Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Not Kosher for Passover

Weird line from the New York Times:

"Graduates heard a similar message at hundreds of colleges this spring, as commencement orators — including actors, executives, poets and heads of state — leavened their congratulatory messages with acknowledgment of the bleak marketplace outside campus."

To me this seems like a novel use of the word "leavened."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

War and Peace and the Pacific Northwest

"In place of the former god-pleasing goals of the peoples - the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans - which the ancients took for goals of the movement of mankind, modern history has set up its own goals - the good of the French, the Germans, the English, and, in its highest abstraction, the goal of the good of all human civilization, usually understood as the people occupying the small northwest corner of a large continent."

-Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Part 2 of the Epilogue, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

War and Peace was written before Seattle-centrism had become too prevalent, but clearly the tendency to define Seattle (the core, the metropole) as the essence of human civilization, and everywhere else (the periphery) as backwards, had already begun. Bear in mind, Tolstoy was writing more than a century before Microsoft and Nirvana, and almost a century before the construction of the Space Needle.

I really don't see how anyone can doubt Tolstoy's prescience, or his sense of history.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

More Salt for DeLong

DeLong continues to disappoint, asking, "Can Anybody Tell Me Why Ross Douthat Rather than Hilzoy Writes an Op-Ed Column for the New York Times?"

He refers to this post by Hilzoy.

I should note that I agree with Hilzoy about one thing: Douthat's column is very peculiar. I don't really think it adds a lot - maybe that's the result of not having enough words to work with.

But Hilzoy is grossly unfair or obtuse. He simply can't parse this passage from Douthat:

The argument for unregulated abortion rests on the idea that where there are exceptions, there cannot be a rule. Because rape and incest can lead to pregnancy, because abortion can save women’s lives, because babies can be born into suffering and certain death, there should be no restrictions on abortion whatsoever.

As a matter of moral philosophy, this makes a certain sense. Either a fetus has a claim to life or it doesn’t. The circumstances of its conception and the state of its health shouldn’t enter into the equation.

But the law is a not a philosophy seminar. It’s the place where morality meets custom, and compromise, and common sense. And it can take account of tragic situations without universalizing their lessons.

Hilzoy responds: "First of all, the claim that 'where there is an exception, there cannot be a rule' does not make sense as a matter or moral philosophy."

But Douthat isn't proposing that it makes sense, he's proposing that it doesn't make sense. Hilzoy is in heated agreement with him. And Hilzoy proceeds in this vein for paragraphs, misconstruing Douthat's argument and missing his point entirely.

I don't have the energy to go through the rest, but it's really obnoxious. As I said, this wasn't Douthat's best effort, but if you're going to go after someone you have to have the goods on him. Hilzoy can't even read properly.

And DeLong links to it approvingly. Sigh.

Interestingly, several comments on Hilzoy's post basically point out that he's an idiot (you have to wade through egregious shit to find them, but they're there).

Monday, June 08, 2009

Stonewall Days

40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots coming up. Read up on them if you don't know what I'm talking about, it's fascinating. What strikes me about it is how unlikely it seems. A mafia-run gay bar with no liquor license in Greenwich Village - and now, Iowa and New Hampshire.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Department of Analogies

Sarang, in comments, says:

"I should point out that I _don't_ think my objections are of the pedantic-asshole type. As I see it, the macro-regularities follow certain laws and the micro-regularities follow some, apparently entirely different, laws. You can pretend that these sets of laws are 'continuously connected,' but as far as I can tell, they are entirely different, and also as far as I can tell, there's a watershed at say N = 10000 people at which the micro-laws cease to be continuously connected to the macro-laws."

No one is accusing Sarang of asshole pedantry (pederasty is another matter). But let me say what I think Tolstoy's analogy is and isn't doing.

I think Tolstoy is primarily objecting to the idea that particular events happened because Napoleon did one thing and not another. And indeed, Napoleon did have command of an empire, and his whim really did matter. But Tolstoy would say, I think, that Napoleon's control of his empire, and his army, depended on everyone obeying his orders, which in turn depended on their own decisions, their own "will." You can't understand the French invasion of Russia merely by reference to Napoleon's ambitions.

