Posts by author:

Henry

Empire Games

by Henry on January 16, 2017

Just finished an advance copy of Charles Stross’s Empire Games, which is coming out tomorrow – recommended (NB – no spoilers below, except for the most abject social science geeks). I haven’t gotten as much out of his last couple of Laundry Books as the earlier ones (I prefer the horror-to-jokeiness balance to be weighted a little more in favor of horror) but I liked this sequel to his earlier Merchant Princes books quite a bit.

Specifically, it returns to the economic-development-theory fan-service that Paul Krugman liked so much in the earlier books, and ramps it up. It’s certainly cheeky to have an organization called the Ministry of Intertemporal Technological Intelligence with the goal of furthering domestic development through grabbing great ideas from elsewhere (in this case parallel universes) and looking to use them to build up domestic production capacity without allowing dangerous foreign dependencies to develop. I suspect that the nice clockwork theory that this MITI is working on is going to start popping escapements all over the place in the sequels. See also: cross-dimensional deterrence theory. I’m not going to say any more, so as to avoid spoiling actual plot developments, but if you liked the earlier books, you’ll almost certainly like this one, and if you’re looking for social-science literate entertainment, you should read it too, but likely you should read the prequels first to avoid hopeless confusion.

{ 4 comments }

Algorithmic price fixing

by Henry on January 9, 2017

This FT article is pretty interesting:

The classic example of industrial-era price fixing dates back to a series of dinners hosted amid the 1907 financial panic by Elbert Gary, then chairman of US Steel. In a narrow first-floor ballroom at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, men controlling 90 per cent of the nation’s steel output revealed to each other their respective wage rates, prices and “all information concerning their business”, one attendee recalled. Gary’s aim was to stabilise falling prices. The government later sued, saying that the dinner talks — the first of several over a four-year period — showed that US Steel was an illegal monopoly.

Algorithms render obsolete the need for such face-to-face plotting. Pricing tools scour the internet for competitors’ prices, prowl proprietary databases for relevant historical demand data, analyse digitised information and arrive at pricing solutions within milliseconds — far faster than any flesh-and-blood merchant could. That should, in theory, result in lower prices and wider consumer choice. Algorithms raise antitrust concerns only in certain circumstances, such as when they are designed explicitly to facilitate collusion or parallel pricing moves by competitors.

… a German software application that tracks petrol-pump prices. Preliminary results suggest that the app discourages price-cutting by retailers, keeping prices higher than they otherwise would have been. As the algorithm instantly detects a petrol station price cut, allowing competitors to match the new price before consumers can shift to the discounter, there is no incentive for any vendor to cut in the first place.

“Algorithms are sharing information so quickly that consumers are not aware of the competition,” says Mr Stucke. “Two gas stations that are across the street from each other are already familiar with this.” This episode suggests that the availability of perfect information, a hallmark of free market theory, might harm rather than empower consumers. If the concern is borne out, a central assumption of the digital economy — that technology lowers prices and expands choices — could be upended.

The argument here, if it is right, is twofold. One – that even without direct collusion, firms’ best strategy may be to act as if they are colluding by maintaining higher prices. Firms have a much weaker temptation to ‘defect’ from an entirely implicit bargain by lowering their prices so as to attract more customers, since there are unlikely to be significant gains from so doing, even in the short run. The plausible equilibrium is something that might be described as distributed oligopoly. Harrison White once defined a market as being a “tangible clique of producing firms, observing each other in the context of an aggregate set of buyers.” With super-cheap information, it doesn’t have to be a clique any more to be tangible.

The second is that where there is direct collusion, the information burden on regulators is much higher. For example, one may plausibly imagine that oligopoly-type outcomes might emerge as a second-order outcome of the aggregated behavior of automated agents. One might also imagine that it might be possible artfully to tweak these agents’ behavior in such a way that this will indeed be the most likely result. However, proving ex post that this was indeed the intent will likely at best require a ton of forensic resources, and at worst may be effectively impossible.

