolitics’ – unfortunately, given stereotypically ‘conspiratorial’ tropes such as ‘paranoia’, ‘paranormal’, ‘parapsychology’) is part of the operation of de facto power structures, he owes an account of why he dismisses (anyone else’s) discussion of it – at least when speaking in general terms.

If the reason for doing so is to avoid focusing on the intractable, dubious or disreputable, then it would be better if Chomsky were either to make it clear that he is stipulating that only the intractable, dubious or disreputable count as ‘conspiracy theories’, or to give sustainable reasons for assuming all ‘conspiracy theories’, less tendentiously defined, to be intractable, dubious or disreputable.

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Tim Wilkinson 01.07.10 at 3:26 pm

[Warning - if you don't like leaden and longwinded irony you won't be very keen on the following break from laboured earnestness.]

Cranky Observer @128 says:
Cheney managed to build a secret office, create a “4th branch of [US] government”, and presumably use that office to take actions the to this day have Republicans, the press, and most Democrats cowering in fear and refusing to criticize or even discuss Cheney. And he kept it secret for 8 years in Washington DC, the most gossip-riven town in the world.

Chomsky says:
Just another blip, or perhaps business as usual – in either case, uninteresting compared to endless detailed and specific analysis of biased press coverage. I think you’ll find that particular situations, often in the present or recent past, are not really representative of the general run of things. And when they are they’re unremarkable.

The MSM says:
Taking a broad view and putting any actual evidence into a wider perspective, it’s evident that the picture you are painting is a typical cultic conspiracy theory. Everyone knows the blogs are full of those, not like the much more credible, er, MSM.

And you’re wrong, I’m sure, about these supposed ‘secrets’ (yeah right – secrets, but you -know them- know about them, do you? Fantasist! Liar! Troublemaker! Supercilous self-aggrandiser! Comfort/thrill-seeker! Er, racist!).

The fact of the matter is, no-one ever keeps secrets, and people who are involved in – or who suspect or discover themselves to be implicated in – powerful, corrupt, ruthless and illegal groups generally can’t wait to tell all – preferably in unambiguous terms, attributably, on the record. Failing that, they certainly love to devastate their mourning relatives with the well-known phenomenon of “deathbed confessions” – though not the kind that is said to a priest – they just can’t be relied on to publicise such stuff properly.

Hushing things up, you see, is not a matter in which there is any leeway or room for error. It is like trying to plug holes in a balloon, not a box. Truth is always recognised as such, and never contested. It spreads irresistably and exponentially, even when based on unattributed, partial or unsubstantiated evidence. It is always reported in detail, investigated and tested impartially and in full public view, and then officially endorsed. Incriminating evidence is never contradicted, and those who give it never retaliated against, marginalised, ruined, persecuted, driven to penury or to assisted or unassisted insanity, or anything like that. If that sort of thing happened it would be all over the papers, wouldn’t it.

And there would have to have been hundreds, probably thousands, of people involved, all of whom would have access to top-level strategy, on the well known ‘fuck it – you may as well know’ basis. Where are all those whistleblowers?

Name one credible conspiracy theory for which, er, credible evidence hasn’t come out. The fact is these things always come out in the end. (Small print: after about 40 years when everyone of any seniority is dead, any documents which haven’t been destroyed may be declassified with appropriate redactions. After about another fifty or so, established historians will have a look at those documents and the contemporary newspapers, and start drafting some tentative conclusions.)

It’s good to wait a long time for all the facts to become clear and organise themselves. Otherwise the ‘fog of war’ tends to obscure the overall narrative – and individual, caught-up-in-the-moment, witnesses who don’t have the whole story might find their initial reports taken at face value.

