The poverty of intellectual correctness – Part One: Neo-Darwinism

I wrote this essay a few years ago as part one of a two-part article that would illustrate some parallels between intellectual authoritarianism in neo-Darwinism and in neoclassical economics. In some ways my response to Paul Krugman’s response to me was Part Two. But, wanting to quote this essay in another essay I’m working on – “Disciplines as institutions” I’m publishing it now in all it’s unfinishment.?

I. Denis Noble on what’s wrong with gene centred Neo-Darwinism

A few weeks ago?I finished reading Denis Noble’s very intriguing and provocative Dance to the Tune of Life, a comprehensive take-down of Neo-Darwinism and excessive reductionism in science.?Noble was one of Richard Dawkins’ PhD examiners and?used to identify with the?Neo-Darwinist mainstream – of which more in a moment. But, through his work in mathematical physiology gradually became aware of mounting problems with certain doctrinal foundations of Neo-Darwinism.

Often he shows us recent work that seems to debunk very important Neo-Darwinist doctrines at the same time as showing us that those heterodox ideas have been around for many many decades – sometimes over a century – but that they’ve been marginalised by the Neo-Darwinist consensus. And that consensus has been enforced by a Neo-Darwinist ‘political correctness’ police in which Richard Dawkins takes pride of place. My purpose in this essay is to delineate some intellectual roots of this political correctness and also to show strong parallels with the way ‘scientific rigour’ is policed in another discipline – economics – with similar disastrous results.?

Fittingly enough, cross-fertilisation between economics and biology has been common. Since economics first threatened to become little more than a branch of applied mathematics as the marginal revolution took hold, numerous economists of note have insisted that economics should be more like biology. In fact the cross fertilisation goes right back to the beginning of modern evolution. When Darwin read Malthus’s political economy, particularly his famous Essay on the Principle of Population it turned his mind toward every creature’s and every species’ struggle for survival.? The rest was history – well biology actually, but you get my meaning.

II.?Reductionism: Here’s looking at Euclid

Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Science | 4 Comments

Corporate Social Policy Responsibility

I was after one of the sillier charts to illustrate CSR. It was a tough choice, but this one hit all its KPIs. Originally worked up from the map which guided the bombing of Hamburg, all Troppodillians will join with me in celebrating its use in a civilian capacity.

CSR, shared value and its old establishment incarnation, pro bono work, arose from the old sense of noblesse oblige. Actually I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how it arose, but I thought I’d begin this post with a bit of strategisation – you know, where I say that a social institution suited its own time but now needs to be brought into the modern world, that given the state we’re in this issue has never been more important etc etc? </strategisation>

In any event, today CSR and similar initiatives arise from various motives.

  • The company would like to do something good, either because it wants to of its own accord or because it’s got up the community’s nose in the past.
  • The company would like to associate itself with Good Things which it hopes won’t hurt, and ideally will help its bottom line. This can happen through:
    • Continued licence to operate (it minimises the number of people chaining themselves to its bulldozers or snarking about?it on social media);
    • Increased sales through improving its image with consumers; and/or
    • Improved recruiting power in appealing to employees who want to ‘make a difference’.

In my discussions with big consulting and legal firms, one driver of pro bono work is its capacity to address the angst of the best graduates. Amid all this money making, they want their careers to be about making the world a better place. As the saying goes “All work and no change we can believe in makes Jack a dull boy”. Of course this hankering can only be addressed within reason – we’re not running a charity here. Nevertheless, a managing partner of BCG once told me that this was worth 5% of payroll to them to attract the best graduate talent. Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy, Political theory, Politics - international | 5 Comments

Churchill’s children: the rise of the privileged Marketeers in Anglo-Land

For almost a century the royal road to becoming a top politician in Anglo-Land was to study law and/or a bit of economics. In Australia that was the ticket for Keating, Hawke, Gillard, Howard, and Turnbull. In the US, that mold fit Obama (law), Clinton (law), and both GHW and GH Bush (one studied economics, the other business). In the UK, the royal road is recognised to be the PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) study in Oxford, which for instance begat Cameron and several other prime-ministers since WWII.