NB that both of these can happen entirely independently of traditional arguments about concentration and monopoly/oligopoly – even if Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber etc suddenly and miraculously disappeared, these kinds of distributed or occulted oligopoly problems would be untouched. If you take this set of claims seriously (the evidence presented in the FT piece still looks tentative tentative), then the most fundamental problem that the Internet poses is not one of network advantage, increasing returns to scale and so on advantaging big players (since, with a non-supine anti-trust authority, these could in principle be addressed). It’s the problem of how radically cheaper communication makes new forms of implicit and explicit collusion possible at scale, squeezing consumers.

Brexit and Labour’s Disaster

by Henry on January 5, 2017

A piece I wrote on Brexit and the UK party system has just come out in Democracy. More than anything else, I wrote the article to get people to read Peter Mair. I didn’t know Mair at all well – he was another Irish political scientist, but was based in various European universities and in a different set of academic networks than my own. I met him once and liked him, and chatted briefly a couple of times after that about email. I wish I’d known him better – his posthumously edited and published book, Ruling the Void is the single most compelling account I’ve read of what has gone wrong in European politics, and in particular what’s gone wrong for the left. It’s still enormously relevant years after his death. The ever ramifying disaster that is the British Labour party is in large part the working out of the story that Mair laid out – how party elites became disconnected from their base, how the EU became a way to kick issues out of politics into technocracy, and how it all went horribly wrong.

The modern Labour Party is caught in an especially unpleasant version of Mair’s dilemma. Labour’s leaders tried over decades to improve the party’s electoral prospects in a country where its traditional class base was disappearing. They sought very deliberately and with some success to weaken its party organization in order to achieve this aim. However, their success created a new governing class within Labour, one largely disconnected from the party grassroots that it is supposed to represent. Ed Miliband recognized this problem as party leader and tried to rebuild the party’s connection to its grassroots. … However, as Mair might have predicted, there weren’t any traditional grassroots out there to cultivate. … Mair argued that the leadership and the base were becoming disengaged from each other, so that traditional parties were withering away. Labour has actually taken this one stage further, creating a party in which the leadership and membership are at daggers drawn, each able to stymie the other, but neither able to prevail or willing to surrender.

{ 178 comments }

Columbia and grad student unionization

by Henry on January 3, 2017

It’s not surprising that businesses are likely to take advantage of the incoming Trump administration’s hostility to unions. It’s infuriating that some academic institutions are looking to do the same. Graduate students in Columbia University just voted to organize, citing frustrations with late pay, poor working conditions and so on. The university administration is looking to challenge the vote before the National Labor Relations Board on transparently specious grounds.

In its objections, Columbia said that during the election, “known union agents” stood within 100 feet of a polling place — an area voters had to pass through in order to vote — and had conversations with eligible voters. Columbia also faulted the regional body of the N.L.R.B., saying a last-minute decision not to require voters to present identification might have allowed ineligible voters to cast ballots. Columbia said a board representative improperly removed an election observer.

Given that there was a 2-1 majority in favor of unionization, this argument is, bluntly, horseshit. There are no plausible grounds for thinking that the vote would have gone differently had there not been “known union agents” (whatever that might mean) within 100 feet of voting, nor that there was voter fraud. This is nothing more and nothing less than Columbia deciding to take advantage of a new presidential administration, and an NLRB where an incoming majority of board members will see their mission as gutting the union movement through whatever means and cases present themselves.

At the moment, there appears to be a Facebook petition but I don’t use Facebook. I hope very much that Columbia faculty members put pressure on the university administration to reverse this shameful decision. If the leaders of the unionization effort want support from non-Columbia faculty members (and non-Columbia people more generally), I hope they get that too (and will try to provide updates should there be further information).

Frankenstein’s Children

by Henry on December 30, 2016

This talk by Maciej Ceglowski (who y’all should be reading if you aren’t already) is really good on silly claims by philosophers about AI, and how they feed into Silicon Valley mythology. But there’s one claim that seems to me to be flat out wrong:

We need better scifi! And like so many things, we already have the technology. This is Stanislaw Lem, the great Polish scifi author. English-language scifi is terrible, but in the Eastern bloc we have the goods, and we need to make sure it’s exported properly. It’s already been translated well into English, it just needs to be better distributed. What sets authors like Lem and the Strugatsky brothers above their Western counterparts is that these are people who grew up in difficult circumstances, experienced the war, and then lived in a totalitarian society where they had to express their ideas obliquely through writing. They have an actual understanding of human experience and the limits of Utopian thinking that is nearly absent from the west.There are some notable exceptions—Stanley Kubrick was able to do it—but it’s exceptionally rare to find American or British scifi that has any kind of humility about what we as a species can do with technology.