Once they’ve had time to consider their memories in the round and let their perceptions settle down from their initial confused and unclear state, witnesses often retract their initial reports, or anyway say something which has many of the features of a retraction, like: “Well, I wish I hadn’t said that. I didn’t think I would get all this attention, anyway it’s been pointed out that my observation might be taken to imply that [something I have no way of knowing anything about happened], and I didn’t say that, and I don’t think it did happen, and I don’t want my statement to be used to imply that, and my words have been twisted, and I don’t want to talk about it any more”, which is just as good.

And anyway, the whole structure, approach, method, motive and er, spelling of your crazed theory is unsound. To see this, preserve the structure, but change, say ’40′ to ‘two milion’, ‘Cheney’ to ‘the Elders of Zion’, ‘Office of the Vice President’ to ‘secret ungerdround alien army’, and “4th branch of [US] government” to ‘sepurnatural all-konwing unspeakably evil wolrd-dictatorship’ . In principle, it is exactly the same theory, but you wouldn’t endorse that, would you?

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bianca steele 01.07.10 at 4:16 pm

Tim Wilkinson:
I think Henri Vieuxtemps nailed an important part of Chomsky’s view, and I don’t quite understand why you took issue with what he contributed.

Chomsky’s position, as you describe it, raises some important questions, for me at least. Is it possible that the term “conspiracy theory” as ordinarily used is used incorrectly? When someone is “owned” by the powers-that-be, does he consciously conform his activities to the head honcho’s wishes, or to those of some intermediate person? If I understand him correctly, he not only doesn’t have answers to those questions, he would find the questions themselves misguided.

I’m not entirely clear on how Chomsky’s idea of the “deep structure” of an utterance, at the detailed level of the theory, is supposed to be like the “structure” of structuralism, but I assume the identity of language is significant. I assume as well that the LAD or Language Acquisition Device in the mind of every human being is connected with the idea of structuralism. This structure is not the same as a mental representation, conceived as a computer scientist would conceive of such a thing; a huge issue in cognitive science has been whether mental representations exist or whether they’re an unnecessary hypothesis–the natural way for a computer scientist to think of such a representation can be seen by opening up the source code for WordPress and asking whether the first variable you see “exists”–on a physical level, it can indeed be said to exist, but at the same time, it can be said not to exist in the same way an atom in my laptop’s keyboard exists. Which is just prelude to indicate that Chomsky is probably not thinking in computer science terms (in case there was still any doubt). The question still remains of the relationship between the deep structure and the LAD, which to the best of my knowledge is an issue Chomsky has not ever addressed; he has elaborated and re-elaborated the formal parts of his logical-mathematical theory of language in order to counter particular criticisms and to accomplish new goals that appeared worth taking into account.

Which is just prelude to say that his linguistic and psychological theories have no evident connection with his views on politics.

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bianca steele 01.07.10 at 4:39 pm

And I do think Chomsky has a problem, as an anarchist who denounces the way power always works behind the scenes, given that the only popular image of groups working behind the scenes in that way is “the Jews,” which is almost certainly not the idea he wishes to convey.

134

ejh 01.07.10 at 4:44 pm

What’s your point?

135

Tim Wilkinson 01.07.10 at 6:21 pm

bianca steele @132
Henri Vieuxtemps nailed an important part of Chomsky’s view, and I don’t quite understand why you took issue with what he contributed

Well, I didn’t take issue with his description of Chomsky’s (headline) position; I was more saying that it’s not the whole story and doesn’t address my issues with C’s views on the topic of ‘conspiracy theories’, explicitly-so-called, which are really just a very moderate version of the general problems that infest any discussion involving that phrase.

his linguistic and psychological theories have no evident connection with his views on politics.
I would assume the same. I didn’t – and don’t – intend to go anywhere near such topics if I can possibly avoid it.

Chomsky’s position, as you describe it, raises some important questions, for me at least
Good – it’s gratifying and encouraging to hear it.

Is it possible that the term “conspiracy theory” as ordinarily used is used incorrectly?
I think that kind of question might indeed in favourable cases be silly or even senseless, like ‘is everyone out of step?’, but in this case it’s more a case of being totally broken, with usage shifting in the space of a single sentence, laden with (often unacknowledged) evaluative baggage, and with talking at cross-purposes (sometimes disingeniously) the norm.