A true account of the French invasion would be much more fine-grained. Why did each soldier choose to obey his orders (or why did some desert, or whatever)? Why did gun-makers make the necessary guns? Why did so many non-French serve? etc. etc.

But anyway, I think continuity of historical theories is actually a red herring. It may be that as you include more and more dimensions in your model, you get discontinuities, and I don't think it matters. The point is to abandon crude, "discrete" accounts of history and embrace the multitude of factors that come into play. In my analogy, to zoom in, to take a close look at each section of coastline, to avoid the easy "because Napoleon said so" answers.

And I think ultimately the upshot is that history is intractable. History is the confluence of so many individual decisions and outcomes that the only true depiction of the world is the world itself. One can only zoom in so far before outstripping one's data and ability to process it. And this is my problem with Tolstoy's stance - I think he overreacts to the "great man" theories of history that repulsed him. In a sense, he was dealing with the same issues that Krugman deals with in, again, my favorite Krugman essay.

You understand history as well as you can with the tools you have. But remember, Tolstoy was writing at a time when it was becoming feasible to understand things much better than previously. His desire for a more continuous account of history is entirely understandable and defensible.

And, finally, the literalism of his analogy - sure, he doesn't seem to have been up to speed on calculus (though who am I to criticize?). But War and Peace is a novel (or an epic, or whatever Tolstoy thought it was). And this isn't a case of Tolstoy making sweeping statements about a discipline he knew nothing about, as with the Sokal hoax. In the first place, Tolstoy isn't commenting on mathematics, he's commenting on history, which, given the setting of War and Peace, I think he earned the right to do. Additionally, I think his commentary is at the very least coherent and informed, which is apparently not true of the commentary protested by Sokal.

So I don't think literalism is called for. At the very least, I feel that I got something out of the analogy. It reflects the philosophy that Andrei had embraced during the invasion, and I think it's something we've all thought about in one form or another. I'm actually thrilled to be able to see something the way Tolstoy saw it, even if I can't be sure that I precisely appreciate his point.

You're Not The Only One Who Can Play This Game, Tolstoy

How about this for an analogy? I draw this idea from Neal Stephenson's Mother Earth Mother Board:

"The basic problem of slack is akin to a famous question underlying the mathematical field of fractals: How long is the coastline of Great Britain? If I take a wall map of the isle and measure it with a ruler and multiply by the map's scale, I'll get one figure. If I do the same thing using a set of large-scale ordnance survey maps, I'll get a much higher figure because those maps will show zigs and zags in the coastline that are polished to straight lines on the wall map. But if I went all the way around the coast with a tape measure, I'd pick up even smaller variations and get an even larger number. If I did it with calipers, the number would be larger still. This process can be repeated more or less indefinitely, and so it is impossible to answer the original question straightforwardly. The length of the coastline of Great Britain must be defined in terms of fractal geometry."

So how about this: asking why some historical event happened is like asking what the length of Great Britain's coastline is. It is not a meaningless question, but it has no unique answer - the precise answer will depend on the frame of reference, how "zoomed in" you are to the map of Great Britain. And any answer is at best an approximation, because one cannot zoom in infinitely far. Discreteness will always remain.

And in fact, there is a tradeoff between precision and feasibility. If you simply connect points on Great Britain's coastline with mile-long segments and add up their lengths, you are missing a lot of inlets and protuberances, but you have a relatively easy task. This sort of tradeoff is one of the themes of my own favorite Krugman essay, The Fall and Rise of Development Economics.

Tolstoy's Math

Sarang, in comments, derides Tolstoy's analogy between math and history. I am inclined to cut Tolstoy some slack, because I quite like the analogy. But it does seem to be true that you don't need much math to show that the Achilles-tortoise "paradox" is not paradoxical at all.

Imagine that Achilles runs at 1 meter per second, while the tortoise runs at 0.1m/s. Imagine that Achilles starts 1 meter behind the tortoise. Then in one second, Achilles will have reached the place the tortoise started, but the tortoise will have advanced 0.1 meter. In another 1/10 of a second, Achilles will have reached this point, but the tortoise will have moved on. Hence the "paradox."

So set t = to the amount of time that it will take Achilles to catch the tortoise. It will take him one second, plus 1/10 of a second, plus 1/100 of a second, and so on.

t = 1 + 0.1 + 0.01 + 0.001 + ....