He’s not wrong on the delights of Lem and the Strugastky brothers, heaven forbid! (I had a great conversation with a Russian woman some months ago about the Strugatskys – she hadn’t realized that Roadside Picnic had been translated into English, much less that it had given rise to its own micro-genre). But wrong on US and (especially) British SF. It seems to me that fiction on the limits of utopian thinking and the need for humility about technology is vast. Plausible genealogies for sf stretch back, after all, to Shelley’s utopian-science-gone-wrong Frankenstein (rather than Hugo Gernsback. Some examples that leap immediately to mind:

Ursula Le Guin and the whole literature of ambiguous utopias that she helped bring into being with The Dispossessed – see e.g. Ada Palmer, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series &c.

J.G Ballard, passim

Philip K. Dick (passim, but if there’s a better description of how the Internet of Things is likely to work out than the door demanding money to open in Ubik I haven’t read it).

Octavia Butler’s Parable books. Also, Jack Womack’s Dryco books (this interview with Womack could have been written yesterday).

William Gibson (passim, but especially “The Gernsback Continuum” and his most recent work. “The street finds its own uses for things” is a specifically and deliberately anti-tech-utopian aesthetic).

M. John Harrison – Signs of Life and the Kefahuchi Tract books.

Paul McAuley (most particularly Fairyland – also his most recent Something Coming Through and Into Everywhere, which mine the Roadside Picnic vein of brain-altering alien trash in some extremely interesting ways).

Robert Charles Wilson, Spin. The best SF book I’ve ever read on how small human beings and all their inventions are from a cosmological perspective.

Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang.

Also, if it’s not cheating, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty (if Kim Stanley Robinson describes it as a novel in the SF tradition, who am I to disagree, especially since it is all about the limits of capitalism as well as communism).

I’m sure there’s plenty of other writers I could mention (feel free to say who they are in comments). I’d also love to see more translated SF from the former Warsaw Pact countries, if it is nearly as good as the Strugatskys material which has appeared. Still, I think that Ceglowski’s claim is wrong. The people I mention above aren’t peripheral to the genre under any reasonable definition, and they all write books and stories that do what Ceglowski thinks is only very rarely done. He’s got some fun reading ahead of him.

Tyler Cowen on school vouchers:

Since Donald Trump has picked Betsy DeVos to be education secretary, many commentators have been pulling out their anti-school choice arguments from the closet, and for the most part it isn’t a pretty sight. To insist on a single government-run school and trash school choice, while out of the other side of one’s mouth criticizing Trump for “authoritarianism,” and other times proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” is from my point of view a pretty poor mix.

To be sure, we’re still not sure how well vouchers work, and I would suggest continuing experimentation rather than full-on commitment. Frankly, I find a lot of the voucher advocates unconvincing, but let’s not forget the single most overwhelming (yet neglected) empirical fact about vouchers: they improve parent satisfaction.

… Of course parents may like school choice for reasons other than test scores. To draw from the first link above, parents may like the academic programs, teacher skills, school discipline, safety, student respect for teachers, moral values, class size, teacher-parent relations, parental involvement, and freedom to observe religious traditions, among other facets of school choice.

Perhaps now is the time to remind you that how the buyers like the product is the fundamental standard used by economists for judging public policy? That is not to say it is the final standard all things considered, but surely economists should at least start here and report positive parental satisfaction as a major feature of school choice programs. In fact, I’ll say this: if you’re reading a critique of vouchers and the critic isn’t willing to tell you up front that parents typically like this form of school choice, I suspect the critic isn’t really trying to inform you. [emphasis in original]

…To be sure, you still might not favor school vouchers. You might think they cost too much, you might think they will politicize private schools too much, or you might think they weaken national unity too much, to cite a few possibilities. … You need some actual evidence.