When someone is “owned” by the powers-that-be, does he consciously conform his activities to the head honcho’s wishes or to those of some intermediate person?
That’s a yes-or-no question rather than a choice of two specific alternatives, correct? I don’t think that can (or should) be seen as a senseless question – perhaps slightly stylised, but you got to start somewhere.

That is my other criticism, a softish one: that Chomsky pays insufficient attention (for my liking) to that kind of issue – and that not dealing with it in more depth means that lots of ‘ordinary’ people won’t even consider his points, because (among other reasons like the constant campaign to keep him outside the pale) it just sounds implausible to them that all those presentable, serious, high-status, professional journalists routinely falsify and twist the news just because they are paid to. In fact such a view presented so baldly and cursorily might be (and is) described as a ‘conspiracy theory’, at which point all is lost and he might as well be talking about shape-shifting reptiles.

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Tim Wilkinson 01.07.10 at 6:47 pm

bianca steele @133: the only popular image of groups working behind the scenes in that way is “the Jews,”

I don’t think that’s really the only popular image of groups working behind the scenes in that way. It would probably be right to say that it’s one of the prevalent popular images of a popular image of groups working behind the scenes in that way – along with illuminati, aliens, you name it.

And guilt by some vague association with anti-semitic themes is certainly a common enough way of smearing ‘conspiracy theorists’, as you say, and no doubt that’s one of the reasons why Chomsky prefers to change, or skirt around, the subject.

137

Substance McGravitas 01.07.10 at 6:55 pm

I don’t think that’s really the only popular image of groups working behind the scenes in that way.

“The president is a secret Muslim” is popular now.

138

Jim Harrison 01.07.10 at 7:06 pm

Enthusiasm for conspiracy theories encourages people not only to see conspiracies everywhere but to engage in them themselves. The right-wing Christians who belong to the Family apparently dream of being the heroes of their own airport novel about a secret society that takes over the country. The hare-brained Iran Contra scheme may also have been an instance of life imitating art.

139

bianca steele 01.07.10 at 8:48 pm

Tim Wilkinson @ 13[56]: No argument from me, I think. For most people “illuminati” have exactly the same level of reality as “aliens.” For some people, I think, “cia” and “mafia” have not that much more reality than “x-men”: good to think with, and so far from daily reality that expanding the definition doesn’t mean too much. Before the movie came out, a person I’d have thought wasn’t the type to take those kinds of things seriously told me in all seriousness that the Templars (still) exist, protecting the holy places. If that’s what Chomsky is annoyed with (and he is pretty accurate on the range of “okay” ways of talking about the JFK assassination in this country too), I’m with him to that extent.

I started to re-read Rorty’s “Is there a problem with fictional reference?” a little while ago, and I realized though I thought I’d known what the issue was the first time I read it, I’m no longer sure.

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Tim Wilkinson 01.08.10 at 12:55 pm

Jim Harrison @138 Does it? Do they? May it?

141

Tim Wilkinson 01.08.10 at 12:56 pm

142

Tim Wilkinson 01.10.10 at 12:02 am

re my #140 to Jim Harrison: sorry, was in a hurry and didn’t intend ‘snark’, just meant: well, could be, could be not, but to use the standard and not necessarily apropos phrase, ‘do you have any numbers’?

and re #141, I’m not endorsing it in its entirety btw- some of it – mainly towards the end – is a bit breathless and unfocused.

143

Tim Wilkinson 01.10.10 at 2:16 pm

bianca steele @139: that would be the Da Vinci thing? Yes, most unfortunate.