Set m = 0.1 + 0.01 + 0.001 + ...

So t = 1 + m.

Now multiply both sides by 10.

10t = 10 + 10m = 10 + 1 + m

Now subtract t from 10t:

10t - t = (10 + 1 + m) - (1 + m)

9t = 10 + (1 + m) - (1 + m)

9t = 10

t = 10/9

So apparently Achilles will catch the tortoise in 10/9 of a second.

Sarang, have I fucked something up?

LBJ and Tolstoy

Since I have already quoted from Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate and from War and Peace today, why not close the loop? This is from p. 59 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent:

Even at Longlea [the Virginia estate of Charles Marsh, patron of LBJ, and his wife Alice Glass, mistress of LBJ, unbeknownst to Marsh], there were hints - although the Longlea "regulars" didn't notice them. She [Lady Bird Johnson] seemed always to be reading. One summer was to become enshrined in Longlea lore as "the summer that Lady Bird read War and Peace"; the scintillating Longlea regulars snickered because the quiet little woman carried the big book with her everywhere - even though, by the end of summer, she had finished it. When, during the loud arguments to which she sat silently listening, a book would be cited, Lady Bird would, on her return to Washington, check it out of the public library. One was Mein Kampf, which Charles Marsh had read, and to which he was continually referring. She read it, and while she never talked about the book at Longlea, when Hitler's theories were discussed thereafter, she was aware that, while Marsh knew what he was talking about, no one else in the room did - except her.

Krugman and Tolstoy

And, apropos of my previous post on Tolstoy's view of history, Krugman is in the habit of quoting Colin McEvedy's mathematical view of history. Here is Krugman reviewing The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History, by David Hackett Fischer, in Foreign Affairs:

And the book starts well, with an eloquent and stirring defense of the role of quantification in history (although my favorite along these lines is still Colin McEvedy's introduction to The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History, which contains this immortal sentence: "History being a branch of the biological sciences, its ultimate expression must be mathematical").

It is perhaps worth mentioning Krugman's professed reason for becoming an economist: he wanted to emulate the psychohistorians of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, using quantitative methods to grasp historical truths (or so I understand - I have only read one book in the series). See also. And also.

Continuity and History

And while I'm quoting amazing passages, I love this one from volume III, part 3 of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky):

A well-known so-called sophism of the ancients posits that Achilles can never overtake a tortoise that is walking ahead of him, even though Achilles walks ten times faster than the tortoise: while Achilles covers the distance that separates him from the tortoise, the tortoise will get ahead of him by one tenth of that distance; Achilles covers that one tenth, the tortoise gets ahead by one hundredth, and so on to infinity. The ancients considered this problem insoluble. The nonsensical conclusion (that Achilles will never overtake the tortoise) resulted only from the fact that discrete units of movement were introduced arbitrarily, while the movement of both Achilles and the tortoise was continuous.

By taking smaller and smaller units of movement, we only approach the solution of the problem, but never reach it. Only by allowing for an infinitesimal quantity and the ascending progression from that up to one tenth, and by taking the sum of that geometrical progression, do we arrive at the solution of the problem. A new branch of mathematics, having attained to the art of dealing with infinitesimal quantities in other, more complex problems of movement as well, now gives answers to questions that used to seem insoluble.

This new branch of mathematics, unknown to the ancients, in examining questions of movement, allows for infinitesimal quantities, that is, such as restore the main condition of movement (absolute continuity), and thereby corrects the inevitable error that human reason cannot help committing when it examines discrete units of movement instead of continuous movement.

The same thing happens in the search for the laws of historical movement.

The movement of mankind, proceeding from a countless number of human wills, occurs continuously.

To comprehend the laws of this movement is the goal of history. But in order to comprehend the laws of the continuous movement of the sum of all individual wills, human reason allows for arbitrary, discrete units. The first method of history consists in taking an arbitrary series of continuous events and examining it separately from others, whereas there is not and cannot be a beginning to any event, but one event always continuously follows another. The second method consists in examining the actions of one person, a king, a commander, as the sum of individual wills, whereas the sum of individual wills is never expressed in the activity of one historical person.