Yet, currently, we have marketeers in charge of the most populous Anglo-countries. They are invariably men who have spent their working lives engaged in selling ideas and themselves to the general public. In Australia we have Scott Morrison, a marketing man, and before him Tony Abbott, a journo. In the US we of course have Trump, who spent decades in showbiz. I include Justin Trudeau of Canada in this list because I regard him as a born marketeer. And in the UK we now have Bojo, a journo for many years who is also, like Trudeau, a lifelong and natural self-promoter.

This is a bit much for coincidence. Politicians have always had to sell themselves, but in previous decades it was the marketing departments of political parties that helped them do it. Margaret Thatcher was famously re-dressed and re-branded to make her electable, and the Bushes had a lot of professional help in selling them. What is interesting is that now the top people themselves are marketeers. Any other skill or interest other than how to sell stuff seems a burden when it comes to reaching the top of the political tree.

Can we say the same for top politicians outside of Anglo-Land? Not really. One might at a stretch include Berlusconi, who is in many ways Trump’s predecessor but with more panache. Yet, if you look closely you will find that all the major countries are run by the usual types: Macron of France studied public administration and was in charge of a ministry; Merkel of Germany is an engineer-administrator with a similar trajectory as Thatcher; Modi of India did political science and then became a professional pollie; Jiping of China is the usual engineer-administrator normal for Chinese leaders; Putin is the usual for Russia (secret service); and Bolsonaro of Brasil is the usual for that region (military). Even Berlusconi turns out to have started with a degree in Law, the usual for Italian politicians before and after him.

So no, the non-Anglo countries do not get their politicians from the world of marketing, not even in those places we associate with populism or right-wing nationalist politics. In the rest of the world, politicians still come from the same place they came from 20 or 50 years ago. Anglo-Land has changed with the rise of the marketeers.

What is equally interesting is that really, tree of these seem to have had to reform the way politics was done in their own party and have pushed policies their parties disliked: they were resisted internally and had to force their parties into new ways. This makes their rise to power even more impressive because they will have been told constantly how wrong they were and how obviously their attempts at gaining power would fail.

Trump’s constant critics in the media and within the Republican Party are famous. Bojo argued for Brexit against the top of his own party, then once in charge kicked out his rivals from within the party, notably alienated his own brother, and was famously unpopular and disliked by the vast majority of his own parliamentary party when he was voted in by his MPs. Morrison had to battle Dutton and others for supremacy within, and was then written-off by the Labour supporters and their friends in the media till his stunning single-handed victory. In all three cases did their party insiders only grudgingly accept them as leaders in the belief they had to in order to have a chance of retaining power.

They also had professional or political careers outside of the center of their party: Boris was first major of London and then had to work his way up in the parliamentary party; Morrison was a tourism manager for many years; and we all know the stories of what the Donald was up to before politics, even trying to get into the other party first.

What is it about Anglo-Land currently that makes marketing men so electable now and not before, to the extent that these characters can make it even against the wishes of their own party? Maybe we should have a look for clues in history and find someone similar who rose to power, looking at the characteristics of that time. Continue reading

Posted in Geeky Musings, History, Journalism, Law, Life, Political theory, Politics - international, Social Policy, Society | 9 Comments

The framing wars: Have the elites gone off on frolics of their own unsupported by the community?

Are you pro-choice or pro-life? Language like this shows us how fundamental framing has become to political combat. Political debate isn’t just ‘dumbed down’ or simplified. There’s a geography to the ground on which it’s fought and those with an eye to victory head for the high ground.1?

There’s much talk these days about the divide between political elites and ‘ordinary folk’. It’s tearing western democracies apart. I think that the elite lack respect for the hoi polloi and their view of the world. Hence my frequent reference to the ancient Greek political principle of isegoria or equality of speech.2

In Sam Roggeveen’s response to my review of his essay Our Very Own Brexit (which I recommend by the way), he isn’t the first to argue that I do my cause no favours by “aligning it so closely with causes that our political elites would endorse (e.g. welcoming of immigrants and refugees; against Brexit)”.3 This is definitely sound political advice if one ventures among?the red meat folk at?Quillette.