Still, theories about stuff like Bohemian Grove or ‘occult’ societies are particularly prone to being dismissed on unfair grounds (even though there are normally plenty of fair ones adequate to that purpose) because the occultiness that features in oblique context, inside the theory, tends to be attributed in a blurry way to those tabling the theory – i.e. if I think that a bunch of people are doing nasty stuff because of some crazy beliefs, a casual observer may see that as me putting forward a theory based on subscribing to those crazy beliefs, or more likely just think ‘crazy beliefs – I’m off’.

A less unreasonable approach is to reject the idea that all these serious people would subscribe to crazy views. An entirely reasonable one (to go off on a bit of a Bohemian Grove-related tangent) is to point out that even if power-crazed sybarites might indulge in grotesque activities, that doesn’t tell us anything about anything else they might be doing. Of course such activities or beliefs might form a part of a scenario involving, say, blackmail or the conditional expectation of it.

144

bianca steele 01.10.10 at 3:24 pm

@143 What you’re saying is terribly reasonable. But: Where do you draw the line between Opus Dei and Phi Gamma Delta*? Both of these groups’ memberships are serious people who do a lot of good in the world regardless of their excesses and what most would see as odd practices–regardless of whether you disagree with their politics, you have to admit they do a lot of real world good, and provide a social support system for people who without such institutions would be adrift. Where do you draw the line between “Frosty the Snowman” and “Oh Come, O Come, Emmanuel”?

*Is there a British equivalent to the US college fraternity? In some ways, perhaps public school fagging would be an equivalent.

145

bianca steele 01.10.10 at 4:01 pm

@144 Referring to Doubt.

146

Tim Wilkinson 01.10.10 at 5:37 pm

Where do you draw the line
I don’t know: just not necessarily at one extreme. On the merits, basically.

Is there a British equivalent to the US college fraternity
As you say – the informal old school tie stuff (seeing a comeback with the Cameroons), and I suppose really extreme elite stuff like the Bullingdon (likewise). But I’d resist assimilating anything like that to ‘conspiracy’ – that’s kind of one of the points I’m groping for at such (tedious I fear) length. As is the point that odd practices do not anything other than odd practices make.

147

scathew 01.10.10 at 6:42 pm

Being a Yank, from my perspective Chicago School (aka Freshwater) economics didn’t come into prominence so much because it seemingly represented a better mousetrap at the time, but specifically because it gave cover to an already established political aim – that is to roll back regulation and return to “laissez faire” policies that supported, to put it directly, the rich.

That is “the facts were tailored to the policy”.

Subsequently because of its convenience it is likely to rear its ugly head for quite some time.

What ultimately is truly remarkable though, is how the vast majority, and this includes significant numbers of so-called liberals, were convinced that these free market policies were in their best interests when they were exactly the opposite. That took some substantial double-think to accomplish.

In fact much of the Republican agenda, is entirely contrary to the benefits of those who most vehemently subscribe to their views. It is frankly amazing the number of poor and down and out who attend this “church” of conservatism, and yet are tortured daily by the fruits of their support.

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Tim Wilkinson 01.10.10 at 6:45 pm

[FWIW, a few more baby-steps toward a General Theory of Conspiracy Theories, offered in a spirit of take-it-or-ignore-it]

Substance McG @137: “The president is a secret Muslim” is popular now.

nugatory conspiracy theories
Indeed, though “The president is a secret Muslim” isn’t much of a conspiracy theory is it – unless he is supposed to have some fiendish Islamic plan going (or if the claim is that he’s a practising, ‘organised’ muslim, which claim would exhibit one of the supposed incidents of ‘conspiracy theories’, viz. positing an implausible secrecy).

A bit like the ‘Birther’ stuff – I mean, it’s a nasty rumour cooked up for political smear purposes and unsupported by any evidence, and that’s what wrong with it – not really that it has some supposed general features shared by all ‘conspiracy theories’ which make it inherently ridiculous or implausible. It isn’t implausible that a parent might falsify her infant son’s birthplace in order to secure him citizenship, nor that the son (possibly, one supposes, in this hypothetical situation, ignorant about the circumstances of his birth) might try and pursue some career, even one which absolutely requires US birth. Politicians may have skeletons in their cupboards like anyone else.