[click to continue…]

Globalized Green Lanternism

by Henry on November 25, 2016

A piece of mine that was published a few months ago that might be of interest to some, especially recent political events in the US.

A …tacit assumption lurks behind calls for the U.S. president to consider how best America can stabilize the global system: that the United States not only wants to help stabilize the international economy but that it can do so. The dominant mode of rhetoric assumes that the key causal relationship runs from U.S. influence to possible solutions for the problems plaguing the global economy. However, there is another way to think about the evidence. What if the key causal relationship does not run from U.S. hegemonic influence to global economic problems, but the other way around? What if global economic problems are imposing ever greater limits on the influence of the United States, and indeed any other putative hegemon that might replace it?

Here, the diagnosis might be as follows—that the great age of economic cooperation of the post–World War II period is the product of a historically unique conjuncture of high growth rates, and of available forms of cooperation that offered readily achievable rewards. We have no warrant to believe that these will continue forever; indeed they might already be abating. Global economic growth may be sputtering as it reaches hard limits…

Furthermore, there is some reason from the work of Thomas Piketty and
others to think that the extraordinary growth rates of recent decades are a historical aberration from earlier times, and may not continue indefinitely into the future. Finally, the low hanging fruit of straightforward tariff reductions have mostly already been plucked. Future economic agreements will have to settle instead for more dubious gleanings from the higher and more inaccessible branches. In such a world, it is unlikely that the incoming U.S. president can do very much to solve global problems. Instead, his or her main task might be to adjust as best as possible to international economic difficulties. Aspiring hegemons will find it far easier to increase economic cooperation and secure global stability in a world where there is reasonable economic growth and cooperation than in a world of stagnant growth and few distributional benefits. We may be moving from the former world to the latter.

This is less an exercise in prediction than in stealing a method from Gene Wolfe (he mentions it in one of his collections; I can’t remember which) for writing science fiction stories and applying it to policy articles. Wolfe’s recommendation is to take the world, change just one important variable, and then see what happens. What I do in the piece is to take the existing elite consensus about trade, benign US hegemony etc, and change just one factor, assuming that economic stagnation acts upon US political ability and will rather than vice versa. The result may or may not be closer to the truth, but it does, I think, plausibly demonstrate the fragility of this consensus to changes in the underlying parameters.

Kissing the ring

by Henry on November 20, 2016

There are many theories of Trump out there – here’s another – Trump as Renaissance princeling. The New York Times:

As a parade of job seekers, TV talking heads and statesmen like Henry Kissinger paraded through the lobby of Trump Tower this past week, Mr. Trump ran his presidential transition from his triplex on the 58th floor much the way he ran his campaign and his business before that — schmoozing, rewarding loyalty, fomenting infighting among advisers and moving confidently forward through a series of fits and starts. … Yet Mr. Trump loves the tension and drama of a selection process, and has sought to stoke it. A senior adviser described the meeting, in part, as Mr. Romney simply coming to pay his respects to the president-elect and “kiss his ring.” … Mr. Trump also likes to surprise, and enjoys the worldwide speculation he sets off with his Twitter posts.

This reminds me weirdly of Padgett and Ansell’s description of how Cosimo de Medici used ‘robust action’ and constructive ambiguity about his ultimate goals to manipulate those around him.

We use the term “robust action” to refer to Cosimo’s style of control. The key to understanding Cosimo’s sphinxlike character … is multivocality – the fact that single actions can be interpreted coherently from multiple perspectives simultaneously, the fact that single actions can be moves in many games at once, and the fact that public and private motivations cannot be parsed. … The “only” point of this, from the perspective of ego, is flexible opportunism – maintaining discretionary options across unforseeable futures in the face of hostile attempts by others to narrow those options.

Crucial for maintaining discretion is not to pursue any specific goals. For in nasty strategic games, like Florence or like chess, positional play is the maneuvering of opponents into the forced clarification of their (but not your) tactical lines of action. Locked in commitment to lines of action, and thence to goals, is the product not of individual choice but at least as much of thers’ successful “ecological control” over you. Victory, in Florence, in chess, or in go means locking in others, but not yourself, to goal-oriented sequences of strategic play that become predictable thereby.