But for the record, while I think Brexit makes lousy economic policy and statecraft, I wouldn’t just respect the will of the British people if they chose the course they are embarked upon with open eyes. I’d be awestruck with admiration. I’d think it was a fantastic development in which people decided that there were more important things than money and power to live for. But I don’t think any of that. I think they’ve been sold on a particular framing of the story in which the EU is an elite project gone mad, and so something which is coming after their nationhood and something on which they can heap their rage.

Roggeveen’s response goes on:

The problem I identified in the book is that the party-political class in Western democracies has become a separate caste with few connections to a social or economic base; Brexit shows what happens when the policy preferences shared by that caste runs too far ahead of the public.

I’ll call this the ‘frolic’ school of analysis. The elites have just kept doing what elites do – pursuing various hubristic agendas until the inevitable Wile E. Coyote moment comes and they realise that they have, in their zeal, arrived at a place where there’s no ground underneath them. Now it has to be admitted that the EU has major flaws. It seemed to me that its treatment of Greece was and continues to be a disgrace, and even if you disagree with that – as Paul Frijters does – the whole Euro project was ill-conceived and devastating. I’d go so far as to call it a frolic?– and it’s a frolic of spectacular, and spectacularly ill judged proportions.? Continue reading

  1. Thanks to David Sligar for comments on a draft.
  2. This article began as I gussied up my response to Sam Roggeveen’s response to my response to his Our Very Own Brexit.
  3. I’m? pilloried about that?here for instance.
Posted in Democracy, Economics and public policy, Philosophy, Political theory, Politics - international, Sortition and citizens’ juries | 16 Comments

Job of last resort: the job guarantee’s modest cousin

Hello, my name’s David Sligar. Nicholas Gruen has kindly encouraged me to do some blogging here. I started reading this blog over a decade ago, so I’m excited to contribute.

First up is a slightly modified cross post from my blog proposing a “job of last resort“. The policy is intended to be a modest variant on a “job guarantee”, a policy idea gaining increased attention around the world, particularly on the left.

I’ve long been a sceptic of a job guarantee (JG). A world in which a government department can effectively evaluate the needs and capabilities of every unemployed person and assign them to a suitable individualised job is beyond the scope of plausible reality, in my view. It’s just not my experience of the way bureaucracies work.

Such a program would also bring macro-economic risks, potentially suppress wages in JG worker sectors, and do an injustice to the unemployed by making promises it can’t keep. Unemployed people suffer enough stigma. It would only get worse if the government effectively told the community the unemployed were all there entirely by choice, as would be the implication of claiming jobs were “guaranteed”. A full blown JG would also have a massive fiscal cost – likely tens of billions each year – which just cannot be hand waived away in budget obsessed Australia.

Nevertheless the motivating spirit behind the JG has its attraction. Long-term unemployment is a waste and a tragedy. Human beings, willing to work, sit idle for years when they could be contributing to society through some form of productive labour. And although I think claims about the “dignity of work” can be overstated, it is true that long-term unemployment is profoundly damaging for happiness, health and human capital. Many of us would prefer almost any safe and dignified job to this. Some – not all – of us have a deep need for a reason to get out of bed, duties to perform, a need to feel needed.

What if we could design something like a JG, but on a relatively modest scale, capturing its merits while dropping the risks and grandiosity of a universal JG? Let’s call this a “job of last resort” (JLR) program.


The starting point is that JLR would only target the segment of the unemployed who are relatively unlikely to gain employment in the private sector any time soon. It would not cover someone briefly between jobs. Rather, it would be limited to those who have been substantially underutilised for a very long period. This is to ensure the program does not interfere with transitional unemployment, which is present even in the healthy labour markets described as “full employment”. Continue reading

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Oysters and institutions

I have extracted below a section that took my fancy from an academic article about the economist Neild, whom?I’d not heard of previously. It is an interesting story on its own terms and a nice illustration of how unhelpful the instinct to locate regimes or their functionality on a singular spectrum between ‘government’ and ‘market’.?They are co-dependent entities.

The English, the French and the Oyster (Neild 1995) is a succulent feast of a book, with rewards for readers of different kinds. Neild wrote the book as a result of his love of that mollusc and his interest in the evolution of its consumption. He wondered why oysters were more scarce and expensive in Britain than in France. He looked for an explanation but could not find one. So he researched the topic himself (Neild 2013b). While the book was not primarily an academic study, it dovetailed with his enduring interest in the ‘diversity of cultural evolution that shaped institutions’ (Neild 2017a, p. 6).