Being a secret (informal) muslim would be similar – it wouldn’t have been such a very huge issue had the GWOT not come along, and by then what would our imaginary muslim do? Throw in the towel? (More disclaiming, if required – I don’t suggest either thesis merits more than vanishingly small credence – enough to prevent !DIV/0# errors propagating through the notional Bayesian spreadsheet…)

agent-based theories
Maybe a distinguishable species of ‘CT’, which is based primarily on a person or organisation and which doesn’t really get round to specifying what actual nefarious actions are involved or planned. Also an element of ‘mood music’ as in Daniel’s earlier thread (the one predictably dominated by postmodernological disputes).

A small number of examples in the link @ 141 fall into the ‘agent-based’ or (not necessarily the same) ‘mood-music’ category – e.g. the usual underspecified Illumi-bloody-nati, Bohemian Owl, Trilateral comm, Bilderberg etc., and especially the ‘New World Order’ gubbins.

Having said that, there is perhaps something prima facie slightly suspect in itself about secret/secretive organisations – assuming one starts from a critical perspective. And worth remembering that, for example, Bilderberg’s secrecy was much greater to start with, and has only peeled away gradually, and largely through the activities of ‘conspiracy theorists’: first its existence, then its meetings, then to some extent its membership. But never, of course, exactly what is planned (it surely ain’t about golf), nor the power dynamics of such planning – it remains semi-clandestine and protected in part by general aversion to ‘conspiratorial’ talk.

mood music
But what might appear to be a ‘mood music’ (subjective) element is sometimes, I think, fairly tractable. The New World Order business, for example, is just the kind of thing that merits Chomsky’s asperity. Hugely vague umbrella term, fixating on vocab, no very specific claims about actual covert activity – certainly not backed with evidence – a big distraction, and quite irritating. It’s a pretty nugatory theory in terms of definite content. Less ‘mood music’; more like a substantial failure – failure to come up with anything substantial.

Taking Bilderberg again, the perceived mood music element may be partly a matter of how plausible it is that there’s something (fairly obviously) dodgy going on, like bankers crowning party leaders – or even election winners – or handing out orders, possibly illegal or murderous ones. Assessing such plausbility is a ‘subjective’ judgement only in the sense that there aren’t very clear criteria, nor much evidence, for adjudicating disagreements. A judgement about how convivial and (superficially) egalitarian or merely discursive the proceedings are doesn’t amount to a constitutive, ineliminably subjective element in the phenomena themselves. It’s an objective matter what is inside the velvet glove.

Pace bianca @144, a more subjective kind of mood music – the kind I think Daniel was referring to – would come in where a political, pragmatic or ideological view determines whether certain plots and plans are regarded as sinister or undesirable, i.e. whether the ‘wrongdoing’ element partly constitutive of ‘conspiracy’ (as canvassed above) is satisfied.

That is as subjective as the relevant conception of a ‘wrongdoing’-like concept, which in turn may not be terribly subjective after all if you take a positivist (e.g. legalistic) view of the relevant concept, or indeed if you are somewhat objectivistic about values, maybe taking a Hume/Wiggins type of position. In any case, even if a contestable concept is involved, the metaphysics of it are less important than the rhetoric, and there’s actually in many cases (e.g. murder) a fair bit of agreement, or at least lip-service, which is nearly as good.

Bonus links

BL1: Hitchens, C., writing in next month’s Vanity Fair, gives Gore Vidal the full treatment. Vidal, with his playful postmodern(?) approach, does of course ask for it a bit – though I’m not aware he deserves this, however heavily (but – as CH well knows – vainly) qualified: a very, very minor tendency to bring up the Jewish question in contexts where it didn’t quite belong

BL2: The undisputed heavyweight champion of the transfigurative conspiratorial genre, Uncle Bill (video link), debunks, with unimpeachable logic, the ‘all-powerful conspiracy’ trope: “Don’t let them see us! Don’t tell them what we are doing!” Are these the words of the all-powerful boards and syndicates?