The crucial difference being of course, that Cosimo de Medici rarely spoke in public and Donald Trump, via Twitter feed, via softball interviews, and via any medium that isn’t going to present him with unfriendly and harsh questions does nothing else but talk.

However, multivocality can plausibly take a variety of different forms. The Renaissance form is to adopt a strategy of ‘whatever you say, say nothing,’ leaving it for others to interpret your ambiguous actions as they will, forcing them to commit while you remain unbounded. Another is to talk constantly, but not to allow what you say to be constrained by consistency, or logic, or anything other than the short term desire to badfoot your opponents in short term tactical games and the long term one to make everyone pay attention to you, and condition their actions on you, without you having to condition their actions on them. The two have somewhat similar long term consequences. In each, the successful practitioner dominates the public space and public argument as everyone tries to interpret what the hell you have done, paying attention to you and no-one else but you, so that you can continue to play center stage in the theater of politics while everyone else is reduced to Waldorf and Statler, carping from the critics’ box.

If this is right, the key qualities of presidential politics over the next four years will be instability, frequent policy change, palace intrigues, and Trump looking to reign triumphant above it all, not particularly caring (a la Padgett and Ansell’s Cosimo) about attaining specific goals, but instead looking to preserve his position at the center of an ever shifting spider web of political relations, no matter what consequences this has for the integrity of the web. This might not be authoritarianism in the sense of a well-honed bureaucratic regime dedicated to horrible ends, but authoritarianism in terms of the general break down of Weberian order and hierarchies in favor of a largely personalized politics in which one’s relationship with an erratic and unpredictable president counts for far more than one’s formal position and authority (of course, all politics do depend on personal relations more than one might like, but bureaucracy and rules still usually count).

American democracy

by Henry on November 9, 2016

The text that is going through my mind this morning is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. I’ve had a half written post sitting on my computer for a long time on the resonances between that book and Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which is far more lightly written, but which is subtly scathing in its depiction of how racism in America is anterior to, and more fundamental than American national identity. The most important part of Coates’ book, as I read it, is the part that got least attention – its account of American democracy. One of the reasons that liberals like Jonathan Chait get angry with Coates is because of his refusal to accept that things have, in some fundamental way, gotten better. This stems from Coates’ belief, which he develops in the book that the conditions of black people (and others too) are the result of wilful choices by a democratic majority.

The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies — the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects— are the product of democratic will … The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs. (pp. 78-79)

It’s hard to argue with those words this morning.

Michael Lind of New America has a Theory about why politics is so screwed up. It’s worth quoting in extenso:

Science fiction traditionally has had the task of providing us with alternative visions of the future. For the most part, it has done a terrible job. The main reason for its failure is that it assumes global uniformity. …

In optimistic visions of the future, there is a liberal and democratic world government, or perhaps an interplanetary federation. In dystopias, there is a single global tyranny. … The assumption of uniform conditions in the world of tomorrow saves science-fiction authors and screenwriters the trouble of explaining the Sino-Indian dispute of 2345 AD, allowing them to concentrate on the plot and the main characters. But it is completely unrealistic.

…even in an industrialized world of wage workers and cities, the gaps between rich and poor regions are likely to remain enormous. Even as some backward areas catch up, innovative regions will shoot ahead. …

Great-power rivalry, demographic collapse, mass migration — three of the major forces reshaping the world — have been all but completely absent, both from classic science fiction and newer novels and movies that have shaped public consciousness. … Unfortunately, literary and cinematic visions of the future influence the way the public and the policymaking elite think about the future. This is particularly a problem for the left … Meanwhile, from the early 20th century to the early 21st, many centrist liberals have put their hopes in international institutions — the League of Nations, the United Nations, or, more recently, projects of trans-national regionalism like the European Union.

Today’s national populists are told that they are on the wrong side of history, by elites whose members claim to speak on behalf of an emerging world community. But maybe the populists and nationalists are on the right side of history and the elites have been duped by bad science fiction.