The book can be read

with reward by gourmets with no interest in economics, while economists and other social scientists can revel in its historical and institutional analysis of the oyster industry, as an illuminating complement to the?more famous study of other common-pool resources by Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom (1990).11

In the middle of the 19th century, oyster production and consumption were as extensive and popular in Britain as in France. Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers (1836), and Henry Mayhew in his classic London Labour and the London Poor (1851), noted that oysters were plentiful and consumed by the poor as well as by the rich. The new railways brought fresh oysters from the coasts to London and other cities. Some estimates suggest that per capita oyster consumption was higher in Greater London than in France (Neild 1995, p. 30).

The railways had facilitated an increase in the demand and supply of oysters in both England and France. In both countries the result was severe over-fishing of the oyster, leading to a precipitous fall in o

yster production in England between the 1850s and the 1880s. Estimates suggest that the number of oysters sold in Billingsgate – their principal market in London – fell by 90%. During this period of overall price deflation, the nominal price of some types of oyster increased about sevenfold (Neild 1995, p. 55). France faced a similar problem.

Neild compared the responses of the French and UK governments to this mid-century crisis. He showed that differences in institutional heritage and ideological predilection led to very different recommendations and policies. The result was the near-extermination of the oyster industry in Britain but its survival and prosperity in France. Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy | 1 Comment

#BoySplaining: How not to argue

I made up the term #Bossplaining. Or thought I did. Turns out it’s already a thing.

The one thing?I learned in my university education, the one thing that excited me, was the need for people to exercise real effort in understanding each other. The language we use is so full of shades of meaning and we’re such emotional creatures – particularly when we’re arguing. Johnathan Haight has popularised lots of the evidence of the truth of Hume’s claim that our reason is the slave to our passions.

There’s something funny about the commentary in this thread about aggressive debate in economics faculties. It’s?recently acquired a gender politics dimension and the first commenter – a male economist confesses to misreading the motives of the piece assuming the author was a man. Thinking he is dealing with one kind of meaning making?– in which someone is right and the other wrong?– he encounters another.

Anyway, like my gradual disenchantment with almost all political debate, which?I see as simply the thin artefact of the rituals of competition, where words mean less and less (and are chosen for that purpose) with everything in the body language (the body language of an argument?– ha ha)?I’m pretty disenchanted with aggressive argument itself. I’ve never seen it turn up much, though?I guess it could when the argument is about things that are sufficiently formal that there really is a right and wrong answer. Even then though, argument should be direct, but not aggressive as it’s less efficient that way.

Compete if?you must?– it’s not only natural but it’s good up to a point. It tests ideas. But even if one side wins, there’s usually quite a lot to be gained by looking at the perspective of others. This came to mind when reading this terrific piece by Kevin Kelly. He’s fantastic to read?– such a powerful, curious intellect. That’s one reason why he’s not in the footnote chase of academia of course.? Anyway, he disagrees with Robert Gordon. I’ve not read Gordon, but he’s certainly a well regarded economist. An A leaguer.

If?I had to guess who’s going to be proven right,?I think maybe Kelly will be, but who knows? Certainly Gordon looks to be right about all the panic about robots coming for our jobs – at least for now. It’s future gazing so a very difficult call. Both sides?have a good case to make. What’s shocking is how juvenile Gordon’s response is. The lack of graciousness is unfortunate, but the lack of curiosity is unforgivable. Rather than explore the issues, elaborate on where he thinks the weaker parts of his thesis are, or take up some of the fertile threads Kelly weaves through his piece, Gordon is in high school debating mode. He’s right and Kelly’s wrong. Note how, in this style the antagonist defines the terms – making the debate about his contribution – and any deviation from?those terms?results from their opponent’s foolishness or knavery.

What a tragedy that academia is so often policed by people of such desicated, reductive sensibility as Gordon. I’ve been reading recently about the foundation of the internet and it was populated by such clever and curious people with a passion for humanity?– seriously, it’s amazing how many of?them had a human vision for computers?–?how much?they anticipated the ‘social turn’ that IT took at the turn of the millennium, though that’s now being set upon by various dystopian forces.

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy | 12 Comments