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Donald Johnson 01.10.10 at 7:29 pm

“But I’m not going to follow your example and repeat myself, Donald, if I may reciprocally patronise a second time. (This really is heavy patronisation territory isn’t it.)”

Eh? What was that about? I take it from the italicizing of my name that there’s something patronizing about first name use.

“Nice use of the ‘conspiracist’ label by the way.”

Maybe that’s what it was about. Touchy, touchy. I didn’t even enter into this to argue with you–I was irritated by ajay. I was defending Chomsky’s views from the claim he is having it both ways. As I understand him, he thinks Presidents order the CIA to conduct covert ops and they don’t go and do it on their own. His MLK suggestion is a departure for him, unless he thinks LBJ ordered it. (I also think it’s stupid.)

I’m touchy about the conspiracist label myself, when it is applied to things I believe, such as the conspiracy theory that holds the Bush Administration deliberately lied us into the Iraq War and a friend of mine once dismissed the allegation that the US tortured innocent people to death with the response that “Yeah, well, people write books saying Bush did 9/11″. I don’t want my quite reasonable beliefs about powerful people doing bad things tied in with theories that are ridiculous (9/11 Truther notions) or even those that are not crazy AFAIK but have much less evidence supporting them (this or that group killed JFK). It’s useful to have a term that distinguishes between reasonable conspiracy theories with lots of evidence for them and the ones that seem to attract compulsive types who believe in some elaborate version of history that is hidden to most. Unfortunately we don’t have a good word for this.

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Donald Johnson 01.10.10 at 7:52 pm

Actually, maybe we need three terms for the three categories of conspiracy theories–

1. The utterly reasonable ones it’s crazy to deny (the Bushies lied us into Iraq)
2. Not crazy, but far from proven (maybe some JFK theories, but I don’t know)
3. Paranoid stuff that is wildly implausible or actually impossible (Fill in the blank)

There are gradations here, of course, theories which fall midway between categories. My sense is that people can get, um, attached to theories which may start out as category 2 but should be placed in category 3. And at the other extreme, people become emotionally attached to the denials of the theories in category 1.

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Tim Wilkinson 01.10.10 at 10:17 pm

Donald @148 yes, sorry if that was slightly touchy but it is unusual to see first name interjected or appended rather than used to establish addressee, esp. twice in one thread. Anyway no wounds inflicted, eh.

Same re the ‘conspiracist’ thing – though I’m not saying it’s a huge deal in any given case, nor advertent on your part, it is a problem I think, because it loads the issue with a personal dimension and tends to mean that 1 and 2 are easily assimilated to 3 (and as you say, there is a continuum along that dimension, so by 3 I probably mean the far extreme in that direction). In fact, I would object a bit to saying ‘paranoid’ at all. It’s inaccurate unless the theory is self-centred, and redundant given that the theory, to get into class 3 must surely actually, objectively and independently be categorised as wildly implausible or actually impossible. Basically, more heat than light.

Same with ‘compulsive types who believe in some elaborate version of history that is hidden to most’.

That’s a bit of a strawman invention of Popper (in his guise as amateur propagandist) taken up by Hofstadter later on, the ‘conspiracy theory of history’, and doesn’t apply, from what I can see, to most (I have no numbers of course) 9/11 inside job types, for example. Those who do talk in a way that is consistent with that conception are, I think, often (not always; all of this is a matter of the percentages – which I freely admit I can’t supply) not very attached to the idea and see it as a hobbyist diversion, somewhat analogous to those who read horoscopes or go to fortune tellers but if pressed will agree it’s basicaly bollocks (or more recently ‘their own truth’). They also tend to have in mind what I’ve called ‘agent-based theories’ that are pretty thin on detail.