Well, in fairness, it isn’t nearly as creepy as blaming it all on international bankers or the Rothschilds

[click to continue…]

Uber Menschen

by Henry on October 5, 2016

This, screencapped by Ryan Cooper right before Jason Brennan suddenly and inexplicably deleted his Twitter account, gives the game away a bit.

screenshot-2016-10-05-09-45-58 [click to continue…]

Privatization as State Transformation

by Henry on September 29, 2016

I’ve an essay on the topic of privatization forthcoming in Nomos. Since the theme may be of interest to CT readers, or at least might get some useful pushback, I’m putting it up beneath the fold. NB that it is quite long – people who want to read it may prefer the PDF.

[click to continue…]

Glenn Reynolds should not be disciplined

by Henry on September 23, 2016

Glenn Reynolds is a piece of work. Much of his blogging is in the ambiguous borderland between right wing hackery and active depravity. Even so, I was disturbed to see this in Inside Higher Ed:

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville says it’s investigating a law professor’s tweet suggesting that motorists “run down” protesters blocking traffic following a fatal police shooting in Charlotte, N.C. The professor, a popular blogger with the Twitter handle @Instapundit, says he hasn’t been contacted by the university directly … On Thursday, Melanie D. Wilson, dean of Tennessee’s College of Law, posted a statement to the university website saying that she was “aware of the remarks” and of the “serious and legitimate concerns expressed by members of the [law college] family and the University of Tennessee community, as well as concerned citizens across the country.”Wilson said Reynolds’s comments “do not reflect my views and opinions, nor do they reflect the values of the college and university,” and that she, administrators and faculty members are “investigating this matter.”
[click to continue…]

This letter to incoming students from the University of Chicago’s dean of students is getting a lot of discussion (e.g.).

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

There’s something basically right with the idea that universities (in the social sciences and humanities) should be in the business of making their students uncomfortable with their preconceptions, obligng them to examine their own and others’ ideas forcefully, and getting them to acknowledge a la Max Weber that there are awkward facts for every political position. But there’s also something fundamentally wrong with the claim that the ideal of academic freedom and the idea of the safe space are opposed to each other. [click to continue…]

Life in the party

by Henry on July 20, 2016

This rather unconvincing effort by Paul Ryan to lipstick the pig in his speech at the second day of the Republican convention:

We Republicans have made our choice. Have we had our arguments this year? Sure we have. You know what I call those? Signs of life. Signs of a party that is not just going through the motions, not just mouthing the words from the same old stuff.

reminds me of an old and likely apocryphal story about Daniel O’Connell’s time as a barrister:

One of O’Connell’s great displays of forensic acuteness took place at Tralee.

The question in dispute touched the validity of a will that had been made almost in articulo mortis. The instrument seemed drawn up in due form, the witnesses gave ample confirmation that it had been legally executed. One of them was an old servant. O’Connell cross-examined him, and allowed him to speak on in the hope that he would say too much. Nor was the hope disappointed. The witness had already sworn that he saw the deceased sign the will. ‘Yes,’ he went on, ‘I saw him sign it and surely there was life in him at the time.’ The expression frequently repeated led O’Connell to suspect that it had a peculiar meaning. Fixing his eyes on the old man, he said ‘You have taken an oath before God and man to speak the truth and the whole truth; the eye of God is upon you, and the eyes of your neighbours are fixed on you too. Answer me by virtue of that sacred and solemn oath which has passed your lips. Was the testator alive when he signed the will?’

The witness quivered; his face grew ashy pale as he repeated, ‘There was life in him.’ The question was reiterated, and at last O’Connell half compelled half cajoled him to admit that, after life was extinct, a pen had been put into the testator’s hand, that one of the party guided it to sign his name, while, as a salve for the consciences of all concerned, a living fly was put into the dead man’s mouth, to qualify the witnesses to bear testimony that ‘there was life in him’ when he signed the will. This fact, literally dragged from the witness, preserved a large property in a respectable and worthy family.

Also, Ryan’s claim that Republicans are “not just mouthing the words from the same old stuff” seems rather poorly phrased, considering. But your mileage may vary.