Historical science in its movement always takes ever smaller units for examination, and in this way strives to approach the truth. But however small the units that history takes, we feel that allowing for a unit that is separate from another, allowing for the beginning of some phenomenon, and allowing for the notion that all individual wills are expressed in the actions of one historical person, is false in itself.

Any conclusion of historical science, without the least effort on the part of criticism, falls apart like dust, leaving nothing behind, only as a result of the fact that criticism selects as an object for observation a larger or smaller discrete unit, which it always has the right to do, because any chosen historical unit is always arbitrary.

Only by admitting an infinitesimal unit for observation - a differential of history, that is, the uniform strivings of people - and attaining to the art of integrating them (taking the sums of these infinitesimal quantities) can we hope to comprehend the laws of history.

So Say We All

I have no idea if this is where the Battlestar Galactica phrase originated, but it's a hell of a paragraph anyway. From p. 696 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, by Robert Caro (I have not amended his use of the term Negro):

For three days that December, the Supreme Court heard arguments on Brown, and five months later, on May 17, 1954, the Court ruled that separation of races in schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment's pledge of equal protection of the law, "that in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate but equal facilities are inherently unequal. . . . To separate them [Negro children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority . . . that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone." The Court's Chief Justice understood as Lyndon Johnson understood the importance of unanimity, and Earl Warren had obtained it - even from Justice Stanley F. Reed of border-state Kentucky. Reed, who had been the last holdout, was looking down from the bench at Thurgood Marshall, who had led the fight in Brown, when Warren uttered the words, "So say we all." Reed "was looking me right straight in the face, because he wanted to see my reaction when I realized he hadn't dissented," the great black attorney would recall. The two men exchanged nods, barely perceptible. But there were tears on the Justice's face. All across the United States black men and women knelt to give thanks to God.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Don't Trust Anyone Who Doesn't Understand Section 1129

Will121 says in comments:

"Regarding the errors at the start of the piece I'll just mention that when this guy blogged about finance, I'd pointed out that he often had no clue about what he was talking about. Now that he's mentioning someone in your profession, you've come to the same realization."

Will121 is referring to my previous post, in which I pointed out that the first sentence of Brad DeLong's recent piece contains two glaring (and so far uncorrected) errors.

Fair enough. It is clear that DeLong often indulges his temptation to write about things he doesn't know anything about (ironically, a very Posnerian tendency). For instance, is he under the impression that Carbozo Cardozo was a good judge? Or is he being ironic? [Carbozo joke stolen from a law school professor]

Either way, lesson learned. Big grain of salt going forward.

And an even bigger grain of salt for Felix Salmon, who defended the GM 363 sale with this logic:

"As far as I can make out, the main legitimate complaint of the GM bondholders is that they’re getting paid out less than other unsecured creditors (specifically the UAW) with whom they’re pari passu. But I don’t think there’s a legal right anywhere for all pari passu creditors to receive exactly the same treatment. If you owe money on four different credit cards, there’s no law saying you have to pay them all the same proportion of the total amount outstanding."

Sigh. As is often the case, this is a complicated issue, and if one were inclined to be charitable, one could support a version of this argument. There are all kinds of situations in bankruptcy in which claims with identical priority are treated differently.

But this does not mean that a debtor can crudely pay some unsecured claims more than others. It's awfully hard to embrace the idea that, for instance, you could pick and choose which credit card debts you were going to pay off in bankruptcy and which you weren't. Or confirm a plan of reorganization providing for the payment in full of your trade debt but leaving a pittance for your unsecured notes. Again, there are ways of achieving these outcomes, but they involve mechanisms that serve other bankruptcy purposes. They are exceptions to the general principle of equality of recovery among claims of identical priority.

I could go on, but it's not that interesting - the point here is that once you catch someone confidently misstating the way things work, it's awfully hard to trust him again. So maybe I shouldn't really trust anyone until I have read something he wrote about bankruptcy.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Quick What the Fuck

Get your facts straight, DeLong:

"Richard Posner, leader of the Chicago School of Economics and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals judge, uses his new book, “A Failure of Capitalism,” to try to rescue the Chicago School’s foundational assumption that the economy behaves as if all economic agents and actors are rational, far-sighted calculators."

Leader of the "Chicago School of Economics"? Really?

Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals judge? Really?

Encountering two glaring errors in the first sentence of a piece is not a good sign.