In fact, in a way, it’s the opposite approach that Chomsky objects to – the focus on isolated individual events, rather than the tight fetters of capitalist history and its integral covert action etc.

And I still say C’s position is defective – simply because his headline position is (basically) that conspiracy theories in general are always wrong, while his argument consists largely of saying the CIA (no mention of FBI, or more secretive/ad hoc special forces, or any other actors) don’t act without presidential authority, which includes deniable nods and winks. There’s more detail and context above though your searching and wading through it would no doubt be beyond the call. I may do so later.

And the issue of getting authorisation is not the same as top-down planning. For example Operation Northwoods, it appears, was agreed by the joint chiefs and CIA before it was offered to Kennedy for sign-off – which disappointingly for them wasn’t forthcoming in the event. And what is more, Chomsky doesn’t even establish that the CIA are under the complete control of the White House. A specific example of his general approach which isn’t interested in intra-class machinations. He thinks, for example, that Nixon was brought down by big finance – is that with or without the assistance of CIA elements?

But anyway, getting explicit recognition of the scale that includes 1 to 3 was probably the main part of my (self-imposed) brief really. Not that it isn’t obvious (and I don’t say it wasn’t so to you all along), but from previous conversations with fairly clued-up people (I’m not claiming special ablities, just to have taken an interest in the general topic where others haven’t), it’s clear that the distinction is often overlooked, and certainly there is a big interest in – and apologists in the press expend a lot of effort on – assimilating instances of 1 to classes 2 or 3 – as seen in the rhetoric surrounding the Iraq war plot.

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Tim Wilkinson 01.10.10 at 11:47 pm

2. Not crazy, but far from proven (maybe some JFK theories, but I don’t know)

‘Proven’ is an interesting one. The standard and burden of proof is of great importance. Standardly in cases where a decision has to be made, I suppose one goes on a balance of probabilities: i.e whatever is more likely than not. As far as the burden of proof (i.e. what is the starting assumption), I’m not sure what you do.

Does the Warren comission’s JFK theory have default status? Does anything else have to be ‘proven’? What about something that is both far from proven and far from proven-false? Are there any useful rules here? How about teh House Committee on assassinations? They found, on (IIRC) a balance of probabilities basis, that there was a conspiracy, but, on a similar basis, that none of the candidate suspects were reponsible. So where does that leave us? Do we say that a generalised JFK conspiracy theory is ‘far from proven’?

It makes quite a big difference how you assess the burden and standard of proof – and that rather depends on what the consequences of the outcome are going to be. In a criminal prosecution, there is a burden of proof: it’s placed on the state which is trying to punish someone. And along with that goes (nominally at least) a high standard of proof – beyond reasonable doubt.

One factor (though a minor one among all the noisy bullshit) which skews public deliberation about possible conspiracies in contemporary and recent history is the fear of libel suits. Another is the rhetoric of the defenders of power, who uniformly manipulate burdens and standards of proof – so an official story is given the benefit of every doubt, a competitor of none. It is very easy to miss this unless one is paying evry close attention with this kind of consideration in mind. OK end of.

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Donald Johnson 01.11.10 at 4:31 am

Tim Wilkinson (taking no chances on the name thing)–

I can’t say where the burden of proof goes on the JFK question. My own personal feeling (on why I haven’t read more about it) is that one would need to master a great deal of essentially very boring detail (on ballistics, Oswald’s life, Ruby’s life, the lives of every person alleged to have some role in the various conspiracy theories, the habits of the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, Castro, and goodness knows what else) to be able to judge which theory seemed best. I lean towards the Warren Commission, mainly out of Chomsky-like bias, but have tried recently to have a more open mind. But I’m not going to start reading Vincent Bugliosi (supposedly the best presenter of the mainstream view) along with all the various conspiracy authors–life is too short to delve into something so vast and uninteresting in its details, with the significant likelihood that one would come out not being that certain at the end of the process. Which is not to say that others shouldn’t try.

So without knowing more, I can’t say much.

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